CES 2008: Age of Conan converts at least one player

Sitting down with Age of Conan: Hyborean Adventures today was something of a wakeup call for me. I've enjoyed my previous exposure to the game, but I've never had that 'I get it' moment. You know that moment, every MMO has it. In World of Warcraft it's the first time you start a quest; in Tabula Rasa it's the first time you fire your gun; and in Lord of the Rings Online that moment comes when you look up and behold the majesty that is the Shire. For me, Conan's moment was when I finally 'got' the combat. The CES build of the game, hopefully just a few months away from release, really hit home with the experience of slicing and dicing in real time.

A raid on Conall's Valley (the birthplace of Conan) was the zone on display in the main exhibit hall. The big news for CES is what developer Funcom is calling 'Cheetah 2,' a brand new graphics engine. That project's goals include new rendering and weather systems, an improved framerate and other technical advances. There should be more to report on that advance before the end of the show. In the meantime, I have a few impressions for you as a newly converted Conan fan.

Descending into the Valley, I was impressed by what Funcom calls "placeholder" graphics. The wooded glens stretched on out of sight over the horizon, but of more immediate concern were the rampaging Vanir barbarians hiding behind the trees. As I stood playing the demo, the 'hook' of the combat really got to me. I've seen the hands-on from Dragon-Con, the visual FAQ and Massively's discussion with the devs, but none of it really spoke to me until I had the chance to play with things first hand. You don't just hack wildly in different directions – multi-directional attacks aren't meant to have you flailing like a madman.

Instead, as you stand in front of your opponent, you choose from one of three different attack 'vectors.' In the lower-level situation I was playing, I could swing overhand at the head or in at the body from the left and right. These hit locales corresponded with buttons 1, 2 and 3 on the keyboard. As I hit an opponent in one area, he would raise his shield to protect that vector. The goal is to get around the defenses your opponent has put up by varying your attacks. These attacks also extend to combo attacks – Simone says-like patterns of attacks that can result in massive damage, self-heals, buffs and occasionally fatalities. Fatalities are a grand reminder of the game's mature-oriented content: blood flies and splatters on the in-game camera as your opponents are viciously gutted.

This movement and tactical feel extends to larger elements of the game. Large creatures that appear in raid events might have impressive attacks with a tail or horns and spikes. Depending on where your character is situated in relation to the monster, you might take more or less damage as a result. Healing will also be dependent on movement. Healer-types won't be able to heal from a large distance; instead, heals are directed cones that result in a 'heal over time' effect. Medics will need to move about the battlefield attending to injured comrades on the fly, while attempting to avoid damage of their own. Mounted combat, another bullet point on the game's box, will make use of movement and specifically-aimed attacks to create new combat dynamics. Some of the biggest mounts (like the War Mammoth) can even be used to knock down buildings in the much-vaunted City Siege gameplay.

The Siege content is incredibly ambitious, tying RTS-like gameplay directly into the game. I asked the demo folks if that content was going to make it into the game at launch, but they shied away from a clear answer. That's understandable, though, given the large number of other new features that look to be on track for the game's release. With the new graphics element, the developers are attempting to strike a middle-ground for players, allowing one-button-click changes between high-end graphics and a less detailed experience (for raids and PvP).

To be honest I'm still not convinced this is a game that I'm going to be spending a lot of time with; there are just too many titles to capture the attention of those afflicted with MMOADD nowadays. Today's experience, though, drove home for me why the Conan fans are so excited. There's a definite visceral quality to combat that is simply not there in any other MMO on the market. Here's hoping that the game at launch will live up to the expectations of the developers and long-time fans of the world of Hyborea.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.