Re-reviewing Age of Conan: Part I – The Game, The World, The Graphics

In Gaming, MMO, RPG on July 24, 2009 at 8:01 pm

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UPDATE: Funcom is extending the re-evaluation offer for a limited time — no idea what this ‘limited time’ actually means . Good news for those who went on summer vacation and missed out on the offer.

AoC re-evaluation off extended

AoC re-evaluation offer extended

Come Back to Hyboria!

A couple of weeks back I received an email from Funcom and here’s what it said:

Your level 70 Barbarian awaits your return to Age Of Conan!

A staggering number of improvements and additions have been added to the game in the past months, and there has never been a better time to return to Age of Conan than now! All of your characters are waiting for you in Hyboria.

This free re-evaluation offer is only valid until 2009-07-22. It does not require any purchase or re-subscription – this is your chance to try Age of Conan again at no cost.

Instructions on how to get back into the game can be found at the bottom of this e-mail.

I’d been waiting a long time for this. After leaving Age of Conan (AoC) I still maintained a close watch on it’s development. Here was a game that I felt had potential, but it had failed to live up to all the hype. As weeks turned to months I wondered when Funcom would offer a free trial for old members — It was the logical thing to do — but it didn’t seem like it was going to happen. Then out of the blue, this. I guess they were biding their time for the perfect moment.

I had been among the crew who pre-ordered  AoC, and got myself a few in-game items, an early access key that allowed me to download the client and play pre-launch, and a Killer Rhino mount, for my troubles. Having played it from launch I had lived through some of the many performance issues and major bugs that plagued the game, randomly falling through the game world not being the least of them. I even got myself a laptop with a decent graphics card so I could enjoy the game with good frame rates and decent settings.This turned out to be a rather poor decision in hindsight, looking back at my choice with 20/20 visual acuity that only experience can grant. Anyway, I was happy and that’s what mattered. My laptop ran the game at around 25-35 FPS @ 1440×900 resolution on medium settings with a few tweaks such as character-only shadows, grass, parallax mapping and bloom — it really did look amazing! I found myself profusely spamming the F11 screen-capture key at every turn and every zone in the land of Hyboria. Before long I had nearly 2GB of screenshots, on top of a game that had soon grown to some 26GB, filling up my rather modest 160GB drive. 7,200rpm mind you! I may have bought a laptop, but I made sure I added the little tweaks that made the system, er… ‘gameworthy’ (to coin a term).

A pity that one fine summers day I went ahead and deleted (rather much like an idiot) all my screenshots when I was on one of my periodic zealous quests for ever more drive space. I literally cleaned up EVERYTHING! – Still it was an unpardonable offense on my part to delete my AoC screenshots with reckless abandon while leaving my far less impressive Warhammer and WoW ‘screenies’ intact. Nevertheless, it is perhaps for the best. For, *SPOILER ALERT* I did return to Hyboria and cull several more of those wonderous pixel-polaroids. On the other hand, I doubt i’d ever return to Warhammer – and yes, they too did offer me a free trial; blechh! I hardly used up my first free 30 days, but that’s another story.

Before we talk about Age of Conan, it’s important to know where I’m coming from. I’m a PVPer at heart. That is to say, I like Player-Vs-Player gameplay as opposed to Player-Vs-Environment (PvE). As a programmer of over 15 years, I’m easily bored by bots (‘mobs’ or ‘mobiles’ as they are called in the MMO vernacular). They do amuse me sometimes, if the AI is especially ingenious and manages to do something inventive and unpredictable – perhaps even emergent, dare I say?  But that is rare in games, and more-so in MMORPGs. For the most part, the average AI in MMOs tend to be less capable than what you’d find in other games. There are good reasons for this. MMOs are Massively-Multiplayer, and as such they are about the whole spectrum of the  online experience — only a portionof which, however significant, is dedicated to the mobs we find in our travels through the game world. Other game genres typically rely purely on the interaction of the player against the computer. To sum it up: In the early days of Doom 1 and 2, I was far more amused by ‘Deathmatch’ rather than ‘Cooperative’ play.

