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Age of Conan Closed Beta Impressions– Part I

12 May

Been fairly busy of late, so the blog suffers. I was involved over the past few months in the Age of Conan technical beta stress tests though not part of the regular closed beta until very recently. There’s a fair amount to cover, so I’ll break this into a few posts to make it digestible.

As I’ve mentioned before, AoC hasn’t been particularly high on my list. The early marketing spin of mature=boobs+blood and FPS-like combat coupled with the PvP focus suggested that AoC was not likely a must-play game for me. Nor was Robert E. Howard a particular favorite author of mine. Nonetheless, many reported aspects of the game had me curious enough to want to see what it was all about despite the two+ strikes going in.

Performance and Hardware

For those who may not be aware, AoC has had two betas running– the Fileplanet Open Beta which you had to pay for, and the closed or General Beta. Shortly after the last round of stress tests, Funcom saw fit to invite all the stress testers to the general beta, hence my access.

Confusingly, general (closed) beta participants are still under the NDA except with respect to their level 1-13 experiences, so anything I relate here pertains only to levels 1-13 (mostly solo play). I mention this because of the controversy over the version of the game client used for the open beta. Bildo and Keen and others have adequately covered that ground, so I wont rehash.

Since I didn’t sign up for the Fileplanet beta, I can’t comment on how significant the performance issues may have been. I can say that the closed beta client was pretty decent with few of the reported issues with the open beta client occurring for me. I have had lockups and few CTDs, but nothing close to the scale others have reported about both the open and close beta clients.

Despite the apparent total marketing meltdown fuckup with the open beta, Funcom pushed patches out before this last weekend on both Open and closed beta I believe. Many folks are calling this the “Miracle” patch and I must say that many of the significant loading time and other annoyances seem to be receding into the background at an acceptable level.

Also for reference, my current system stats are as follows:

Intel Core Duo E8400 3.0 GHz
4GB Ram
nVidia 8800GT 512MB
WinXP

Not the top of the heap by a long shot, but decently above “recommended” specs for AoC of a Core Duo 2.4GHZ, 7900 GTX card and 2MB of RAM. I’ve been running on high settings without any significant problems. There have been some annoying lag spikes, but that isn’t a client-side hardware problem. Haven’t been checking framerates because quite frankly, its been consistently smooth for the most part, so I assume its been north of 25-30FPS or I would have started to get that flipbook animation/slide show feeling.

Graphics

The look is pseudo-realism, so think EQ2, LotRO, Vanguard. The (starting) world is lush with almost too much detail. Personal preference, but I think LotRO has done a better job of tying all the graphical elements together in the environment. For me there are a few too many sharp edges and hard lines between textures which don’t blend. This pertains mostly to vegetation rather than buildings and such which seem more smoothly integrated into the environment. Water is probably the best I’ve seen in an MMO. Surface ripples and vees out behind your character as they move through the water. Waves lap at the shore. Nice.

There are a reasonable but not excessive range of avatar customization features. You can dive into advanced options and tweak just about any feature with sliders and pick lists, or you can random and minorly tweak your overall appearance. Overall, I think the models are very well done with a few caveats based on style preferences rather than oddness. Animations are generally very well done and quite smooth.

Men are big and strong and women are buxom, full stop. The wimpiest male version I could come up with would still probably come up to me, crack walnuts with their biceps and then sweep the floor with my weaksauce gamer ass. Not a fault unique to Conan, but I’m still waiting for a wider range of body types, ages, fitness, etc. rather than permutations of the epic hero, but that’s me. No shrivelled aged scholarly mystical caster types here nor gangly broken tooth meth heads either.

/rant on

Women in Conan are quite simply objectified and typify the misogynist tendencies in most fantasy writing (and present in Robert E. Howard, his writing and most societies in the 1930’s when he was writing). I see manifested throughout the game an environment sadly faithful to Howard’s writing and his particularly strange (Oedipal?) and adolescent male view toward women. Yes, there are “positive” depictions of women in AoC (e.g., Valeria somewhat of an exception) though the contrary seems to prevail far too often.

I’d love to play a game where tough smart women characters of varied body types (i.e. something other than Barbie doll-esque proportions) were available so that women might actually be attracted to playing the game. Amazon to princess, nymph to crone, is that so hard? Apparently it is because developers don’t yet realize that women are mammals, not mammaries.

Simple question, answer silently to yourselves, would you play this game with your wife? you mother? your daughter? Would it bug you if they did without you? If not why not? Discuss (amongst yourselves). Park your rants elsewhere, this is not the typical hypocritical American violence>sex perspective. Try (hard) to think why this is so. Suffice it to say that typical media and entertainment industry depictions of women aren’t going to be changed by AoC.

/rant off

Races and classes

Aquilonian, Cimmerian and Stygian. Research project: research and discuss Robert E. Howard’s views on race and the rise of fascism in the 1930’s. Relate to the foregoing. Discuss. Yes, you could do the same with Lovecraft, Tolkien, Lewis as well. Maybe you should.

Three soldier archetypes– Guardian, Conquerer and Dark Templar
Three mage archetypes– Herald of Xotli, Necromancer and Demonologist
Three priest archetypes– Tempest of Set, Priest of Mitra and Bear Shaman
Three scout archetypes– Assassin, Barbarian and Ranger

So far, I’ve played a Conquerer, Demonologist, Priest of Mitra and Bear Shaman, all up to around Level 10. My general impression is that the classes are still in need of some serious balancing at this point. Some encounters seem near impossible with some classes that are trivial for others of the same level. Keep in mind that this is all during the Noob portion of the game, not at endgame where no one would expect a caster to have the survivability of a tank, nor the tank not have the dps of a caster, etc.

