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After Tortage: final word on the Age of Conan open beta

Age of Conan's open beta is grounding to a halt tomorrow, May 11th.

As I mentioned a few times before, today (May 10th) the characters were were bumped from level 13 to 20, the level cap was removed, and the world was open for exploration. Also, the servers were all set to be PvP servers.

I spent a few hours of playing with my Herald of Xolti today, Though (deliberately or not) the ganking players were a kind of obstacle to prevent the open beta players from really getting a good look at the game, I think I managed to good feel for the post-Tortage (lvl 20) game.

Tortage: Where Age of Conan begins.

Though there's a lot to like about Tortage, I'm most reminded of the front gate, which you will pass dozens of times before you're finished here. (Source)

Before moving on to the post-20 experience, I think it's necessary to first describe the city of Tortage. Soon after your hero washes up on the nearby shores from a shipwreck, you spend the next 20 levels becoming entangled in an epic quest to escape from there, recovering your lost memories along the way. Facilitating this, each NPC has spoken dialogue, and even emotes into relatively convincing poses as they speak. (Not a "cutting edge" feature, but nonetheless an unusual level of detail to find in MMORPGs.)

By as early as level 5, the Tortage experience is split into single player (night) or multi-player (day) facets. The single player experience is a largely linear narrative that featured a changing world (NPC placement, mostly) and a number of pre-scripted cut scenes that (when they work) are excellent: I'll never forget when that one guy had his throat slit. The multi-player experience is more of a standard MMORPG experience: grind for experience and loot while optionally performing simple quests.

Tortage is intended to last until level 20, though we were capped at level 13 in the open beta. Supposedly this was "to preserve the epic storyline," but personally I think it's because Tortage is still pretty buggy in places. Even in the limited content I could access in open beta, there were broken main quest lines and cut scenes that would cause the game to hang. Regardless of how unforgivably buggy Tortage was, it was also brilliantly ambitious, and promised Age of Conan would be something more yet another MMORPG.

After Tortage: Where other MMORPGs have already been.

Today, we were released into the post-20 content that occurs after our characters leave Tortage behind to forge their destiny. Upon my character's arrival in the post-20 content for Stygians, I soon discovered that many of the things I loved about Tortage were gone:
This is the Stygian city my Herald of Xolti was deposited at. (Source)
  • Instead of rich, pre-scripted (if linear) content, I found a standard open-ended MMORPG setup: scattered cities, foes whose lone purpose is to wait for a player to kill them, and a plethora of the typical kinds of quests.
  • Not a single NPC in this Sytgian city seemed to have audio dialogue. Nor did they emote - they all stood there like statues, lips unmoving, as the silent dialogue was delivered.
  • The personalized storyline I enjoyed so much in Tortage was gone. Instead, I was pretty much given free reign to run around haphazardly, earning loot and xp however I could. Open-ended Nirvana? Hardly, it was just like any other MMORPG.
To say one positive thing about my experiences in the post-20 game, it was less buggy than I worried it would be. Perhaps, in the general tried-and-true model that the game adapted, there was a lot less room for error. Though I did encounter one quest that involved escorting a kid from lions that didn't seem to work at all, for the most part the whole thing played stably and well.

My personal experiences of post-20 Age of Conan showed nothing nearly as innovative after Tortage, but what about beyond my personal experiences? Age of Conan is advertised as having a few promising sounding features such as fighting from horseback, building cities, and defending your city against invading hordes of NPCs. Those could be very cool features... however, without seeing it for myself, I cannot confirm that these features are anything more than unrefined prototypes at this point. (That would certainly reflect my experiences with the game I did get to see.)
This is most likely the Aquilonian city.
I wonder if the NPCs have a voice there? (Source)

Age of Conan does have at least two saving graces that may enable it to survive the generally humdrum MMORPG format they have adapted for the post-Tortage game:
  1. The actual gameplay is fairly good and involving.
  2. Once you get the feel for the combo mechanism and swinging at exposed sides of your enemy, there's an excellent feel of medieval combat. Sure, it's not the deepest or best balanced system out there. However, Age of Conan is perhaps the most tactile-feeling fantasy hack and slash MMORPG in existence. This will undoubtedly prove a competitive edge against the current western fantasy MMORPG heavyweights, such as EverQuest 2 and World of Warcraft, which have the insulating barrier of a autoattack and hotkey system.
  3. Excellent social mechanisms.
  4. As I learned firsthand from Dungeons and Dragons: Stormreach, allowing a player to set a "looking for group" flag on themselves is no match for allowing players to find preexisting groups and contact the leaders. Age of Conan does both: everyone's looking-for-group flag on by default and there's an interface to find pre-existing groups. This should make it very easy for players to get into a team. (Unlike, say, Tabula Rasa.) PvP players are not left without a means to find a fight, either. You can apply to participate in a Guild Wars-like PvP match from just about anywhere in the game. There's a whole PvP experience system built into this kind of PvP matchup that should sufficiently provide incentives for players to participate. (Unlike, say, City of Heroes.)
This picture is likely one of the Cimmerian city
(which is, predictably, country). It's probably
so overcrowded because Conan was Cimmerian
and your average MMORPG player can't be
bothered to show much creativity. (Source)
So it is that, despite being rough around the edges and not feeling particularly innovative after Tortage, Age of Conan has a very good chance to retain its players and perhaps even gain the kind of inertia amongst new players to become a top MMORPG. With any luck, Funcom's developers will invest themselves in making the rest of the game as cutting edge as the single player Tortage experience (as well as fixing all the bugs).

So, will I buy it?

If I were anything less than a game addict, I'd be putting off purchasing Age of Conan because I know I'd enjoy it a lot more after it has a few months more refinement in it. However, because I am game addict, the sad truth is that the only reason I'm not buying the game now is because I can't afford it. Not the $50 game, nor the hardware upgrade that might help with those lengthy loading times. Difficult compromises like this are all the more reason to get off my fat gamer arse and find some employment!

Oh well, in the meanwhile, there's some exciting things happening in City of Heroes. I brought my Mastermind from 40 to 42 over the past few days, and hopefully he'll be 50 before Issue 12 and the Epic Villain Archetypes roll.

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