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Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures

Preview: What a hope-inspiring difference a delay makes

It's been eight months since I last sat down with Age of Conan and tactfully described its combat system innovation as an "awkward beast".

Since then, the game's been delayed to allow that system to go under the knife. A recent invitation for a second date with the MMO revealed that, in the intervening period, Funcom has introduced what can only be described as - breathe a of relief - positive changes.

A first sneak glimpse of mounted combat and guild cities was on the cards too, as it turned out.

THE RIDDLE OF STEEL
For anyone recently returning from the Himalayas, Age of Conan's dynamic real-time combat system is where the game is making a massive break from MMO convention. It'd feel right at home in a single-player fantasy action game. Every key press is a weapon swing, every side-step an attempt to dodge.

While the result of the alterations Funcom's made to the combat system isn't dramatic in the sense that I sat there saying "Holy bum evacuations, this is the best thing EVER!" (as people usually do when impressed by something, right?), it's evolved to wipe away some of my original doubts. The ability to interact with the game world in a far more tactile way than usually seen in MMOs is far more intuitive now, and much of the previous fiddly-ness is a thing of the past.

It's switched from being 'Nice try, interesting experiment, but I can't see it working', to, 'Nice try, interesting experiment, and it might just work. Please sir, can I try some more?'

But questions do remain. The combat system might be far more manageable in PvE now, but how awkward will the need to press keys to swing weapons and execute combos - or how difficult physically directing spells and projectiles at targets - prove in the heat frantic PvP battles? Hell, perhaps it will turn out to be a better system?

And how will fans of traditional MMOs react? This will prove Age of Conan's hardest sell. The combat system is the biggest obstacle the game throws up to MMO players brought up on a diet of EverQuest and World of Warcraft. It's setting itself up to be a game that will either be loved for its innovation or hated. But at least Funcom is trying to do something different.

I'm not going to dip deep into the alterations to the combat system. These have already been covered in depth on these pages - as indeed have other key aspects of the game recently - but with the improvements, it's teetering on the brink of proving that this major shift in the way we interact with MMOs can work.

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MOUNTED COMBAT
It's been known pretty much since day one that Age of Conan features mounted combat, but until now it had gone unseen in the flesh. Unfortunately, an opportunity to get hands-on with the mounts didn't present itself - Funcom was keeping all the four-legged toys to itself, blast its eyes - but currently the MMO features horses, mammoths and rhinos, the latter two of which, initially at least, will only be available to those who pre-order the game. Mounting animations are impressive, it has to be said.

Out of the trio, the horse is most versatile and manoeuvrable, allowing you use melee and ranged weapons and spells while mounted. It has its own little back-kick ability too which knocks enemies to the ground, possibly with a whinny. The more ponderous mammoth and rhino, meanwhile, are SO big that when you're astride them you're limited to ranged combat and magic.

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