Player vs. Everything: Age of Conan closed beta impressions

Everyone and their brother seems to be writing about Age of Conan over the last few days, but hopefully you're hungry for a little more. I've spent the last day and a half trying out different classes and playing through the various starting missions, and I'm ready to serve up some impressions. If you want the quick and dirty version, I'm really impressed with what Funcom has done. This game is worth your money. I'll try to talk about the aspects of the game that I haven't seen discussed much yet, as well as the stuff that everyone is talking about.

It's also important to note that I've been playing with the closed beta client -- not the open beta one. There is a serious difference. I should mention that when I wrote Friday's article, I hadn't yet played the game and I was basing my arguments largely on the claims of people who had had bad experiences with the open beta client. I still stand by my arguments about making games with outlandish system requirements, but I think Age of Conan will run just fine on many systems. Keeping all of that in mind, here's what I think of the game.

Graphics, Load times, and Stability

Given all of the stories that I'd heard about Age of Conan's crash to desktop, messed-up graphics, crawling framerates, and horrendous load times, I was prepared for the worst when I finally got to fire it up for the first time. The very first time I started the game, I did have some framerate issues and stuttering in character creation. I also had to restart the client when it froze loading the newbie area for the first time. After that, however, the game was as smooth as silk for me. I took five different characters to level 9 or 10, I didn't have one single crash to desktop, and I can literally count the graphics bugs and problems I saw on one hand.

Loading was on the long side, but it got better each time I entered a zone, and it's not much different from what you'd see in any game with load times. All things considered, I have to totally disagree with Michael's analysis of the stability and graphics in our State of the Game post (I suspect he was working with the open beta client). After I'd been playing the game for a while, the only time I noticed significant stuttering or client lag was when I went underground near some flickering torches. I think it was probably something to do with the shadow effects.

For reference, my gaming machine is good, but not top of the line. I run a 1.86GHz dual core processor, a Geforce 8800 GTS 320mb video card, and 2 GB of RAM. Not too fancy, by current standards. You can buy my video card for less than $150 these days. With that setup I didn't have any issues and the game looked gorgeous. Whatever problems open beta has, they're not there in the proper client, so don't make your purchasing decision based on the open beta reports of poor stability.

Environments

It's hard to make a good analysis of Age of Conan's environments based on the little bit of the game world I've seen, but so far I'm very satisfied. All of it is very well done and consistent with the Conan lore. Most importantly, the world of Age of Conan feels genuinely dangerous. You can't just solo everything without a care. I found that out the hard way when I tackled a large carnivorous plant and found out he summoned a few demon minions to help him eat me.

Another thing I particularly enjoyed about the environments was the use of vertical landscape. Instead of the zones being largely flat, you have a lot of sweeping hills, ruins hanging over large areas, and climbable ladders. For the most part, if you can figure out a way to jump on it, you can run across it. This leads to some very interesting ways to pass through zones, especially if you're a rogue class and have advantage of the hide skill. It makes the game seem very dynamic. You're actively moving around, using the landscape to your advantage, and thinking in three planes of movement instead of just two.

NPCs and Dialogue

I love the dialogue system that the game uses to give you your quests and let you interact with the NPCs. Boring, one-way conversations from quest givers in MMOGs are something that I've complained about at great length in the past. Fortunately, Funcom took a page from games like Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect, and gave many of the NPCs dialogue trees! This is a feature I've wanted in MMOG's for a long, long time, and I think it goes a long way towards creating a more immersive game experience.

While NPCs that have quests for you do bear the trademark "!" symbol, you have to go through a series of dialogue options to get their quest. It's a two-way conversation, and you get to pick your responses from several possible options and see what they say based on your choice. If you don't want to read all the text, you can click through it quickly and just get the quest, but if you enjoy the role-playing aspects and like chatting NPCs up, it's there.

Many NPCs will also talk to you whether they have a quest or not. They give you information about the game world and make the towns seem more alive. I'm very excited to see what kinds of things that Funcom does with this dialogue system down the line (an alignment system, perhaps?). The possibilities are endless!

Combat

As for the combat system, I'm undecided. You should read Keen's excellent post on this topic and listen to his podcast for some follow-up discussion, because I agree with many of the points he makes. My initial response to the combat is that it's very active and fun, but I'm not sure if it has long-term appeal. Right now it's new and fresh, but the "combat mini-game" largely boils down to attacking whatever side your opponent is weakest on. It's not hard at all, and it doesn't take any real skill. The hardest part of the whole system is doing that while mixing in your combo attacks before your enemies can kill you.

That's where my second issue comes in: since your 1, 2, and 3 keys (and eventually Q and E) are taken up by the basic attacks, all of your combos or spells have to go on the 4-0 keys that follow. However, the keys taken up by your basic attacks are the prime keyboard positions for all of your most important skills in other games. This means that the skills you use most are suddenly on the far more awkward keys, requiring long-time MMOG vets to get used to some new hand-movement or learn to activate their combos by clicking. I found this system to be a little annoying, since your basic attack always does the same amount of damage if done correctly and you need to use your combos to succeed. Why do we have five keys wasted on just generating the basic minimum of "white damage" and activating combos that you need to press a button to start anyway?

Since you can just macro the combos with the right hardware (making the directional attacks even more pointless), I think that the designers might want to go back and do a little more work with this. Frankly, if we have to work as hard as we do to hit our enemies, I think we should be able to kill them without needing to resort to special skills, or just have the skills activate automatically as part of the attack chain. I think I preferred having just one basic attack, given the way the rest of the system works -- it accomplishes the same ultimate purpose. I think the designers may have been going for a fighting-game style chain system, but it's far more of a wannabe hybrid between the two systems that ends up feeling a little awkward.

Missions

The missions (or quests) in Age of Conan are pretty much what you would expect: Go here, kill these, bring back 20 of their doodads. Go here, collect these, watch out for demons. Go here, talk to that guy, come back. However, there are definitely some interesting and mold-breaking missions that I was quite pleased with, particularly in the single-player portion of the game.

When I was playing one of the Rogue classes, I had one mission where the whole point was to use my hide skill to sneak into position and eavesdrop on a conversation. It was a very spygame-like experience. If I got spotted by the guards, I was quickly overwhelmed -- there were just too many. Instead, I snuck past most of them, killed a lone guard at the bottom of a ladder, and then snuck past a series of rooftop guards until I was able to drop into my eavesdropping position on a nearby building. It was very original, and it's exactly the kind of quest I'd love to see more of.

In another mission, I was sent to talk to a representative of the local evil-doers. Merely talking to him completed the mission, and you could either sneak past all of his guards or kill them on your way in. While speaking to him, you have the option to fight him or not. You complete the mission either way, and the choice is up to you, based on what you say to him.

Conclusion

So what's my final decision, after spending almost two days playing with the closed beta client? Simple: Age of Conan is everything I was hoping for and then some. While it definitely still has some bugs and issues that need to be addressed, Funcom has a seriously awesome game on their hands. The last time I was having this much fun playing around in a new game, it was 2004 and I was beta testing a little game called World of Warcraft. I don't regret pre-ordering at all, and I'm telling you right now that you will not be disappointed with this game. Don't be dissuaded by all of the open-beta buzz about poor performance and crashing. The game I've been playing is stable, gorgeous, exciting, and excessively fun. If they have the content to back up their 80 levels, this game could really be the next big thing.

I hope I'll be seeing all of you in Hyboria.


Can't wait to get into Hyboria? Massively has your early ticket. Check out all of our Age of Conan Beta guides starting on May 1st and continuing throughout the month!
This article was originally published on Massively.