Along the way, I met with a handful of friendly Massively readers, took a bunch of purty screenshots, and generally had a swell time. In a little over 15 hours of play, I managed to get my Bear Shaman to 30 and came away with a fairly solid understanding of the class's utility in low-level PvE. I also got reacquainted with Age of Conan's melee combat system, which, depending on your perspective, either makes Funcom's MMO the best thing on the market or one to avoid at all costs.
Yeah, it's been a while since I've had to worry about positioning, let alone the timing and muscle memory needed to pull off melee combos and the associated pre-loading, canceling, and various tricks that go along with Age of Conan's fighting trade. My Demonologist, while a lot of fun, really feels like he's from a different game altogether, and switching between him and my Bear Shaman illustrates just how different AoC's classes can be and how different some of them are from MMO norms.
The Demo plays like any of the hundreds of ranged DPS variants that came before it; there's spellweaving -- which makes use of directional combos and an element of risk/choice -- but honestly it's rarely necessary outside of certain raiding situations (and attempting it in PvP will get you WTF-pwned due to the lengthy windup times and the hey-I'm-standing-in-one-place-for-five-minutes pyrotechnics that serve as a visually impressive kick me sign to everyone in the zone). Once you figure out your regular spell rotation, though, or discover the optimum one on the forums, pretty much everything in your path (aside from geared-out players) melts real good with minimal fuss.
The Bear Shaman, and by extension all of AoC's melee classes, simply requires a lot more effort to both play and understand how to play. Spamming specials will get you nowhere and in some cases will even get you killed, since many of the class's abilities work in tandem with other abilities, both passive and active, to produce various effects. When you activate said abilities relative to directional combo chains is also a factor, and though I'll save the details for my upcoming Bear Shaman class guide, suffice it to say that you won't become great at it in an afternoon.
What does this mean for the prospective Age of Conan player? In a nutshell, it means that AoC will probably take a lot of your time unless you're a naturally gifted button-mashing savant.
That said, Age of Conan can definitely be enjoyed even if you're a "baddie," but the combat does tend to weed people out much more than combat in other fantasy MMOs. As an example, prior to starting this new character, I'd been moonlighting in Aion and doing a good bit of endgame PvP on my Sorceror. It's similar to AoC's Demo in that there's a preferred spell rotation and you have to be pretty incompetent (or severely under-geared) to not rack up a bunch of kills. While Aion takes a certain amount of know-how (mainly grokking the abilities that opposing classes are using against you), it pales in comparison to AoC's melee game in terms of positioning and the sheer number of options available to you.
You can leave Aion for a month and pick it right back up after a few minutes of play. If I were to stop playing my Bear Shaman for a month, though, I'd likely be just as lost as I was at level 10.
As much as I hate using the label on myself, I do play AoC rather casually, despite putting in 20 hours a week on average. As I get older, I find that I have even less desire to effectively go to MMO grad school and spend hours perfecting positioning techniques and learning the ins and outs of all the classes I'm likely to face. If you feel that way too, AoC's melee combat probably isn't for you, or if it is, realize that taking it in small doses means you might not be very competitive in PvP.
Happy birthday to Crom
Speaking of getting older, a certain anniversary totally snuck up on me this week. I've been having so much fun with the new Choose My Adventure component of the column that I forgot about the fact that tomorrow marks The Anvil of Crom's first anniversary. That's a crazy thought on many levels, and it calls for phrases like "whoa that went fast" as well as "holy cow I haven't game-hopped away from Hyboria!" I suppose that's a testament to the interesting (and occasionally maddening) world that Funcom has created, and hey let's be honest, Massively continues to pay me for it, which doesn't hurt either.
To the polls
As much as I learned about the pre-30 Bear Shaman this week, I certainly didn't do everything there is to do, mainly due to time constraints and my desire to get out of the newb lands as fast as possible. Dinging 20 unlocked harvesting as an option, and my upcoming rendezvous with 40 will make Age of Conan's crafting game available. There's also PvP to be had, even on a PvE server like Wiccana, though I will say that the pre-80 minigame queues are pretty barren, so any player-centric combat may be relegated to duels until my character grows up.
So, enjoy the requisite concept art, and give my Bear Shaman some direction over the next couple of weeks via the following poll.
Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via firstname.lastname@example.org.