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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Age of Conan - MMO review

I hope that everyone has enjoyed the Memorial Day holiday that is provided to us by those servicemen and women that have given up their lives for our freedom and comfort. As for me, this year the holiday was marred by news of the death of a friend, and another very good friend’s parent.

But let me not dwell on that. Let me discuss Age of Conan, the massively multiplayer online game (MMO). This is the latest major MMO to come out and was much anticipated. It’s based on the artwork and original storylines of Conan the Barbarian. I don’t mean the movie starring the Guvernator Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the original source that inspired the movies.

Like the source material the game is for adults, and very dark. When I say adult I mean just that. Bare breasted NPC characters and decapitating foes in battle are just a few of the things that make this game not suitable for kids. So don’t say you weren’t warned if you let your kids into the game.

Now I’m running the game on a modified older computer. With 2.5 RAM, and a Raedon 1600 Pro video card this is not the fastest computer out there. If you have similar configurations expect to drop several of the video options below the low default setting to garner a framerate of 10 -15 on average. And that’s with a cable connection.

But the graphics are very good even at this setting. And you can fight without much difficulty; though in an area with 5 or more characters fighting, expect to have problems.

The sound quality is nice. Though the voice track for quest givers really can’t be heard unless you max your volume, but then the background music will be staggering when you’re done. Other than this glitch the sound is good and not distracting from the game.

But how is the gameplay?

Addicting, like most good MMO’s. Conan starts you off with a simple storyline of a slave surviving a shipwreck and losing most of your memory and skills. The basic movements are straightforward, and reminiscent of all MMO’s. The GUI is similar to WoW and others in that the main skills are on the bottom of your screen. All the HUD boxes are of decent enough size to be seen and used but not obtrusive. There is no side skill bars but that really isn’t important (at least as far as level 25 that I can speak of).

One of the first major differences you will notice is that there are 3 directional buttons between the ability and fighting combo buttons in the skill bar. They are important and vital. Unlike any other MMO fighting is not just mashing button but it’s also about selecting direction of attack. Thus the arrows. And it makes a difference.

When facing an opponent you will be faced with shields surrounding the target. The more shields, the less damage and vise versa. Depending on your foe, and the level they have, as the battle goes on the shields shift – thus necessitating different combo attacks and style. Several targets will have similar styles in this defense, but the early game is pretty easy to lean and obvious. Questing and searching is easy enough, as is gaining new abilities and skills. Feats become available at level 10, and I’ll discuss that later.

The tutorial for the game is essentially the beginning section of the game. In this part you will be alone in the world during the daytime. You will have a NPC companion, but don’t count on her to do anything for you; she’s only there for looks at this point. Still you should have little difficulty getting through this section if you’ve played a MMO before. If you haven’t expect a couple of deaths before you get the hang of it. I doubt if it would take more than 5 unless you try to go Rambo about it.

Once this section is finished you will enter the game world, sort of. You will enter an area (at level 5, possibly 6 if you get lucky) that is the staging area for your character. A small island that you cannot escape (sort of) until you reach about level 20 is you are strictly soloing (which most seem to be doing). There are several fetch quests here, and more than a few kill X number of this guy quests. Leveling goes pretty fast up to about level 15.

One thing that is of note is that quests provide better experience than power killing in my opinion. In fact it’s hard to camp an area, though respawns are even-paced. There just are too many people in the zone to let you really hold a spot. And since the main quest areas are not instanced, be careful running too far into an area that seems extra empty. You may find that the respawns will set you beyond your capabilities quickly. And don’t expect a lot of help from passerbyers, most will leave you to your circumstances (and more than a few I noticed used my impending death to help them capture quest items).

I believe you have an option to skip the main portion of your progression in the staging area, called Tortage Island, but I have yet to take this option. And as I mentioned above this is not the main game, because you will need to pursue the night time option to advance your characters path off the island. And when you get to the end of that path, you will be given the option to go to the final stage. This is an instance, and enemies will not respawn (except in one section). But once you enter this stage there is no retreat. Any unfinished quests are unavailable, as is returning to the daytime zone, so keep that in mind.

Once this path is done you will be transported to the appropriate zone based on your nationality picked in character creation. In each you will find a few easy fetch quests, as well as several that will require you to travel to several zones far away. And at about 20 you can start to collect resources to be used for eventual crafting (which is only available at level 40+).