Among the major divisions (caster/non-caster), combat has a very samey quality. All the head smashing types don’t seem particularly differentiated early on. Similar with casters excepting Bear Shaman. The BS plays much more like a melee class in all respects.

The healing classes to me seem the most disappointment at the low levels. They just don’t seem to have any significant healing abilities. At low levels, most have wimpy HoTs though they are considerably tougher than the usual squishy. I’m told “healers don’t really come into their own until about level 20 or so”… which is a bit of a warning sign for me. In no encounter was healing even remotely capable of significantly forestalling the inevitable.

Combat

What AoC seems to be really good at is allowing you to take big heavy and/or sharp things and bash people to bits with them. And that is fairly fun. I’ve actually had the most fun with my conqueror (high dps warrior type). Note the similar Barbarian is actually a scout class and while higher dps is also more vulnerable.

The vaunted combat system is a welcome departure from typical Diku MUD autoattack combat but not without its limitations. Attacks are left, middle, right (1,2,3 keys). You don’t swing, you don’t attack. As you progress, characters learn combos that are special attacks you can initiate in combat like most MMO spells and abilities.

Like Tobold, I’m thinking either the twitch kiddies or the G15 crowd will have greater efficiency in getting them off when you want them and you will want them. Executing combos requires initiating the combo then, when its icon appears on screen, you have a window of time to hit the requisite attack key to execute the combo. Timing in the mechanics is a little sloppy at times, or maybe its lag in combat that causes problems in getting them off sometimes. Key presses seem more reliable than mouse clicking but your mileage may vary.

Certainly, combat is hands on. That is good. Its also a bit of button mashing which can sometimes take your attention off the otherwise quite nicely done combat animations. I think spell caster effects leave something to be desired still– they feel a bit more like a low grade particle overlay– but the melee combat feels pretty visceral. I think the blood spatter on the “camera” effect for fatalities is just too cheesy.

Character balance being off right now, its hard to judge the effectiveness of characters in combat. Some encounters are trivial while similar encounters of mobs at the same level are near quick and certain death making succeeding in some encounters simply zerging one mob down, dieing, running back and taking down the next. Repeat.

As this is getting a bit long, I’ll save the Noob experience and more thoughts for Part II.

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6 Comments

Posted by on May 12, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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6 responses to “Age of Conan Closed Beta Impressions– Part I

  1. dathmar

    May 12, 2008 at 3:55 am

    I have the same feelings about the Closed Beta….I must say the last patch brought the game to a much better position but things are still far from perfect.

    One thing that does really worry me about the game ( and you might cover this in Part 2) is the starting zero experience.
    In WOW , EQ2 , LOTRO and many other MMORPGs there are various starting zones to keep repeatability as high as possible when creating ALTs
    I cannot tell you how dull it is to run through that Jungle for the 8th time. then having to speaking to the friendly “Jamaican” Tortage Gate guard or the grumpy “Scottish” Blacksmith all becomes pretty dull / old very quickly.
    I think each “race” should have started in a different area.

    Interesting to see your views in Part 2

     
  2. Rog

    May 13, 2008 at 4:02 am

    “Simple question, answer silently to yourselves, would you play this game with your wife? you mother? your daughter? Would it bug you if they did without you?”

    I have to say I did chuckle on this part, because both my girlfriend and her mother are in my guild and they’re pretty enthusiastic about migrating to Age of Conan. Both of them would slap me in a second if I behaved in a misogynist way, but they also have an appreciation of pulp culture and, important to note, the portrayals.

    Like Lovecraft and Tolkien as you mention, there’s more than meets the eye (some good, some not) and whether you agree with the 30’s-influenced outlook or not, reflection isn’t a bad thing, it helps us learn.

    This is all part of what roleplay is about and that’s an important distinction to me. I’m not a hardcore RP’er, but the RPG part of MMORPG includes some understanding that the character / avatar is distinct from the individual. Heady concepts for sure, but they don’t have to be fully comprehended to be understood.

     
  3. Bill and Jo

    May 13, 2008 at 4:03 am

    “Like Tobold, I’m thinking either the twitch kiddies or the G15 crowd will have greater efficiency in getting them off when you want them and you will want them.”

    There is something you both may not have noticed as I know I didn’t for a while. To pull off the combos you really have to stand still and make no mistakes. This means that while Macros might be efficient, it will only work if the player stands still. The same goes for “twitch” players, who in my experience run around and jump a lot.

    Take also into account for PvP, the sheer amount of movement, active dodging and blocking, and the power of the Zerg and quickness of fights and I think you’d find combos hard to pull off in their entirety. Now for PvE, Macros will make things easy… which is precisely why I intend not to use them, as it will make me hopefully better in the city sieges late in the game. As for those who do use them in PvP… I can say with some certainty, that they won’t be nearly as effective as those who learn how to use them.

    Still, I almost wish combos would be given a randomized set of keystrokes to make macroing null and void.

     
  4. p@tsh@t

    May 13, 2008 at 8:26 am

    @ Rog: Fair point. Almost despite itself, there is still “RPG” in “MMORPG”. My primary objection is not so much with the lore which when taken in context can be understood but rather in translating that to a modern medium which is constantly sending messages to both the wary and unwary, the devs have chosen to restrict the range of choices and thereby restricted the types of messages the medium is capable of entertaining.

    The same can be said of most games and violence or other modes of play as well. I chose to pile on Conan because Funcom has used that choice consistently to pander to a particular audience to garner support for the game (your GF and her mother notwithstanding). Ultimately the playerbase will make the choices they make and develop the community they develop, but the range of choices available to them is a conscious design decision regardless of lore consistency.

    They are still, after all, an entertainment business trying to appeal to a target market.

     

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