Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bildo’s Age of Conan Beta Review - A LONG READ

DISCLAIMER: As an employee of Ten Ton Hammer, this blog is not in contradiction to the Closed Beta NDA. That said, all of the words within are the opinion of William Murphy and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Ten Ton Hammer.

The Adventures of a Hyborian wannabe-hero from levels 1-20 are a tough time, especially when his world is still in its birthing stages. Regardless, I shall try to chronicle my experience here by recounting some of my best and worst moments in Funcom’s Age of Conan. This will cover everything from my first impressions of the game to my final thoughts as we head into pre-order launch on Saturday the 17th (Did I mention my download is going strong and should be done by tomorrow? Here’s to massive game clients!).

THE EARLY TRIALS – VISUALS AND THE NEED FOR UPGRADES

When I first got into the Age of Conan beta, it was via the technical tests which as far as I know are still covered by an NDA, so I won’t speak much about them here. But eventually I was let into the General Beta (now referred to as “Closed”), and it’s here where my real first taste of Hyboria was experienced.

Admittedly, the problems for me arose immediately as I found that my AGP Video Card, Pentium IV processor and 2GB of RAM really were the bare minimum requirements. Low settings and 15 frames per second were not my ideal playing circumstances. I knew then and there that an upgrade would be needed, and since it was going to be my job to work at Ten Ton Hammer on Age of Conan… I could justify it.

I upgraded from that old system to a brand spanking new rig with an Nvidia 9600GT, 3GB of RAM, and a Pentium Dual-Core 2.66Ghz processor and I’ve not looked back since. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that if you’ve played Age of Conan on an older system and enjoyed it but feel worried about how it performs on your dated hardware that it’s certainly a viable option to upgrade. I know many can’t afford it, or even think they should have to, but this is the simple truth about Age of Conan: YOU NEED A DECENT COMPUTER TO PLAY IT THE WAY IT’S MEANT TO BE PLAYED.

I can honestly say that with the right hardware, this game is awe-inspiring and head and shoulders visually above what other games in the genre have done. On the most recent client, I can actually turn Anti-Aliasing up to 16xQ with Bloom and highest shadows and not suffer a frame rate drop. I’m consistently at 30-40 FPS with all settings on high… and I’m not running an SLI system either. It’s sad that Funcom’s carving a niche for themselves by requiring near Crysis like hardware to run an MMOG really well, but if you can run it… Age of Conan’s a glorious spectacle to behold.

THE COMBAT – MORE ENTERTAINING THAN THE OTHER GUYS

That header pretty much says it all about the combat in Age of Conan. This is of course a matter of opinion, but for me the action in Funcom’s latest product is the highlight of the game and its genre. Only Tabula Rasa’s hybrid-FPS combat comes anywhere near as exciting and visceral. Some may call it “twitch”, and others will call it “button-mashing”, but these are veiled terms for misunderstanding a complex system that differs from what the industry staple has thus far been.

I think the criticism of Conan’s combat being “button-mashing” or “twitchy”, apart from differing preferences in play style, is that with your early hours in the game you really aren’t presented with great instruction on how it works. Sure enough you get some tutorial text as you fight on the beach in the beginning tutorial, but words don’t really help when there are so many factors to consider. It’s probably too much to ask at this point, but what Funcom could really use with the combat is an instructional video or an actual fighting training mission where an NPC teaches you the basics (that could be skipped later on with alts). And while words don’t really do the system justice, I’ll try my best to explain its intricacies, which could probably be a blog post all on its own, but bear with me anyway.

There is no auto-attack in Age of Conan. Every strike is controlled by the player’s pressing of directional attack buttons, and of course spells and skills (referred to as combos). The directional attacks, to begin with, are Upper Left, Middle, and Upper Right which reside on the 1, 2, and 3 buttons by default. Pressing these will initiate strikes in either direction, and they can be chained together in numerous fashions to create multi-strike attacks. No waiting for cool-downs with these. They are the most basic of your attacks. Later in the game, you’ll gain access to two more directions (Lower Left and Lower Right) but they don’t come into play until level 40 if I recall correctly.

