Page last updated at 08:38 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 09:38 UK

Walking in a barbarian's footsteps

Screenshot from Age of Conan, Funcom/Eidos
Age of Conan is all about carving your destiny with a sword

By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

The talking is over and the time has come for action.

After a long build up, including an eight-week delay to apply the final polish, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (AoC) has been launched.

The game is widely seen as one that has a chance of taking on the current king of the online gaming heap - World of Warcraft (WoW).

That battle for a share of the global online gaming world is one that the mighty Conan himself would relish. At stake are fame, respect and untold riches.

The BBC News website got a chance to play through the early levels of the game and right from the opening moments it is obvious that the cosy world of WoW has been left far behind. It's not for nothing that the game is rated 18.

The game opens on a galley ship on which both male and female characters are slaves. Under attack, the ship sinks and the character is washed up on the beach of an island called Tortage naked but for a loin cloth and shackles.

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Age of Conan game play

From those opening moments the graphical detail of the game is a huge leap forward from the rather "cartoon-y" look of WoW. It even rivals Lord of The Rings Online in the graphical stakes. That detail comes at a price - the minimum specs are quite high.

Joe Best, associate producer at publishers Eidos, said: "We really want this to be full fat but also scalable to the PCs of the last few years."

The opening is worthy of a Conan story in which the hero is left to craft his, or her, destiny with their bare hands. The first quests involve finding a way to remove the shackles and then kill the man who enslaved you.

For the first 20 levels of the game, players will be pretty much alone, said Joe Best, an associate producer at Eidos.

The "linear" nature of those early levels on Tortage is where players become familiar with the game world, the abilities of their character and how to play. After that they get to join the larger MMO world of AoC.

Combat in Age of Conan looks like it will be testing

During those early levels the most important lessons learned are those that show how to fight.

Combat, bloody visceral combat, is at the heart of the Conan stories and the game is no exception. One of the first decisions made when the game was being drawn up, said Mr Best, was that the combat would be "ferocious".

"It's not about watching your character fight for you," he said. "they really wanted to break away from that "point and click" aspect of MMOs."

In games such as World of Warcraft characters attack automatically once they are directed to a target. In AoC the on-screen character only does what it is told. That's necessary as enemies adapt their fighting style to defend against the way they are attacked so that involvement is key.

And the combat is involving, much more so than WoW, where the same attacks and spells will despatch the same types of foe.

There is no doubt that it is fun to use combos and alter your attacks to beat a foe to the ground, or knock them back and then leap forward to finish them off with a panther-like grace that would win a nod of approval from the massive Cimmerian, Conan himself.

AGE OF CONAN: SPECIFICATIONS
Minimum
Processor: 3GHz
Ram: 1GB
Video: Nvidia GeForce 5800 or ATI 9800
OS: Windows Vista/XP
Recommended
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz or better
Ram: 2GB or better
Video: NVIDIA GeForce 7950GX2 or better
OS: Windows Vista/XP

It was odd, said Mr Best, that given combat centrality to most MMOs that no-one had tried such a thing before.

AoC's distinctiveness does not stop with blood, gore and intense combat. At the higher levels players can get a mount, (horse, mammoth or war rhino) that can be used for trampling enemies in to the dust. Those on horseback can swing a weapon and use the momentum of a charge to inflict huge amounts of damage.

Those mounts are likely to be very useful in another of AoC's selling points - siege warfare. Guilds can build their own cities or battle keeps, once their members have gathered enough raw materials for the buildings. As Mr Best said creating a city is a "very social experience".

But once built it may not be safe. Rival factions can gather their war mammoths, trebuchets and troops to lay waste to their enemies' homes and businesses. Pitched battles featuring huge groups of players are likely to become very popular.

Mr Best said many of the decisions that have driven the development of Age of Conan were taken to make it stand out.

"If you are going up against World of Warcraft you cannot imitate it, you have to go your own path and do it your way," he said.

And that's something Conan would doubtless agree with. But it remains to be seen whether that list of features not seen in many other MMOs is a recipe for the one feature WoW has in spades: success.




SEE ALSO
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Online games battle for top spot
26 Dec 07 |  Technology
Boom times for virtual playgrounds
09 May 08 |  Technology
The high cost of playing Warcraft
24 Sep 07 |  Technology
How cash can change online games
06 Feb 08 |  Technology
Beating Warcraft at its own game
07 May 07 |  Technology

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