MMO MMOnkey: Age of Conan reinvents the early game

The damsel awaits.

Like a damsel in distress, MMO players have been held captive by game openings that have relied heavily, much too heavily, on bounty quests of the "Kill twenty of these and then come back to me" variety. Trapped in chains of tedium, experienced players blitz through early levels to get to the point where something interesting starts to happen while gamers new to the genre often wonder why anyone bothers to play these games before they quit from boredom. At least that's the way it used to be.

Lord of the Rings Online took a giant step toward freeing the damsel when they placed the player in a solo instance at the very beginning that gets the player immediately involved in the story that drives the game while also providing instruction in basic game play. It is a terrific way to begin an MMO and the people at Turbine did a great job with it. LotRO weakened the chains but did not quite free the damsel. Now Age of Conan has arrived and by incorporating LotRO's approach into an extended opening that is innovative, immersive and exceptionally well implemented Conan has rescued the damsel by reinventing the early game.

Your character begins AoC in a solo instance. You've washed up on shore with shackles on your wrists after your slave ship has wrecked at sea. Your first task is to free a damsel in distress named Casilda. She's gorgeous, scantily clad, and provocative, follows you everywhere you go, and never misses an opportunity to tell you you're a stud muffin as she bails your sorry ass out of whatever trouble you've blundered into. In other words, she's a wet dream for 14 year old boys of all ages.

Casilda keeps you alive as you play through the instance learning the basics of game play while picking up starter weapons and armor. If you talk to her, she'll also begin to fill you in on the dire situation that will occupy your efforts through the first part of the game. Talking to her is a good idea for two reasons; she's your introduction to the terrific story that drives AoC's early game, and she has an accent that would make listening to the grocery list enjoyable. (If you enjoy listening to Casilda, just wait until you meet Tina.)

AoC is following in the path blazed by LotRO in its use of a solo instance as an introductory tutorial that puts the player in the story. Once you reach the starter city of Tortage, however, Age of Conan goes where no MMO has gone before.

The early game in AoC is divided into daytime and nighttime segments. The daytime game is a fairly typical shared-world MMO with vendors, quests, several different locations, and lots of other players running around. Some of the quests are of the standard bounty hunter variety that turns the early game into a dreary grind in so many other MMOs. However, there are so many other kinds of quests in both the day and nighttime games that you can skip the bounty quests if you don't want to do them. If you like them, they're there for you; if you don't, you can avoid them without penalty.

The nighttime game is a single-player adventure in which you learn about the evil things that are going on in, around and under Tortage and play your part in trying to put an end to them. It is also the mechanism AoC uses to let you build your character to the point where you are ready to enter the main game world. During character creation you choose one of AoC's twelve character classes but when you wash up on shore your memory is gone and your character doesn't know who or what they are. Both character and story development are carried out through a single series of destiny quests in the night game.

You can go back and forth between the day and nighttime games whenever you please; day and night are not on a timer in the early game. The destiny quest line is designed to take you through approximately twenty levels and you must attain a certain level to unlock the next series of quests in the sequence. Quest mobs are tuned to your level so the destiny quests are always both challenging and doable. Some players are finding the destiny quests difficult but that has not been my experience. When you have finished the destiny quests you can go to the mainland and enter the main part of the game or you can stay on the island; your choice. If you leave, you can come back at any time.

The combination of a single player game and a shared-world MMO is an interesting and innovative game mechanic in and of itself but what makes it work so well in AoC is how well Funcom has combined the two in a coherent whole. The evil that you uncover at night is reflected all around you in the world you see during the day, and the experience of living in the daytime world deeply enriches the adventure you have at night. The day and night games beautifully compliment and reinforce each other in such a way that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. It's two different games in one seamlessly integrated world and the result is a deeply immersive experience for the player.

The sense of immersion is greatly enhanced by the story line that drives the nighttime destiny quests. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the story is a very good one that is very much in tune with Robert E. Howard's classic Conan stories. The night game carries the main story line but several quest sequences in the day game fill out some of the details. As always, there's the big bad guy that you're going to have to deal with in the final confrontation but along the way you'll get up close and personal with his lieutenants, minions and soldiers. In the daytime world you'll witness their depravity and be personally subjected to their arrogance and disdain. They will scorn and demean you and, like the other denizens of Tortage, you will be powerless to do anything about it. Other than pray your paths will cross in the night, that is. If and when your paths do cross, you will understand at a gut level the joy in wreaking physical destruction on your enemies that is so much a part of the Conan stories. You really want these people to die, you really want your friends and allies to survive, and you find yourself this deeply immersed in the game during the first twenty levels. These are the same twenty levels that other games have you grind through before the fun starts.