Then of course there are combos. These make up the majority of the non-caster classes’ special abilities and are often the types of attacks that apply de-buffs or bleeds, or some other special effect. They are also proportionately more powerful than regular directional attacks. They require a certain amount of Stamina to pull off (like mana, rage, or energy in that other game), and pulling them off is sort of like a game of Simon. You press the corresponding hotkey to start the combo, then proceed to follow on-screen cues that tell you which of the 3 directional strikes you must hit to complete the combo. Early on these are simple as can be with combos usually only requiring an additional one or two button presses to complete, but as you level the higher ranking combos require between three and four additional keystrokes and you find they can become an exercise in memorization and more so reflexes in the heat of battle.

I do have a few qualms with the combo system, despite it being far more interesting that what’s on offer in other games. Mainly, it feels like during a fight that I spend more time watching which key I need to hit next when I’d often rather watch the beautiful mo-capped animations. This isn’t the case all the time, but is especially true when I’m learning a new combo or if my memory fizzles in the middle of a fight and I need to pay attention to the on screen cues more than usual.

Now, combos aside there are also a few additional features that make Age of Conan’s combat the most fun since the Yo-Yo. Active shielding can be employed by pressing and holding the X button during combat. This actually makes your character lift his shield (if he or she has one) and deflect oncoming attacks at the cost of stamina. This is especially useful in hairy fights when you need to give your healer a little extra time to get a heal off on you. Hand in hand with this is the active dodging you can do to avoid your enemies’ cone-based attacks and spells. By simply double-pressing any directional movement key (WASD), your character will do an acrobatic jump in the corresponding direction, often putting you out of harm’s way for a moment and giving you an edge on your opponent. This can be especially useful in PvP as a way to truly test your enemy’s reflexes.

Lastly, as you’ve probably seen in some of the combat videos, enemy mobs have 3 little white arrows that often change places during a fight. These are the enemy’s defenses, or rather where the most of their defenses are focused at any given time. These change during a fight in reaction to your attacks. Hammer your enemy with a rough overhead combo and maybe he will stack his entire defenses onto the middle defense, leaving his left and right side severely open. It may seem like a little thing, but this touch adds a ton of strategy when you take into effect the fact that combos can be nearly nullified by these defensive placards. It doesn’t matter if you hit him with your hardest special ability… if those defenses cover that spot, it won’t do nearly as much damage as it could.

What’s a bit of a downer though is that while you have the same defenses on your character as the enemies do, you’ll hardly ever find a use for them. Not because they aren’t useful, but because there’s already so much other action going on in combat that you’ll simply forget about them and just leave them as they are at default. It can take too much time to shift them where you want and more often than not when you have shifted them, you’ll find you should shift them back as your enemy has caught on and is hammering another area. I can see how it MIGHT be useful in PvP, but honestly I expect this aspect to be overlooked almost entirely.

The only other worry I have about combat is the macro-ing of combos. Keep in mind that to successfully pull of a combo your enemy needs to be standing in a relatively close space in front of you, and that your character needs to be standing still as well since one wrong key press can break a combo, and too much movement will have the same effect. Given the hectic nature of PvP, I suspect that macros won’t be too much of a problem, as the longer combos will hardly be used, but the fact that they can be macro’d means a lot of people will be on “easy-mode” on both PvP and PvE. What I’d like to see done is a sort of randomization of the combo keystrokes. This would ensure no macro-ing was possible.

Enough about combat.

QUESTING AND LORE – THE REMNANTS OF A SINGLE-PLAYER GAME

What most players will notice when first logging into AoC is that the entire starting area and its quests (which take place in a solo-only instance at night) feel very much like a single-player game. And that’s entirely because it used to be one. Just a little while back the first 20 levels of Age of Conan were going to be an entirely offline single-player game that wouldn’t require a subscription and would take roughly 20 hours to play through. Somewhere along the line, they realized that this could cause some heavy confusion about the game’s true online nature, and the Tortage experience (levels 1-20) were converted into an online starting area with a heavily single-player story arc that is intended to introduce the game and its mechanics to the players.