Impressions From One Year Ago

The Good

There is an old adage: ‘Dance with the one that brought you.’ So let’s talk about Age of Conan. I got my new laptop, set it up, installed AoC and patched, and when I logged in I was in the Wild Lands of Zelata in my early 20’s (level-wise of course). My older system barely managed to run it at 4-8 FPS on the lowest settings. So finally 25-35 FPS with most effects turned on meant that I could PVP, and the PVP was incredible! I mean really incredible. There were a few brawls going on just outside the town, and I watched. As they fought you could see the trails made by the axes, maces and swords as they cut through they air, rending flesh, bone and chainmail alike. It was not unlike seeing the blazing trails left by lightsabers in Star Wars – only this was cold steel. It was visceral, feral, unrestrained fun. Yes, it was fun. If you’ve played an MMO long enough you reach that point where it becomes work. It turns into a second job. Not this, this was fun. It was the most fun I had in an MMO in a long long time – perhaps even the most fun ever!

Crayle The Barbarian - Thash me :)
Crayle The Barbarian – Thash me 🙂

Before long I had become an accomplished PVPer. As a barbarian I had nothing more at my disposal than my skill with the weapon I carried and my wits. I would attack much higher-level opponents, clobbering them and as they fall to the ground and struggle to stand up, reeling from the power of my blows, I would run off into the woods, duck out of sight and stealth. Yes, that was really the best part – you could stealth if you were not in anyone’s line-of-sight. It allowed for some really interesting PVP gameplay. I had been cursed at outside the town in Wild Lands – a PVP ‘hot zone’ – owing to my tenacity and impertinence. Higher-level characters did not like that I dared attack them, even if I could not kill them, only to swiftly disappear before they had a chance at retaliation. I was an honourless swine, and I loved every minute of it! That’s not to say that I never managed to kill anyone. I was always stealthing around, moving from shadow to shadow to avoid being seen. I wielded my two-hander with fearsome dexterity. I would rush into a full group, stun the lot of them, kill one of them very fast, and before they could react, I would run off into the forests, jungles and whatever terrain that could afford me cover. It was nothing short of awesome.

Crayle, talking to a friend on an Armored War Horse
Crayle, talking to a character on an armored war horse

Playing on an RP-PVP server I even had quite a bit of fun with some RP kills. I was in an old guild called ‘Minion’ on the ‘Cimmeria RP-PVP’ server (playing this game on an PvE Server would be a crying shame). In AoC some mobs are called ‘minions’ and they have the tag [Minion] under their names. Guild names also appear in these tags, so at first glance we ‘Minions’ were indistinguishable from the ‘minion’ mobs in the game. One time while I was standing around near a camp at a quest hub, a man approached me – a fellow barbarian.

“I wondered what you were. You seemed to act human but it says you’re a minion,” he said.

Deciding to indulge him I RPed my part. “Alas, an evil sorcerer hath enslaved me. I am but a servant to his will. So forgive me for what I am about to do.”

BAM! I used a series of combos to stun, throwback and finally kill him. All this happened very quickly. In Age of Conan the right combination of moves against an unsuspecting victim could result in a very quick death – and it’s something you’ll fast grow to love. Of course, once he was dead I stealthed and walked away. He messaged me afterwards, and rather than being angry he was amused and impressed. He said it was quite funny how I had killed him, and even wanted to join our guild. 🙂 One of my finer moments.

The greatest PVP skill you learn as a Barbarian in Age of Conan is this — Run. Hit the road, start running, keep running and don’t look back. And by run I mean SPRINT. Everyone in AoC can sprint by holding the shift-key down. This drains your stamina bar. When things go bad, or when someone gets the jump on you, don’t try to stay and fight. Run away and come back later when he no longer has the upper hand. Running has saved my life more times than I care to count.

The strongest part of the game, apart from PVP, was undoubtedly Tortage. A bustling city that you enter as a slave and leave as a warrior. The the attention to detail, the late night solo play, the quests, the voice acting — all very nicely done. This starting area was easily the best of any MMO. It was hands down the best stretch of leveling in an MMO I’ve ever played. Nothing even in Warcraft, from Elwynn Forest to Northrend could compare to the lustre of Tortage. Well, Elwynn has always held my heartstrings – being a fan of the Warcraft universe since ‘Orcs & Humans’ in 1994, Elwynn Forest feels home to me. Still, from a leveling perspective Tortage beats WoW or Warhammer Online hands down.

