Sunday, July 13, 2008

Review: Age of Conan

It's hard to really "review" and "rate" an MMORPG, because such a game is constantly evolving and changing. What may be good one week may be patched to bad the next, and vice versa. So it is that I shall avoid assigning a "letter grade" at the end of the review, and simply just be wordy as hell as I describe the state of the game "Age of Conan" as it stands in mid-July, 2008.

Graphics
I can say without reservation that Age of Conan is by far the most graphically impressive MMO I've ever played to date. AoC makes excellent use of Shader Model 3 features. I particularly like the parallax texture mapping which gives simple flat polygons a textured, three-dimensional feel by subtly skewing the textures upon them to almost holographically portray the extra dimension on things like cracks between floor tiles or the round protrusions of rocks in a wall. It also makes the ground textures in most areas look more lifelike. Also adding to the organic nature of the zone design is the "grass" system which not only places grass but also shrubs, tall reeds and the like. Even though the plant sprites are 2 dimensional (and always face the camera dead on, so standing in the middle of the larger ferns and pivoting in place is kind of creepy in a "they're WATCHING me!" kind of way), they do a lot to push the game's settings from merely representative of realism to downright sureally believable. It's also staggering how far away you can see things. Of course, you're going to need a pretty badass rig to handle all the graphical options cranked to max (at least an 8 series if you're on nVidia hardware), and if your computer isn't quite up to the challenge you can pull AoC back down to earth by keeping the video settings low and using Shader Model 2.0... but really, once you've gone full bore, you don't want to go back. Everything less just looks dead, or fake. There are a couple glitches here and there... there's some issue with skin showing through hair polygons and the like, and water looks and behaves a little gelatinously, but overall, it's darn impressive. It isn't quite Crysis, but it's as close as a game with 20 gigs of texture data is likely to come. (As usual, any of the screenshots and other pictures on this page can be clicked to see them at full resolution)

Sound
The sound effects do their job, plenty of bestial grunts, metal clanking and the splut of somebody getting the crap kicked out of him and the like. There's music that fits the atmosphere, which varies from the nondescript to the noteworthy, though nothing amazingly inspiring. However, also nothing awful or corny. Sometimes some of the ambient noises, such as roaring rivers or buzzing mosquitoes are either too loud (river) or too realistic (swat). There's a great deal of voice acting in all of Tortage's quests, but after you leave the noob zones and go out into the world, the voiceovers pretty much vanish except for infrequent spurts during your "destiny quest," adding to the unfinished feeling of the game.

Community
Currently the "community" is kind of one of the weak spots of the game. Up until the epic instances, for which you pretty much need a full group, it's rare to see any sorts of groups at all, even where one would be beneficial. For instance, it is much more common to see 4 individual people standing in the same place waiting for a quest mob to spawn so they can each race to be the first to kill it, rather than they group up and all get credit for killing it the once. This could be because the game's source and progression doesn't really lend itself to trusting others, particularly on PvP servers where your fellow players are as likely to shove a sword through your guts as say hello. Additionally, each player will get a line of "destiny" quests which HAVE to be done solo in their own instance, further implanting the normality of being alone in an MMO in AoC players. True, there are players who band together to make guilds and make a point of adventuring in numbers, but for at least the first half to 2/3rds of the game, one might be left with the impression it's normal to be alone your entire time in AoC.

Gameplay
It's a sword'n'sorcery MMORPG. If you don't know what that means, you must have been under a rock for a while. The overall paradigm is what you'd expect... hit things with sharp metal, blast them with fire, haul the stuff you loot off the bodies into town to sell, upgrade your equipment, get some new quests, then head out to do it all over again.

One thing that starkly sets Conan apart from other MMOs I've played is it's turned the balance of melee vs caster on its ear. In every previous MMO I've played, I've always found casters to have an advantage over dedicated melee classes, but here it is exactly the opposite. Casters are fragile and die quickly, whereas "tank" types have roughly double the health and dish out nearly as much damage. It's very much a bladeswinger's world in Hyborea. It makes me chuckle, thinking back to my tank chars on EQ or DAOC who could do little but stand around waiting for a group so they could progress. I also remember how, for some reason, whoever did the balance for these games thought that someone with a lot of HP shouldn't be allowed to do a lot of damage... now, on my "Conqueror" class character, I have both high HP and do stupidly high amounts of damage.

