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Age of Conan - single-player

Skills live in the bottom menu bar, as they usually do in MMOs; you click on the skill and then follow onscreen prompts to hit the attack buttons in a certain order in a certain amount of time to unleash a combo. The resulting movement looks amazing - hit right attack and your character fluidly attacks from the right. (Almost every animation has been motion-captured at Funcom’s studio in Oslo, Norway.) You must also pay attention to “shield” icons around your opponent that indicate where they’re concentrating their defenses; you won’t make much headway if you’re consistently throwing rights when they’re protecting their left flank.

The experience is far more engaging than what I’ve encountered in any previous MMO…and far bloodier. Conan makes excellent use of its M rating, delivering veritable plasma fountains every time you connect with an opponent. Even the sound is great - battles are punctuated with grunts and cries, and a satisfying “squish” when you take someone out with a final stab wound. Best of all, stringing together combos in the right way at the right time nets you a “finishing move” - a thrust that drives your sword into the enemy’s gut up to the hilt, or a shield bash followed by a disemboweling stab, resulting in a “blood splatter” on your screen.

Finishing moves net you double XP (and briefly buff your party, if you’re in multiplayer), and there’s a set of fatalities associated with each weapon, plus additional unique cinematics associated with character classes: necros may see enemies burned alive or dragged back to hell in chains, for example. My warrior, on rare occasions - I managed it only twice in 20 levels - actually beheaded someone, which is so awesome that I hesitate to describe it for fear of underplaying it. I actually jumped up and yelled, “Awesome!” the first time I saw it, and that was when I saw someone else do it. When it was finally my turn, I was like a hyena who’d found fresh meat.

After hunting down anything in the jungle that bled, I reached Tortage City - and learned that its people are currently struggling under the iron-fisted rule of the dark tyrant Strom. My first stop was the Thirsty Dog Inn, where I began taking quests from Sigurd, the bartender. This is where you choose between single and multiplayer missions; you can switch between the two modes at any time. Sigurd eventually became my trainer as I worked through my “destiny quest” to uncover my past, reveal the significance of my tattoo, relearn my old battle skills, and aid the Tortage resistance movement against Strom.

Single-player missions take place at night, when you can work to further the causes of the underground resistance under cover of darkness. Multiplayer missions happen during the day - and as it turns out, even if you’re concentrating on your destiny quest for levels 1–20, you’ll still spend some time completing daytime missions, because they’re required in order to level up. But even in the multiplayer areas, most 1–20 quests were still easily tackled alone.

Through five quest arcs, I began to uncover the secrets of both my past and Tortage. I learned that I’m inked with the Mark of Acheron, which turns out to be a far worse tattoo than even one of those barbed-wire arm bands: it brands me as a member of evil sorcerer Thoth-amon’s slave army. Luckily, a mystical medallion can undo its effects… but the medallion is currently in Strom’s possession. Eventually, I fought alongside the resistance movement to break Strom’s hold on Tortage once and for all, and was rewarded with the medallion - or rather, a piece of it. To find the other ¾ of it, I must travel the world… in levels 20 through 80.