Outside Providence: Tortage
Outside Providence: Tortage in DirectX 10

I almost forgot to mention riding: riding in Age of Conan is nothing like what you find in other MMOs. The horse or rhino feels like its part of you. You feel the momentum as you ride faster. You feel the weight of the beast under you as you attempt to turn. In WoW a mount is nothing more than an added graphic under you and a multiplier to your speed – something like ‘run speed x 2’. Here, its a very different thing altogether and really does feel like you’re riding forward on your mount. The ability to strike and kick on your horse makes it all the more fun, especially as you ride around mobs at full speed and cut a deadly swathe through those curs! One player even made a video of some horseplay. 🙂

The Bad

First there are the casters. I played a Necromancer to the high 20s and found they lacked the awesome combos and real-time combat of the melee-classes. While the idea of having a veritable undead army of some eight minions was alluring, the combat lacked the agile ferocity engendered by melee-classes. To make matters worse, I’d say casters in older MMORPGs like WoW were designed somewhat better than the casters in Age of Conan. There was certainly a lot less overlap to feats and abilities, and there was a far greater charm to the Warlock class, for example, in WoW when compared to the Necromancer or Demonologist in Age of Conan. Casters really did need some redesign.

Despite the lure of AoC PVP, I also found the content to be severely lacking. Some of the zones were quite featureless and could have benefitted from some improvements. When you leave tortage things start to dry up. Just questing upto 80 was impossible. Even though I had PVP to engage me most of the way, it just wasn’t enough. There were huge stretches where you just had to grind mobs for experience, and being lazy at leveling and hating the process, I did not have the stomach nor the time to grind my way to 80. So at level 70 I quit the game. Stopped playing. And that was that. There was also the issue of me wishing the game ran just a little better on my system. MMOs can really really heat up a laptop which can give you a headache and put you off the game – but I suppose that last one isn’t Funcom’s fault.

I’ll Be Back

Graphics, Performance and DirectX 10

So how’s the game now? First thing you notice – if the performance took a nose-dive 1 year ago, then now it does a ‘run for the sun’. On a mere 8600M GT the game plays amazingly well. The average system should have a GPU that’s at least as powerful so this is very good news. I currently run it on DX9 High settings plus shadows from everything, parallax mapping, bloom, and 16xAF. With some tweaks and an overclocked GPU I get about 30-50 FPS most of the time. What’s even better though is there is very little stutter or freezing. The game would sometimes freeze up when there is a sudden increase in action, like the first few crucial moments of a battle. Now there is none of that. To top it off I even managed to run the game on DX10 with effects like godrays, caustics and advanced parallax turned on. What’s even more surprising was how playable it turned out to be on a low-end GPU. The game world really does become more alive and vibrant with DirectX 10, so everyone with powerful graphics cards should go for it.

Godrays and Volumetric Light in DX10
Godrays and Volumetric Light in DX10

Entering Tortage - Looking exactly as I had left it

Entering Tortage - Looking exactly as I had left it

The Updates

If previously leveling was difficult because of the lack of content, then now it was just enough. There weren’t too many options for questing and leveling as you’d expect to see in WoW. However, there was sufficient content to get you all leveled up without a problem — well at least to 71. I am still working my way up to 75 when I’ll be able to really enjoy the biggest, baddest AoC update: Tarantia Commons. I’ve been to the zone and I must say it looks really good, but being a little too low-level to take part I’ve chalked it up for later. It’s certainly a lot easier now, getting around the game world. Items have started mean a lot more – this is both good and bad. Gear matters a good deal more so I can’t run around with my level 50 greens owning everyone with pure skill ;). However, there is a real sense of progression. It’s not just about leveling. There is real meaning to the gear. I also noticed the looks on some of the new gear is really something! No more of the ugly greys and the occasional green or blue. I’ve seem some really spectacular gear at even low levels. Not  ‘blue’ or epic gear either. I’m talking about the enchanted green stuff.

Overall this is certainly a good thing. It gives a reason to keep playing and that’s what the MMO business model is all about. I do envision a MMO future with a level-less skill-based system, unlimited skill-cap, skill degeneration, and a logarithmic progression system that is easy at first but gets much harder as you go along. So, say, the first 100 skill points in sword combat may take a day but the next 100 may take a week. While there will be no hard cap on the skill-system progression there will be limits owing to realistic time and other constraints. Such a system may, however, potentially lead to the type of thing that happened in the South Park episode, “Make Love Not Warcraft.” i.e. A person with no life becoming totally über. This trend  is yet to become mainstream. For now, we have our level and gear grinds to attend to.

