Review: Age of Conan

on September 16, 2011 12:00 PM

Tens of thousands of years ago, between the cataclysm that swallowed Atlantis and the great glaciation, the world wasn’t like the paleontologists describe, but it was a savage, unforgiving continent that only a visionary named Robert E. Howard managed to describe.

Humans didn’t live in caves, but in glorious cities where blood, seduction, power and greed were the main currency. They waged war, loved, hated, stole and murdered in the name of their own ambition and dark gods that are now forgotten.

In that cruel world a barbarian that some would define just as cruel, hailing from the gloomy hills of Cimmeria, cut a trail of blood and broken (often literally) hearts across every nation as he rose from barbarism, thievery and piracy to become the king of the powerful nation of Aquilonia.

Now a new generation of heroes that bear the Mark of Acheron, an unholy brand that makes them immortal at a very high price, walks this dark world of Hyboria, looking for glory or death.

Age of Conan is one of those MMORPGs that demonstrate how reviews of this genre don’t really age well. If you’re asking yourself why we’re reviewing a game that has been released three years ago, the answer is simple: Not one of the old (or better, obsolete) reviews published around the game’s launch holds any validity now. The game has gone through such a large amount of change and evolution that is now unrecognizable to those, like me, that played during it’s first months.

It’s hard to describe the world of Age of Conan in a few lines, as it’s born from a large number of novels and short stories that have been expanded and elaborated by other writers, comic artists, movie directors and RPG designers after the premature death of Howard, creating one of the most complex and colorful low-fantasy worlds to appear in a game.

Forget your love for elves and dwarves, because the only pointy ears you’ll find in Hyboria belong to creatures you definitely don’t want to meet in a dark alley, and most of the large beards adorn the chins of norsemen that are probably taller than you.

Built over the ruins of ever more ancient, and often much darker, civilizations, there are many nations in Hyboria, and players of Age of Conan are able to create characters from four of them. Aquilonia, ruled by King Conan and similar to a hybrid between ancient Rome and Medieval Europe, Cimmeria, Conan’s homeland, and home of the strongest barbarians from the north, Stygia, home to the worshippers of the serpent god (some say demon) Set, similar to ancient Egypt in many charming ways.

Review: Age of Conan

The Raise of the Godslayer expansion introduced the ability to create characters from Khitai, that shows a striking resemblance with our ancient China.

Once the character is created, he wakes up on a beach,  washed ashore after a shipwreck. He remembers nothing of his past, and the only hint to his identity is a brand on his chest. Starting on the pirate island of Tortage, he’ll explore the world searching for his past, on a epic quest to erase the ominous mark  and free himself and his soul from the cold clutch of evil.

The main storyline of Age of Conan is definitely one of the best in the genre, even thanks to the fact that it’s based on an extremely rich and dark IP. You’re not out to save the world (even if it may very well happen in the process), but to save your own skin from a terrible curse. This fits perfectly with the Conan lore, as the moody Cimmerian was almost never embarked in quests for justice, freedom or other ideals that are very typical of heroic and high fantasy literature and that tend to have little to do with realism. He was a thief, a brigand, a pirate and after that an Usurper. Sure, he turned out to be a good and rather just King, but mostly because of pragmatism, and not out of the goodness of his heart.

The same can be said about the immense amount of side quests and additional quest lines that you can find in Funcom’s MMORPG. The writing is always inspired and even the occasional filler quest tends to have interesting points, enriching your knowledge of the lore or providing interesting tidbits on the society of Hyboria.

Review: Age of Conan

As soon as you set foot on the world of Age of Conan it’s hard not to notice that the visuals of the game are nothing short of amazing, especially if you’re playing with the DirectX 10 version of the client (and in this day and age there’s no reason why you shouldn’t).

The representation of Hyboria in the game is simply breath taking. Everything is extremely detailed, even thanks to the wise use of normal mapping that gives materials an almost photorealistic look, but even more impressive is the art direction and design effort that has gone in creating every single area of the game. I haven’t played many games (both offline and online) in which I’ve seen such a rich and inspired world around me.

It isn’t even just a matter of pure graphical power. The love that went into placing and harmonizing every single element of the world, in drawing every carving on walls or pillars and in modeling incredible vistas, is very visible and probably would have been just as visible even if it wasn’t supported by technology.

But it is indeed supported by technology, and that gives even more life and impact to the beautiful scenery. The lighting engine, based on an advanced phong per pixel tech is a delight for the eyes, drawing lovely patterns of light and shadow across the screen and contributing to create a world that feels at the same time realistic and born from the wildest fantasy of an extremely creative artist.

