Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Another Week, Another MMO: AoC

Post soundtrack: “Oriental Smile” by Paolo Fedreghini & Marco Bianchi

Well, my brief dalliance with Allods Online has been and gone, and I’ve moved on to something older (and more honest – they may be backtracking, but I’m not emotionally investing myself in a character they want me to pay by the hour to play).  I’ve also tidied up loose ends in STO (putting my two characters surplus of currency in the fleet bank) ready for my account there to run out of gametime (regardless of odd marketing decisions from Atari and Cryptic).

It's the login screen.  What more can I say?

So I’ve started playing Age of Conan, having picked up a ridiculously cheap copy on special (which was cheaper than the bandwidth required to download the trial).  And it’s proving fun, in a rather visceral kind of way.  Expect overblown dramatics, unfamiliar-sounding names and locations, and lots of violence.  Season with extra game development post-launch. Top with a surprisingly deep combat system (including amusingly hokey ‘fatalities’).  And you have a recipe for a surprisingly fun timesink.

Out of habit, I started by rolling a stealth class – in this case, an Aquilonian assassin.  Meet Kayardia – although you might want to keep a hand on your coinpurse, and be sure to count your fingers afterwards if you shake hands.

Looking at her, I keeping thinking she needs to steal a good meal or three

Although the game is at its heart just another fantasy MMO like WoW, the differences in it's approach are quickly apparent.  The visual differences are most obvious; where WoW went with a more stylised look, AoC went for a much more realistic look (which has taken quite a bit of adjustment on my part, to get used to).

For one thing, the armor and weapons are believable (apart from odd issues with head armor graphics, mostly designed to avoid clipping issue I suspect) – seriously, look at WoW’s high-tier shoulders and helms, and tell me with a straight face that the character would be able to turn their head (or even stand up, bearing that much weight).  Player and npc models are accurately proportioned, and often well animated (although I would have liked to have seen the option to have a less skinny female model, especially for melee classes).

Sunny Tortage!  Come for the shipwreck, stay for the bloody revolution!

The starting zone for new characters, one of the Baracha Isles, is a self-contained zone containing the town of Tortage and the White Sands Isle.  Questing through these two areas will get your character up to level 20, at which stage you can leave for the wide world of Hyboria and promptly get lost (like I did). The initial starting area (you wash up on a beach, and have to then trek to the town of Tortage through the jungle through pirates, poachers, picts, and demons) gives you enough of information on how to play that you don’t get in over your head – too much.

I was initially surprised at how many quests are quite thematically dark, although with some reflection (and some cynical recognition that the game is supposed to be ‘mature’) you can understand (or rationalise) this in a world where there is little or no law beyond that with an individual is able to purchase with their own strength (and the social place of slaves isn’t enviable).

One criteria I have in games is the "Spider Test".  Namely, do they make me jump?  AoC passes (with flying colours)

Gathering (or as the game refers to them, harvesting) professions become available at level 20, and curiously all six can all be learnt by your character.  Mining (for metals such as copper), Prospecting (for valuable metals such as silver), Stonecutting (for rock), and Woodcutting (which is fairly obvious) are all straightforward and mostly the same as in WoW.  Weaving is initially leveled by collecting cotton (an environmental spawn, like the others), but the higher tiers require silk which is dropped by mobs.  Skinning is purely gathered by mob drops.

Harvesting quests (requiring collecting 20 of the resource for that tier) are available at level 20 for tier 1, level 50 for tier 2, and level 70 for the final third tier.  There are also ‘rare tier’ quests that need to be completed, requiring you to collect a rare drop of each resource type which occasionally drops in place of the normal resource (such as Ebon Ash instead of Ash for tier one woodcutting).

All done!  (Zug Zug)

The manner in which resources spawn in the game world is also curiously different.  The spawn points are fixed, and they regenerate over time.  When harvested, a normal item reduces the resource by 10% health, and rare items reduce it by 20%.  As I understand it, it takes around 30 minutes for the spawnpoint to return from 0% back to full.  So it’s actually pretty straightforward to plan a route around a map, and the ability to collect everything is a nice touch.

