by Marko Susimetsä
previewed on PC
"When a man cannot stand on his own two feet, it is time to die."
This is what Conan says when he's badly wounded and a comrade in arms offers to support him on their way back to safety. This also fittingly describes the kind of hard, cruel world that Conan lives in, where life is cheap and men can choose to be either the predators or the prey. Even the so-called civilized nobles usually turn our to be hedonistic weaklings, incapable of protecting their people or even themselves, or cruel tyrants who will do anything to gain more power and prestige.
Robert E. Howard wrote, in the early 20th century, numerous short stories and novellas set in an imaginary Hyborian age. The main hero of these stories was Conan, but there was also King Kull who shared much the same world. Howard's novels gained true fame only after the author's tragic suicide, but when they did, they were quickly turned into several comic series, and other writers (such as Robert Jordan) picked up the fallen crown and started writing their own Conan novels. Later, the world also saw three movies set in this Hyborian world: two Conan movies and one Red Sonja movie (the latter character is not Howard's creation). Despite the relatively successful first Conan movie and some decent books, virtually none of the movies or novels created after Howard's passing managed to capture the true heart of the Hyborian world.
And this is the way it seemed to remain, until Funcom announced that they'd started to work on a new game called Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Paradox Entertainment, who currently owns all rights to Howard's main characters, sold the online game license to Funcom and the other game licenses (such as single-player games) to THQ. The first of this new batch of Conan titles comes from Funcom and it is essentially an online action RPG.
A galley slave's story
The game is already well-known for its pretty unique character development process which practically covers the first 20 levels of gameplay in single-player mode. Only after this character- forming adventure is finished, will the character be introduced to the multiplayer aspect of the game. The initial single-player part of the game starts the story off with the main hero introduced as a galley slave, or the heroine as another kind of a slave, who, after a shipwreck, washes up on a shore of an island. The character will have lost his/her memory and starts the game practically from nothing.
The character-forming part of the adventure offers 10-15 hours of gameplay and four possible storylines that direct the character towards one of the four main character archetypes in the game: a soldier, priest, mage or rogue. This main archetype will later be diversified by the choices that the player makes and leads to various classes by the time the MMO part of the game begins, such as a zealot, barbarian or a priest.
A very nice aspect of the character creation is the design of the character itself. You can very specifically adjust the size of different body parts, the hair and eye colour, hair style etc. In addition, you can adjust the facial features with various sliders to make the character truly unique. As the game progresses, you can develop the appearance further by getting scars and tattoos. You can, of course, make yourself look much like Conan, but the game does not allow you to actually be the legendary hero, since Conan is already one of the NPCs in the game.
The world of Conan
The game only includes a small part of the whole Hyborian world, but it should be enough for many adventures. The lands to be included are those of Stygia, Aquilonia, and Cimmeria. Aquilonia is the seat of King Conan as the game begins, and Conan has only recently regained his throne and is still having difficulties putting down his enemies and their evil plots.
The graphics shown in the early trailers did not look as great as the stuff we saw at E3 - now the dark forests and fur-clad enemies really look their part and immerse you in the cruel Hyborian world. Similarly, when the main character rides a horse, the animation is very well done and sets this game apart from many other games where the riding bit has always been somewhat overlooked. The soundscape is promised to be full 7.1 audio, which will surely only enhance the immersion, as will the voice acting for key NPCs, many of them familiar from Howard's stories.
Also, the world evolves as the game progresses and enemy settlements grow into towns and cities and may launch attacks against the players' strongholds. These AI strongholds will get stronger and stronger unless the players can destroy them, and their attacks at player strongholds can destroy the players' towns if they are not defended well. These kinds of developments call for true cooperation between players.