Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Age of Conan Initial Beta Impressions

Here are my initial impressions of Age of Conan, assembled after playing in the 'Open Beta'* . I started as a barbarian, read nothing about how to play, instead realying on the in-game help and my personal gaming experience. My barbarian has hit the level cap of 13, completed her destiny quest as far as she can in this beta and has participated in a half dozen PvP matches.

*Funcom's concept of Open Beta is quite a bit different. Basically, everyone only gets access to the newbie island, and has a max level of 13. As you might imagine, this means that a significant portion of the gameplay is not even visible to the Open Beta Testers.

Continue reading to see my comments on my experiences so far.


Graphics and System Requirements:

First off, I should talk a bit about graphics and game lag. There has been a lot of press about how crappy the AoC client is, and while I experience significant graphics lag, the game never crashes while I'm actually playing, though I do get booted back to the login screen every half hour or so, and the game also crashes everytime I quit, but at least it does so in a nice way, allowing me to continue using my machine without a reboot.

My system is a bit below par. I just last week bought a GeForce 9600 video card, but my CPU is a couple of years old; single-core AMD 3500+. I started playing the game at 1440x900 with effects turned off or low, but the graphics stutter and loading times were just too much. Switched to a lower resolution and still get occasional stuttering, but its definitely playable.

The game does look very nice. The water is beautiful, and the swimming animations are very graceful. I had my first moment of awe at the graphics when I stepped into the Archerion Ruins and stood on the edge of a cliff, looking out over the mountainside at the impressive ruins in the near distance. And this with all of my graphics settings on low! I imagine it looks even more spectacular with some bells and whistles blowing.


World Enviroment and Instancing:

AoC has a LOT of instancing. Not as much as Pirates of the Burning Sea, but more than I like dealing with. Do we really need an entire instance for the main inn in Tortage? There are a total of 6 or 7 NPCs inside, and I rarely see other players there. What is gained by forcing players to zone in and out to talk with their trainers besides extra loading screens?

Annoyingly, I find myself getting hung up on objects pretty often, ranging from rocks to the edges of ramps, to random terrain bumps.

The starting island seems to be a railroaded experience. Sure I can wander off down the beach instead of following the path, but I can't choose to walk up that hill next to the road. There are lots of barriers to free-form roaming. Hopefully this sort of rails-driven outdoor experience will be less obvious in the higher-level areas.

And that brings me to climbing. Climbing is a bit disappointing. I'm not even sure why you have to put points into this skill. You can only climb in very specific areas (which has been certain ladders during the solo quest as far as I've seen). I also found it very difficult to see where I was supposed to climb for some missions. The help topic on climbing stated that 'higlighted' areas, but the highlighting is so minimal as to be nonexistent. The flickering light from torches seemed more like highlighting than the actual highlighting! And then, once I did find the right place to climb, I often had to move around a bit before I could find that sweet spot that would force the game to recognize that I wanted to climb! It really seems to add nothing to the game.



User Interface:

The User Interface is pretty standard, with a few extras thrown in such as target of target, the ability hide your helm (I dont know why they just dont make the helms less obstructive to begin with) and various other minor tweaks. The main action bar is paged, allowing you to set up numerous variations if you so desire. It also has what they call a 'special action bar' that is also part of the main bar, but accessed by holding down the alt key.

However, there is an unfortunate lack of customization available. I can move the two extra action bars on the right side, but I cant move the main bar, the map window, the health bars, etc etc. A lot of the popup windows are movable, which is nice, but I really don't understand why MMOs are reluctant to let advanced users move the basic parts of the interface. You can only setup hotkeys for the main bar and the special action bar. I found no way to hotkey the extra action bars. This, coupled with a lack of support for macros makes me unhappy.

I was also unable to resize any of the UI elements and found the icons in AoC complex and dark-toned, so that they didnt really stand out. I had to look at the mousover text to tell which abilities were which. I would much prefer the default icons be simple, with a nice contrast of colors, and then, give the advanced users the option to change their icons to the fancier ones if they so desire.

On nice feature that AoC has is the option of being able to setup an alternate weapon set that you can switch to at a click of a button (not sure if you can hotkey it or not). This makes switching between ranged and melee weapons easy, as well as just having an alternate loadout for specialized situations (though I would guess that the ability to switch weapons at the drop of a hat and then hit weapon-specific abilities before switching back will be a ripe area for abuse and exploits).


Combat:

Combat is interesting. Its very heavy on the button-mashing, which is both good and bad as it requires more player interaction, but it might end up being a pain later on. PvE was mostly a button-mashing experience for me. But once I started trying out some PvP, I started putting some more thought and effort into the timing of my swings and the usage of my abilities.

