Field Journal: Tortage and the problem of starting areas

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Field Journal: Tortage and the problem of starting areas
Shockingly, I didn't see anyone else running around topless.
It's been quite a while since I've played Age of Conan. Rather than try to figure out where I had left off and what I should be doing with my existing character (and possibly ending up with nothing much to write about), I decided to start anew. The starting experience in and around the sub-tropical pirate city of Tortage is rather distinct. Since I'm already familiar with it, I knew I could find enough in it for an entry in this journal.

So I leaped into the fray on my Stygian Herald of Xotli to refresh my memory while slicing, dicing, and frying pirates. I had a fair bit of fun doing so, but from the start, I had one nagging complaint distracting me: This isn't very representative of the game after Tortage. It's true that few starting areas in MMOs are, but AoC makes for an interesting case in how sharp that division is.

You were not the same after that

Tortage feels like a separate game from the rest of Age of Conan. It has more in common with some of Funcom's more praised games, like The Secret World and The Longest Journey, than with anything that comes later. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's more adventure game than RPG, but there are certainly echoes of that genre in the feel of things.

It's even long enough to compare to an adventure game, at least one you play knowing the solutions -- or more aptly, one with puzzles that aren't very hard. Puzzles, of course, equate to quests in this context. Sure, some quests can be hard when you acquire them, especially the group-oriented quest to kill a bat demon, but even that can be soloed by the time you've finished every other quest short of the story finale. It's comparable to coming across a puzzle that you can't solve, only to find you had to go a different way with the story, then come back later with the item you needed.

Adventure games were one of the first big pioneers in fully voiced games, and early-game AoC follows in those footsteps; all non-player character interactions in Tortage are fully voiced, a stark contrast to the later game. Sure, there's voice acting here and there, but it's the rare NPC with voice acting for everything he or she has to say after you leave the Isles. Interestingly, none of the voice acting is particularly awful, but a lot of it sounds odd. There's a variety of accents on display, some of which clearly suggest the real world parallels of the cultures they come from. Others are a little more confusing or hard to pin down.

I would love an MMO that features an Antiquarian class, if there's any developers who somehow read this.
Even the gameplay is a stripped-down version of what comes later. To an extent, that's a natural part of the leveling process, as you have only the most basic capabilities of your class available to you. On the other hand, there are many other aspects of gameplay that many MMOs would introduce, or at least allow you to take part in, in far less time. Gathering and crafting are totally absent until later. In fact, crafting first requires you to reach level 40. You won't be seeing any true group dungeons until your 30s. PvP is available only if you play on the Blood and Glory server ruleset, in a limited fashion.

(Funny story for this week: I had intended to play on the PvE server, but my clicking prowess was lacking, and I ended up on the standard PvP server instead. I did not realize this until I was ambushed repeatedly at the entrance of my level 20 zone. Perhaps I should have been tipped off the third time a random player ran up to me and started attacking to no avail. Weird how they expected PvP on a PvP server. Still, I guess it can't hurt to have a character there for the future.)

The first 20 levels may be the quickest, but even a speed run should take a few hours. Although there are options to skip parts of the story, you will not be able to ship Tortage entirely. You need to hit level 16 to leave, and you need to be level 18 to start questing in other zones. I suppose offline leveling could be used to circumvent this, but that's available only to subscribers. Even then, you'll need to wait quite a while and still have to clear some introductory quests to reach the NPC who can let you skip the rest. The Barachan Isles do not let go readily.

Even better than the real thing

Not that any of this means Tortage is bad. As a distinct experience, it's flawed but entertaining. It doesn't hold a candle to the storytelling in any part of The Secret World, but it is a solid story told coherently. The gameplay is fairly basic, but it's a well-tuned basic. The environmental graphics are still as lush and vibrant as they were the day of launch, and though the character models no longer hold up, they do get points for being unafraid to make people ugly and weathered-looking on purpose. The sound design is all very good, whether music, ambient noises, or effects.

And I quite enjoyed how haphazardly the quests seem to be arranged. There are dozens of quests on the Islands, some with several steps. Many MMOs even slightly more recent tend to streamline the questing flow so that you always have a handful of quests in a single area at a time, and then you move on to another area with another handful of quests, never visiting the same spot twice. I understand it as a reaction to player frustration with quest givers that send them to the same spot repeatedly when they have no logical reason not to tell you everything you can help them with upfront. The problem is that devs weren't writing the story well enough, not that the quests were inefficient. I enjoy figuring out ways to be more efficient for myself, and alternating between the linear main story of nighttime quests and stocked up daytime quests for various mini-zones across the Isles kept me thinking.

The smell of death and the taste of freedom are often closely tied.
While it's true that the combat and class abilities are rudimentary compared to later in the game, the directional combo system used for physical classes is unique and can take some getting used to. Having an area with the training wheels on can be pretty useful. The Herald of Xotli is technically a mage, but is definitely not what I'd call a caster. Able to channel the fires of Hell into their tremendous blades, they're more focused on physical brutality than esoteric spell-flinging. What I'm saying is they use the combo system too, and the refresher was valuable for me.

The structure of conversations with NPCs is another of those points of similarity with many adventure games, although this is also true of the rest of the game. Nearly every meaningful conversation gives you multiple dialogue options along the way. That's not to say the options are meaningful. Most can be functionally boiled down to "progress the quest," "find out more about the quest," or "screw the quest." Even when there appears to be an actual choice, it seems to amount to whether the NPC will be friendly or mean only in his or her immediate response. Just as in adventure games, conversations are there to move the story forward and let you know what to do. They're not there to allow you to exert control over the narrative beyond letting you play out your preferred character quirks.

Overall, I think I'll be back. While I have seen some of the later content of the game, I know I've only scratched the surface. There's still plenty more in AoC to cover, but I'm not in any rush just yet. There's so many more games also worthy of attention. Hopefully it won't be so long that I need to start from scratch again next time.

Next week, I'd better fulfill my promise to look at Fallen Earth. (Speaking of games I'm going to have to start a new character for because I'm at a loss for what to do with my existing ones!) Maybe it's time I made a dedicated crafter for one of the more unique crafting systems in MMOs? Let's see just how badly the penalties for non-subscribers affect crafters in practice.

There are so many weird and wonderful destinations to visit within the MMOscape, and Massively's Matthew Gollschewski hopes to chronicle them all for you every Thursday in his trusty Field Journal. Grab your camera and your adventurin' hat and join in on his next expedition, or just mail him some notes of your own.
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