Any time an MMOG looks to bring in big numbers, people inevitably ask whether or not it can challenge the current king of the hill, Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Personally, I don't think that's Funcom's goal. Sure they want to be successful, but unlike Blizzard, they aren't targeting a broad demographic of players. Instead, it appears that Funcom's goal is to capture a mature audience of hardcore gamers. The violence and sexual content that give Conan a Mature rating are obviously two indications of this target audience. Another indicator is the game's steep system requirements.
Typically steep system requirements are a barrier to many gamers. However, unlike most other MMOGs, Age of Conan won't be solely available on the PC. Gamers have the unique option of playing AoC on Xbox 360 and possibly on PS3. I'll discuss AoC's system requirements and the pros and cons of both platforms after the break.
It's amazing how quickly technology advances in the realm of PC gaming. Yesterday's Pentium processors focused on pushing the envelope of clock speed barriers. Today we have multi-core processors. Where once you could skate by on megabytes of RAM most Windows based systems require at least a gigabyte. If you've upgraded to Vista from good old XP, you've likely got two gigs or more. PC gamers are fairly used to the constant "rig grind", but that doesn't make it any less expensive or problematic. It's usually when a new triple-A title arrives that PC gamers start counting their pennies and thinking about upgrades. Age of Conan might just be one of those games to push you to upgrade or replace your existing machine.
When World of Warcraft debuted in 2004 its system requirements were surprisingly tame. At a minimum, WoW requires a Pentium III or AMD Athlon at 800 MHz, 512 MB of RAM and a 32 MB video card. Although you won't be seeing all the bells and whistles at a quick frame rate with that type of setup, it allows people with older and cheaper systems the ability to get in on the action. Age of Conan, however, recommends a Core 2 Duo E6600 (or equivalent) at 2.4 Ghz, 2 GB of RAM, 30 gig of free disk space, a current generation video card (GeForce 7 series and up or ATI equivalent) with 512 MB of onboard RAM. At minimum, a 3GHz Pentium IV with 1 GB of RAM and a top end GeForce 5 series card may be passable enough to allow you to play, but we all know that just meeting the minimums usually results in poor frame rates. In online mutliplayer games with a PvP component, poor frame rate means lots of deaths and lots of frustration.
The cost of replacing a PC varies on the sweet and shiny components in its case. Most gaming PCs use higher end components in order to handle the intense performance requirements of modern games. A decent, mid-range gaming system typically approaches the thousand dollar mark, and it's not hard to break into the multi-thousand arena if you're also considering monitor upgrades and other peripherals. Expensive upgrades or replacements have typically been the only option for MMOG gamers because the online capabilities of other gaming platforms (i.e., consoles) had yet to be explored. With the exception of a few games (Phantasy Star Online, Everquest Online Adventures, and FFXI) MMOGs just haven't been available outside of the PC. Fortunately for gamers, Age of Conan will be added to the small list of MMOGs available on console. With the price of an Xbox 360 near the price point of a high end graphics card (just one of the many components of a PC) the Xbox 360 can be a very attractive option. If you already own an Xbox 360, it becomes a matter or which gaming platform you prefer. So lets look at some of the pros and cons of each platform.
- AoC is out now for PC. There's no waiting around for the 360 version which, as of today, does not have a hard release date. If you're dying to play AoC right now, this is your only option.
- Keyboard / Mouse Controls. The keyboard obviously makes for easier chatting. The mouse is great as a pin-point accurate selection device. If you're planning on playing a ranged class (like the Ranger), it might be easier to use a mouse than a console joypad. Those of you who are used to controlling your characters with the keyboard/mouse combination won't have to make any awkward transition to a joypad. Although many MMOGs do support the use of USB joypads, it looks like this feature may not be available upon AoC's release.
- No Xbox Live fee. In addition to AoC's standard subscription fee, plus high speed Internet costs it's very likely you'll also have to fork over $7.99 a month for the privilege of using Xbox Live Gold. If you're already subscribing to Xbox Live to play other games online, then the cost is negligible. [Edit: Microsoft may only require a Silver (i.e., free membership) of MMO players. Thanks for the tip Cyph3r]
- The ability to customize your graphics. In all likelihood it should be possible to crank up the resolution and special effects of the PC version to a point where it outshines the 360 in terms of the visual look and feel of the game. Given that PC hardware is constantly evolving, there will always be a machine available that can outperform a 360. Granted, in order to accomplish that feat you'll need an expensive beast of a rig. But even if you're not spending 5K on a computer, you'll get an added level of control over display options.
