Second Wind: Age of Conan

Age of Conan screenshot

I remember playing Age of Conan when it first came out; it seems like an eternity ago. So many titles have been released and failed since then that it's easy to get it all mixed up, and it doesn't help when many of those titles are sub-par or just plain boring and forgettable. Age of Conan sort of messed with my head with its insistent instancing and odd combat mechanics. I just couldn't wrap my head around what the game was trying to do.

Is it a hardcore PvP-centric MMO? Many would say so. Is it a grand, single-player adventure? In some ways. Is it an immersive romp through the long-lived lore of Conan the Barbarian? I guess so. It's a bit of all of these but does none of them perfectly. I decided to jump back into the game because the last time I played it was when it switched over to its odd freemium model that is all-too-common in Western MMOs these days.

Age of Conan screenshot

I have to start off by saying that the voice-acting, cutscenes, and NPC interactions are still quite impressive, even though many of those same NPCs just stand there like coin-operated quest givers, waiting for a player to approach them. The realism or immersive quality of the fully voiced characters is lost when you notice that they just stand there like statues. The character models lean a bit too "uncanny valley" for me, so walking around through the otherwise-beautiful town feels like exploring a wax museum or a ride through a crappy animatronic thrill ride.

I usually find myself unsatisfied with developers' attempts at multiple-choice quests and NPCs that are supposed to provide different branches of experiences. Sure, I can pick one of several answers from an NPC, but why should I care? Even if the different dialogue choices led to completely different endings (most do not), I'd still have to care about the characters or the outcomes. Age of Conan wants you to think that you are playing through some sort of choice-driven open world when in fact you're really taking linear, short trips through a series of boxes. I would have preferred to see the quest text shorter, more effective, and coming from characters we could actually like. Instead, I found myself surrounded by stereotypical pirates, drunks, and "sexy" barmaids. Yes, that's the world of Conan for you, but it wouldn't hurt to have some plot innovation too.

The weird thing is that I feel Wizard101, a "kid's game" that features extremely linear quests and fully voice-acted NPCs, has more soul in it than Age of Conan does. The quest text's brevity might explain the former title's massive success with gamers of all ages. My pet peeve is a quest that needs to have a "summary" or the equivalent of a TL;DR section inside a player's quest book. If it needs to be summarized, it was probably too boring to be read in the first place. Designers might claim that these summaries are built to save room inside a quest book, but we all know the truth: Players don't care. They want to know where the mob is, how to kill it, and where to pick up their reward. Age of Conan takes this same treadmill approach of making you run to spot A, kill mob B, and run back to spot A to turn it in. It's about as exciting as cold toast.

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I felt pretty depressed by the current state of the community. Watching my fellow chatters attempt to discuss politics or hot-button issues like homosexuality in the modern age not only is painful but also makes me wonder why Funcom lets it go on. There's no free speech inside a video game, so I'm guessing it has to do with the game's "adult" playerbase that demands "hardcore" allowances like the ability to call each other awful things. Ultimately, I had to turn off chat.

It's not all bad news inside the world of Age of Conan. The "tutorial" levels from 1 to 20 are actually quite a lot of fun in parts in spite of a bit of typical MMO blandness. I wasn't really impressed with the game's graphics until I realized I hadn't turned on a few of the higher-end settings, but even then it just looked like a semi-ugly game being shown on a Vaseline-covered monitor. The problem with "realistic" graphics, at least compared to stylized graphics like the kind you'll find in World of Warcraft, is that any attempt at realism becomes dated from day one. As fast as PCs become more and more powerful at lower and lower prices, these killer graphics are amazing one year and unimpressive the next. Age of Conan suffers from not only looking dated but looking that way far ahead of schedule. It would have been smarter to stylize things a bit, turn down the silly gore and keep the game much more action-based.

The game is sort of action-based, but combat makes me wonder whether the developers were confused about which direction the game should go in. I rolled two melee classes and proceeded to get my butt kicked over and over and over until I asked Jef Reahard, Massively's resident Age of Conan expert, what I was doing wrong. He suggested I roll a Demonologist because it's the most familiar of AoC's classes and the easiest for a newcomer to pick up. Sure enough, I suddenly found myself actually surviving my way through adventures and starting to have some fun. I had an easier time avoiding melee's high-learning-curve directional blocking and combos in favor of a more standard (and admittedly more boring -- there's always a downside) hotbar-based attack. Just a simple class swap turned AoC from an "action MMO" to a classic MMO.

Age of Conan screenshot

In the end, I found myself dreading logging into Age of Conan. Its biggest sin is its confusion about what it is trying to be. For example, I cannot figure out where the extremely heavy use of instancing comes from. Why is the single-player experience at "night time" when it might have been a cooler idea to have a day and night cycle to allow players to choose to go into the single-player mode at a realistic time? Who came up with the idea to base combat on a series of combos that forces players to watch the hotbar more than the action on the screen?

In a word, Age of Conan is sloppy. It features interesting immersive qualities like voice-acted NPCs and graphics that are sometimes good and other times horrible, but gameplay-wise it just makes me want to join the MMO revolution that's demanding better games. MMO players have got to force innovation. We bought Age of Conan because it was new, not because it's a truly great MMO, and it's not new anymore. I wish I wanted to play the game so that I could explore every last nook and cranny of the gorgeous scenery, but I just don't feel like sludging through the mess to get there.

MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!