The first thing a veteran WoW player is going to notice in Age of Conan is that you don't start out in a public space. Instead, you'll begin life in Hyboria as a slave washed ashore on a jungle beach. This area, in the jungles outside the city Tortage, is a private instance. Much of the beginning elements to Age of Conan can be tackled inside the solo instances, a part of the game referred to as the Destiny quest. In fact, if you choose, you can play through about level 20 purely in this solo instance component.
The instance, which represents the city of Tortage at night, allows you to understand Age of Conan's story in a unique way. Your character will be at the center of political and military struggle, with gods, demons, and magic thrown into the mix. Of course, you can also return to the day-side of Tortage and engage in fairly typical MMO-style quests. The familiar question mark/exclamation point quest notifications are here in Age of Conan, and some of the rewards you'll get for completing these quests are enjoyable. We recommend you stay primarily on the night-side of the game to enjoy the story, only popping back to the day side when you feel you need to gain a quick level to deal with too-tough content.
Easily the biggest departure from World of Warcraft's diku-MUD DNA, Age of Conan features a realtime combat system. Instead of activating an auto-attack mode and firing off abilities to enhance your gameplay, every stroke of Conan's axe corresponds to a keypress. When you first start the game you'll have just three attacks; one straight forward and one each to the right and left. These correspond to the 1-2-3 keys. Enemies will have visible shields around their heads and bodies, letting you know where they're defending. Your job is to avoid the shielded areas and go for the weak spots. Open shields yield more damage all around.
Combos are also a big part of Conan's combat. Starting almost right away, your character will earn the ability to fire off keypress combo attacks. Early level attacks require a single keypress to activate, and which direction you need to swing will be indicated on-screen. Depending on which class you're playing, these combos will achieve different ends. Some will cause DoTs, others huge knockback effects. Regardless, you're going to want to use combos as often as you can – just as in World of Warcraft you use your spells and abilities to bring down your opponent more quickly.
Tone & Graphics
As you bring your opponents to their knees, a Warcraft player may be in for a shock. Age of Conan is an 'M' rated game, and earns its rating with an excess of blood, gore, and dismemberment. Slaying enemies with combo moves makes it more likely that you'll do a devastating finishing move on an opponent. These moves range from subtle stabbings to vivid beheadings, and do a great deal to evoke the harsh world of Hyboria.
These violent acts will seem all the more realistic, given the difference in the two games' art styles. While Blizzard's artistic license has allowed for low-spec PCs to journey to Azeroth, only beefy gaming machines need apply entrance to Hyboria. The realistic art style and tech-intensive client are another big departure from the familiar.
For the most part magic in AoC will feel very familiar to a WoW spellcaster. Most spellcasting classes, though, feel very different. Instead of the cloth-wearing backrow DPS or healing machines World of Warcraft offers, several spellcasting classes in Conan are made for the front lines. These battle mages mix spell and sword to deadly effect. Another tweak from WoW's gameplay is the concept of spellweaving. This dangerous and nuanced enhancement to magic is only available to certain classes, but brings some of the realtime dangers of melee combat to the casting classes.
Fans of WoW's crafting will find a very different mechanic in Conan's world. Avatars aren't allowed able to craft until level 40, when they are given access to crafting quests and crafting abilities associated with their crafting professions. Characters must choose from one of five different disciplines, and can make items from up to six different tiers of equipment. Despite the differences, many of the crafting careers will sound similar: Weaponsmithing, Armorsmithing, Alchemy, and Gemcutting are all very similar to their WoW counterparts. The only profession entirely alien to the World of Warcraft experience is the Architect, a vital character in any powerful guild.
In WoW, a guild is essentially just a dedicated chat channel and a group bank. Age of Conan's guild system has many, many more elements layered on top. The most notable of these is the guild city system, which will allow dedicated groups of players to construct vast fortresses and towns in designated private instances. These towns and keeps can serve many purposes for the inhabiting guild, and can even be invaded by opposing factions.
For the most part, Player vs. Player combat in Age of Conan will seem very familiar. On non-PvP servers, the majority of this combat style will take place in instanced matches very similar to WoW's battlegrounds. These PvP mini-games offer some typical gameplay styles like capture the flag or deathmatch. The truly exciting PvP element in Conan is the city siege, which will see huge guilds clashing in the streets of their player-made cities. Those conflicts will pit the defenders against raiders in a pre-scheduled event, with War Rhinos and Mammoth mounts making an appearance on the fields of battle. The first step is to tear down the walls ... past that, it's on to glory.
Every server, regardless of type, will see PvP in the Border Kingdoms. These are the locales where player cities can be built, and hold more in common with elements of the game Dark Age of Camelot than World of Warcraft. Mini-keeps called towers are spread throughout that region, giving smaller guilds the ability to participate in the territory conquest aspect of the game as well.
AoC avatars will gain power in ways very similar to the Warcraft experience. Starting at level ten, players will begin gaining feat points that can be slotted into ability trees. One tree is a 'general' tree that gives all-around benefits to the player's character. Two more provide more specific paths to explore, allowing you to customize your character into the role you desire. Skill points also become available at each level. Most skills are passive bonuses, tweaks to background mechanics that will keep your character alive longer, allow them to regenerate stamina faster, or climb more difficult surfaces.
Just as in World of Warcraft, Conan characters gain access to their mounts at level 40. There the similarity ends, as combat from horseback is a prominent feature in Age of Conan's later levels. From your mount, unique abilities become available that will allow you to best large groups of foes. The larger mounts also see use in Player vs. Player city sieges. Instead of siege weaponry, pre-ordering players can deploy their War Mammoths to knock the very bricks of the city walls from their mortar.
As you can see, Hyboria offers a number of intriguing twists to the MMO genre. We haven't even covered some of the more subtle distinctions, the nooks and crannies of Conan's world. Why don't you go find out for yourself if the grim, gritty tract that is the Age of Conan is right for you?