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Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures

Preview: The riddle... of steel

Six months ago, Conan looked to be in a spot of bother. The beta began, and the players let out a unified "Erk". The problem? The combat. In trying to move away from the standard MMO fare, Conan's esoteric approach to online fighting left many players bemused.

Now, only about four months from the delayed release date, it's that element of the game that's seen the most work.

The good news is that it's still different enough from every other MMO to be interesting. The better news is that it's very easy to play. Perhaps even too easy. Every enemy in the Robert E Howard-inspired game has three points where they can be attacked: left, right and above.

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These are shown by semi-circles floating about them when targeted. If you hit them on the left, they'll defend that side, maybe leaving the right exposed. Exploit this, and take advantage of your ever-increasing set of skills and the combo system, and you'll be employing a degree of tactics not seen before in MMO battling.

We're a bit concerned that combat might now be too simple at the start, but we're reassured by Funcom's promise that it will get more involved by the time the game launches, with combos present from the very beginning.

The story gets equal standing with the combat as the focus of development. Taking the lore from the Howard books, rather than any iteration of the comics or the unbearable Arnie movie, Funcom are placing the narrative firmly at the centre of things.

Along with two dedicated full-time writers, there's a team of eight people solely writing quests, and another responsible for managing the lore. There'll be 800 quests ready at launch, and surprisingly few of them appear to be timesink "kill 30 rabbits" nonsense.

In fact, some genuinely inspired ideas are being touted, including solving murder mysteries, and stealth quests requiring you to sneak over rooftops and eavesdrop on NPC conversations. The large team is there to ensure quests have meaning in the game, linking them to the story, giving you the motivation to complete tasks.

This becomes even more detailed with the Destiny Quests available to you at night time. These focus on learning more about your character's mysterious background, and should create a far greater sense of your presence within the world, with a history going back before you created your character.

This idea of there being reason behind actions is prevalent throughout. NPCs are having their heads filled with big old lumps of behaviour, so rather than standing stupidly waiting for you to clonk their heads in, they'll be getting on with busy-work. Guards will have extensive patrol routes, relieve each other from duty, even gain a sense of ambition until they're willing to go exploring, and naturally get drunk and then go for a pee up against a wall.

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All this can be used to your tactical advantage, as you and your buddies tackle enemy camps however you see fit.

While Funcom's previous MMO, Anarchy Online, might not have won a giant audience, it does seem to have taught them the value of details. Conversations, for instance, are far more involved than in previous MMO offerings.

Rather than clicking through the cutscene, or choosing "yes" or "no" to a quest, in Conan you'll have BioWare-style conversation options, so you can choose the attitude with which you approach situations. In fact, be rude enough and you can talk your way out of a quest.

It won't dramatically change the progression of the game, and there's no shifting between 'dark' and 'light' or anything similar, but it's a nice touch that lets you feel far more involved in proceedings.

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