Casters, with some justification, often complain they feel the unwanted stepchildren of AoC. Casters get the usual litany of spells, but the classic formula of target-nuke-kill-loot remains. The melee combat system is much more involved and robust than any other MMO I've played. There is no "autoattack," and targeting is largely optional. This is because, and I heartily applaud this, Conan is the first MMO to make melee attacks all intrinsically short range conical Area-effect. The closer to directly in front of you the enemy, the more damage they take, but it is such that I can keep the attention of 3 enemy mobs with ease simply by facing the middle one of them while I swing. There's an added layer of complexity to attacking, though. You start off with three different attack buttons which later grows to 5, and each button represents the direction of swing: overhead, overhand left, overhand right, underhand left, and underhand right. Any given opponent has the ability to "rearrange" their defenses so as to reduce damage taken in one given direction at the expense of taking additional damage from another. It's a little cumbersome for players to reorganize these on the fly, but mobs do it with ease and abundance. Thus, fighting requires constant attention to shift the direction of your swings to where you see your opponent's defenses are open. Further aiding the fighters are numerous "combos," which are like styles in DAOC or attack abilities from WoW, only instead of being merely one-push-one-effect buttons, a combo requires the player to hit the correct sequence of moves in succession to trigger the final effect. This final effect will either be a great deal of damage, a defensive buff, or some other boon to both the tank and anyone else in his party. This degree of depth to melee fighting often makes casters feel like they're yesterday's news.

The game sports an "M" rating for a reason. Trying to stay true to the roots of the Conan mythos, the world of Hyborea is harsh, gritty, bloodspattered, titillating and misogynistic. Heads and limbs are lopped off. Craniums are messily smashed in by hammers. Bare, voluptuous breasts are jiggled. Women of negotiable virtue wriggle and flirt in various stages of dress. Bodies are mangled, corpses rot in the sun, blood gushes in thick fountains and sometimes even splatters on the "camera lens" from time to time when you cause a particularly gruesome fatality. While not exactly psyche-warping for a child to play, it's intended for consumption by adults, who presumably already have a set sense of perspective about these things. It's about on the level of a rather graphic R-rated film.

There are 3 different races, each with their own respective area of the world. However, each new character first starts being washed ashore on the island pirate haven of Tortage, to learn the ropes and gain in strength for the first 20 or so levels. Once a player has gotten strong enough to finish the first leg of their "destiny quest" there (usually around level 20), they get carted off to either the frozen crags of barbaric Cimmeria (birthplace of Conan himself), the temperate and grassy rolling hills Aquilonia, or the scorching deserts and steamy swamps of exotic and perilous Stygia to begin experiencing the rest of the game.

It's about here things start to run out of steam. There are more quests in Tortage than you could possibly need to level to 20, but the ones around your home city will barely get you to 30 before they start turning grey, signifying their triviality (and Funcom recently changed the game to no longer award experience for completing a grey quest). After that, it's a fair bit of a struggle to find enough quests so that you continue to make progress without having to go out and kill things for no apparent purpose, which in the genre is known as "grinding," and is one of the things people hate to do.

Problems
It is also at this point that design flaws and plain old bugs start to become more and more apparent. Many zones just feel "unfinished," or have glitches in them which should have been caught in QC. Several quests are simply broken. Some doors never open, some doors fail to stop you from walking right through them and killing something you weren't supposed to be able to reach before you went through the rigamarole of a 3 step quest to find the key.

Look, I know it is an MMO, and no MMO has ever been perfect at launch. Even WoW had issues at launch (I remember 12 servers were almost always down, and who can forget the experience of people getting "stuck" while looting and scooting around in a kneeling position?). But the degree of brokenness and incompletion in AoC prompts one to wonder why the game is launched and not still in beta... did Funcom run out of money during development? Is it to beat Warhammer Online and the WoW expansion to market by 6 months? For some other unknown reason?

Probably the most unforgivable of bugs is the widespread "assertion failed/out of memory" memory leak that leads inexorably to a crash. I personally experience this, as well as about 120 pages worth of other people on the official forum. It apparently showed up in early June and has gotten worse with every successive patch. Funcom claims to be aware of it and "is working on it." Meanwhile, many of us with top-shelf premium quality computers are having AoC crash to desktop about once an hour claiming "out of memory" when the game is nowhere near using all our memory. The whole mess is very reminiscent of Funcom's previous title, Anarchy Online, which was plagued by bugs (and yes, memory leaks) for at least the first 9 months of its life post-retail release. All in all, the whole thing starts to leave you with a feeling that Funcom is in over their head and only has a tenative grasp on what they are doing here. Any given activity I choose to perform, be it trying to buy and sell items to other players, finish a quest or craft an item, has roughly a subjective 50% chance of being broken in some fashion.

