However, when FunCom announced that they were giving out a free 7-day-trial of their Age of Conan MMORPG, I jumped at the offer and decided that, even if I can only play the game for 3 hours in a week, I'd give this one a try. Why? Well, I've always been a fan of the world of Conan, the Hyborean world. I have a big pile of the comics in my storage drawers, especially The Savage Sword of Conan, which offered the most ruthless description of the world rendered, mostly, in beautiful black and white art.
Thus, I decided to put aside some hours last weekend to install and try Age of Conan. To my utter dismay, a lion's part of that weekend was taken by the installation process: with my 1MB connection, it took a bit over 24 hours to download and install all the files that were required to play the game. It was on Sunday afternoon, at around 4 o'clock that I finally created my character: Arinel, an Aquilonian ranger, who somehow turned out to be a Rogue instead (I must have mis-clicked). Quite amazingly, she started the game wearing a very brightly-coloured bikini, which put me off as something that really does not belong into the world that I always imagined Conan living in. However, the customization possibilities for the character's appearance were very good.
I was put off by the bad graphics that I saw in the game - after downloading over 8GB of files to get the game running in the first place, I was expecting graphics that would blow my mind away. Rather, I was sent back down the memory lane to the turn of the century as far as the graphics were concerned and the highest graphics settings really didn't help the experience much. One is left wondering if such low graphics quality is a necessity in MMORPGs - having seen the truly horrendous graphics of WoW, for example - for reasons of bandwidth or wanting to make the game playable to as many people as possible. Nevertheless, the initial shock was something that made the next couple of hours to get over and I'm still not entirely convinced that the game actually needed the over 8GB of downloaded content (and the complete game, according to my information, takes around 25GB of disk space).
Age of Conan begins with a beginner-friendly single-player storyline that introduces one to the game system and the game world. First, you get to beat some shipwreck looters and crocodiles over the head with a piece of wood. The looters have all sorts of weapons that they, in turn, beat you back with, but - quite disturbingly - you cannot pick the weapons up and use them yourself once you've dealt with the enemies. Instead, you get small loot bags that usually contain something rather worthless instead. That was strike three in my books already, but I decided to continue and give the game a chance, although, thus far, it had done everything it could to destroy my immersion.
The story continues with our hero walking along a linear path, taking out enemies who come to her one or two at a time, sometimes three, if she is not careful. Careful, in this context, means that she ought to approach the enemies from such a direction that she triggers the reactions of only one enemy at a time. The enemies have a clear sensor range that determines when they react to someone approaching them. In practice, you can easily kill a score of enemies while the rest of the camp just looks the other way - or, better yet, they look towards the fighting, but do not react since the enemy has not entered their sensor range. Arinel managed to enter a room full of enemies and take out all the underlings one at a time while the big boss just stood still in the middle of the room. Strike four.
Once Arinel entered the city on the island that she found herself on the storyline started to show a little more promise. The quests are a little bit more varied, depending on the profession of the hero and allowed Arinel to flesh out her sneaking and climbing skills. However, the climbing revealed another fault in the game world: If Arinel shot at an enemy with her bow from a higher level (from a roof to ground level), the enemy healed immediately. It was only when Arinel was also at ground level that fighting was allowed and the damage from the arrows was actually delivered on the targets. This effect seemed random, however, since in some occasions it was possible to kill someone from such a vantage point. In any case, strike five!
Overall, Age of Conan received five negative strikes from me during the very first gaming session, mostly related to the lack of immersion it provides. Most of the problems should be easily repairable, if the developers wanted to do something about them. After all, immersion is the best reason to continue playing any game. Another threat to immersion in online games are the fellow players, who rarely find the inner strength to stay in their roles and not start shouting for advice and help in public areas. Age of Conan has dedicated servers for role-playing, which is a good sign that such weaknesses might be alleviated to some extent. The 7-day-trial, however, puts some restrictions on what one can do in the game, and it seems to me that grouping etc. activities are blocked. I'll return to this in part two of this article when Arinel is a little further on in her adventure and the single-player portion of the plot is over (if I get that far in 7 days).