So what are the problems? Benefits?

There are many minor problems on the game. It’s very easy to flip or delete the directional arrows in the middle of a battle. That can be very problematic. The skill bar has plenty of space for the beginning levels, but could use more space after level 20ish. The trader is inaccessible, in Stygia at least. The bank is nowhere to be found. There are no guides to pint you towards any critical area (like a trainer or bank) though they do usually show up on the map – usually. The gem cutter crafter does not work if you don’t have gems in hand (hold onto the early gems you receive if this interests you). Space in your inventory is highly limited – just one bag – and I have yet to see an extra bag anywhere. All the weaving trainers are broken except for the one in Portia which is buggy.

A bigger problem is the feats tree and armor/weapon upgrades. At level 10 you get a feat tree with several options. Some are general and some are class specific. You may note that there are effects mentioned in feat descriptions, but you can’t find out information on them. There are really incomplete answers on the feats as well.

This works hand in hand with the gear. There is no explanation of what is better a high quality low level item or a higher level low quality item. In fact there is no way to really see the difference in one item or another. Armor for example tells you nothing about its total damage it will absorb. Just that it has X additional benefits. So a high quality low level item, like a blue (high quality) chest plate, may or may not be equal or worse than a white or green (low quality) item 2x it’s level. The weapons are a bit more descriptive since they give damage output, but it’s still not overly clear.

The game manual that came with the game is very light on information. The same can be said of the in-game manual. And the chat box channels are odd to me.

Now with these annoying problems you might think I find the game unappealing. That would be untrue. I have played one character to level 25, 7, 5, and 5. I enjoy several of the areas, except the Purple swamp which is just too dark to be real useful for anything.

Overall it’s a good MMO, but it’s not WoW. But also unlike WoW it’s not overly crowded anywhere.

Is this better than Vanguard, yes. Better than Pirates, absolutely! Does it beat Lord of the Rings, yes. Will you enjoy the game and feel good about the money you spent – so far I have to say yes. Hopefully some of the bugs I mentioned, and a couple of broken quests, will all be fixed soon. The game is less than a month old so may fixes are bound to be on the horizon.

I say it’s worth the time you will invest in it. Now how I feel in 3 months is another question. Especially when Warhammer is be out about then. So we will see.

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Absinthe Fairy

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Thoughts on Pirates of the Caribbean Online

**This can also be seen at Video Gaming Blog, where I am a contributing author**

Just in time for the holiday buying season, a slew of MMO’s (Massively Multiplayer Online games) have come out. From fighting demons, to undead pirates and sci-fi action several choices are now available in the genre that has quickly become a staple of computer gaming. One of the more anticipated games has been Pirates of the Caribbean Online.

PotC is not the average MMO. Unlike many games in the genre it is family-oriented. That designation normally indicates a sub-standard and unamusing game, in my experience. Another warning sign is the fact that this video game is based on a movie, which virtually guarantees failure. But there have been exceptions to both of these rules.

PotC does not appear to break the rules, which is sad considering the enormous returns the 3 films generated. Still there is only so much that can be expected from Disney, and considering play (with limitations) can be free you get what you pay for. And you get a lot for the all the limitations in the game, even if you do pay ($10/month).

Disney has failed to follow the standard of most MMO’s these days. Poor execution of forming crews and friend management are only part of the problems. Being very kid friendly, battles are limited. Pirates can only fight each other in PvP areas, as cursed pirates only, ship battles can only occur against NPC ships.

Experience management is horrible, with groups not benefiting from kills, and the ease of being dropped from a battle and place in jail being high. NPC enemies can often be multiple levels higher than the player, regardless of the area encountered.

The game has issues. Does it look good? Yes. Is it family-friendly? Definitely. Is it cheap and highly affordable for subscriptions? Check there. But as I said before you are getting what you pay for.

In my mind, would I play this? If I was paid. Very young gamers may well enjoy this, and it can be cute for a distraction for a day. But if you enjoy LotRO (Lord of the Rings Online), WoW (World of Warcraft), or several other MMO’s you may want to wait for Conan or Tabula Rasa.

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Absinthe Fairy