Funcom's Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is one of the better MMOs I've played in recent years, and given enough time could easily be a major competitor against World of Warcraft. I'm glad that the first game I review is one that I was able to gain a lot of enjoyment from, but the game in its current state suffers from balance issues, numerous bugs and a certain air of incompletion.
The game, set in the Conan the Barbarian mythos, starts you off as nothing more than an escaped slave, and immediately dumps you into a... single player campaign? Yes, Age of Conan doesn't immediately thrust you into the multi-player aspect. Instead it eases you in, as your first five levels are treated as a sort of introduction to the game as you escort a captured maiden to the city gates. Combat mechanics and the inventory are all taught to you in this "training wheels" environment, where the likelihood of death is fairly low.
This single-player/multi-player hybrid is continued in the first city, where you have the option of performing night and day quests. During the day, you have the ability to group up with other players and engage in PvP. During the night, you essentially go into the single player mode again and can continue to do so for the first twenty levels or so. An interesting mechanic, but one that takes away from one of the game's best features, which I'll touch on later.
Once you complete the first twenty or so levels, the world opens its arms to you and promptly smacks you around as you have to transition from the mentality the game inspires from earlier, that working alone gets results, to almost being required to group. It can be fairly unexpected and leads to the demise of many new players. As soon as you leave the small island area of Tortega, the game's difficulty is rapidly ramped up.
Of course, the first thing about this game that you'll notice, as with most games, are the graphics. Age of Conan is by far the most beautiful MMO I've played. Starting off on a fairly lush tropical beach, the game has a sense of very well thought out environments and characters. Minor graphical glitches exist, but they seem mostly limited to slight animation issues, such as other people sliding instead of walking. While it can be amusing to imagine that the Hyborian Age pioneered the invention of Rollerblades, it does tend to detract from the immersion factor.
On the graphics, however, there is one major problem. While the environments during the day are nothing short of amazing, playing the game at night detracts from this beauty and replaces it with dark, almost washed out colours, not even getting that many interesting lighting tricks with lamps, or other potential illumination sources. While graphical gripes are always minor ones, this is something that almost all players will notice at some point.
Combat is where the game truly shines, integrating a refreshing combo based, real time feeling system in the place of the standard dice roll setups we see in most MMOs. It adds a lot of variety to the gameplay, and certainly adds to the feel of the world. Combat has a fluid, visceral, almost tactile feel to it and is infinitely satisfying when a fight is over. At least, it is when you're a melee class. Spellcasters, save for the combo classes, lose out on this system, which is arguably one of the game's strongest selling points. With the loss of this, playing as a spellcaster can be a long and boring ordeal, removing much of the fun from the game.
One issue I did take with the combat, or rather, a part of it, was my armor set. Much of the game I found I was playing in the same armor I had when I left Tortega, seeing many other players doing the same. Upon finding new armor, it ended up having the exact same mesh as my current armor already did, which does add to the impression of incompletion the game tends to give off at times.
Of course, the bugs are one of the primary things keeping this game from getting a higher score though. While patches loaded with fixes are exceptionally frequent, many bugs and glitches persist. At one point, my attempts to enter instances were met with a crash to the desktop, while in other areas the game seemed to refuse to load some textures. It's little things like this that keep this game from being great, even a major competitor to WoW as I mentioned earlier.
Balance issues don't help the game's case either. Aside from losing the truly excellent melee combo system the other classes get, most spellcasters can simply not be worth playing, driving many players to use the heavily armored and more action oriented classes. If Funcom can make these classes more rewarding to play as, gameplay wise and balance wise, they'd have a near perfect MMO on their hands. Until then, this game gets a 7 out of 10.