Timing, as they say, is everything, and so I'd like to take a brief moment to thank Funcom for fouling up my carefully laid column plans this week. Also, it's a rare day that I'm not prowling the interwebs in search of news for our fair website, so of course, the second day out of the last six months that saw me take some time off was naturally the very same day that Funcom decided to launch Age of Conan: Unchained.

And yeah, I said Unchained, not Unrated, and if you think you're going to have trouble referring to the game as such after cozying up to the former moniker for the last month, console yourself with the fact that you now have David Lee Roth careening around inside your head for the foreseeable future. You're welcome.

In all seriousness, though, Age of Conan is free at last, free at last, thank God almighty it's free-to-play at last (even if it was a little sudden).

But Jef, weren't you just saying last week how you were worried about the fact that no release date for Unrat... er, Unchained was forthcoming, and the longer Funcom waited, the more concerned you became?

Well yes, yes I was saying that, but I honestly didn't expect the floodgates to open five days later. Ultimately I'm glad they did, though, because who knows what's going free-to-try next week (my money's on Star Trek Online, Vanguard, or Earthrise, just to give myself more chances of being correct -- and because NCsoft is too stubborn to do the popular thing with Aion or Lineage II).

Anyway, what about Unchained? We've all been playing it for a couple of days now, so what's the verdict?

Unchained signals a different direction for the game, and in addition to new content in the form of the Breach and Forgotten City solo instances (woo!), it also signals the influx of something the game has been in desperate need of for quite a while now: players.

Expensive bagThe item shop

First things first: What about that item shop? Well, on the plus side, it's got a huge amount of inventory to choose from, including some nifty-looking social gear for that swanky new vanity tab (more on that shortly). It's also got some fairly decent PvP gear for the fresh 80, and while I'm not sure how I feel about that just yet, I am sure that the new social pets, mounts, and the bag space upgrades are quite awesome.

The downside is that the prices seem a little bit... well, pricey, with a 72-slot bag setting you back 1890 Funcom points (and failing to expand your resource/harvesting inventory). The store offers you 600 points for $5.00, 1200 points for $10.00, or 2400 points for $20.00, and of course that 1890 means that buying the 600 and 1200 options for $15.00 will leave you 90 points short.

While there's nothing technically dishonest about this practice (which is par for the course in every item shop from Xbox Live to Sony Online Entertainment's Station Marketplace), it still annoys the hell out of me and contributes to the lingering perception that cash shops are about fleecing their customers first and delivering pleasurable business/client transactions second.

I'd like to see a standard dollar-for-items exchange (i.e., one that allows me to purchase a 72-slot bag for X dollars instead of $20.00 for 2400 points, 510 of which will likely sit on my account until the end of time). I know, it's a proven marketing tactic that entices people to spend more money, but frankly I find it slimy and I'm inclined to buy fewer items as a result.

Moving on: The item store interface itself is somewhat cluttered. While there is a huge variety of items (yay), the graphics appear a bit fuzzy on high-resolution displays (boo). Also, the store is extremely slow-loading. I don't know enough about Funcom's under-the-hood tech to really comment on what the problem might be, but I will say that the cash shop interface reminds me of Darkfall's quest and clan pages (which were literally in-game browser windows that called to external websites).

The functionality is there though, and over time I expect Funcom to clean up the interface and improve the form to match.

Shirtless demoAppearance slots

Aside from free-to-play membership tiers and item shop tomfoolery, there's of course the new vanity armor appearance slots. Here the only phrase that springs to mind is kick-ass (well OK, maybe if I'm feeling a little bit ornery, the phrase it's-about-bloody-time may also pop into my head).

At any rate, it's amazing how much goodwill can be generated by a seemingly smallish feature, but then again, maybe it's not so amazing. MMOs that ship without the ability to personalize your character are about as much fun as cars without stereos, and by Crom am I glad to see this one at long last.

In typical Age of Conan fashion, the appearance slots are likely going to lead to a bunch of buck- (or is that butt-) naked raiding parties since you can opt to go shirtless, helmless, and yes, pantless if you so desire -- all while keeping your hard-earned stats. Hyborian diapers are in evidence though, as Funcom wisely left the swinging Richards in the hands of the guys at Mortal Online.

One complaint I do have is the inability to equip vanity weapons. I don't know whether this is just a temporary oversight or a deliberate omission due to AoC's complex attack animations and the significant role they play in combat. I suspect the latter, but that's just speculation at this point, and I'll be interested to hear an official comment one way or the other.

Overall impressions

There's of course quite a bit more to 2.6, and analyzing all of it is going to require several columns. Aside from the Khitai 6-man changes and the new pre-made queue, the big item that I've left off of this intial Unchained observation is a look at the new solo dungeon content. I intended to include that this week, but I simply ran out of time (not to mention word count), so look for my impressions, and if necessary, a guide in the immediate future.

Overall though, I'm quite pleased with Unchained. It's not perfect by any means, but there's a lot more good here than bad. Performance seems to have stabilized since the rocky hours after the servers finally came online late Thursday night. There was a significant amount of chat lag and also some 504 errors with the item shop, but that stuff seems to have been dealt with as of this writing on Friday afternoon.

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, the population is noticeably bigger, and that is of course the entire point of Unchained. AoC has always been a fun game, but it's about to get a lot more fun due to all the low- and mid-level dungeon PUGs I've seen since Thursday, not to mention the marked increase in guild recruiting spam and newbie questions flooding global chat.

So that's it for my first crack at free-to-play. I'm itching to stop writing and get back to the wilds of Hyboria for another week. If you're new (or newly returned) to either AoC or The Anvil of Crom, welcome aboard. Here's a complimentary copy of the world's greatest concept art.


Jef Reahard is an 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 jef@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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