Age of Conan: Unchained Review
Age of Conan: Unchained takes a solid MMO and makes it free-to-play. 300,000 new players have already signed up to quest through Hyboria and Khitai, and they can now access an in-game store to enhance their characters. Subscribers receive even more benefits, such as additional character slots.
When Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures debuted in 2008, there was a ton of hype about its graphics and combat system. Conan might not have been as popular a fantasy setting as Middle-earth or Azeroth, but the 80s films ensured substantial name recognition in the general public.
Promising a visceral and bloody MMO experience, AoC was setting itself up for failure. While Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures sold nearly a million copies on the very first day, the vast majority of players only stuck around for a few months, leaving a skeletal player base of perhaps 100,000. There were the dreaded server mergers and closures, and AoC appeared to be heading for the pile of big MMO failures.
To summarize, Funcom replaced AoC's developmental leadership, started listening to its players, and began fixing the game fast. Subscription numbers leveled out, but the 2010 expansion pack Rise of the Godslayer didn't provide a huge surge in players. It's largely been holding steady since at least until the July release of Age of Conan: Unchained, which turns the game into a free-to-play service.
There was some talk leading up to its release, but Age of Conan Unchained f2p took everyone largely by surprise with how quickly the MMO market responded. With surging subscription numbers, it seems like Funcom's breathed new life into their three year old game, but what exactly's changed since Hyborian Adventures came out?
Age of Conan Unchained f2p has a ton of options to customize your character. Every level, you get a number of skill and feat points. Skills include basic abilities like how fast you run or how well you can climb ladders. They can also influence healing, building threat, and other class-specific mechanics.
Spending skill points isn't permanent. It costs some money in-game, but you can reset your skill points. Resetting skill points does grow more expensive as you level up, so test things out at earlier levels to get a feel for them.
Age of Conan feats are unique to every class, and you'll receive a number of branches to choose from. For example, my conqueror can choose between the brute and carnage trees, or he can level up general skills common to all classes. The first two give me some new skills while augmenting existing ones. General feats allow me to deal more damage, regenerate health faster, and the like.
There are also more stats to pore over than you can shake a stick at. Just about any stat you can envision is present and laid out. There's no more guessing about how much of a damage bonus you'll receive from boosting strength or how quickly you'll regenerate stamina.
There's even a stats tab dedicated to PvP combat and another to keep track of how many kills you've earned against other players. Want to know what your evade chance is in PvP? Just take a look at the PvP combat tab.
Age of Conan's combat system isn't revolutionary, but it is slightly more demanding than your basic MMO button mashing. On one hand, it's actually simpler. At least on the conqueror I rolled, I had less skills than most MMOs (Warhammer Online is another title with simplified skills). However, almost all skills required a combo to complete.
You start out with three directional skills for combat (these also serve as your auto attacks), but you'll eventually get five. Enemies will display up to three shield icons to the right, left, or top. You want to use skills and auto attacks which target their undefended sides since you'll do more damage.
Enemies also respond to your attacks. If you continually attack an enemy's left side, that enemy will defend against left-sided attacks more effectively, so it pays to change your attack's directions.
The only way you'll do max damage with your attacks is to complete the combos, and the damage difference between a successful combo and a failed one is huge.
You can't walk through enemies either. That doesn't really matter in PvE, but it can really suck in PvP if you're surrounded. Your only option is to then crouch, rendering you more vulnerable to enemy attacks. However, you'll be able to move through enemies, albeit at a slower pace.
Conan is known for its bloody action, and you'll see plenty of blood spraying across the screen. You can turn the gore down in the game's options, but then you'll miss out on all the decapitations and other disgusting (if you're my girlfriend) or awesome (if you're me) special effects.
Stories and Questing
Alas, if the entire game were like the first twenty levels! Tortage, the intro area for new characters, perfectly showcases the game's potential. The Pirates of the Caribbean-esque village and tropical foilage are still some of the prettiest locations I've ever seen in any game, and every NPC features voice acting. If this were the standard to which the rest of the game adhered, I've no doubt it would have attracted several million subscribers.
Sadly, once you leave Tortage, it's back to the good old text windows for speaking to NPCs. The epic story begun in Tortage is largely forgotten as you grind make yourself stronger to face the growing storm. The main story isn't spectacular, and you'll only receive a handful of related quests as you level up.