But Let me get my two main gripes out of the way first. Casters are a tad overpowered (though they were toned down with a quick patch), and  sadly the stealthing out of line-of-site (LoS) ability is no more 😦 … In every other way the game seems better. Granted:  mounted combat needs reworking. It works but it is just not as effective as you’d want it to be. I’ve read the forum post with a developer assuring they’ll get to that once they deal with the grander problems.  Overall the game is a dramatic improvement of the one I left one year ago, and truth be told I don’t think you can count the stealthing out of LoS as an issue. I’m sure people got mega-annoyed when hordes of rogues started attacking players and then rapidly disappeared before you could say “WTF!?” or “OMG!!!” Funcom likely changed this for that reason. So overall, once the balance is worked out, they definitely have a superior product here. They’ve accomplished a lot of what they promised us on the box cover last year.

Sieges and Massive PVP

These are two areas that I haven’t really had a chance to try out much. I did have a mounted duel against player on both my war mammoth and my killer rhino (verdict: the war mammoth stands no chance against the nimble yet bulky killer rhino), but I have yet to try and raze a city to the ground while mounted. From what I hear from other players, the qualms I expressed about mounted combat has significance here: it’s very hard to take down cities on a mammoth when players can swarm all around you and kill you before you even reach the wall. I trust the balance team will eventually get to this and make the mammoths feared by every defending army, while not making them overpowered for questing, raiding and general PVP.

They’ve worked on adding a lot of incentive to building and defending cities, with massive siege warfare. At launch this hardly worked. My guild, ‘Minion’, had the most advanced city on our server at the time, but we still did not see any point to the siege warfare. It was more of a pointless side game rather than being integral to the Age of Conan experience and progression. This is going to be my focus over the next few weeks (yes I resubscribed, it’s worth it — at least for now). I need to get to 80 fast and try some massive PVP. Time to show off my mammoth and rhino to the less fortunate denizens of Hyboria. 😀

Sieges were the biggest reason I got into AoC in the first place. Imagine being an RTS unit in an MMORPG! RTS was my first love and still is. There is nothing as satisfying and entertaining as a good RTS game. MMORPGs come second to me. However, I do like the RPG aspect thoroughly and nearly two decades ago I was both an ardent programmer and player of text-based RPG/Adventure games. The MMO is icing on the cake as it includes the human element. In the not-so-distant future I’d certainly love to see a proper blending of the genres (I’m looking at you Kingdom Under Fire II). For now, Age of Conan seems like a good enough bet. “Work, work.”

What I’d Like to See

I am one who has strong opinions about games I play. I also quickly get bored with games and would like to see constant innovation in them. This is easier said than done, but let me point out the areas in AoC that I would really like to see improved upon with my current knowledge of the game. If I make too many comparisons to WoW in this list and the rest of the article, it’s only because WoW is currently the 20 ton tyrant of MMOs.

