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
nVidia 8800GT 512MB
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.