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Age of Conan - single-player

I can’t say that the quest tasks I completed were exactly groundbreaking: I rescued a young boy from captors, collected a scroll from a sorceress, helped a resistance leader thin a pack of corrupt guards, etc. - all the sorts of collect/deliver, find/kill, escort-before-time-runs-out tasks we’ve seen in other MMOs. The two that stood out as most interesting and challenging: climbing a volcano to replace a virgin’s blood with that of a harlot, and escaping from a Byzantine prison filled to the brim with guards - though, again, neither qualified as revolutionary from a gameplay perspective. Still, I genuinely enjoyed myself in the single-player game, due in no small part to the combat system - which really requires your attention if you want to get the most out of it - and to Age of Conan’s other massive selling point: its graphics.

There’s no question that it’s a very pretty game, and Tortage’s varied environments - the highly textured stone walls of the city, the lush greenery of White Sands Isle, the undulating flow of lava from the volcano, and - OK, yes, I’m saying it - the incredible reflective water effects are all such a graphical feast that your sense of sight is gonna need to unbutton its pants. You name the graphics trick, this game uses it: dynamic lighting and shadows, high-def texturing, bump-mapping, particle effects - it’s all here, and in the single-player game, it all looked amazing. My one complaint here is with NPC facial animations - everyone looked oddly over-aged to me, and given what the game engine is graphically capable of, this was something of a disappointment.

My bigger frustration, though, is a less technical one: I’m concerned by the game’s lack of polish when it’s so close to launch. For example, I was so immersed in the single-player story that it flummoxed me when I needed to get from levels 16 to 19 in order to continue the story, but couldn’t find any side quests to complete. I spent about 45 minutes wandering Tortage before I understood that I actually needed to leave the single-player area and enter multiplayer. It’s not as though I forgot about the multiplayer component of the game, but would it have been that difficult for Sigurd’s message that I “needed to get stronger to continue” to have included the suggestion that I seek some daytime activities?

This actually highlights my biggest personal letdown with Age of Conan: the fit between the single and multiplayer sections remains, at press time, inelegant at best. Because I didn’t always entirely understand how my “destiny quest” fit into the larger world story, I didn’t entirely grasp, in-game, the idea of living one life at night (single-player), where you’re figuring out who you are, helping the resistance against Strom, and accomplishing goals you can only do under cover of night, versus living another life during the day (multiplayer), when you’re completing quests that won’t arouse the suspicion of the tyrant army and there are certain places you won’t be able to go and certain people you won’t find where you found them at night.

I’m going to attribute some of the confusion to the game’s dialogue trees - there are always three or four options, but option 1 always moves you most quickly to the task at hand, while options 2, 3, and 4 tend to fill out the story and/or let you “roleplay” a different attitude - at least, that’s what the devs called it. Really, it’s roleplaying insomuch as you’re willing to be a legend in your own mind, because the options make zero difference to the story - it just means you’re delving further into the dialogue tree. Still, I suspect that doing so would have filled out the larger story for me, or at least my place in it - which might have helped mitigate some of my frustration at being trapped in what I then perceived as “busywork” quests to level up in multiplayer, because they seemed incongruous with my single-player story plot.

Game Director Gaute Godager says that as little as four months ago, solo players in levels 1–20 never had to enter the multiplayer realms, but player feedback indicated that people felt unceremoniously dumped into multiplayer at level 20, where they “didn’t even know how to group.” I completely appreciate that - because it’s exactly how I felt when I ended up in mulitplayer at level 16. I’m not saying that the game needs to hold your hand the whole way - it didn’t take me long to figure out how to group and ungroup in multiplayer - but again, the transition was a jarring one. I just wanted to get back to my story. For the record, when we spoke about this, Godager agreed that two levels of “forced” multiplayer quests may be “one level too many” when you’re in levels 1–20 single-player - we’ll see how that pans out in the final version.