It's difficult to judge MMO quests. On the whole, they're worse than what you get with single player titles. Age of Conan has its fair share of collect x item and kill y enemy quests, but there are some longer quest arcs which span entire zones. Whether it's helping the barbarian chief against his rivals or uncovering yet another conspiracy, many of Age of Conan's quests at least allude to a genuine story.
How does AoC compare to other MMOs when it comes to quests? It's pretty standard fare, but it works well enough. There's nothing particularly good, but there's also nothing memorably bad either. Tortage is definitely the high point of the game, but you'll quickly realize it's nothing special once you hit level 20.
What makes crafting in AoC unique, if anything? Well, it's certainly better than Warhammer Online's paltry offering, but there's nothing new here. Like many other MMOs, players can only choose two crafting professions (alchemy, architecture, armorsmithing, gemcutting, and weaponsmithing) at level 40. However, players can start leveling up all six harvesting professions (mining, prospecting, skinning, stonecutting, weaving, and woodcutting) at level 20, so you'll never have to rely on the auction house to get the raw materials you need.
Crafting is tier based, and crafting in the final tiers requires a guild with a leveled up guild city. That's bad news for soloers who just want to do their own thing, but it shouldn't be too difficult to latch onto a casual guild.
You can craft decent gear as you level up, but there's probably something better out there in an instance or raid. Having played AoC off and on over the past few years, I can say that it's far easier to group up now than when the game was only two or three months old.
I might be alone in this opinion, but my favorite aspect of crafting was simply the reprieve it offered. There's nothing quite as relaxing in the game as heading out to Poitain and farming crafting materials for half an hour at the end of the day.
No profession is really unnecessary either. Architects are needed to strengthen guild cities. Gemcutters can create stones to power up weapons and armor. Crafting in Age of Conan isn't the most comprehensive out of any MMO, but it's still a solid aspect of the game.
Age of Conan has always had luscious graphics, but there's a difference between a glittery surface and a real artistic endeavor. People said Aion had pretty graphics. I've always said otherwise. Sure, characters looked nice enough, but the art design was incredibly bland overall. Take other popular MMOs like The Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft, and you'll quickly see that while the graphics are sub-par compared to today's offerings, art design is animated, intricate, or otherwise interesting.
Funcom certainly spent enough time making AoC gorgeous, and a DX10 patch (promised at launch) has only made it shinier. All of the zones feel unique. Old Tarantia actually feels like a city people could live in, if still a little on the smallish side. I won't go through all the examples, but Poitain is clearly influenced by Roman architecture. The rolling hills, pristine roads, and even the vegetation should remind you of Italy. Other zones show other influences.
Lighting, shadows, and other effects are still top-notch for an MMO three years later. Animation is also excellent, even surprisingly so. Most MMOs make you feel light and airy. AoC makes you feel like you're actually carrying fifty pounds of armor on your back, and your inability to simply run through friends and enemies alike adds another layer of strategy.
Horse animations are a step above mounts in any other game. Turning a horse isn't the normal instantaneous course change but closer to driving a car, so expect to take wider turns than you're used to. Battle animations are a bit slower than other MMOs, but each hit packs more of a punch. When the blood sprays (and it will spray a lot), you feel like your hits should cause that kind of damage.
Battle sounds are pretty much what you'd expect with grunts, the clash of steel on steel, and general mayhem. Even ambient sounds - the clatter of horses on a road, water rushing over a waterfall, gates swinging open - are standard fare, but I suppose it's a credit to the game that nothing sounds out of place.
However, AoC really shines when it comes to its soundtrack. Basil Poledouris wrote the masterful soundtrack to the 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian. While the movie is campy and fun, especially if you enjoy a movie willing to poke fun at itself once in a while, the soundtrack is almost too good for the film.
Dramatic overtures, frantic battle scenes, and sad tales of love and loss all lend themselves much better to the game, which is closer to Robert E. Howard's original stories than any of the films.
Age of Conan isn't limited to the films' soundtracks, but it does pay homage to them. There's plenty of new stuff too, and it's a testament to the composer that I couldn't tell the difference.
