Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures

Steve Hogarty visits Oslo to see the most violent MMO of 2008

So what have Funcom been doing with Age of Conan since PC ZONE unceremoniously infuriated barbarian fans across the globe by calling Conan "an awful stereotype of a fantasy RPG class most people don't choose any more"?

Our last hands-on with Funcom's online action-RPG threw up various concerns about the game's combat system, which we criticised as being "a little clunky", "a little fiddly", "cumbersome" and "ideally suited to players with three hands".

Not long after heaping our worries on the plucky developer (whose previous successes include Anarchy Online and Dreamfall), Funcom delayed releasing Age of Conan until our concerns, and feedback from the ongoing beta testing, had been thoroughly addressed.

Once they'd done all this, they whistled at us, invited us to Oslo, cocked their little Norwegian hats in our direction and said, "Hey, what do you think of Age of Conan now?"

Well it's looking great, actually. The combat system has been changed in a number of very definite, deliberate ways, and it improves the feel of the game immensely.

The number of directions in which you can attack has been reduced, combos must now be activated instead of memorised and hopelessly recited, and enemies now display shield icons on either their front, left or right sides - a seemingly trivial inclusion but one that gives purpose and meaning to the ability to attack from one direction rather than another.

It gives us hope that a live-combat MMO can actually, seriously work, and that Age of Conan could be the biggest trend-bucker the genre's seen.

AOC's game designer, Gaute Godager, explains what's been happening these past six months. "Previously, we had a system of combat inputs much like an action game or a fighting game," he begins, "where you do a sequence of moves like up-down-right to activate a combo. We found that when players had 15 combos that they knew, it was really hard for them to remember how to trigger a specific one."

This means there'll be far fewer players mucking up when attempting the frantic keyboard gymnastics required to do their area-effect taunts and instead alt-tabbing to iTunes and falling off their chairs.

"That's why we took a step back and realised we had to do it differently," continues Godager, "and that's why we implemented the combo starters and the follow-up system."

These combo starters sit on your action bar at the bottom of the screen, and are activated by clicking on them - this highlights directions in which you must attack in order to carry out the selected combo move.

Kill an enemy with a combo move and you'll carry out a fatality - anything from lopping off a head to butting your opponent to the floor and slowly, torturously piercing him with your sword. No other MMO comes close to this level of combat interaction - it really does feel like a single player adventure game.

And why did it take six months to make such simple, yet fundamental changes to the way the game plays? "It's because you have 14 classes," answers Godager, "times 80 levels, times hundreds of abilities.

"Going through all of them is just a massive logistics job. But the beta was always running. We were always getting feedback from the players. For us, delaying the release was not such a big deal. Quality comes first."

The visit to snowy Oslo saw me swanning about Age of Conan's crèche area, that is, the island on which you're hand-reared through the game's first 20 levels. The city of Tortage offers a line of quests based around teaching you exactly how to use your particular class. It's no longer a single-player game in these early stages either.

Interestingly, by day Tortage is a multiplayer arena, but find a bed to sleep in and you'll wake up at night, where Age of Conan becomes an entirely single-player experience. You can flip between single and multiplayer just by hopping into bed.

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