Who would win a fight between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Gore? Not the most obvious of questions I know, but it's one that pops in my head as I'm driven through the snow-covered streets of Oslo, Norway, to get some serious hands-on time with upcoming MMO Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures.
Why would I think such a thing? Who knows where thoughts come from? But in this case I can see the logic. First, the Arnie bit. When I think Conan, I think Arnie. Arnie back when Arnie was cool. Back when he played vicious anti-hero Conan the Barbarian and decapitated a reptilian-eyed James Earl Jones atop a torch-lit temple. That's what Conan means to me. So I can see where that bit of the thought came from.
What about Al Gore? Well, there's some logic to that one too. You see, as our Scandinavian guide points out, the building on our right is where former vice-president Al Gore was recently presented with the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental do-gooding. So you see where the Arnie versus Gore face-off image comes from - Arnie with his bulging biceps and loin cloth, Al with his impeccable suit and power point presentation.
Back in the real world - I spy remnants of the Nobel presentation - the local authority's effort to make the event as big a spectacle as it could possibly be. Roads are still closed. Signs and portable fences are still erect. I start to imagine how crazy things must have been getting in this city, so cold yet so beautiful, ready for such a high-profile visitor. Oslo must have been on crunch.
And so, mirroring the city it calls home, I arrive at the plush offices of Funcom, AoC's Norwegian developer, to find it is also on crunch. It is sooo on crunch. I get there about two in the afternoon and the place is pretty much full of developers, eyes glued to computer monitors, fingers darting across keyboards like insect feelers. Posters are dotted about the developer's cavernous walls - an image of a CRUNCH bar printed off and pinned on a board - a slogan: "It's not broken... it's your lack of perspective". Each one provides an insight into the mindset of these guys, 150 game developers working extremely hard to make the best game they possibly can. And when I finally leave, about nine at night, they're still there, plugged into virtual worlds that haven't even been born yet, desperately trying to get AoC ready for its March 2008 release date.
And from what I saw during my day long play session, where I tasted the opening eight levels of the game, got about half an hour in a mid-level group and managed to snag about an hour of player versus player combat, I have to say I'm not sure it is going to be ready for March 2008. Not if Funcom wants it to do anything in the dog eat dog MMO market anyway.
You see, the build I played was full of bugs. Little bugs, I admit. But when you add all those little bugs up, what you have is an infestation. And that's what AoC feels like at this stage - a super violent, perfectly ambitious fantasy MMO under siege from an army of bugs.
Example: I've just met my first NPC, a guy who greets me as I awake from being washed up on the shores of Tortage, a jungle area where all players will begin their Hyborian adventure. AoC tries to do something a little different with its NPC interaction. You've got a good deal of voice acting, a dialogue system where you pick what sentences you want to say rather than read a quest script and you've got an effort from Funcom to make proceedings a bit more cinematic, so you're not just reading and scrolling through a little window that pops up when you chat to someone.
It feels a bit like a fantasy version of Mass Effect's dialogue system, except less good and without the conversation wheel. At the end of the day it's more Monkey Island than Mass Effect. And it's here where I encountered my first problem. The camera didn't seem to know where to position itself to give me that Mass Effect-esque cinematic shot when I talked to an NPC. Often half the NPC's head would be chopped off, or the camera would only show the bottom of a face. It's a nice idea, but it seems that it hasn't been properly implemented yet. I'm told I was playing a three-month old build, and that might explain the problems. But why show such a bug-ridden version of the game to journalists unless you have to?
If you do discount the bugs, AoC is a perfectly polished, competent fantasy MMO that feels like it has tonnes of depth and will certainly attract an audience. But, despite being constantly told by Funcom that it is vastly different to WoW, all I kept thinking as I was levelling my character and, indeed, when I got to play in a group of level 25s in an instanced area, was that everything I was doing I've already spent hundreds of hours doing in WoW.
Creating your character is an example of this. You're a slave on board a boat, stood up in the centre of the screen ready for your input. There's tonnes of customisation options available for tweaking the look of your character, from adding crazy haircuts to mysterious body tattoos, and you can even go as far as to moulding your height and body shape, but at the end of the day you're picking from a selection of races and classes that all fantasy RPG players will be familiar with.
