As imagined by developer Funcom, the land of Cimmeria's lush green landscapes are dotted with impaled corpses upon which crows roost and flap their wings, apparently pleased with both the height of their perch and the scent of death. Thus the stage is set for one of the finest online role-playing games in years, one in which fertile fields and arid deserts contrast with the blood spilled by hundreds of sharp-toothed warthogs and hulking mantises. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is an explorer's paradise, offering rich, grisly surprises in the crevasses of its bustling cities and green meadows. Whether it's a looming pyramid hiding deadly secrets or a spider's lair nestled within the rocky hills, the sights are impressive and striking, and the vivid backstory that supports this sprawling paradise is mature and, appropriately enough, barbaric.
My other car's a rhino.
But this is a flawed paradise. Funcom has been quick to handle the most egregious blemishes since the launch of its massively multiplayer online game, but a number of frustrating bugs remain. The most minor ones have little to no impact on the game proper, like placeholder text and a minimap that occasionally goes blank (among other interface glitches). Others are more significant, such as broken quests and memory leaks that lead to the occasional crash. Launch imperfections are common enough in the genre, but while Age of Conan's release was hardly disastrous, it has been less stable than we should expect. Many bugs have already been fixed, but the game's edges are still somewhat jagged, and the software can buckle under the sheer weight of its own ambition.
You'd do well to look past these imperfections, though, because Age of Conan is the most brutal and immediately satisfying MMOG on the market, thanks to its unique slant on combat, resonant quest writing, and uncompromising maturity. It's also paced much differently than its competition, ushering you into Hyboria slowly by juxtaposing a story-driven, single-player quest against the more standard team-oriented exploration and traditional questing. During your time in Tortage, the initial lower-level city, missions are bestowed with in-engine scenes and full voice acting, which draw you into the world and weave narrative threads that continue even after you've left the pirate port for the wild beyond. It's unfortunate that most post-Tortage quests lack the voice-over, but the tasks themselves are superbly written. While it's true that the majority of them are genre standards--kill these enemies, collect these items, and so on--they're assigned by interesting characters with stories to tell. You'll meet a young woman hiding her pregnancy (and the unsavory circumstance behind it) from her overbearing father, rescue a princess that turns out to be a bit different than expected, and interrogate murder suspects. Don't skip past quest intros without reading them in Age of Conan; if you do, you'll be missing some of the game's finest moments.
Of course, before you begin your explorations, you must customize your avatar and choose a race and class. The cosmetic side of character creation is delightfully robust, letting you tweak nose length, pick tattoos, and play with a host of other options. Your new virtual self can hail from Stygia, Aquilonia, or Conan's own homeland, Cimmeria, and from there, you pick one of 12 varied classes--though not every class is available to every race. Each class falls into one of four different archetypes, so whether you prefer to keep to the shadows, melt your foes with the heat of supernatural flames, or (literally) rip a frost giant's heart from its chest and gobble it down, you will find a class that suits your play style. As of this writing, most classes and races are well represented, so you're bound to encounter demonologists and the dark servants that scurry along with them, or see a Tempest of Set's electrical spells streak across the horizon.
Battles are not the typical click-and-wait affairs you may be accustomed to in other MMOGs. Swinging a melee weapon or shooting a bow involves more than just clicking your mouse; rather, it requires you to press the number keys (and at upper levels, the Q and E keys as well) to swing or aim in the corresponding direction. Assuming you're fighting enemies around your own level, you can't just indiscriminately tap the keys and expect that growling yeti to fall. Monsters can actively shield themselves from your strikes, so you must focus your attack on the unprotected sides, where you'll do the most damage. You have your own shielding arcs, and you can adjust them during battle, though you'll probably ignore the option, simply because any potential defensive benefit is too small to make futzing with the control and numeric keys worth the trouble.
Combos require more effort than just a couple of mouse clicks.
The higher your level, the more active you must remain within combat, especially when you wish to string combos together. Combo strikes and spells don't require a single key tap, but rather a succession of them--and the higher the level of the combo, the more button presses required. It's pretty simple to perform a two-step combo, but when you're tasked with four keystrokes in a row, you'll realize that you simply must pay attention to the onscreen prompts. Combos, when timed right, can also result in deadly killing blows that look and sound gruesome, and never lose their macabre and satisfying edge. Even when no fatality is involved, a combo may involve plunging your claymore directly into a soldier's chest or knocking a Vanir spellcaster a few feet backward with a stun spell.
The combat impressively remains gripping enough to push you forward, even when you're pursuing tasks that could qualify as grinding. Much of this has to do with the various roles a single class can play within an adventuring group--even classes that are seemingly dedicated to healing and support. A Herald of Xotli may be an offensive powerhouse, but the healing blood pit he occasionally drops can be a major boon to a party close to defeat. A Bear Shaman is handy to have around for his buffs and healing spells, but he's more effective using his melee combos in the midst of chaos than he is tiptoeing in the sidelines. These varied abilities mean that not only do group dynamics feel fresher than in most other online RPGs, but that the majority of classes offer highly successful solo play.