Increasingly, the sorts of online games that support hundreds to thousands of players in a virtual world are works in progress when they open their doors to gamers. Problems abound, whole areas of the game can be unplayable and the developers rush to fix these issues without ever shutting down the game. In that sense, “Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures” typifies what fans have come to expect come launch day: Lots of turmoil. But if players can wait for the glitches to be repaired, they’ll find innovative combat mechanics and a hefty set of storylines that could help “Conan” muscle its way into a space completely dominated by “World of Warcraft.”
“Hyborian Adventures” arrives on the 76th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s creation: a lone barbarian thief and the magical, lush world that surrounds him. Players don’t take on the role of the mythical warrior, but rather someone attempting to stop a plot to overthrow the now King Conan. Game includes three races of characters plucked from Howard’s world as well as a broad number of class types ranging from a Bear Shaman to a Ranger.
While the characters and settings of Age of Conan don’t reflect the style of some of the franchise’s most notable artists, such as John Buscema and Frank Frazetta, they are reminiscent of Howard’s descriptions. Characters feel a bit generic, and while the landscape is impressively detailed, it still lacks the artistry of the famous Ace novels. This might be disappointing to some more stalwart fans of the franchise, but it could conversely be more inviting to newcomers looking for a more modern style.
Where “Age of Conan” really delivers, however, is with its approach to combat and storytelling. In many role playing games, combat is more about what happens behind the scenes — the sorts of weapons a player uses, the armor his opponent has on, both players’ experience points — than it is about character control. “Conan” artfully blends the two. Players don’t just have to decide how to attack, but rather which way they want to slash and how to defend themselves. This turns combat, which takes up a significant portion of players’ time, into something much more engaging than online RPG fans have come to expect. As a player grows in experience, the direction of attacks they can use increases from three to six, making combat a increasingly rewarding.
The story unwinds in a series of intertwined quests given to the player through conversations with computer controlled characters. From greedy guards to lusty barmaids and savage warriors, just about every facet of Hyborian society is represented, and many of them have problems that players need to help solve.
Initially, the game splits the storyline between single-player action, which occurs at night, and daytime where all of the game’s players can interact, join forces, or do battle. Different character types each get different types of missions to help save the King — thieves have to slip past guards and steal a scroll, fighters have to battle their way to the top of a volcano, etc. — giving “Conan” a lot more substance than many of its competitors.