When Age of Conan launched, it was one of the most demanding video games ever released. MMOs tend to scale back graphics to compensate for lag, so AoC's punishing requirements only compound these problems. To be fair, I never ran into lag, but AoC did crash a number of times, usually an hour or more after I had logged in.
Thankfully, I'm writing a few about Unchained and not the original game when it was released. Some bugs still exist, but it's nothing like what I remember with game clients crashing every 10 to 15 minutes, especially in Old Tarantia.
My old Core 2 Duo e6700 and 8800 GTX struggled with the game, but my newer i7 920 and Radeon 5870 system handled the game very well. The occasional crash is annoying, but it's never enough to make me punch out my monitor in rage. Compared to how the game used to run, Age of Conan: Unchained is the most stable piece of software ever released.
People play MMOs for the camaraderie, and AoC features plenty of group content that is pleasantly difficult compared to other MMOs like Aion and The Lord of the Rings Online. Players can PvP in keep sieges if they join a guild, and there are a number of mini-games as well.
However, the social panels are a mess. They're far less intuitive than those found in other games, and the guild panel is one of the worst I've ever seen.
When it comes to in-game voice, it's enough to have it as backup in case Ventrilo or TeamSpeak are down. Most guilds I've been in haven't wanted to just hand out guild Vent/TS info to pugs, and that's when in-game voice chat comes in handy. Sadly, Funcom decided not to add that feature in Age of Conan, and it feels like a significant step back from LotRO.
Free to Play
Obviously, the biggest change between Rise of the Godslayer and Unchained is the game's transition from a subscription model to a free-to-play, or f2p, service. Okay, it's actually a "hybrid" model with both f2p and subscription accounts, but the important distinction is that you can try Age of Conan: Unchained for free.
The f2p store is pretty much what you'd expect. There aren't any items which will give you a huge advantage over your opponents, one of the early worries of the MMO community when f2p games were just starting to come out. First you need some "Funcom points," which the store currently lists in various amounts from 600 Funcom points for USD $5 to 9000 Funcom points for $75. There's no incentive to buy more than you need because every package boils down to 120 points for $1 unlike LotRO where larger packages offer more Turbine points per dollar. However, Funcom points are usable with not only Age of Conan but Anarchy Online and Bloodline Champions too.
If you're going to invest a lot of time into Age of Conan, I suggest going for a premium account. If you purchase 12 months at a time, the price will be a little more than $8 a month, almost half what a 1 month subscription is ($14.99).
Going premium has a ton of benefits from opening up new zones and character classes to giving you offline levels and a 10% store discount. You also get 60 Funcom points every month as a bonus, even though they're only worth $0.50. Still, a bonus is a bonus.
If you're not sold on the game yet, the f2p option does cut down on what you can do in the game, but you'll have the opportunity to experience enough of the game to decide whether or not it's for you.
Unchained took a solid game in Age of Conan and gave it a much needed jolt of public appeal. Many gamers remember the letdown of the game's launch, especially the myriad bugs and technical glitches that turned an otherwise enjoyable game into a frustrating mess. Thankfully, players are more than willing to flock back to AoC in droves once they realize they don't have to spend a single cent. Has Funcom's strategy been successful so far? If the player base numbers are any indication, going free-to-play has been a resounding success. In a single month, "over 300,000 new players" tried out the game. There's no word on how many players will stick with the game, but it's a promising sign nevertheless.
You really don't have anything to lose other than the few hours of your time that it takes to download and install the game client (it's a big one), rolling a new character, and setting foot on the tropical island of Tortage for the first time.
Former players would also be wise to give the game another shot since most of the issues that caused them to leave in the first place (namely bugs) have been fixed. Rise of the Godslayer added several new areas, and Funcom announced their intention to release a new mini-expansion called "Savage Coast of Turan," tying the game to the recently released (and critically maligned) movie Conan the Barbarian.
The next year is going to be an exciting time for MMOs. Of course, there's The Old Republic looming ever closer, but Guild Wars 2 is just over the horizon. Even The Lord of the Rings Online is getting a major expansion pack with The Rise of Isengard in about a month, another game to demonstrate the benefits of going free-to-play. With so many big releases, it's surprising to see Age of Conan, a game most gamers had given up on, come back with such fury.
- Author's experience.
Age of Conan. Funcom, 2008. Microsoft Windows.