Age of Conan Hands-On Preview

Enter Conan

Recently we had a chance to visit the Eidos studios out in Redwood City, California. So what was the topic of the visit you ask? Oh, nothing much, just an Age of Conan Hands on experience where we had two hours to play through the game at various levels; a freshly created character, a level 13 character, and a high-end character.

Take everything you've learned about MMOG combat and throw it out the window. I'm not kidding at all; it's of no use to you here. The only thing that you'll recognize is the fact that slicing your target with your sword hurts them. Funcom has completely revamped the way you play an MMOG from the ground up; there's no more auto-attack; there's no more tab-targeting. In its place is a new frontal-cone targeting system; while in combat mode anything you're facing becomes the target of your attacks as a melee character. Your primary target is the closest to your frontal heading. Essentially, it's the thing you're looking at the closest with your character.

For a spell caster, you can still have single-target spells, but the target choice works exactly the same as it would for a melee class. You face your desired target, and then unleash hell on them in the form of many different magic types, including fire, electrical, and demonic magic.

One of the few things similar to other games is mouse look, and it's a godsend when digging into the combat system and figuring out the finite details of it. You'll learn to love it, trust me. By the end of the hands-on, I used my mouse for nothing but mouse look during combat; it just meshes extremely well with the combat system Funcom has designed for the game.

Why Men Are Men, and Women... Well, They Aren't Available Just Yet

When you start the game, you're on a slave ship. This is the "character creation" within Age of Conan. You select your gender - male or female - and then your ethnic background, of which there were three different backgrounds at the time of the hands on. I'm going to cut this part of the article short - sparing you the details of character creation because, well, they're as much of a mystery to me as they may be to you. We were a bit rushed through character creation - the goal of this hands on was to show off combat at various levels of the game more than anything else. It's also important to point out that females were not an option, as they were undergoing a model revamp in the game build we had access to. You'll see a female NPC very early in our video, so it's good to know in advance the reason that she's bald.

On the bright side, her being bald was explained to us; Age of Conan is going to have very realistic hair detail, not some simple texture painted onto a couple-polygon hair model. This is one of the things they were working on at that point in time.

Getting To Know Your Interface

We've hopefully captured a glimpse of some of the user interface players will learn to love in Age of Conan with our video. The important aspects are as follows: movement controls are W, A, S, and D. Forward, Left Turn, Right Turn, Backward respectively; Z and C strafe left and right. The melee combat is driven by 5 keys: Q, 1, 2, 3, and E. Lower Left, Upper Left, Middle, Upper Right, and Lower Right respectively. You can also hold down shift, causing you to sprint, which drains endurance as you hold it down.

Your character's unit frame - displayed in the upper left portion of the UI - is similar to other games - you have your level displayed as well as your Health, Mana, and Endurance bars; this displays at all times. Below that is your party frame; it displays the people in your party and their health bars. This frame isn't very detailed at the moment, so hopefully it gets fleshed out more before release. Your target's unit frame - displayed in the upper right corner of the UI - is exactly like your characters, and obviously only shows up when you're attacking someone or something.

Your character panel shows your worn inventory and statistics. The skill book is broken up into multiple windows; you have a window in the upper left portion of the screen that displays your Friendly and Hostile spells, and in the upper right is a window that displays your combos available through the melee combat system. The combos both have a description telling what they do and their cool down, as well as a list of what order of attacks you must perform to trigger the combo. Different combos have different effects; one may stun the target, one may cause them to bleed, one may slow them down, etc. At level 1 you can have up to 2 active combos, and up to 8 at max level.

In the bottom-middle portion of your screen is your combat indicator; if you're in combat mode, it displays a circular window with labeled sections, one for each possible attack direction. As you attack, there is also a cool down bar below the ring, which is essentially a delay between attacks. The sections are initially gray, but as you perform certain attacks, the directions needed to perform a combo will light up orange, as a guide and indicator that if you hit this, you'll complete one of your active combos.

To the bottom right you have your spell hot bars. During the hands on this hot bar was limited to 8 slots, and you couldn't open new hot bars, but Jorgen Tharaldsen assured us that there would be a way to create additional hot bars. You can however swap spells in during combat, so it's obvious that it's not intended as a limiting factor.

<center>Age of Conan Hands-On Gameplay Video:
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Man Overboard

So you've created your character; there's good news, and there's bad news. Well, they both revolve around the same thing: the slave ship you were onboard has sunk; you're now washed up on an island as one of the few survivors of that ship. You also have nothing to eat or drink, and your only possessions are a small loincloth and a chunk of wood - presumably a piece of the ship - that you washed ashore with. Your class? Commoner; everyone starts as one and it remains this way until level 5, when you pick your first true "class". As you walk up the beach toward the border of the jungle, you'll come across another survivor. He tells you of the slave master also surviving and apparently being deeper in the jungle. This is your first quest in Age of Conan; it's time to go kick the ass of the person that treated you like crap for so long.