Review: Age of Conan

Diversity and size are two recurring themes in Age of Conan‘s visual design. While traveling in different areas of the same nation, it’s difficult to find two places that look the same, let alone when visiting different nations, but even in the same area, it’s easy to find yourself in a completely different environment as you move from a forest to a swamp, or from impressive cliffs to the shores of a thunderous river.  Yet, and contrasting with the striking diversity, there’s always the other side of the coin, as the overall direction is visible, and we don’t get that pesky sensation that plagues many MMORPGs and that makes different areas, especially if designed and launched in a different time frame look like they belong to a different world.

The style of art, architecture and vegetation is very solid, and lets us feel that even if we’re traveling between regions that look very different, we’re still in the same nation and in the same world. This sensation is further strenghtened by the remains of ancient civilizations like the Atlantean or the Acheronian ones. Whether you’re treading the mountains of Cimmeria or the grasslands of Aquilonia, you often come across the cyclopean ruins of those that lived in Hyboria even before it was given that name, creating a very appropriate layer of homogeneity that perfectly complements the underlying layers of diversity. At the same time the sheer size of those relics of the past characterizes the world further, strengthening the the cultural and historical background of the world.

Characters are as graphically detailed as the environments, sporting a quite realistic style and a deep slider-based customization that leaves a lot of space for uniqueness and won’t disappoint those that want to be able to determine every little detail of the look of their in-game alter-ego. Body customization is also present, with different heights and muscle/fat ratios and separate setting for every body part.

Variety and attention to detail get even more apparent when we look at the game’s equipment. One of the worst flaws of most modern MMORPGs is the fact that there are only few equipment sets, and more often than not many of those pieces of equipment share the same model with a simple texture change or even just a different color. This is not the case with Age of Conan. While there are a few doubles here and there (especially between crafted equipment) the sheer amount of variation in the style of armor and clothing is almost disorienting. The rich cultural diversity of Hyboria is fully represented and creates a game where not only equipment looks absolutely great, with inspired designs  and armor that goes from the crude to the imposing, but also extremely varied.

It’ll be very difficult to find two character looking the same, or wearing exactly the same clothes in Age of Conan. The cosmetic equipment tab helps further, letting you wear whatever you like for the looks, while actually using the stats of another armor set that maybe you don’t like, visually, as much. I think it’s the first time in my “career” as a MMORPG gamer in which I look forward to joining a new group or raid not only for the gameplay that will come with them, but also to enjoy the looks of my fellow adventurers.

As a side note, a lot (while definitely not all) of the the equipment present in Age of Conan shows a lot of skin, both for males and females. This is not only perfectly appropriate to the low-fantasy setting of the Conan novels, but also done with a surprisingly tasteful and realistic eye. While the game is definitely rated Mature, so much that you can walk around topless as a female character, equipment that shows large extension of skin, or lets you get a glimpse of the naughty bits, has nothing to do with the skanky outfits you see in quite a few MMORPGs, but justifies it’s sexyness fully with cultural style (often leaning towards the tribal) and pseudo-historical appropriateness. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of effort went into researching historical and proto-historical armor and clothing for inspiration.

Review: Age of Conan

Animation is another strong point of Age of Conan‘s visuals. They are extremely varied and fluid, and each attack combo has it’s peculiar animation, that sets the game apart from the vast majority of the market in which characters get very few key animations that are rehashed for a wide variety of attacks and abilities. There is also an very large large variety of selectable emotes, that definitely won’t disappoint even the most demanding roleplayer.

A last points I’d like to bring in favor of the game’s graphics are mounts. Not only there’s a large variety of available animals, from horses to mammoths, passing by tigers and giant wolves, but they are all beautifully designed and animated. Horses in particular are probably the best looking and most realistically animated equines I’ve ever seen in a MMORPG. Add to that a set of lovely mounting and dismounting animations, and you get a detail that some may define secondary, but that adds further value to the game’s visuals.

To put it down simply, despite having been on the market for more than three years, Age of Conan puts almost every newer MMORPG to shame, graphics-wise, including those to be published in the foreseeable future. It’s  a visually charming glimpse on what a MMORPG can be, when the developer doesn’t try to make it playable on your grandmother’s laptop from the beginning of the century and instead uses some of the juice granted by that shiny gaming PC you just purchased and that no MMO really uses.  No matter how much the genre will evolve in the next few years, It’s safe to assume that Age of Conan‘s visuals won’t grow obsolete for a long while.

If you want to see more of Age of Conan’s graphics you can check the video review embedded above, or give a look to my dedicated flickr gallery.

Review: Age of Conan

The audio quality of the game is at the very least on par with the graphics. Sound effects are varied and realistic, especially during combat and environmental ones. Voice acting is mostly well done, with a nice variety of accents that definitely seem appropriate to the setting. The only flaw is that voice work only applies to the most important characters, and a lot of the game’s text remains unvoiced. While this is slightly disappointing, especially considering the density of voice acting during the initial area of Tortage and the fact that it dwindles considerably when moving past it to the main nations of the game’s world, it’s understandable.

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 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.