My first impressions of Conan left me a little indifferent: it didn’t look as pretty as I had expected, I found myself floundering with the controls somewhat and nothing during that time had grabbed me and made me say “wow!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing I came across so far in Conan that really stinks. It isn’t nearly as polished as Warcraft, but even Warcraft had teething issues. It does boldly plough into serious graphical intensity. SWG, Horizons and Vanguard all tried and failed to have it together and runnable at launch, AoC seems to do remarkably well; but then I happen to be the proud owner of a relatively new system, complete with GeForce 8800GT.
And yet, when I launched it, this is what presented itself:
The first thing that came to mind was Far Cry, but unlike Far Cry I’m seeing angles and hard lines.
Maybe that comparison is what kept it from impressing me. I noticed sharpness everywhere; the effort here was obviously high detail, but it lacks the low-fi finesse of WoW which tries to accommodate its own limitations and the artists invested a lot of care and energy into making things look like things.
The immediate impression I got was in the vein – but not as drastic – as when 3D games first started incorporating photo-realistic textures, like the late 90s early 00s Duke Nukem 3D demos, which I thought looked terrible because they were using photographs and simply stretching them onto object surfaces.
Conan’s starter zone also feels very constricted and compact like Kotor2. Having paid no attention to the beta at all, and oblivious to the development history, perhaps this was a late addition or was remodelled late in the development cycle.
Elsewhere they seem to have done a much better job of blending modelling and texturing, although there are still places where it seems like three people were involved in building some models/areas: one models, one textures and one slapping the latter onto the former, but overall it’s quite coherent and pleasant to look at.
But I still find myself seeing a lot of sharp/hard lines, stretching of textures, and so forth. I’ve got everything cranked up high (except anti-aliasing which still seems to bite into my frame rate a tad too much).
I think some of it is “fi-trast” – the contrast between different fidelities causes my eyes to take a step back and see the flaws in the otherwise higher-def images that would quite happily fool my eye. (See left image below). At other times it’s just a little too busy with … something missing that keeps me from noticing the quantity of detail and, again, breaking my immersion. (See right image)
After you leave the starter island of Tortange, the NPCs stop speaking during quest dialog. I find this makes the RPG style framing rather painful, especially since the NPC dialog easily gets lost in busy or bright environments, it could use some kind of opaque backing plate to make it more readable. I also wish they’d stop showing the “!” quest icon during these cutscenes.
My visual ill-ease with Conan largely went away when I managed to get Anti-aliasing to turn on. The first few times it sort of secretly turned it off – I think my client crashed and didn’t save the changes, or it conflicted with something and silently turned it off. With aliasing off, the grass and clutter is thick and bulky, and it looks ugly – like the WWIIOL terrain slapped hideously into their sumptuous world.
Turn on anti-aliasing, and the world suddenly looks quite delicious.
There are graphical oddities scattered all over the place, from this weirdness with water at Tarantia
To the their “sun” hack – it’s actually the moon but you’re not supposed to be able to tell :)
(Its a lot larger when it’s the moon, and shortly after the “sun” set, the moon rose, so I assume this was supposed to be the Sun)
And then there are textures which seem to have gotten clipped or something which adds to my sense of jaggedness:
I’m not sure why it is that almost every screenshot I have from an MMO recently is night time. I’m starting to suspect that when it’s lighter I am more absorbed into gameplay and don’t stop to think of taking a screenie, whereas when it’s dark I am concentrating on seeing/vision/etc.
I thought I had a whole bunch more screenshots showing the brighter side of Conan, but it seems like it stopped taking screenshots at some point.
So far the quests have been OK. None of them have been arduous and there have been several interesting storylines and several experiences that I would say are unique to any existing MMO because of their use of single-player storyline content.
It’s very easy to mistake combat for generic MMO combat, but it is subtly different because of the collider component: you can, and are supposed to, use the terrain to try and manage the impact of a group of NPCs whacking on you: you can stop them getting behind you, and if you back into a corner you can limit how many can attack you at once to some degree (although it does seem that NPCs have some kind of threshold that says “ah well, I get to hit you anyways”).
I had my first group last night and it was kinda fun; the interface is a little clunky and unpolished and we ran into a few minor issues that I won’t harp on because the game is barely a week old. I’ve played a Priest of Mitra (cleric) and a Barbarian (a sort of heavy rogue). Surprisingly, I’m more taken with the healer; Lungar, my Barbarian, is quite capable of fighting heavy mobs, whereas my Priest actually presents me with a challenge: single even cons, not a problem, but two or more mobs even 1 or 2 levels below me is definitely not a sure thing. The Priest is that sort of soft hybrid of mele/healer contained in the EQ1 bard class that I am so fond of.
Conan’s combat system is a little different than most stock MMOs; unfortunately, they chose some really crappy terminology that I suspect is the result of translation.
In short, each character has “shields”, which represent their defensive coverage. By default you are covering your left, mid and right equally. However, you can shuffle them around, e.g. to fully block any mid strikes or to doubly defend your left and singly defend your right. NPCs have shields too.
Instead of Auto-Attack, characters have 3 basic attacks – left, mid and right. The amount of defense the enemy has put in that sector dictates the amount of damage you do. If you keep mashing “mid” the enemy will move all his shields there and you’ll stop doing damage.
I would have called them “defenses” or something; “shields” is just kind of confusing with … shields.