You start by selecting your culture, which is effectively your race, from Aquilonian (like the Romans), Cimmerian (like the Celtics) and Stygian (like the Egyptians). All are human. There are no elves or dwarves in AoC. Then it's on to your class. You've got four main options here: Soldier, Priest, Rogue and Mage. There are then three sub-classes to choose from within these four main classes. So within the Soldier class you have the Guardian, Dark Templar and the Conqueror. Or within the Rogue class you have the Barbarian, Assassin and Ranger. I decided to go with the exotically named Herald of Xotli from within the Mage class, described as a dark mage able to transform into a fiery demon. I wanted to see exactly how AoC's mage gameplay differed from WoW's - I wanted to put Funcom's claim to the test.
So you wash up on a beach on the Barachan Isles with no memory of who you are. This old bloke, the first NPC you meet, advises you to kill the slave master from the boat in which you created your character before he gets to the city of Tortage. You see slaves are the scum of the Earth in Conan's universe, and if the slave master blabs about your past, you'll be dead meat. He also advises that you seek out an old sage called Nadin once you get there.
So off you trot into this lush, green jungle. You'll immediately come across a scantily-clad woman, strung up and left for dead. She wants you to kill the people who did this to her in exchange for leading you to the city. Being the chivalrous hero that you are you duly oblige, heading back to the beach to kill the ruffians. It's is here that you'll get your first taste of AoC's unique combat system.
It works like this: You have three standard melee attacks, one from the left, one overhead and one from the right, initiated by pressing 1, 2 and 3 on the keyboard respectively. Enemies have three levels of defence to distribute across these three areas of attack, displayed by silver arrows. So what you need to do is go for the area that's least defended, so you can cause maximum damage. Simple.
This is one of the things Funcom says makes AoC's combat more compelling than any other MMOs on the market and hopefully will make the MMO "grind" more bearable. This may well be true for the game at higher levels and against real players, but in the early part of the game it's simply a case of hitting the right button to attack the weakest side of the mob. There's no real skill to it, even when the mob switches its defence around. It's almost like a rhythm action game.
AoC also has a combo system, which is where you'll see some of the game's most gruesome, blood-splattering finishing moves. These combos are assigned to your toolbar at the bottom of the screen like spells and other special attacks would be. Once you initiate a combo you then have to press the right melee attacks in the correct sequence to string together attacks. Funcom says the combos, which will be up to four attacks long, are the way to do the most damage, so they're an important skill to master.
Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to use any combos - they're not available until level 20. So I was left making my way towards Tortage city with 1, 2, 3 and a big stick. I faced humanoid pirates and brigands, jungle demons, jungle apes and ape kings as I escorted the woman to the city gates, by which time I was level five.
In Tortage, play is divided up into day and night, switched by sleeping at the inn. During the day the starting area plays out like a normal MMO, with other players running around doing quests and what not. But at night you get your very own version of Tortage and the surrounding area to do some of the main quests that progress the story.
One of these quests highlighted another bug. It involved befriending a powerful witch who gave me a gown to wear that was bugged when I put it on. My arms were by my side and the gown sleeves were to the side - I looked like a demented chicken flapping about in the wind.
While questing I noticed that some of the dialogue didn't work properly - I would talk to an NPC I'd never met and was able to ask it about a quest it had previously set me on. There was texture pop-up where it shouldn't be, frame rate issues and graphical problems with the map too. And it looks like some of the combat animations haven't been implemented yet, because there wasn't much going on graphics wise mid-scrap. You just don't expect this kind of thing from a game only a few months from release.
As my time with AoC's starting area came to a close, I left feeling a bit deflated. The graphics are lovely and very gruesome for an MMO, and there are nice little touches that show off how Funcom has tried to make the fantasy MMO thing a little more user-friendly. Things like not every corpse dropping loot, which made wading through masses of mobs much quicker. Then there's the mini-map, which clearly tells you where you need to go for whatever quest you're on. But it all felt very familiar. I've been bashing mobs, running escort quests, farming items and putting points into skills and talent trees for years now, and, well, let's just say I was hoping for something other than extreme violence to set AoC apart.
For newcomers to MMOs however, AoC's first 10 or so hours should be simple and enjoyable enough - almost like a single player mini-adventure. But the big question is this: Will MMO fans stick around long enough to experience AoC's genuinely interesting high level content? Stuff like mounted combat, 200 player sieges, guild castle construction and more? Now if only Funcom had shown me that stuff, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic.
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is scheduled for a March 2008 release on PC and sometime after that on Xbox 360. Check back tomorrow for VideoGamer.com's interview with the developers and Wednesday for a preview of AoC's mid level group play and player versus player combat.