I first tried AoC when it was in beta, and it was a mess quite frankly. Very buggy and the graphics engine was a real chugger - it looked great but was like watching a slideshow. I played for a couple of days and then uninstalled it. So why did I go back?
Well, I was coming to the end of my time in Lord of the Rings Online. I'd hit max level, done most of the raids, got 90% of the gear I wanted, and there was no new content due for six months or so. I'd played through a whole load of single player titles and felt like getting back into the MMO groove. Then someone on the Stout 'n' Sturdy forums (my old LoTRO kin) posted that AoC had a new free-to-play trial (free for the first 20 levels), so I thought I'd give it a shot.
Here are my thoughts on the game so far, bearing in mind that I'm still only at level 44 out of 80!
Graphics and Animations
The first thing to say is that with a decent PC, the graphics in Age of Conan are possibly the best in any MMO to date. They really are stunning when you turn on DX10 and all the frills. Luckily I have such a PC and have been able to turn 90% of the graphics to max (I turned them all up to max originally but my framerate dropped below 15 frames per second at times in populated areas - not good for a player-vs-player game, so I reduced the shadow resolution).
Here are a couple of screenshots to show what I mean. Note the foliage and lighting effects in particular.
Jungle (click to embiggen!)
Mountains (click to embiggen!)
Animation is generally top notch, especially in combat. The only gripe I have with the graphics is some of the lighting effects on player models - the skin can look too shiny and plastic like at times. Overall though, this is a damn fine looking game. The foliage and water effects in particular are excellent.
Combat is another area where Age of Conan has some new tricks up it's sleeve. Combat is AoC is very visceral, with blood splatters and limbs and heads being lopped off all over the shop. I guess it helps that this is an 18 rated game! The mechanics are a little different to most conventional fantasy MMOs in that you have combination attacks. For example, you may need to trigger a skill then run through a combination of another 2 or 3 skills to activate it. It's by no means as complex or strategic as the combinations used by the Warden class in LoTRO (still the best class combat mechanic I've seen in an MMORPG), but it does add an extra layer to the battles.
I would have preferred the world to be fully open rather than zoned, but each area is well designed with plenty to explore off the beaten track. As stated above, the graphics for each area I've seen so far are stunning, with waterfalls and weather effects adding to the atmosphere. There are quite a few invisible walls I've come across (unclimbable ridges in the scenery for example) that do channel you down certain paths in a few places.
The first 20 levels feature fully voiced NPCs with a main destiny quest that you follow (there is a different destiny quest for each class archetype). The story is nothing stunning but does evoke the writings of R.E Howard pretty well and is a good introduction to the world. The first 20 levels could really be considered as an extended tutorial really.
Things do change when you head out of the starting city of Tortage (and at this point you have to subscribe to the game if you want to continue playing that character). 90% of quests are not voiced, but they are all interesting enough. There is quite a bit of grinding to be done however, no matter how much they try to hide it behind quest text. For example, I had one quest that required me to kill and loot 300 Nemedians. That is a lot, and after the first 50 it wasn't that much fun!
One thing that does help is that the game includes offline levelling once the character is past level 30. For every 4 days you subscribe you receive one level that you can add to a character over level 30. I haven't used any of mine yet and have 8 stacked up, but I will do so if the grind ever comes back.
Overall the quests are not that great or exciting. Playing on an open world pvp server with roleplaying companions does make the journey to level 80 much more interesting though.
I can't really comment on pvp too much yet as I haven't done a lot. The vast majority of pvp play is at the higher levels (70-80) and consists of open world pvp, pvp minigames (things like capture the flag etc), and city seiges. When I have more experience of these I'm sure I'll post my thoughts.
The pvp I have come across so far has been brutal and quick, and quite a lot of fun, and to my surprise I have not run across very many gankers. Nice to see.
The lore is great, especially if you are a fan of Conan or brutal low-fantasy worlds in particular. My only gripe is that Funcom
This is one of the areas where the game lets itself down in my opinion. I may just be a bit spoiled after playing LoTRO with it's cosmetics system, player music system, skirmishes and so on.
All the basic social tools are present, but limited. For example, the guild window doesn't show you virtually any information about your guildmates other than their class and level. The chat UI is functional, but I haven't found a way of changing the text colours for different channels, and there is no chat log (a real problem for us roleplayers!).
Characters can only have one name (no surnames), and there are no cosmetic items. Ok, so it's more realistic that what you are wearing is what other people see, but unfortunately some of the armour looks awful. I've actually sold some armour loot even though it is better than my current piece, because it looks so terrible with the rest of my armour. I know, I'm too vain for my own good ;)
I can't really comment on crafting yet, though I have heard that the gathering professions are a real grind to master.
Finally, I have to comment on the user friendliness of the UI and game. I'm an experienced MMO player, having started with Everquest a couple of months after it first launched back in 1999. Yet despite the in-game manual I had problems with a few things that I thought should have been more obvious. Things like the traits systems (a vital component of character progression) are explained poorly and I had to do quite a bit of reading on the forums to get an idea of the best way to use it.
You can download some UI mods and I'm currently using one called Mirage. The basic UI really needs some tweaking.
I have to say that overall I'm really enjoying my time in Hyboria. The game is fun and gorgeous to look at, and the combat system is a little more involved than most MMOs. However, there are quite a few niggles with the game, that whilst not enough to stop me playing are annoying. I'm lucky I've found such a great guild, and the pvp and roleplaying are what really holds my interest right now. I expect to be playing for quite some time yet!