The downside? It’s the only starting area in the game. I love it, even after at least 10 play-throughs, but the truth is that variety is the spice of life. I seriously hope that there is a bypass option given after you’ve leveled at least one character of an archetype out of Tortage. I wouldn’t mind having to complete the 1-20 experience once for the Soldier, Rogue, Mage, and Priest archetypes, but if I have to do it every time I start a new character, I might cry. As fun as it is, by character number 4 or 5 in the live version I’m pretty sure I’ll hate it. By then, I’ll just want to get to the “real game” and out of the newbie areas, you know?

Now another issue with the Tortage experience is just how instanced it is… another side-effect from the game’s earlier incarnations. There are lots of scripted scenes and lots of self-contained areas that luckily now load quickly but they’re still annoying. LotRO wasn’t even this bad with the loading screens. However, once outside of Tortage the loading is much more like Everquest 2 in that you only see a loading screen when travelling between zones, and not when entering every building or cave.

Luckily, with the early memory leaks ironed out and the loading issue cleared up, the questing in Tortage is really quite fun. Nothing revolutionary, but the voiceover work and the cinematic presentation of the Destiny Quests (a long quest chain that chronicles the main story of the game and is entirely solo-able), really make them interesting in my opinion. Coupled with the extremely fun combat, I’ve never once felt bored in my time with Conan’s beta.

While I’ve only dabbled outside of Tortage, I can say that the same questing structure holds true there. Lots of quests, lots of dialog (though less of it is voiceover work), and lots of killing. There’s nothing out of the ordinary and nothing above and beyond. If you hate questing, AoC won’t be your friend. But if you love whacking things with the purpose of looting corpses for a needy old woman’s soup, then you’re in luck. This is not an area where Funcom tried to reinvent the wheel, and nor did it need to in my book. I think it’ll be some time still before the quests in an MMOG match the immersion and interactivity of the quests in an offline environment, so for now these will do so long as they’re interesting to read.

THIS REALLY GOT BIG…

I think that just about covers the main points. I left sound out, but there’s not much to go over. The music is really well done and very epic sounding and the atmospheric effects rank up there with WoW and LotRO as top of the line. A surround sound system will go a long way with Conan.

As for the later stages of the game, I can’t really comment. I’ve only gotten as high as level 29, but from what I understand the game remains true to earlier standards throughout the level climb. The only big mystery is Siege Warfare and Mounted Combat which I’m hoping do not disappoint.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the read. I know by now you can tell I enjoy the game despite its faults. In fact, it’s probably the most enjoyable MMOG for me since WoW first cast its spell on me back in 2004 with its promising but derivative take on the genre. Not to say that Age of Conan doesn’t do its fair share of copying, as indeed it does. There are raids, there is loot, and there are even “Battlegrounds” in the form of Mini-Games. But what Funcom does seek to change is HOW the game’s played on an interactive level.

The biggest selling point of Age of Conan is its much more interactive and lively combat system. If you’re sick of the traditional approach and are looking for something different but still with a medieval air… then Age of Conan might be right up your alley. As I said in our Ten Ton Hammer Beta Preview, Funcom didn’t set out to reinvent the whole wheel… they just wanted to turn the Goodyear standard tire into a Kumho performance model.

And in my eyes, they succeeded and then some. See you in Hyboria.

18 comments:

sam said...

This is the first review that has actually made me think of playing it.

But I'm confused by these two statments

The only other worry I have about combat is the macro-ing of combos. Keep in mind that to successfully pull of a combo your enemy needs to be standing in a relatively close space in front of you, and that your character needs to be standing still as well since one wrong key press can break a combo, and too much movement will have the same effect. Given the hectic nature of PvP, I suspect that macros won’t be too much of a problem, as the longer combos will hardly be used, but the fact that they can be macro’d means a lot of people will be on “easy-mode” on both PvP and PvE. What I’d like to see done is a sort of randomization of the combo keystrokes. This would ensure no macro-ing was possible

the randomization you ask for would make the first issue a permanant problem. Just an observation

Bildo said...

