Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Anvil of Crom: Squashing the negativity bug

by Jef Reahard Oct 31st 2010 at 12:00PM

Filed under: Fantasy, Age of Conan, Opinion, The Anvil of Crom

Anvil of Crom bannerMMORPGs tend to attract a rather ranty segment of the gaming population. Actually, let me back up. MMORPG forums tend to attract a rather ranty segment of the gaming population. Whether or not a given game's general population is as perennially dissatisfied as the vocal folks on the official boards is a matter of conjecture, but conventional wisdom holds (and I happen to agree) that most of the people are contentedly playing while a subset are engaging in all manner of forum drama.

Writers aren't immune to this negativity bug either, as occasionally things will rub us the wrong way about our favorite genre (or a particular game), and we'll feel the need to speak out. I've been battling this particular demon lately myself, and whether it's a matter of burnout, stress, or simply observing that a lot of things really do suck, I feel it's important to occasionally step back and examine why exactly I'm playing a particular game as well as spending a part of my professional life covering this genre. It stands to reason that I wouldn't be here if everything were all bad all the time, so this is as fine a time as any to highlight some of the good.
Smuggler route
Age of Conan is a title that, while still possessed of some fairly significant issues, manages to be fun more often than not. While I'm not here to blow smoke or pour honey, I will tell you that MMORPGs (like a lot of endeavors, hobby or otherwise) are what you make of them. While there are plenty of things I hope to see Funcom fix (*cough* crafting *cough*), none of them prevents me from enjoying the little things that make Hyboria an engaging experience.


Despite players' feelings that AoC has become a PvE-centric game after the 1.05 update, Funcom continues to give us a game that features a multitude of things to do. True, all of them involve grinding of some sort, but you kind of know that already when you sign up for a themepark MMORPG. The Tortage experience notwithstanding, AoC is one of the more replayable games I've been involved with over the last few years. This has to do with three things, all of them related. One is the variety of quest content, some of it existing very early in the game's life, but much of it released via patches and the Godslayer expansion. I'm thinking specifically of zones like Tarantia Commons, Ymir's Pass, and of course the whole of Khitai.

What can you do when you grow tired of all the questing? That's where the second option -- PvP -- comes in (assuming you haven't rolled on an FFA server already of course). PvE, and indeed the entire game, truly becomes a different animal if you choose to make a go of it on Tyranny or Cimmeria. If you opt to stay with the consensual PvP flavors offered on the PvE shards, you can start queuing for minigames while you're still a Tortage newblet, and this continues all the way through level 80. Yes, the queues are sometimes long depending on your server and the time of day, but rare is the occasion when I've logged off due to the inability to get a minigame going.

Crafting is the third option (even though it leaves something to be desired), as is the respectable amount of resource-gathering needing to master it. While obtaining some of the rare drops is a bit grindier than I'd prefer, the trade-off is that you've got an incentive to wander the vast wilds of one of the more picturesque MMORPG worlds.

Tarantia gateThe world

Speaking of worlds, it's almost too easy to point to Age of Conan's graphics as a positive, and in fact I don't really mean graphics when I say "the world." The sumptuous visuals are certainly one ingredient of the game's special sauce, but the game world itself is quite immersive due to the obvious amount of care that went into designing it and the myriad emotions it evokes. The vastly differing zone architectures are a marvel, and the way that Funcom has created bustling hubs that feel much different from one another both in terms of layout and personality speaks to brilliant art direction and world design. Khemi almost feels like it's part of a different world than Tarantia, for example, as it should, given the vast physical and cultural differences that separate the two cities.

Explorer personalities will feel at home in Age of Conan, at least until they've leveled two or three alts, as Hyboria is as big as it is brutal, and there's really no way to see all the sights without at least one max-level character who is able to navigate the densely packed mobs in some of the more challenging zones. Indeed, when I've burned out on faction grinding or become frustrated after a particularly humbling minigame experience, I often flit about the world snapping screenshots (so many, in fact, that I currently have a dedicated folder on my hard drive that clocks in at around 4 GB).

Aside from the physicality of the world, AoC has the added kick of the mature setting. This can rightly be considered both a negative and a positive, but for me, the world's dark overtones would keep me coming back even if I weren't being paid to do so. Brutality is a word that gets tossed around quite a lot in casual AoC conversation, but it's only part of the reason Hyboria feels unique when compared to other MMORPG settings. Perhaps a better word would be "ambiance." Age of Conan has an intangible grit and an air of seriousness about it that's hard to quantify. All of the flashy caster effects notwithstanding, the game possesses a certain harsh reality that light-hearted titles like EQII, WoW, and others mostly avoid.

The music

Age of Conan's music really deserves its own article, and as soon as I can get around to snagging an interview with Funcom's Knut Avenstroup Haugen, it will have one. For now, though, any mention of AoC's subtler pleasures would be woefully incomplete without a nod to the soundtrack. It is, in a word, incomparable -- at least in video game circles. With apologies and all due respect to Jeremy Soule, Nobuo Uematsu, and the host of other great musicians currently lending their talents to the gaming industry, they've all got miles to go before they approximate what Haugen has done with Age of Conan's score. Whether it's the bombastic combat marches or the lilting melodies that underscore journeys through the Cimmerian highlands, AoC's score is an indispensable part of the game experience.

And that's about all the time I have for this week. Hopefully you've enjoyed our little detour off The Anvil of Crom's beaten path. If, like me, you ever have one of those weeks when you're asking yourself "what am I doing here" with regard to your games of choice, a little perspective (and dare I say it, positivity) couldn't hurt -- either that, or some time off. Until next week, I leave you with what is still the greatest concept art of all time.

Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom column, which chronicles one man's journey through Funcom's Hyboria. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via Tags: age-of-conan, aoc, bells-and-whistles, featured, funcom, immersion, knut-avenstroup-haugen, music, opinion, pve, pvp, the-anvil-of-crom, world, world-design

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