Cluttered and overpopulated as the MMO genre is, a game has to truly stand out in order to have the slightest chance of being successful. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is a fantasy-based MMORPG like many that have came before it, but in its favor, it has two big strengths in the form of the Conan lore and a combat system that is much more active than anything else in the genre. The game is rated Mature and wholeheartedly embraces such ideas as decapitations and nudity, but thankfully only uses such things to augment the experience rather than rely on them to sell the title.
Age of Conan is fully set in Conan lore, in a time when three mighty nations are warring with each other while an advancing army of ghostlike soldiers threatens the survival of all three countries. Though Conan has changed somewhat over the years, the lore itself has always grasped rather mature concepts, such as Conan frequently cleaving his enemies into bloody pieces and never staying alien to things such as sex and nudity. In Age of Conan, sex is only referenced and nudity is limited to breasts and nipples, but blood and gore is apparent quite often.
The combat system is unlike most MMOs in that it is less a matter of standing still and pressing hotkeys and much more reliant upon actively managing your attacks and defense and positioning your character to inflict maximum damage. Pressing the 1 key makes your character attack using an upper left swing, the 2 key makes your character attack directly forward, and the 3 key employs an upper right swing. There is no auto-attack option, and for the most part, these three keys make up the bulk of how you engage the enemy. When an enemy is highlighted, you can see which areas he is blocking in the form of three curved symbols on either side and above him. Every enemy has three of these, and they change depending on how you attack them.
For instance, if you constantly attack directly forward, the enemy will begin to defend that area more actively, until finally they have all three symbols in that area making him all but perfectly defended against that direction of attack. Of course, at that point he will have no defenses on either side of him, so it's also important that combat uses attacks that hit the enemy where he's weakly defended. The player also has these defense areas, which default to one in each direction for even defense but can be changed if the player finds that he is taking damage from one direction more consistently than the others.
Every class also has a variety of special abilities, some of which are simply used by pressing the key on the hotbar and others that are only performed in a combo. For instance, the Assassin's sweep ability is used by first pressing the hotkey and then successfully performing three attacks to the upper right. Only then is the move performed, hitting a wide swath of enemies with one sweeping attack to cap off the combo. Of course, if the enemy is blocking in that direction, the move will have less of an effect, which again plays into using abilities when the time is right and trying to get the enemy to favor defending one side only to blast him with a powerful attack from another.
Combat in Age of Conan can be an incredibly gory affair when humanoid enemies are dispatched using one of the many fatalities. If such an enemy is killed using a combo move, there is a high chance that a fatality move will be performed, such as bashing in his head with a blunt weapon, stabbing a dagger into his jaw and ripping it out sideways, or ripping out the enemy's heart and taking a bite out of it before throwing it aside. There is no benefit in the form of additional experience or other rewards for performing such fatalities, but they look fantastic and give the feeling that you just absolutely decimated your opponent.
While playing through Age of Conan, players will find that much of the gameplay and plot is broken up into two parts. In the conventional mode, players can choose to either band together to tackle quests or forge ahead alone, though many quests, such as those based in instanced areas, are simply impossible to complete solo. Quest-givers are usually found scattered all over the place, to the point that you can hardly walk into a town without being within stabbing distance of three people who want your services. On the other hand, to progress in the game, there are points where the player must complete a series of linear quests alone, in an area instanced only to himself. For example, while players can explore the city of Tortage by day, they must explore the instanced version of the city that is set at night, which eventually leads the way to the next major game zone.
Character creation is quite diverse, with players first choosing basics such as what gender they will play as and from which of the three warring nations they hail. Each of the nations has its own set of classes, ranging from Barbarians and Assassins to Priests and Shaman. From there, the minutiae deepens, with the player choosing details such as tribal markings, hair and eye color, body build type, skin tone, hair style, and other options. At level 10 and onward, players gain feat points, which can be spent in various skill trees to help develop the character as he or she sees fit.
Quests in Age of Conan are a bit disappointing because they're not much different from what MMO fans are already used to. Whether it is killing X amount of crocodiles in order to get back the merchant's gems or finding Y amount of wine bottles scattered haphazardly across a beach, Age of Conan's quests aren't exactly revolutionary. While the solo instanced areas are usually epic in nature, it is hard to maintain that same feeling when a whole band of adventurers is standing around and waiting for the 30th Pict warrior to spawn.
PvP combat plays less of a role than one would expect, at least in the enjoyable sense. On the servers that allow for full PvP, one can expect to be griefed often by higher-level players, while on other servers, though there is instanced PvP content, the queue times can sometimes be lengthy. Gameplay that doesn't require combat is pretty much nonexistent, and though players can learn crafting halfway through the level cap at 40, it means that before that point, the gameplay is entirely reliant upon combat to keep players entertained.
Age of Conan is graphically stunning, bringing to life lush environments and some of the most character models that the genre has seen to date. Fatalities are one of the game's marquee graphical showcases, which are exceptionally bloody and more often than not feature enemies suffering from catastrophically major wounds as blood sprays forth. Environments can be stunning in their diversity and beauty, with areas ranging from the sides of a volcano to idyllic island paradises. While nudity is in the game, it is mainly in the form of player characters, and even then isn't as prevalent as one might think. Combat is visually appealing, thanks to fluid and diverse animations, and magic effects pack as big a graphical punch as the damage they produce.
As good as the graphics are, though, the audio side of the spectrum beats them out. From the title theme to the sounds of insects buzzing in the jungle, the audio in Age of Conan packs a fidelity not normally found in the genre. Combat itself sounds fittingly dense, with the sounds of warriors fighting and falling, yet it never really steps over itself or sounds like there is too much going on. The title features a surprisingly large amount of voice work in the form of full lines from every quest-giver in the game, which are delivered from quality voice actors using a variety of tasteful accents.
It is difficult to pass a final judgment on Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, given that some areas, such as the combat and story, are exceptional while others, such as the non-combat gameplay and questing, fall somewhat flat. With that being said, the pros outweigh the cons, and though the game is mostly combat-driven, the combat system is one of the most enjoyable aspects. The Conan lore is used to great effect, and the strengths of the game engine truly bring it to life, from the detail in cut scenes to the visceral display of gore from a fatality. Ultimately, Age of Conan is as enjoyable an MMORPG as any other with a combat system that remains consistently entertaining, and though it falters in other areas, it is quite worthy of attention from those who are looking for an MMO experience that is just a little bit different from the norm.
Score: 8.2 / 10
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