Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures Review
Technical issues notwithstanding, the violently rewarding Age of Conan is one of the finest online RPGs available.
The single-player questing offered within the first 20 levels isn't the only pacing adjustment Age of Conan introduces, though not every adjustment is as successful as others. For example, you can only learn crafting skills once you hit level 40. While the focus on combat is deliberate, crafting activities would have been a welcome way to mix up the early levels, especially given that you can gather resources before you can craft. The prospect of new loot, often a major reason to push forward, isn't as exciting as you'd hope, either. As you level, you'll find that few looted items are helpful, and the limited inventory space (even after buying an extra bag) can make dropped items more of a nuisance than a pleasure. The flow of new abilities is also inconsistent, since rather than bringing brand-new spells, new levels more often reward you with more powerful versions of existing spells and combos. Fortunately, the feat points you begin to earn at level 10 can be spent on new abilities and upgrades from one of three specialization trees.
Nevertheless, it really is about the combat, whether you prefer to beat up tarantulas or other players. Should you choose to play on a free-for-all player-versus-player server, be prepared for frustration. On those servers, you will be killed--often--by archers camping spawn points and "griefers" who get their jollies from punishing new players. But if you'd rather avoid the unfriendliness of such realms, you still have options. Instanced PVP battles are the most immediate outlet for your spellcasting prowess, and you can play a team deathmatch or capture-the-flag variant against others simply by adding yourself to the match queue. Once enough interested players have joined up, you're whisked away to the map for a vicious and enjoyable clash that can result in the best kind of controlled chaos. It's a shame that there aren't more maps available for these games, but the flexibility of Age of Conan's classes and the sheer bloody violence of the matches mean that every visit is a unique, and occasionally breathless, experience.
At this point, it's unclear how well the game's most touted PVP component, guild siege battles, will function. They certainly have potential, though the largest battles will be the private realm of the biggest guilds, and we've yet to experience one of these events. It is clear, however, that to build a keep and maintain it, a guild has to have a large amount of manpower and wealth. At any given time, you'll have plenty of cash for your standard needs: weapons, armor, potions, and so on. Building up a keep is incredibly expensive, though--which is a great way of ensuring that big siege battles remain the domain of the elite, but if you're hoping to start a fledgling guild, be warned that the prospect of building and defending an expansive battlekeep is a daunting one. If you'd rather continue your travels at later levels than invest in siege battle, you'll unfortunately find that the flow of new content gets noticeably slower as you progress toward the maximum level of 80.
But even in light of the noted flaws, Age of Conan is a gratifying and entertaining game that, more than any other online RPG in recent memory, possesses a strong sense of place. There is certainly plenty of variety to the scenery and the dungeons, but even in the brightest areas, you can't escape the sense of oppression. You'll see it as you approach Thoth-Amon's tower and hear it in the buzz of mosquitoes, and you can practically feel the humidity in Purple Lotus Swamp. Battles are a natural presence in these places, as if the heavy dread hanging in the air needs to be released through the ripping of daggers through flesh. The combat is mechanically sound and great fun, but within the rich context of Hyboria, it's even more inspiring.
The art design is the keystone for this success. Tortage, your first haunt, makes a solid first impression, but it can't compete with the dense Tarantia skyline or the sight of rushing waterfalls in the Cimmerian knolls. The game engine renders these areas with incredible detail, using ornate textures and luxuriant lighting to great effect. Age of Conan is the most attractive and technically impressive MMOG now on the market, though it requires a rather beefy system to see Hyboria at its most splendid, and even then it is prone to weirdness. There are pixel shader glitches, various clipping issues, and other noticeable blights. The frame rate also takes a major hit in populated areas, so a visit to the port city of Khemi may be a little more frustrating than your trek through the less busy Khopshef Province. Additonally, as of this writing, DirectX 10 support has yet to be implemented. Assuming you have a rig that is up to the task, however, you will be constantly admiring the view.
The sound design is essentially flawless. The soundtrack isn't as omnipresent as with Funcom's previous MMOG, Anarchy Online, but it is just as marvelous, featuring pounding bass drums when combat gets dramatic and the atmospheric calls of flutes as you explore the idyllic Conall's Valley. Of particular note is the beautiful, serene vocal composition you hear in the border kingdoms. The grunts, clangs, and thuds of combat perfectly match the bloodiness of the accompanying blood splatter, and even small touches, such as the authentic sound of your footsteps as you march through snow, are spot-on. The voice acting, though limited mostly to the first 20 levels, is equally excellent.
Age of Conan has plenty of room to grow and a number of issues that need fixing, but even now, it offers a rewarding adventure abundant with character and fascinating backstory. The combat system perfectly suits the adult nature of the quests, and is the finest one yet seen in an online RPG. In spite of its current bugs and glitches, Age of Conan is a remarkably entertaining journey through a dark and mature world of beasts and brutality.