Age of Conan: Unchained
For Anyone New to the Conan MMO, it's the game that Funcom hope will decapitate every complaint anyone has ever had with the MMORPG genre. During its five-year development cycle, what's emerging most strongly is that it's a game of compromises. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but remember that compromise can be a good thing.
The first 20 levels are a blend of single-player nighttime action and multiplayer daytime gaming. So you have more of a significant role in the universe, compared to a regular MMO that can't allow you to leave a lasting stain on its world. In WOW-alikes everything fades and everything respawns, and nothing reeks of futility like waiting for an owl to pop back into existence just so you can kill it again. Conan's nocturnal single-player campaign has no such constraints and allows for more world-changing missions, in the style of Elder Scrolls.
Compromise is laudable, but tricky. The day-night cycle of low-level Hyboria isn't immediately intuitive and nowhere is the need for explanation more evident than in Conan's hybrid combat. This is a combination of traditional tactical MMO decisions and button-tapping combos. Your basic attack can be to the left, right or centre. When you choose a more powerful attack, you're presented with a chain of key presses, which you have to follow, to complete the attack (it's a bit reminiscent of Street Fighter).
Meanwhile, the enemies are repositioning their shields: three white barriers which shift around as the creature responds to your directional attacks. Whale on the right flank and eventually the shields will move there, giving you opportunity to attack from another flank, or, even more effectively, select a powerful move that ends on a side with few, or no, shields.
Get In Line
When I played the game I was thrown in at the deep end and while it felt like a system that's instantly satisfying in single-player, it required slightly more co-ordination than a room full of curious journalists possess to figure out effective group play. Most of my longer combos were hindered by the fact that everyone else wouldn't get out of the way while I pulled off a groovy stab.
The ethos behind the combat is to make it feel more real. So, contrary to the genre standard, collision detection prevents you from all standing in the same place, priests are required to face their target and you don't have to get off your mount to slice open a peasant. This all feels genuinely idealistic - which can't be a bad thing - but also seems more suited to solo or small-group play: a 40-man raid would quickly degrade into the Tube exit of Oxford Circus on a rainy Saturday.
Conan isn't just a compromise between genres - Funcom have had to compromise between these ideals and the desires of the beta testers. The original intention was to give the player a blank slate, allowing them to decide their class and specialisations long after the character creation screen. But people didn't like that, so rolling a new character now sets the template for all 80 levels.
The four archetypes - Rogue, Priest, Soldier and Mage - couldn't be more recognisable. And don't be put off by the Conan canon - the Stygian Herald of Xotli is pretty much a shape-shifting Druid and anything with a succubus following it is cursed with comparisons to WOWs Warlock. The feat points system is directly comparable to WOWs talent points and with a level 80 cap, they're considerably more involved, too. There's plenty of options you'll be forced to neglect, making for a larger number of possible specialities.
Age of Conan is unexpectedly beautiful for an MMO - Funcom's DreamWorld engine has seen a fair amount of overhaul since the archaic days of Anarchy Online. Mounted combat - although we weren't allowed to try it - seems like an entertaining addition, presuming it works as well as the demonstration - and the acting and script were all far better than yon might expect from certain '80s movies.
Any concerns? Well, the combat is the main focus of any fighting game and that's where my main concern is. is the directional stuff really about making the game action-packed? Or is it more about the difficulties of squeezing an MMO onto the 360? Will using combos in combat slow you down? Also, the chance for a one-hit decapitations might be graphically appealing, but in PvP we can imagine a fair few allcaps complaints from foul-mouthed teenagers who've had their noggin unfairly lopped off.
Like we said, Age of Conan is a game of compromises, and it'll take a lot longer than two hours in a dark room to work out whether Funcom threw the baby out with the bath water. And a bit longer again to decide whether the replacement baby is worth feeding a monthly subscription.