  1. Hack and Slash – When I watch videos of AoC one thing I notice is how many combos and strikes just seem to go through the target. It would be nice if there was a bit more visual and aural feedback on every swing of the sword. Even something minor like a small spurt of blood or more frequent sounds of sword-steel on armor. A rather minor thing, but without it videos look a little strange with players facing each other while they swing their weapons through thin air.
  2. Game world – An instanced game world like the one found in AoC is a bit retro. Even wow, a few years old, has a seamless world for the most part. Yes, there are instances but these are so carefully and artfully designed that they rarely break the immersion, and often add to it. For example, the ship between continents with the map showing your route gives the impression of a long sea voyage. Entering Outland was a truly epic moment and walking through the portal into an instanced world certainly adds to the immersion rather than detract from it. When I first played wow, I fell into the river at the edge of Elwynn Forest only to surface and find myself on the wrong bank. The ominous sounding ‘Darkened Bank’ appeared on my screen letting me know I had entered a new zone. As I walked around on the other side, darkness crept across what was previously a bright sunny little forest. I didn’t realise I had surfaced on the wrong side, so I moved closer. I saw a cemetery ahead of me with two undead skeletal warriors that rushed and killed me. They were lvl ?? — i.e. much higher level.  It was an incredible immersion experience, and it is difficult to find a parallel in AoC. Because of the instanced and linear nature of zones, the world feels less ‘sandbox’ and too much like ‘walk from A to B’. Granted, it may not be easy or possible to change the game world now, but I just needed to point this out.
  3. Features in the game world – Here’s one other. When it comes to features I find a lot of bare areas in AoC. There are some areas that are done beautifully such as most parts of Ymir’s pass, tortage, some of Keshatta, Cornarch Village and the other cities — but some zones also seem to lack some notable features. It may be in keeping with Robert E Howard’s conan universe, but if you compare it to the world in Warhammer, and especially WoW, you get the sense of something being missing as a result of the lack of notable features. Taller grass in some areas, a few more trees, and some variation in fauna would really be welcome. Perhaps comparing it to fantasy MMOs is not the fairest thing to do as they have far greater license in innovating new features while AoC has to remain true to more an ordinary world that Robert E Howard created. By ordinary I mean a world more like ours.
  4. Spell Casters – There really needs to be a little a little more depth to playing casters. I loved the original spellweaving idea but the idea was canned owing to gameplay issues. Still, casters feel like the step-child of Funcom. None of the awesome melee or ranged combos are to be found in casters. There are also many overlapping spells. Some of those extra spells ought to be properly differentiated from one another, or they should be combined.
  5. Mounted Combat – Yes, this has been discussed, but I’d really like to see some real mounted combat as originally promised. Mammoths, rhinos and horses just need to be made more effective somehow. As a barbarian (a rogue class) I wouldn’t even mind if the soldier class archetype was turned into the mounted combat specialists. I can picture conquerors, guardians and dark templars riding around on horse back thrusting with lances and polearms as they block blows with their heavy shields. Rhinos and mammoths need some tweaking of their own. At least a more potent frontal attack to make up for their lack of agility.
  6. Sieges for casual players – adding scaled-down siege warfare as a mini game would be a great idea. Not everyone has the time to take on the responsibility of a hardcore guild that grinds resources all day and invests all their time into improving their cities. Making siege warefare part of the game world, or some sort of public quest system (like WAR), so everyone has a chance at trying out AoC’s “best feature” would be a very wise move on the part of developers.
  7. More ‘Tortages’ – Tortage was a powerful gameplay experience that had a lasting impact on players’ impressions of AoC. If they put development effort into creating a few more experiences like Tortage through the various levels from 20-80, then I have little doubt AoC would garner plenty of replay value. The few camps scattered across the game world with quest givers are fine, but you’d feel so much more like the lone adventurer if you found yourself in some other fabled town in some far off place struggling against odds to overcome and succeed, all the while making your way to level 80.
  8. Character Slots – They need to eliminate that petty ‘limited slots’ thing. Most of my friends in WoW spend their time leveling more chars and gearing them up, thus spending even more time in game and having a reason to keep playing the game longer. Forcing players to restrict the number of chars they have just doest not come across like a smart business move. It’s not like having 50 characters will make us play all 50 at the same time. We can still only play one character at a time, so server load balancing is clearly not the issue here. It reeks of pettiness and a poorly conceived business model.

Of all these I should say the biggest shortcoming of AoC is the world. We’ve forgotten what MMOs originally were. The idea was forged from the early 90s fascination with the concept of ‘virtual worlds’. MMOs being an evolution of this original concept, it is extremely important to create a world with lustre, charm and vibrance. Blizzard managed this eminently and WoW quickly became a runaway success. AoC definitely has some very strong points, but the game world needs more work. More features, more zones, more immersion. If they can succeed at this I have no doubt AoC would grow into a very popular MMO. They’ve certainly taken some very strong steps towards seducing players back into the game — heck, I subscribed. What they need now is a bigger brighter game world with more content to keep them there.

Rating & Conclusion

No review is complete without a nice number to go with it. As this is my first review on this blog let me first establish a few criteria:

  • Graphics – Graphics quality and the appeal of the art style
  • Ambience – The general ‘feel’ or ‘atmosphere’ of the game. In the case of MMORPGs: the game world is the strongest influence on this index
  • Gameplay –
  • Sound Effects –
  • Music –

Here are the scores I gave AoC on each of this, with a final score which is not necessarily an average:

  • Graphics: 9/10
  • Ambience: 6/10
  • Gameplay: 7/10
  • Sound Effects: 8/10
  • Music: 9.5/10


There you have it. Age of Conan has certainly changed for the better, and I hope to report back with Part II of my ravings in the coming weeks. I know this review has been extremely lengthy, but I wanted to cover a lot of basics and talk about what this game once was so I could better represent what it has become and where it’s going. Any other game review would have been easier and shorter, but AoC is a rather complex game with a complex history, and a few simple comments would have done it little justice.

Bookmark and Share

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook


  1. […] See more here: Re-reviewing Age of Conan: Part I – The Game, The World, The … […]

  2. […] See more here: Re-reviewing Age of Conan: Part I – The Game, The World, The … […]
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  3. Finally a real proper re-review of AoC. Very good and with some decent screenies to show what it really looks like.

  4. […] of you may have read my previous review of Age of Conan. I found that a majority of users who play the game did agree with my review, while about 50% of […]

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