Sorry, maybe I'm using the wrong term.

By macro, I'm referring to programmable keyboards, like the G15 (there actually is an AoC branded one you can buy out now). So if you randomize the combos, these programmable keyboards wouldn't be able to "macro" the combos.

Beccause they can only be programmed (as far as I know) to do specific keystroke combinations. Randomize the combos, and you would take away the ability to program them on the G15... right?

sam said...

maybe I'm the one thats confused.

The only way I can think of to randomize the combos is to randomize the keystrokes. Which would make macros useless. But you'd always have to watch onscreen to see which keys to press next. Distracting you from combat.

Bildo said...

That's exactly what I mean. The downside is also precisely what you mentioned. While the cue for the keystrokes pop up right next to your character and it's easy to see, it still feels like you're watching the cues and not the game itself.

So it's really a matter of the lesser of two evils. Maybe macros are a good thing in the aspect that it lets the player focus on the animation and action more... but by macro-ing the combos they're also removing a large part of the POINT behind the game's combat system - SKILL.

*shrug*

It's a toss up, maybe.

Tim said...

It also gives players with particular hardware an in game advantage.

If I were to play AoC for a long time, I would think a macro-able keyboard would be a must have.

With that and the system requirements in mind, maybe AoC doesn't care if they have huge subscription numbers because they're being subsidized by the hardware industry?

Bildo said...

LOL, you never know do you, Tim?

But as for programmable keyboards, I kind of wish there was a way to stop their use on the client side. I think it's MEANT to be played the way it's meant to be played and that programming keystrokes is cheating...

But then I may change my tune come the fall if I'm finding it particularly annoying by then.

Nothing's set in stone, especially my opinions. :P

Andrew said...

I really don't know anything about PvP in AoC, but aren't there situations when you need to move, or to cancel your combo? If that's so, then macro users would be at a disadvantage since their character would be stuck executing the combo all the way to the end. Maybe you could just jump aside or something and let them attack thin air? Heh, dunno.

northsun said...

Have you heard anything about the siege combat being 48 vs 48. Alot of people were complaining about it on the funcom forums.

Andrew said...

I think it's about this:
http://img301.imageshack.us/img301/6306/seigeed1.jpg

MMOROG said...

Yeah I'd really be disappointed if they started randomizing combo keys, because learning the combos is part of the fun.

It's almost optional though, as you've pointed out for those of us with a G15 or other macro-recording keyboards.

I think it's the right balance between skill (by choice) or playing a more relaxed style (by macro).

Paul said...

I think what you will find is that macro-ing combos will be as inneffective as it is in games like WoW. All it takes is losing the hit zone for a second to completely muck up the combo and lock you into a sequence. The G15 is a great keyboard and the macroing function could be abused, but I doubt it will be widespread and I'm fairly certain it will only affect PVE.

Anders said...

I had a ranger in open beta and I used the numpad for fighting. 1,2 and 3 were my main directional attacks while 4,5,6 were melee combo's corresponding which the directional attack key bellow it. 7,8,9 being ranged combo's corresponding with the directional attack needed to execute below on 1,2,3. I found that I could rip of combo's very quickly without having to check which key to click.

Bildo said...

That's an interesting way to do it, Anders. I hadn't even tried using the num-pad.

Really, I think MMORog got it right when he said it's going to be active for those who want it so, and those who want it more laid back can get the G15 and program the combos.

Maybe that's a good thing in the end.

Hudson said...

Nice article but i will hold out until i see if the servers hold up after about one week in. Still wary after the Anarchy Online launch even though technology has changed since then

Bildo said...

Fair enough, Hud. :)

If and when you buy in, let me know. We can hang since we never really got to in TR.

Openedge1 said...

Xbox 360 controller folks...
Fun all the way..
Had skills mapped to A, X, B...then a should to hit ALT and Combos to A, X, B...Y was block at all times..right and left triggers for mouse buttons...D-Pad for bags, inventory, map...
Still working it all out...but, I did not need to touch my keyboard by the end of OB...
Fun times!

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