There are also a number of things that are not technically "bugs" but just bad design decisions. There is no way to quickly and automatically travel from one place in the world to another. You have to run (or ride, if you have a mount) the long way every time, save for the ability to return to your chosen "home spot" on a half hour cooldown. Too often content has been made more difficult and time consuming simply by virtue of quintupling mob HP and calling it "epic" (too reminiscent of WoW's "elite" mobs), a practice that makes the developers look very lazy. Blizzard learned the lesson of creaing one PvP battlefield pool across all servers, why hasn't Funcom? Last week's patch showed that apparently Funcom thought we were traversing the lands of Hyborea too easily, and so they injected scads of new "invisible walls" to keep us zigzagging through the content at 3x the travel time like we're supposed to. In fact, every patch that comes along, there's an accompanying thread on the official forums called the "undocumented changes" thread where the game's european players (who get the patch and get back into the game a great deal earlier than the american contingent) fill us in on all the stealth nerfs, new bugs and other undocumented changes that aren't listed in the official patch notes. Did Funcom just cut stamina and mana regeneration in half and not say a single word about it? Why, yes they did. Not a good way to build trust and loyalty in your customers.

PVP
I can't say much about the PvP experience in Conan, because truthfully I have yet to experience it even at level 50. Oh sure, if I wanted the stock-standard "kill everyone I see until I die" blitzfest of meaningless player combat that permeates every "free-for-all" PvP server since EQ's Rallos Zek, I could play on a PvP server and see it, but I played on Rallos Zek for 3 years and I don't feel the need to have a sword shoved up my ass every time I lean down to pick up loot anymore. I always try to put myself in the "queue" for playing in the PvP events ("capture the skull" and "annihilate enemy team"), but I have yet to actually ever get into a match. So, I'm pinning all my hopes on the endgame "battlekeep" PvP, an admittedly dangerous thing to do. It'll probably be a while before I find out either way, however.

Crafting
Unlike other mainstream titles, Crafting doesn't actually enter into AoC until the upper levels of the game. You have to be level 30 to even start gathering resources, and you have to be 40 to choose a "profession" that allows you to create products suitable for use. But that's just the first tier stuff, too.. to harvest second tier resources requires you to be level 50, and 3rd tier requires level 70. Advancement in crafting/gathering skill is obtained by doing quests (which is how they enforce the level requirement), and the quests usually involve gathering or creating something you already are able to learn how to make or gather the next thing. Sometimes this gets irritating. For instance, some resources are only found "occasionally" at sources of more mundane resources. Once in a blue moon you'll find quartz in a sandstone vein, for example. I'm level 50, and despite killing literally hundreds of leather-bearing creatures I have yet to have one provide the rare "brindled" leather which occasionally is found on beasts that provide the lowest tier "rough" leather. And then, of course, when I finally do get it, I won't get any experience for completing the brindled leather quest because it turned grey a dozen levels ago. For me as a tank, it's kind of neat and fun that sometimes when I'm mining silver or whatnot, I'll be spontaneously ambushed by up to 3 level-adjusted enemies that I'll have to fight off before I can continue mining, but some others (say, a priest) may find it inconvenient (to put it lightly) because frankly he isn't cut out to fight 3 enemies his own level all by himself. And naturally, at the time of this writing, at least one of the quest turn-ins (Basalt rock) is bugged and unable to be completed. There have been reports of attempting Alchemy causing crashes to desktop, and often a server patch will cause gems socketed into weapons and armor to simply vanish.

Conclusion
This has been my experience playing Age of Conan for the 30 days that came with the price of purchase. If someone were to ask me, "Hey, should I buy Age of Conan?" I would tell them to hold off for 6 months or so and maybe buy it then, if it still exists. That will give the developers time to hopefully fix and finish the game, or let it sink into deserved obscurity under the weight of the unstoppable behemoth that will undoubtably prove to be the "Wrath of the Lich King" expansion for WoW. As it stands now, my willingness to continue paying 15 bucks a month to keep playing is severely shaky. But it has the potential (in a very "still in Beta" way) to be an excellent game... if Funcom will just get on the stick and "git'r'done."

3 comments:

Openedge1 said...

A well done review, and spot on, I gave you a Digg and submitted your story

Cheers

Anonymous said...

Good review. I was in beta, and then (against my better judgment) bought the retail game so I could play with a friend.

Since you haven't got there yet I will spoil the ending for you and save you the monthly fee... the "endgame" PVP is terrible.

We were promised "epic pvp battles" with seiges and reasons to fight. Instead we got 48v48 battles (barely larger than a Quake match) which are mostly gigantic lagfests even with people who have outstanding rigs. Only the largest guilds can participate. Most of the extras involved with (seige equipment, respawn points, etc) are bugged to the point of unusable.

Its a great game from level 1 to 20, and okay game from 20-80, and a mind-numbingly dull game once you get to 80. Most of the people in my guild have already quit, including myself.

DimentoGraven said...

My next assignment for you is to review Two Worlds from SouthPeak games and Titan Quest from Iron Lore I think.

They have interesting aspects to those games that I've not seen or heard of in other RPG/MORPG.

Get on the stick boy!