The day – night mechanic also contributed to my sense of immersion in the game in a way that was completely unexpected. Many MMOs have a day – night cycle that is designed to contribute to the player's sense that the virtual world is a real place that exists independently of the player's actions. At first glance, allowing the player to control when day and night occur appears to be a large step backward from this kind of immersive realism. It didn't work that way for me, however. I found I quickly fell into a rhythm where I would play the day game for awhile, get tired of the daytime quests, switch to the night game, play that for awhile, switch back to the day game, and so on. Alternating the two games like this led me to think that AoC captures the functional difference between night and day like no MMO before it and by doing so draws the player more deeply into the game.

What do I mean by the functional difference between night and day? In the real world, night comes, it gets dark, and there's nothing we can do about it. AoC 's early game utterly fails at depicting this aspect of the day – night cycle. Don't want it to get dark? Don't play the night game. It's that simple. But for most of us, day and night involve much more than a difference between light and dark. We generally do very different things during the day and the night. Day is for work, night is for relaxation and fun. Day and night fulfill different functions in our lives and for many of us this functional difference is much more important and meaningful than the simple difference between light and dark. By splitting the day and night games between a shared-world MMO and a story-driven solo adventure AoC does a wonderful job of capturing this functional difference. Nighttime not only looks different, it feels different because you're doing different things, and that makes it more real and more engaging than the regular application of a dark color scheme on a cyclical timer.

The integrative aspects of AoC's early game are not limited to melding the day and nighttime games into a single fully realized world. There are four class archetypes in AoC, soldier, rogue, priest and mage. The destiny lines for the rogue and soldier archetypes (the two I've played through to the end of the early game thus far) have some quests in common but each also has a number of special quests that are tailored to the archetype. For example, the soldier goes on a rescue mission while the rogue has a sneak and assassination mission. In addition, the differences in the quest lines provide interlocking pieces of the overall story. As the soldier you are told that because X has happened you must now do Y; as the rogue you are the one that did X so that the soldier can do Y. Playing out the different parts of the story with different characters greatly adds to the fullness of the world and the richness of your experience in it.

It also appears to be the case that the adventure you have in the early game is only a small segment of a much larger story that will play out through the rest of AoC. The destiny story line has hooks aplenty for subsequent development in the larger world. Your victory in Tortage may well have brought your character to the attention of much more dangerous foes. You'll just have to keep playing to find out.

Age of Conan opens like no game before it and I expect the changes will not be to everyone's liking. The weary complaints from people who assert that World of Warcraft didn't do anything new because it was just an easier version of Everquest seem to be counterbalanced by the segment of the MMO community that wants every new game to be just like WoW only better. The latter group may find AoC confusing and I've seen some minor pissing and moaning in OOC chat from people who are frustrated by being challenged to do something other than mindlessly grind out the first twenty levels to "get off this damned island" as fast as possible. In many other MMOs the first ten to twenty levels are a chore you need to get through. In AoC, they're an exciting and compelling introduction to the game and the game world. If you can adapt to this difference in the early game, you're in for a treat. If you can't, you're going to blow through an experience that's meant to be savored and miss one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.

With Age of Conan Funcom has melded innovative game design with the centuries-old standby of a good story that is well told and then deeply embedded the combination in a world that is so fully realized it draws you in almost immediately and doesn't let go until you set sail for the mainland. AoC sets new and very high standards for what the early game in an MMO should be. Having played through the adventure in Tortage, grinding out five, ten, or twenty levels at the start of an MMO just to get to the part where the fun begins isn't going to cut it anymore. Age of Conan has come roaring out of the gate and like the mighty Cimmerian for whom it's named has put a boot in the ass of the early game in nearly every other MMO out there. Conan has rescued my damsel from her early-game distress and she's never going to want to go back to the way it used to be.