Now moving into the jungle itself, you'll come across a female that's strung up as if she's being sacrificed to some creature; anyone who's seen King Kong will be reminded of a scene from the movie here. She also gives a quest, which you can see in more detail in our video - including quest NPC interaction.

I went through the jungle, found the slave master, and talked with him. Boy was he a jerk; my only choice was to bust his skull with the weapon I picked up along the way from the sunken ship to the shore. Sure enough, I did that, and it was time to use the key he had in his possession to make my way to Tortage - the first town you'll come across in your adventures.

The town itself requires a couple other pre-quests to be completed before you gain access to it; the guard outside refuses to let anyone who looks like a slave in, so you need to find some way to get rid of your shackles. Another quest is picked up, and eventually you'll talk a nearby blacksmith into breaking them for you, allowing entry into the town.

This was pretty much the end of my newbie experience in the game; it was time to move on to a bit higher level and join up in a group with everyone else participating in the hands on, along with AoC designer Jason Stone. I'm sure some of you will recognize Jason from our recent exclusive interview & game play video.

Hi, Those Spell Casters Hurt

At this point in time we were bumped up to level 13, given pre-determined equipment, feats, and everything else required for the class, and then placed into a group; I was given a melee class here - called a Soldier - with a sword as weapon and shield for protection; I was the person who would be taking the brunt of the punishment from our foes - typically referred to as the "tank." The goal here was to show off group-based game play, and the target of our excursion was a Pict controlled area of temples and ruins. As you'll see in the video, this is a lush jungle area with lava streams flowing through it in some places. At one point, while we were trying to find a way through a bugged gate which couldn't be attacked, I even fell into the stream. Whoops.

Something cool about Age of Conan, while not really revolutionary or new, is that you can attack some gates and other objects in the game. If you don't have the key, don't worry; just beat on it angrily for a bit and you'll break on through to the other side. You'll notice the group I'm in destroy both a hut and a gate to pass through it.

Jason Stone made sure we understood the dangers of some of the Pict classes we were up against. The Pict casters, especially; they hurt, and if not focused down quickly can bring a world of pain. We even came across of a group of 4 of them together - luckily they roam around a bit so we were able to pull them 1 or 2 at a time. If the trend continues into higher levels, then target selection and paying attention to an NPC's class will be very important; you won't be able to kill random targets as you plow through group areas.

After clearing our way through the Pict encampments for about 20 minutes, we wrapped up the level 13 play and moved on to high level play.

Watch Out For the Level 50 Bears

This time I was given a chance to check out a caster class - the Demonologist. Jorgen Tharaldsen set me up with everything I needed, bumped my level up to 60, and explained some of the intricacies of setting up my hot bars and going through my spell lists. Demonologists have the ability to cast multiple types of magic - most notably Fire, Electrical, and a slew of self and party-based buffs that augment the character's performance. Demonologists also have a demon pet, but those weren't available during the play session.

After setting up my hot bars and casting a few buffs, I was ready to set off to find some baddies to kill, and so I did. As you'll see in the video, there were more Pict enemies to face, and my Demonologist handled them quite differently than my Soldier did. Demonologist's gain a spell called Electrical Chains which roots the target in place, doing damage to them over the duration of the root. It's a neat spell too, as with other root spells in the game, as humanoid NPC's will actually reach down and grab at their ankles, trying to break free of the root.

I also had several Area Effect Fire and Electric-based spells which did fairly substantial damage; these were ground targeted spells that can be cast freely as long as it's within the maximum targeting range of the spell. Single target damage and damage-over-time spells, however, must be cast the same way a melee character attacks players - as I mentioned above. You'll notice in the video that even as a caster, if you face an enemy, one will pop up as your 'target'; this is who will be affected by your single target spells.

My Thoughts

The only really disappointing aspects of the play session were:

  1. I didn't have the time to try out more classes. I really would have liked to try out a ranged class like the Ranger and of course an Assassin or Barbarian; maybe even a healer, if given the time, but unfortunately our time ran short. Oh well, maybe next time.
  2. The Demonologist's armor felt a bit bland, but I'm sure that was only one type of armor available; we'll have to wait and see. There should be a shot of my initial level 60 class, the Guardian, before I requested being changed to a caster; his armor looked a lot better.

Despite what you've seen in a lot of the game play videos recently, the combat can be fairly fast-paced. It relies entirely on player skill, as there is no auto attack. If you're slow at pushing your keys then yes, your character is going to look dreadfully sluggish. I personally can't wait to get my hands on the PvP in this game after playing it though; if the combat experience from the hands on is any indication, it's going to make for great skill-based PvP that should really set aside the complaints about item-based MMOG's in the past.

Add on to that the fact that even the PvE combat won't become repetitive; heck it can't, Jason Stone mentioned that AI is built to detect patterns in swings and react accordingly. What this means is that if you're going to do nothing but slam Q, you're going to regret it as you do less and less damage with each subsequent attack, as the NPC reacts and defends itself against that attack.

Age of Conan is definitely a promising game coming out this fall; I'm looking forward to giving it a try as a gamer.


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