The most talked about element of AoC is its approach to combat. Unlike most MMOs, there are no automatic attacks, with the basic blows dealt by hitting hotkeys for left, overhead and right-side attacks with either melee or ranged weapons. You choose the most effective one by watching the enemy’s shields and drawing their defenses to one side, letting you cause more damage by attacking the unprotected flank. But you need to take care you don’t fall victim to similar tactics.
Melee becomes complicated when you add combos (see below), which are special attack routines engaged by hitting a hotkey. This brings up a prompt-box that tells you to press a series of left, overhead or right (and at later levels, lower-left and lower-right) strikes to unleash the combo. These are mostly par-for-the-course MMO skills and in practice can be a mixture of hilarious, visceral fun and unbelievable frustration, depending on how the user interface feels at the time. The combo system is imperfect in that it depends on the floaty lag of a keyboard. You’ll find you often break some three-button combos because there’s latency between key presses and the game registering them. In the heat of battle you have to tap in combos slowly enough for the game to take them in, which really gets in the way of what should be a fast-paced experience.
This awkwardness isn’t entirely noticeable until you get to the later levels and you have multiple combos to put together in a sequence, requiring you to play a game of Dance Dance Revolution with your 1, 2 and 3 keys. While this is doable - if your fingers are fast enough - it fast becomes annoying enough that you’ll tend to use simpler combos. This is a valiant attempt to reinvent the wheel - and it almost works - but the combo system needs smoothing out. And as it existed throughout most of beta, we can’t be sure when that will be.
Once you make it to level 20 though, you’re bundled onto a ship and out of the loving embrace of noob-dom. Gone are the voice-acted quest givers, replaced with distressing mutes with unmoving mouths, gesticulating in place of speaking. This worrying shift to lifelessness sadly epitomises what the rest of AoC turns into - a drab disappointment. While Tortage has had much love poured into it, the subsequent hub zones feel barren, the map barely helps you find your way around and quest-givers, and vendors and traders (AoC’s guild banks and auction houses) are placed awkwardly and sporadically. Once you’re through the first non-Tortage quests and receive the one pointing you toward the nearest grind zone, you talk to an NPC and get magically teleported to a hub full of yet more quest givers and, inevitably, peril. This is where AoC finishes transforming from story-based action MMO to an utterly monotonous experience. While it’s not an entirely unenjoyable slog, cracks in Funcom’s work begin to show.
Quests predominantly involve either collecting objects, killing 20 or so of a particular animal or bandit, or taking down a particularly nasty individual creature to receive some kind of remuneration at the end. Sure, this is much the same as WoW - but there’s far less impetus here than in its rival grind-’em-up. Occasionally - and we’re talking in the space of every five or so levels - a number of quests will point you obviously in the direction of one of AoC’s dungeons. These are of much the same variety as the outdoor quests, but the change of scene and slight increase in danger make for some enjoyment, until (as the retail game stands at the time of review) something immersion-breaking decides to creep in.
For example, on two separate occasions we found ourselves having to smash down an object - in one case a gigantic wall - only to have the thing disappear instead of shattering dramatically. There are going to be patches that will fix some of these problems, but from what we’ve seen there’s going to have to be a lot of work to cover the sinkholes that litter Hyboria. While a lot of people have said that this has been a very stable launch of an MMO, which is certainly true, there’s a big difference between stable and polished, and we’re afraid to say that several cans of Mr. Sheen are evidently missing here.