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Massively's state of the game: Age of Conan beta

Michael Zenke

How do you convey the beginning of a journey in words? Journeys are important in so many ways. Not only are they meaningful for the travelers, but for the people that they meet on the way. Age of Conan is just setting out on its own journey into the world of retail and public launch. Open Beta begins today, and within just a few weeks we'll be entering Hyborea en-masse, slaughtering picts and saving women.

The question hangs in the air ... is it any good? Has the wait been worth it? Today along with some information on the game's tutorial elements, a bit of class knowledge, and a slew of screenshots and videos, Massively would like to offer you a view on the state of the game. These views are based a week's worth of play at low levels - enough to make a few observations, but nothing like a 'review'. At the very least we can prepare you for what you'll experience in the Open Beta, and likely in the first days of retail as well.

Read on for our view on where the game is today, and how we think launch is going to go 'tomorrow'.

The very first thing you need to know: if you are fearing a debacle, you can relax. There are many, many elements to Age of Conan that are polished and well-designed. Prospective players who have been looking forward to the game's realtime combat can rest easy. Hyborean hopefuls looking for grittier setting have nothing to fear.

Combat is, hands down, the standout element of this game. If you're tired of the tedium of auto-attack/abilities based MMOs, Conan's directional attacks vs. shields approach is going to keep you busy and happy. Every combat encounter, no matter how insignificant, requires a modicum of effort. Additional abilities, which nicely combo up, provide even more variety to the already unique design. While the long term benefits of this combat style are very much up in the air, over the short term it's gripping in a way few other MMOs can claim.

The level of violence, movement, and emotion conveyed by combat reflects the darker world of Hyborea quite well. Every shadow seems designed to hide a demon or scofflaw. In the city of Tortage the powerful prey on the weak, and King Conan is very far away indeed. To a degree that's both laudable and surprising, Funcom has evoked a sense of mystery and gritty tension in the world design. Even just in a simple vine-choked ruin, Conan manages to completely convey the subtext of an area. This is another clear victory for the team.

Less clear are a few more specific design choices the developer has made. For example, all of the participating bloggers on the team feel as though the magic-using classes leave something to be desired. The realtime combat system fighters and rogues enjoy doesn't affect their cleric or mage brethren as much. It shows - magic feels very samey, and in some cases completely pathetic. Spells strike home, but without any tangible feedback. Other spells cause their target to roll around trying to put out a fire ... where there is no fire art associated with the burning character. Pets, instead of 'holding aggro' as they do in other games, are tantamount to damage over time spells with a physical form. Spellweaving has been unavailable in the Beta to date, which may alleviate some of this concern.

Other minor elements troubled us: the inventory (even for low levels) is pathetically small compared to the amount of junk you collect. Trying to collect a quest reward with a full inventory can result in item deletion. Some quest goals are not laid out as clearly as they could be. All of these are concerns that can be addressed - typical beta frustrations.

But - as you've already noticed - we haven't mentioned how the game looks. Therein lies the trouble. Age of Conan, under the right conditions, is easily the most beautiful MMO we've ever played. Standing in the jungle, listening to the birds chirp, you can almost believe that you're there. The problem comes when you try to move.

In Beta, Age of Conan's graphical and networking performance has been entirely sub-par. There's no easy excuses, here, as none of the beta-participating bloggers have old machines. This blogger has an entirely unnecessarily nice computer, and it struggled to maintain the 'medium' setting. One of the other bloggers had to be fished out of the drink more than half a dozen times by a GM because the ground simply wasn't there when he zoned into Tortage. Overall, game performance has been riddled with stutters, graphical pop-ins, and dropouts.

Some of these issues are likely tied to the Beta client, and will be removed along with the extra testing code before the game hits retail. Even so, it's our view that the graphical requirements of this game may be unmanageably high. Many players who consider themselves to have a viable PC will find an unhelpful slideshow waiting on the other end of the Hyborean gate.

To add insult to injury, dropping down to the low graphics setting strips quite a bit of the charm out of the game. On the lowest graphics setting 90 FPS is likely, but the jungle's luster will be gone. Striking a balance between this blogger's meagre 10 fps and 90 has to be accomplishable before launch. It's easy to envision unhappy customers as an alternative.

There's still some time before retail launch, and Funcom has certainly talked a good talk all through Conan's development. Most glaringly, Funcom's other MMO title, Anarchy Online, is still haunted to this day by its abysmal release. They have the tools, they have the talent, they have the perspective. Ultimately, it's up to them to prove that they've learned their lesson. We'll all find out together on May 20th.

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

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