- High system requirements. If you're not using at least a dual core processor, don't have 2 gigs of RAM, and don't have a GeForce 7 series or later graphics card, you may have problems achieving a decent frame rate. In a game that has PvP, frame rate is crucial to success. We all know that massive PvP battles tend to bog down our systems, so unless you're sporting a recent, tricked-out gaming rig, expect to chug along without all the pretty, special effects available in a new game.
- No joypad support – yet. In a game where there is no such thing as auto attack you can bet there will be clicking a plenty. Personally, I find button mashing preferable to clicking as it's easier on my hands and joints. If you're a big fan of joypad support, you won't get it on PC, at least not yet. It's a likely addition in the future, but when we'll see it is anybody's guess.
Xbox 360 Pros
- Joypad support. As stated earlier, in a game where visceral melee combat is a key component of the game, sometimes a joypad can feel a bit more natural than a mouse/keyboard combo. This is one of those areas of personal preference that could swing a gamer in either direction.
- Optimized graphics, standardized framerate. The graphical capabilities should be optimized on the 360 so that players achieve the best looking game at the best framerate. You may not be able to play the game in as high a resolution as the PC gamers, but you should have a playable framerate that is the same as everyone else who is playing on the 360.
- Cheap cost. For less than half the price of a gaming PC, you can experience a very slick version of the MMOG that's custom tailored to a machine with standardized components.
- Fewer hassles. Typically most console games are relatively hassle free. There's less installing, less optimizing, less downloading patches, updates, and drivers. At least that's the theory. In all likelihood, the game will need to be patched regularly, just like the PC version. But aside from the occasional patch you won't have to worry about whether a specific component is compatible with the game. Of course, after an extended play session there's always the spectre of the Red Ring of Death hovering around the corner.
Xbox 360 Cons
- You have to wait to play. In fact, you'll have to wait until 2009. Funcom stated that the Xbox 360 version should be released approximately 1 year after the PC launch. Let's face it, that's a long time. But maybe by this time next year you'll be completely bored with Wrath of the Lich King.
- No keyboard support. Although it may be possible to chat via a peripheral like the Xbox 360 Messenger Kit, I don't think it'll be possible to use a full keyboard with Age of Conan. Voice chat will be available and alleviate some of the need for typing out messages. However, in large group scenarios (such as general chat, looking for group areas, trade channels or during massive battles) I can't see voice chat working well. With hundreds of people yakking over a microphone at the same time how could you make sense of anything?
- Additional costs associated with Xbox Live. Although it would take a very long time for the cost of Xbox Live to equal the added costs associated with a new PC, you can't discount that it will likely be cheaper on a monthly basis if you're playing the PC version. [Edit: Microsoft may only require a Silver (i.e., free membership) of MMO players. Thanks for the tip Cyph3r]
Of course, since the game isn't live and playable for either system as of this writing, this list of pros and cons is based on the best available knowledge at the time. There's really no way to know for sure which one is best until both versions are out and have been optimized. All that said, hopefully taking a few of the above points into consideration will help you in making a final decision.
So aside from technical specifications and control mechanisms you might be asking if there are any key differences between the content in each version of the game. According to videogamer.com, AoC's Product Director Jorgen Tharaldsen stated the PC and Xbox 360 versions will be "the same essence and the same experience." In addition it will likely be possible for PC and 360 owners to play together. According to Tharldsen, "We want them to be able to play with their PC friends if they like to ... but obviously the control mechanism, the communication, all this is stuff we are solving on a daily basis. The patching, the install, the footprint, the payment, the servers, the customer service... it's a challenge. But we will get there eventually."
If this is true, does it mean that interface mods will not be an option on Age of Conan, or that they'll be available for download on the 360 as well? It will be interesting to see how Age of Conan unfolds on the console. In the meantime, if you want to play Conan right now, you'll have to play it on PC. However, it's nice to know that if you don't have the funds for an upgrade or replacement PC, you'll still have a chance to play the game about a year from now. I'm sure many of you have opinions on which version might be better and all of the pros and cons I have overlooked. Which version do you plan to pick up?
MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.