The other component of Combat is the “combo”. Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t a combo traditionally a move achieved by pulling off a combination? Not so much in Conan. There are a bunch of mele abilities you can use like regular MMO abilities; but the mainstay are these “combos” – which are probably so called because you have to hit the ability and then hit the direction the ability is supposed to go in. For instance, my Barbarian has an AOE called “Sweep”, it’s listed as “UR”, which means I have to hit the hotkey for sweep and then hit the Upper-Right attack.
I guess, in a sense, it is a combo, just not in one that makes sense to me ;)
Now, the shield system brings me to one of big obstacles to my enjoyment of Conan: the controls. For some reason, I just can’t get 100% comfortable with them. Definitely one of the biggest issues for me is the shield system, which is mapped to the control key and numbers 1 thru 4. If you press CTRL-1, CTRL-3 it will transfer shields from left to right. That’s very cool, but it takes away my CTRL key (although they use CTRL-combos for a bunch of stuff).
I find this leaves me struggling to operate multiple hotkeys. There are a bunch of hotkey combos that it tells you are reserved, even though nothing is using them. On my priest I tried mapping some of my spells to CTRL-Q thru CTRL-T, unfortunately this does weird stuff, including CTRL-W stepping forward and cancelling my spell, and CTRL-T periodically half opening the chat-buffer to send a tell but then somehow defocusing input halfway between the chat box and the game; if you type text, it doesn’t appear in the chat buffer, but your keys stop controlling your character. In order to recover you have to hit enter, wait a half second for it to fully focus on the “/tell ” and then hit enter. Or something like that. If you hit ESC it eventually brings up the game menu.
Another huge frustration is the tiny inventory you get. The developers probably thought it doesn’t matter because so much of the loot is worth nothing. But typically, during the newbie experience, you can expect to have filled your inventory about 1/2 to 1/3rd of the way to your quest objective.
The Thirsty Dog Inn, in the starter area, sells packs. One costs 50 copper (Conan’s lowest value coins are Tin, not Copper; it’ll take you around 15-20 levels to make 50 copper) and the other costs 5s (my level 22 Priest has 4s). I bought the 50 copper one with my Barbarian. I don’t wish to put into words my annoyance at discovering that it only has 4 slots (you have to buy to find out).
4 measley slots?
The trouble is that there’s really no good way to guess whether something will be valuable or not. Stuff that I figured would sell for 2-5x what the other loot would sell for sold for 2 tin, where the other items turn out to be worth 13 tin.
And speaking of items; it seems like Conan’s items suffered major dialbackage. I’ve seen loot drops on mobs upto level 40 featuring Sandals that offer “+0.1% damage protection”; and arm bands, gloves, etc. I guess it’s primarily chest and leg pieces that offer protection, and that sort of makes sense, but in an MMO it leaves you wondering: what’s the difference between this level 1 shoes +0.1% and level 40 shoes +0.1%?
Then there are items with “+0.02% Slashing Invulnerability”. What the heck? 1/20th of a percent? No wonder this level 14 item sells for 10 tin less than the same level 10 item without that one stat.
So far, the game has been entertaining, although it does drag in places; and you quickly get tired of the loading times which, though short, can happen a hell of a lot because the zones are all very small.
The “Destinty” quest that leads you off Tortange island was a lot of fun, a nice little single-player event. After that, though, I got dumped at Tarantia and found myself kind of wondering what to do. There were the obvious “familiarization” quests immediately after which it seemed to want to shunt me off to other continents. I found a lot of people scratching their heads at that, trying to figure out if there weren’t supposed to be quests in/around the area.
The Conan world isn’t meant to be contiguous, which if you’re used to traditional MMOs throws you for a loop because you expect to get all your city quests and then head out thru the gate. The gates are there, in Tarantia, but they lead you to NPCs asking if you want to go to the other starter cities – which is just downright confusing. Why the hell did I just do a half-dozen courier quests in Tarantia just to head to another continent, where the NPC is offering me a damn “get to know” courier quest?
There’s rather a lot of stuff that isn’t explained at all or explained poorly. At level 10 you get an extended skill tree system, “Feats”, which isn’t mentioned at all.
Character attributes are present and can be tweaked thru items with stats, but otherwise they tend to themselves. There is the inevitable “Skill Point” system for things like health/mana regeneration, run speed, recovery (think ‘meditate’), sneaking and … climbing.
At each level, you get 20 skill points, and each level all of the skills available to you raise their ceiling by 10 points. Aside from the 20 base points, you also randomly get points 2 at a time. With my Barbarian, this seemed to be non-stop, and he was easily able to keep several skill lines maxed.
My Priest, however, has gone numerous levels with little – if any – more than the 20 baseline. There are quite a few quests involving climbing, which she basically can’t do because her climbing is stuck at 50 unless I want to stop keeping vital skills maxed and waste the next 3 levels of points on getting climbing up.
One of the best things about this game has to be its mature setting: everything from drunken pirates visibly pissing off the dock in Tutange to NPCs threatening to stick a pike “up your arse” or decrying their enemies as “bull-buggering”; the game is rife with suggestive content (I found one quest which asked me to calm down a nuisance visitor to the town, and one of the options for my female toon was to offer him a quickie).
Incidentally, the Conan world actually gives women a remarkable amount of power – many of the most powerful and most important characters are women; unfortunately, the average spotty teen remembers the women slaves. There’s certainly practical looking armor for both genders to wear, but naturally, most of the women running around in AoC are rather scantily clad. While I have some reservations about the message that might give out, I have to say it’s quite easy on the eyes ;)