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.
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.