I haven’t been able to try my hand at the crafting professions yet, as they don’t become available until level 40.  The five professions are Weaponsmith, Armorsmith, Alchemist, Gemcutter, and Architect.  The last is connected to the system of in-game player housing that I’ve yet to look all that closely at, but apparently a guild city offers benefits for members of that guild.

Some monsters just look...  odd.

On the subject of combat, from the wiki:

In melee combat you have six different angles of attack; down against the head, diagonally down from the right, diagonally down from the left, thrust against the torso, diagonally up from the right and diagonally up from the left. Combining these angles you'll be able to create combos that can give additional damage and faster combat.

You don't choose a single target in melee combat, but instead you turn your character to the direction you wish to hit, and you attack from one of the six angles. Attacking from some of these angles allows you to hit more than one enemy at a time; dealing damage to all of them. The damage of the attack will then be spread out on all the enemies that you hit.

You can get a soft lock on a target, but this doesn't mean that you're within range of the target. You can attack from where you stand, but that doesn't mean that you will hit anything. When you strike, the underlying engine will decide whether you hit a target, several targets, or none at all.

It has a nice solid feel to it, especially on a stealthy class like Kay.  Initially you only have three attack directions to chose from (at lvl35 I still haven’t acquired the other three attacks), down against the head, and diagonally down from the left and right (selected by the keys 1, 2 and 3).  Then you have the choice of stronger attacks (not sure if these are the combos the game refers to – still trying to figure that out) which require pressing 1 2 or 3 (or for more advanced attacks, sometimes multiple directions in the correct sequence).

Believe it or not, I'm fighting spiders.  It's hard to tell when the lawn is so overgrown

Add a weakness mechanic, namely the Shield System, and combat takes on a nice degree of additional depth.  Again, from the wiki:

Part of the combat system in Age of Conan is the directional attacks, controlling every swing and strike, and working hand in hand with that is what we call the shield system. The shield system is simply a way of representing a lot of small things, like the guy who always tries to cover his right side or the monster that’s weak to frontal assaults.

Your enemy will focus their defense in certain areas, represented by a set of icons that surrounds them. The more of these icons that are on one side, the heavier his or her defense is on that side, and the less damage you will do when attacking that side.

Your opponent will constantly shift their defensive focus around depending on where you’re hitting, so mashing the same attack over and over again (or using the same combo over and over again) will quickly decrease its effectiveness. While not all enemies will use this defense system (and some may use it less than others), studying each foe carefully and noting its tendencies and mixing up your attacks will make for the most effective and most enjoyable gameplay.

It makes for challenging fights where you can react to the shifting weaknesses of your opponent – for example you may hit your target’s weak left side, after which that side gains shields and you follow with an attack to their now-weak right side.  The only downside I’m running into is a lack of keys and fingers – I’m reliant on the mouse to select combo attacks, as there’s not enough free keys left within reach (and my number of different combo attacks is growing slowly as I level).


All in all, the game is quite absorbing.  It’s taking time to grasp some of the subtleties in the combat system, and I’ve a lot of new abbreviations to learn (such as the ones for all the race-specific class specialisations – PoM means Priest of Mitra, not Prayer of Mending, and Assassins are referred to as Sin, probably because there’d be something kind of disturbing about a raid advertising “LFM 1x Ass”).

Will I be playing after the 30 days that came with the box?  I’m not sure just yet, but the game is solid and the playerbase seems enthusiastic (and the fact the developers have an expansion in the pipeline is a very good sign).

Now for a few more screenshots to make it look like I’ve been busy.

Tortage by night still doesn't smell all that pleasant

The hearthstone equivalent, the Path of Asura

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour

Where's a giant rolled up newspaper when you need it?

Looking good outside the walls of Tarantia