Nights of glory: The single-player chronicles
By definition, MMOs are for social creatures, and that’s never described my gaming tendencies. I’ve been put off by the logistical nightmares of grouping, and the impersonality of the MMO story experience and high-fantasy settings have never done much to ring my bell: I’m more Hard Boiled than Lord of the Rings. That’s why Age of Conan’s promise of a single-player story line and Mature-rated content piqued my interest: I’m looking for the MMO for those of us who aren’t one of the 10 million WoW-obsessed players.
Though it would be “difficult but possible,” we’re told, to play solo all the way to level 80 in Conan, levels 1–20 are actually designed as a single-player game, if you choose to play them as such. Every player’s AoC game begins the same way: You’re on a slave ship that’s attacked, and you awaken on the beach of Tortage Island with amnesia and a tattoo you don’t understand. (Who hasn’t been there before?).
In between, you enter the character creation tool, a pretty deep affair for an MMO - I used sliders for every facial feature to tweak and prod my Cimmerian soldier’s face into a rather close approximation of Brigitte Nielson, then added a black eye for flavor. Which culture you choose - Cimmerian, Stygian, or Aquilonian - determines your homeland later in the game, and which character class you choose - rogue, priest, soldier, or mage - determines which of four intertwining single-player story lines you’ll follow. All of this, however, is moot for the first five levels, which everyone experiences the same way: hacking through the jungle between the beach and Tortage City in what amounts to about 30 minutes of game tutorial.
During those five levels of fairly pedestrian quests - free a slave girl by collecting a key from her captor, dispatch a slave trader, whack various jungle animals in the jugular - I got my first taste of the game’s Mature rating, both in the story (the freed slave Casilda lets you know pretty clearly how she’d like to repay your kindness, and it isn’t with a Starbucks gift certificate) and in the highly anticipated combat system. The news here is good: Though I was armed from the start with only a broken oar, combat is an engaging affair totally different from the point/click/wait system of most MMOs (and non-action RPGs, for that matter), not to mention an orgiastic explosion of blood and viscera that absolutely had me from, “Hello - I am going to disembowel you now.”
The controls take a bit of getting used to - improved collision detection means you can’t run “through” groups like you can in WoW, so if someone’s in your way, even during combat, you’re stuck. On the other hand, swinging a weapon when you’re surrounded by a group of enemies will actually cause damage to all combatants in your weapon’s path. Instead of pointing and clicking on a target and then waiting for the results of a dice roll, Conan employs direction-based “real-time” combat: you use 3 separate buttons to “aim” your blows or your defensive stances left, center, or right, respectively, and to complete combos using skills you earn as you “train” on different kinds of weapons.