This week, Yahtzee dons the loincloth and fuzzy, horned hat to review Age of Conan.
This is the bit where the big nerds get to beat me up and take my lunch money, because I have to admit I don't know much about the Conan mythos, because I'm afraid that thinking too much about a muscly man in sweaty pants will make me a disappointment to my parents. I like the movie, because it was Arnold Schwarzenegger back before he was trying to be anything other than a gigantic two-legged cow-man who can't act. But my lack of foreknowledge of Age of Conan will ensure a fair review concentrating on the outsider's experience rather than complaining about the depiction of Daisy McSwordboobs from page 74, paragraph 3 of Conan Gets a Fixed-Rate Mortgage or whatever.
The choices of race are: white human, black human, or another white human. And body-wise you get to choose between big, muscley football hooligan or wispy lingerie model. Not that the game will admit that; RPGs these days get laughed out of the room if they don't let you customize at least fifteen separate rolls of flab. So there's the standard "advanced" character editing screen, but your rippling six-packs barely flicker as you rattle the slider back and forth, and even the smallest available boobies resemble a lamppost with two grapefruits nailed to it. Character customisation is, in short, a joke, and the punchline is that you're all going to be covered in the same generic, pseudo-medieval outfits pretty soon anyway. In defiance of all this, I opted to play as a female Stygian necromancer with all the body sliders set to minimum and decided to see how long I could get through the game without putting on any armour at all, thus beginning the adventures of Thinderella, the Necromantic Naturist.
The first thing that struck me about Age of Conan is that unlike my character's nubile, young, naked body that glistened invitingly in the morning sun, it wasn't very tight. Over the first few levels, I was loaded down with a ridiculous number of evil black spells of dubious usefulness, creating an instant dilemma with each battle as I tried to decide precisely in what way I wanted to suck out an enemy's soul through his urethra. And, of course, I could summon undead minions. By level twenty, I had eight of the dopey fucks following me around. Not the biggest horde in the world. More of a hordette, really. But enough to obscure all the action with necrotic flesh and Phong shading every time a fight broke out. And it certainly feels big whenever you die or walk through a door and have to summon them all again one at a time. Add to that seventeen buffs to cast on myself, and my pre-questing preparation took so long, I felt like an acne-riddled schoolgirl ready to hit Essex on a Saturday night.
Contrary to popular belief, I don't hate MMORPGs. I hate what they do to people, turning them into nocturnal globs of flesh and Cheetos that communicate entirely in mouth-breathing, and I hate when I look back at my time with a MMORPG and realised that I've just flushed away months of my life that I could have spent writing a best-selling book or raising a child or pounding nails into my face. But I have had fun with MMORPGs at the time, or rather a MMORPG, and since comparison is going to be inevitable, let's just get the fucker over with: Age of Conan is not World of Warcraft. Some people might say "ooh, maybe it's not trying to be", but those people are going to hell for lying, because all MMOs are trying to be World of Warcraft. Same controls, same terminology, same arduous blocks of motherfucking grind, same interfaces right down to the quest-givers with big, gold exclamation marks growing out of their heads like they've just spotted Solid Snake shuffling through the undergrowth.
But one way in which A of C does differ is in the emphasis on story. Dialogue trees are included to allow you to get to know the NPCs, but frankly I find it difficult to care about the personal lives of gormless pissants who spend their whole life standing in one place picking their nose. And when all I want is their quest, I'd prefer to not have to ask them how their day's going before they can get to the bloody point and tell me how many wombats they want killed. Playing up the dialogue in a MMORPG feels like adding wheels to a hovercraft, but nevertheless, Age of Conan's intention seems to be to make every player feel like the hero. Your character has 20 levels of largely solo questing to get through before they're even set loose in the big game world, and there's this ongoing story thread about you being the chosen one or some shit. But it's somewhat undermined by that niggling knowledge that there are a hundred thousand other chosen ones running around, some lower level, some of them higher level, but all of them dickheads who are plotting your murder. I don't know if everyone's just prejudiced against Thinderella's free spirit, but Age of Conan seems to be in dire need of smacktard fumigation. I don't think I met a single other player who didn't either run up and chop my tits off or run away assuming I'd do the same to them. And every other word in the general chat field was some kind of racial epithet.
My theory is that all that solo playing they make you do at the start puts you into the wrong mindset. There's nothing wrong with being something a small part of something bigger than yourself. That's how an MMO should work: solidarity, teamwork, joining forty friends to go stomp on a night elf's face. Age of Conan makes the same mistake as the school system by telling everyone that they're special, thus turning them into entitled twat-donkeys.
Reviewing MMOs is awkward, because given the minimal time I have to spare in between buying yachts and kissing ladies on the mouth, I can only play the first thirty-odd levels of one class. But judging by the sheer number of tweaks that are still being made in patch after patch after patch, many would probably agree that Age of Conan is unrefined. The usual quartet of fighter, rogue, mage and priest is split between 12 playable classes, and while that's a useful thing to brag about in the press release, making them all balanced is going to be akin to squeezing the bubbles out of freshly applied wallpaper while riding a unicycle. And call my determined nudity immature if you like, but the fact that I wasn't hampered in any way does hang a big question mark on whether there's any point to having armour at all.
I'd say the whole game is overburdened with unnecessary minutia, and the lack of variety and spark ultimately leaves it with little more than niche appeal. Specifically, a niche that sells replica swords at gaming conventions and secretly dreams of living inside a Boris Vallejo painting.
- Couldn't go to E3 this year: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Homework for Age of Conan players: take all your clothes off and see if it impacts gameplay at all, let's see if we can get an all-nude server going
- I'm fat