Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures Preview

Q: How do you preview an MMO in 20 minutes?

A: Poorly.

It was the end of the day at CES when I bellied up to a bulky Dell, ready to play a little of Funcom's upcoming MMO, knowing whatever I played would be a sliver of the game and fully ready to judge it anyway. Being an avid addict of massive multiplayer time-sinks, I was mildly eager to see whether the company had really created a combat system worthy of being labeled "revolutionary."

If you don't already know, the big bullet-point when it comes to Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is its "Real Combat" mechanics, Funcom's stab at "combat 2.0" for MMO titles. It involves a combination of looking for a visual indication on an enemy, noting whether he is weak in one of three areas, and then hitting the applicable hotkey to trigger an attack.

This extra complication certainly adds a little more action to standard sword-swinging, with players having to position themselves in addition to mashing the right buttons, perhaps on par with playing a Rogue in Warcraft. However, in the end, it didn't feel like a giant leap forward in MMO combat. This is not so much revolutionary as it is evolutionary.

You're still seeing golden hit-point numbers float into the air in a steady stream of realism-breaking statistics. You're still mashing multiple hotkeys on your keyboard like a frantic MMO Mozart. You're still only going through with all of it in order to sell shit on the auction house to support your digital fashion addiction.

I did get a kick out of seeing my player's sword plunge deep into the chest of a sniveling opponent, a byproduct of the game's "fatality" system. That's not something you'll find in Warcraft. Of course, the animation on these critical hits felt scripted, rather than the result of a particularly skillful click. The feedback of a quick, visceral slice in an offline action game is missing here.

Maybe the scenery just had me depressed. Exploring the world of Conan was a dreary affair. I must have been spawned smack-dab in the Canadian zone. Pine trees, barbarians dressed in strange clothing, bad food. I was impressed by the fluidity of animation--here were three-man patrols walking in the distance, and they actually seemed like human beings, sauntering to and fro with confident indifference. Of course, once they were triggered to action, kited into a giant battle, the framerate dropped, and the animations synced, and everything went to hell.

As enemies swarmed around me, Funcom's Jared Collins stood by my side, answering questions on such riveting topics as PVP combat and hotbars. His replies follow.

On how long it takes to reach level 20:

"It really depends. The first 20 levels can take a day, or it can stretch out over a couple of weeks. It just depends on how much you play. There's tons of content in the first 10 levels. And once you get past that, there's a whole plethora of day quests you can do."

On keeping healing classes fun:

"When healing is done in this game--you know how the combat is based on cone damage?--healing is the same way. We're going to have heal-over-times or instant team heals, so that when you're in a raid, you're going to have to find the people you want to heal, give them a heal-over-time, and then go back and do what you were doing. So you're not just sitting there pushing heal 7, 7, 7, 7. You're actually involved in the game as well."

On world PVP:

"You're not gonna be open to attack unless you wanna be. There are certain areas that are contested, where other people can come and attack you. There also areas that are purely built for PVP, like the battlekeep areas. That's where you can build your cities, and other people can come along and try to contest you for them, because only so many cities are available.

Like I was showing off earlier, it wasn't a part of PVP, but basically some NPCs were attacking the city, and other NPCs were guarding it. It's kind of a random thing, according to what's going on or whatever the AI or NPCs are. The players, if they take part in it or they don't take part in it, the same thing will happen, but they'll obviously get more enjoyment if they do.

The PVP side of it though, there's one play field that's specifically for cities for players to build from. There's a limited number of plots that are available to build on, but it's a large number. And if you have a guild that is strong enough to take over another guild, then you can contest those zones. So even if you have a land plot, you still have to defend it. There will be certain bonuses you'll get for having those cities, so guilds are really going to want those."

On arena PVP:

"There will be a ranking system. There are ranked matches and practice matches. There are matches that are last-man-standing, kind of king-of-the-hill, and then there's capture-the-flag. I've only seen 12 vs. 12 right now, I'm not sure what the max is going to be. When we designed the system, we really wanted it to be quick. People don't like waiting around for stuff to do in MMOs. So you can queue up from anywhere, and once you're done with the game, you'll be teleported back to where you were."

On level disparity in PVP:

"If you're in the same group range, you'll be able to comparably attack someone in the higher end. It's not just weapons and armor and skills, but how the player plays the game as well. Because with the combat system the way it is, it's not gonna be something where you're just, 'Oh, I'm automatically killing this guy.' You have to be facing them. If your technique is to run around and circles and to hit the guy and he's standing still, of course you're going to beat him even if he has that [more-powerful] spear."

On hotbar juggling:

"It depends on what you want to use. Level 1-19 have their own combat sets. You'll be able to have multiple hotbars, and then you'll also have the ability to cast from your spellbook too."

On world size:

"There are at least 18 different play fields, that are around 100 kilometers apiece. There's one capital city per nation, for three nations. Every time I go through one of the zones, I always find something new, like a really cool statue. If you're into exploring, there's going to be tons of places for your to discover, not to mention the hidden instances."

On the end game:

"The max level, obviously there's gonna be zones you haven't seen before, so there's a lot of exploring. There's still a lot of quests that have really involved storylines that give you great rewards. There's also the hidden instances that you can go and raid. 25-man raids, you can actually get your guys together, go out and try to conquer these monsters--there's anything from a really small human guy who has really neat spells, to a two-story demon guy you have to fight. All the encounters are involved with like your position, where you're attacking. If the dragon has a tail, he might swipe you. A lot of different things that I don't want to talk about too much, because I don't want to ruin it for them. And then the PVP as well."

On future updates:

"MMOs are never finished. The second we put the game out, we're already working on an expansion. So we're going to try to keep the content going. Our last game, Anarchy Online, is still in production for seven years now. And we just now redid the engine for that. So we're really committed to keeping the game going for a long time. We're constantly going to be doing [free] content updates."

Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures will hit the PC on May 20, with an Xbox 360 version to follow.

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