I have to admit that the MMOs we can expect in the next year don't really excite me. The one that I hold a candle for is the mystic-barbarian romp Age Of Conan, which was beautiful-if-awkward when I played it earlier in the year. The developers at Funcom are keen to create a combat system which doesn't just have you press a button and wait for the turn-based hitting to occur. Their solution is the 'combat rose' which allows you to pick your melee swings for both attack and defence, via a small mouse and key graphical interface. It didn't really seem to work when I played it - one swing was much the same as another - and I understand that, after the closed beta, this was one of the systems that the team are reconsidering. The game has, it seems, been delayed until next year. Perhaps the beta did its job.
But there's more to this beast than a weird control system, as I'll report after the jump.
First, and most importantly, you can ride woolly mammoths and camels. For this reason alone I expect Age Of Conan to be a resounding success. But there's also the promise of some absurdly ambitious features - things that I can barely imagining functioning as promised. Firstly there's the territorial pvp along the lines of Dark Age of Camelot. Funcom want this to involve great ranks of soldiers, which players clashing over vital strategic points and laying siege to castles and fortresses. Open battles, they insist, will be a part of this game in a way that we've not seen before. I can see how that might work with their unusual combat system but - oh - the lag? This will be kept to small part of the map. Age Of Conan looks like it will be a game of quite distinct parts - some of the single-player and solo-focused, and some of them demanding mass co-ordination of players.
Anyway, even if that's going to be tricky to manage there's something even more ambitious: player-built cities. Yes, your guild will be able to found a city and then have some influence over how it develops. You'll become a resident of the city and erect functional structures - like a grown up version of the Guild HQ's in Guild Wars. This will even tie into Ai activities, with enemy nations building their own cities and attacking yours. Needless to say, you'll be able to ransack those rival domains.
What I'm going to be most interested in, however, is how Age Of Conan treats its level-based hierarchy. This remains a sticking point for MMOs, whereby a level three character has almost no reason to interact with, or even encounter, a level fifty character. A few games have offered solutions - Eve's flat world and gang systems, City Of Hero's side-kick and monster-balancing - and I'll be interested to see whether Age Of Conan offers any such access to players of all levels.
Ultimately, though, I'll be creating an Age Of Conan character simply because its people are so magnificently ugly. Never have I seen a game where the characters it pumps out can be so grizzled and deformed. Hit the randomise button and you're presented with a face that looks like it was crushed beneath rocks and then delivered some kind of disease. There's something heroic about that, and I really hope Funcom don't 'fix' it before release.