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Player vs. Everything: Age of Conan's newbie blues

Cameron Sorden

I've been playing Age of Conan a fair amount over the last week, trying to figure out if I like it well enough to continue paying for it on a monthly basis after my free month expires. The problem is that it's going to be my second MMOG -- the one I play when I'm not busy farming or raiding with my guild on World of Warcraft. Even for someone who writes about videogames professionally, when you start stacking up multiple subscriptions, things get pricey pretty fast. Usually, I keep two subs active at a time and write about what I'm playing.

Anyway, I've been trying to make this decision and I have a problem: I hop classes a lot. When you're talking about a 250 hour investment, you want to make sure that you pick a class you enjoy playing. To figure out what you enjoy playing, you really just have to try the classes out -- especially when the classes are as unique as the ones in Age of Conan. I've leveled two characters to the high teens in Tortage, and several more to the 10ish range. What I've decided, after doing all of this poking around with the classes, is that AoC's first 20 levels are about as frustrating as they can be once the initial sheen of "new game wonder" wears off. If you didn't notice it your first time through, just wait until you make your first alt.

The problem isn't so much the quests, or the island itself. I'd actually argue that Tortage, as a newbie area, is a far stronger game experience than many other games have to offer. There are intriguing characters, lots of spoken dialogue that actually manages to sound good, cool destiny quests that offer an interesting single player experience, and fairly diverse environments: jungle, beach, volcano, ruins, caves, and crypts. That's a pretty robust list for one newbie area! So it's not Tortage I have an issue with -- it's a few of the design choices that Funcom made with these first 20 levels.

Something I've noticed, having played multiple classes through this range, is that most characters start out feeling quite powerful. You rip through the first five levels without much effort at all, usually in less than 15 minutes. At this point, there's either a noticeable drop in player efficacy or mob difficulty. As soon as you step past the gate guarded by the picts and encounter your first great ape, you're fighting a new breed of monster. Suddenly, fighting two mobs at a time becomes a challenge for many classes and three is deadly unless you play with a high level of skill and use consumables.

This level of difficulty is consistent all the way through the solo destiny quests, which always ramp up to meet your level when you enter a new mission. This requires you to pull and fight very carefully throughout the destiny quests, lest you get even-level adds that tend to kill you pretty quickly. It was surprisingly challenging, even for an experienced player like me. I expect that many players start these missions and then choose to either grind on enemies for a bit or go quest in the multiplayer mode before returning to the mission to make things a little easier. It's a fairly frustrating experience to discover that you can't defeat your solo, single-player mission unless you go level up for it. I prefer to seek quests out because I want something to do -- not because I have to so I don't get face-planted in my mandatory newbie quests.

Another issue that I've noticed with the first few levels is that they're very similar for most classes until the early teens, due to a lack of class skills. You run up to an enemy (or pull them with a ranged attack) and then beat on them with whatever weapon your class uses. Most melee classes will have a few combos to use and casters will have a spell or two, but you don't really get many interesting skills until level 10, when your talent points start rolling in. I was complaining to JoBildo the other day in game about my Conqueror. At level 8, I had something like three combos and one buff. The buff stayed on all the time, and all of my combos... did damage. Yawn. In WoW (for comparison), by level 8 you have a number of interesting abilities that do different things, and your class is pretty well defined. In AoC, your character doesn't even feel that unique or interesting until his first five talent points are under his belt.

Finally, the last thing that really bugs me about Tortage is how repetitive it becomes. The environments are diverse, interesting, and really cool -- the first time you explore them. Unfortunately, you get sent to each one multiple times. For example, the solo quests ask you to go to White Sands Isle and rescue an NPC named Arias. You explore about halfway into the island, find him, and leave. But then you'll have to come back and quest there at some point too. In fact, you'll be doing that twice, since the quests there span a level range from 5-20, and there's no way to conceivably do them all in one trip. The Underhalls have the same problem -- an associated solo quest, and a large quest span for the multiplayer quests. You get sent to the volcano multiple times (having to fight your way through the same, freshly leveled enemies each time), and don't even get me started on how many times you'll be running back and forth through the streets of Tortage as some NPC sends you back to where you just were to do the next quest step.

All of this adds up to a needlessly long and annoying newbie experience, which is even more frustrating because it really shouldn't be. Age of Conan's classes, quests, and environments are all very cool, but it's easy to forget that when a high level of difficulty and a lengthy period of boredom as your skills dribble in make the first 20 levels a test of your patience and endurance, especially on your second or third time through them.

In my opinion, they should really overhaul the Tortage experience a bit and make it easier for players to get in and actually see what makes each class unique and cool right off the bat; to enjoy the amazing environments without getting bored when they're sent there for the umpteenth time. What I would recommend is giving the player his first 10 levels in the very first starting beach area. That way, you don't have the 6-10 slump I mentioned earlier and you get into the meat of your class much sooner. Then, I would re-tune the single player quests so that they start a level or two below your level instead of at your level, allowing players to beat them more easily and feel like the hero they are. Finally, I would eliminate the quests which require you to go back into areas where you've already been. Fighting my way up the volcano is cool once, but lame twice. Until something like this happens, I guess I'll have to keep slogging through these early levels to find out which class (if any) grabs me enough to make me want to take the plunge and yank him up through 250 hours of gameplay. I just hope that I'm able to find one I really like before I get bored and lose interest.

Your game seems really cool, Funcom. Why all the roadblocks in the way of the fun stuff, though?

Cameron Sorden Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT

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