Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The near-death of caravan escorts in Age of Conan's expansion

Rise of the Godslayer is coming on May 11th, and if you're an Age of Conan fan the day probably seems like it can't come fast enough. While the developer letter for the end of April doesn't help hurry the date forward any, but it does highlight one of the smaller but interesting portions of the development process -- the sort of thing that can get lost between the more major systems. And interestingly enough, it was an element that director Craig Morrison originally looked at and declined to leave in the expansion!

Originally, the design team had included a feature where you could either hand over money and be automatically transported to and from Khitai, or you could volunteer your services as a caravan guard and make the journey for free. The trade was that as a guard, you would be expected to defend the caravan against assaults, resulting in a small instanced encounter. Morrison felt that the encounters weren't really adding anything that wouldn't be better served as a part of Khitai proper. The full story of the process and the change in philosophy can be found in the director's letter, certainly a nice tease for Age of Conan players.
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Rise of the Godslayer: The Gateway to Khitai and Alternate Advancement

It's an exceedingly rare feat when a game company, particularly a maker of MMORPGs, manages to capture the spirit and substance of a pre-established intellectual property. The landscape is littered with many a well-intentioned but misguided attempt at bringing a beloved novel, film, or multiverse into the realm of video gaming. While Funcom's Age of Conan suffered through a launch that contained a generous helping of bugs and negative forum buzz, one thing the game has always done well is transport the player into a lushly realized digital Hyboria, where lore and Howard references abound for those who care to look.

As we draw nearer to the May 11th street date for the Rise of the Godslayer expansion, Massively has managed to snag some time at the controls of the beta client, and we're happy to bring you our impressions of life in the eastern wilds of Hyboria. We touched on the extensive feature list for the new expansion in our earlier look from GDC as well as our Craig Morrison interview, so this time around we'll focus on the major mechanical addition, the AA system, as well as the general look and feel of the beta.
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Monday, May 3, 2010

The Anvil of Crom: The Valley of Death

It's been a crazy week here at the Anvil of Crom offices. Ok, I'm not really important enough to merit my own office, unless you count the spare bedroom with a computer and dozens of discarded MMORPG boxes spiraling towards the ceiling. Nonetheless, much Age of Conan playing, researching, and writing has gone on as of late. In addition to my characters on the live servers, I've been exploring the lands of Khitai thanks to the gracious folks at Funcom who have allowed me to take a peek at the Rise of the Godslayer beta. I'll be detailing my experiences with the expansion for you in the next couple of days, so keep your eyes peeled.

I've also managed to find time to advance my rangers a bit, and have played through the entirety of Conall's Valley with the exception of a couple of pesky group quests. At this point, approaching level 40 and having a decent feel for combat, feats, and the game in general, I feel safe in declaring myself a former newb. Certainly it's a big jump to 80 from where I'm standing, but after spending a few days exploring the Cimmerian highlands, it's clear that I made the right choice in returning to Funcom's Hyboria.

Hit the jump for some impressions of Conall's Valley.

Young Cimmerians fresh off the boat from Tortage will find themselves in Conarch village, an archetypal frontier settlement nestled among the foothills of the Eiglophian Mountains and home to King Conan's ancestral clan. From this central hub, the various Cimmerian play fields are accessible, including Ymir's Pass, the Eiglophians, the Field of the Dead, and Conall's Valley. This last one, a gaping wound in the Earth featuring treacherous ridges and rivers running red with blood from the invading Vanir, is where I spent the vast majority of my post-20 play time.

While many of the leveling guides available for Age of Conan will tell you to skip Conall's Valley and head for Knopshef Province after leaving Tortage, it says here that players are better off running to the Cimmerian hills, particularly if you've rolled a Cimmerian avatar and have the slightest affinity for the underlying Robert E. Howard lore. The Valley is a war-torn visual tour-de-force, with gruesome corpses littering the pathways and bloodthirsty Vanir raiders lurking in every beautiful glade. The ravine sits in the shadow of Ben Morgh, the mountain seat of Crom, and serves as something of a griefer's gauntlet on Age of Conan's PvP servers.

PvE is no less intense, at least until you climb above level 30, as there are large packs of aggro mobs looking to make mince meat of your fresh-faced Tortage graduate. As you make your way north through the expansive zone, the greenery gives way to the snow-capped beginnings of the Eiglophian range where Ymirish marauders have set up a forest of tents, camps, and fire pits that make for some of the more engaging visuals I've experienced in the massive genre.

The Valley is a war-torn visual tour-de-force, with gruesome corpses littering the pathways and bloodthirsty Vanir raiders lurking in every beautiful glade.

Quests are plentiful in Conall's Valley, and the majority of them are solo affairs. You'll run interference for the competing Cimmerian tribal leaders, sack various enemy encampments, and even assassinate Vanir wounded over a variety of missions that feature above average story lines and further the general ambiance of the zone. Sadly, the high quality voice-overs from Tortage are missing in action, but the writing remains top notch and the story will likely immerse those who take the time to read. Grouping aficionados aren't forgotten entirely, as the aforementioned Ymir camps require a decent sized party, but the majority of the zone's content can be experienced alone. As a result, the valley occasionally feels a bit isolated despite its impressive size.

If there's a downside to Conall's Valley it's that you'll often see players flitting to and fro but you'll have no real need to interact unless you fancy roleplay or are a quest completionist. I grouped a grand total of three times during my week in the valley, and on each occasion it was a transitory experience reminiscent of the worst PUGs: people dropping in and out, folks unsure of their class roles, and a pervasive "I'm done with my quest so see ya" attitude. The other downside, if you're a min/max type, is that the valley does feature a lot of running around (which is likely why most guides tell you to avoid it). Due to the mountain paths and the varied NPC locations, you'll spend a fair amount of time traveling about and it's probably more efficient to level in a smaller, more densely packed zone. That said, it's more about the journey for me, and Conall's Valley storylines and terrain more than made up for any extra time I spent in transit.

Conall's Valley is also where I started to feel the true power of the ranger class, at least in terms of PvE (PvP is still largely an exercise in getting the jump on the opposing player). My PvE character uses crossbows almost exclusively at this point, and it's a rare occasion that Armor Ripper and Piercing Shot doesn't kill a single target outright. I've also spent feat points to increase the column width of several attacks, and, provided I take the time to position the mobs correctly (via terrain, snares, or both), my ranger does pretty well against three or four mobs of equal or slightly higher level. At some point I'd like to try the melee weapons but there just hasn't been a need as targets very rarely close the distance. I'll examine combat in much more detail in a future column, but for now, it's back to Khitai for your humble columnist.

That's all the time I've got for this week. Check in with Massively early next week for my Rise of the Godslayer beta impressions, and also feel free to email me (jef AT massively DOT com) with your Age of Conan questions. I'll collect the most pertinent for a future column, as well as pass the best ones on to our friends at Funcom. Finally, thanks to munglejunkie for the updated Anvil of Crom banner graphic. Until next time, I leave you with the requisite bar brawl.

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