The shielding concept is intriguing on paper, but doesn't seem to translate well into actual gameplay. I'm not able to easily tell which way my enemies are swinging, oftentimes the differences in swings are very subtle. And its so simple, easy and quick to swing your weapon from a different direction (I tend to use all three types of directional attacks constantly when I'm fighting), that trying to respond equally quickly with shielding AND match up to what your opponent is doing seems impossible. Switching shielded sides is also a little slow. I found the ability to alter my shielding useless, and just left it on the default setting. I suppose if I was familiar with certain classes and knew that XX class has mostly right-attack combos, then switching shielding to that side might help. But that leads to another complaint I have about AoC combat...

There seems to be a lack of visceral feedback during combat. I felt like I had no idea what my opponent might be getting ready to do. I supposed this might change a bit with experience, but I found combat to be mostly just flinging about my abilities. I stealth up to someone, make an attack and see a message about 'attacking from stealth', but then my character waits to swing, and when I do, I dont seem to do extra damage. Am I doing something wrong? I really have no idea.

There seems to be a lack of escape options once you enter combat (at least for me). I felt like once combat started, whether I was going to win or lose was already decided, mostly being determined by how many extra mobs had run over.

I also occasionally had issues with various plants/ferns making it impossible to see what was going on during the fight (this happened while fighting evil plants, so I couldn't draw them out of the foliage). Kind of a pain, but I was able to just mash attack buttons until it died.

The various combat movement actions (activated by hitting a movement direction key twice in quick succession) are an interesting addition. I wasn't ever able to make much use of the sidejump (it doesn't give any visible bonus and takes a couple of seconds to activate), but I did use the jumpback option to get a defense buff and the momentum option (moving forward twice) to get another buff that gives me a chance to stun my target whenever I hit. Both buffs are short, and it seems they have some sort of cooldown timer, but I didn't see anywhere that told me what that timer was.


PvP:

The only PvP we get to experience in this demo are the arena matches. You sign up for a PvP match by opening the social window, going to the PvP tab and then choosing which type of match you want to participate in. It then puts you into the queue and reports on how many people are trying to join a PvP match, and how many are waiting for the same arena that you are, which is a very nice feature. I initially signed up for a Capture the Flag match, then saw there were 20 people in line and only 1 other waiting for the same match. SO I switched to the more popular Deathmatch and soon found myself inside (more on PvP later in this article). The annoying thing about this interface is the fact that you cant minimize it. I would like to be able to walk around and do things while waiting for a PvP match without having a large, intrusive window getting in the way.

PvP is where I started thinking about how to actually use my abilities and the combat system. Fighting NPCs is mostly a button mash, but when you're taking on player characters that are running around, stunning, rooting, etc, then the game steps up to a different level. I still have the issues with combat mentioned above, mainly that I cant really tell what is going on. Hopefully that will improve with experience.

It still seems to be fairly standard tactics-wise, go after the person standing in back casting spells. Kiting seems to be viable for certain classes, rangers in particular. As a barbarian, I had no crowd control options and no way to easily close with someone who is running away. In reports from the PvP weekend, I heard comments that most melee characters have a charge ability, but it wasnt available at level 13.

I'm a little concerned about how melee will be able to fare in long-term PvP. They are always the most susceptible to crowd control, and given the twitch nature of AoC combat, it might be even more difficult to get in hits. And, of course, there aren't any options for dodging spells. All of the healers I tried to attack seemed to have a several second stun which they didn't hesitate to use.

I've also run into a couple of bugs. Once, when zoning into the start of a match, I was stuck in the brazier next to the resurrection totem and couldnt get out. I had to wait until the other team came along and killed me. Also, there was another instance where a player from the other team was invincible.

I noticed in the end-match summary for the PvP arenas that each player was given a score. This score was entirely based on killing blows! Hopefully, this score doesnt really mean anything, but if it somehow plays a part in the experience you get or otherwise is important in any way, then it needs to be modified.

You accumulate PvP experience separately from regular experience. What this is good for, I have no idea.


Summary:

Overall, its really hard to make judgments on actual gameplay with such a small preview snippet. Given that AoC has 80 levels, there are obviously a significant amount of character abilities and customization that we don't see. And we don't even get a glimpse at battle keeps, player cities, crafting, open world PvP, mounts, other cities, etc etc. This 'open beta' is really more of a marketing push. It reminds me of Ryzom, which had an unlimited free trial, but you could only adventure in the newbie area. And thats basically what Funcom is giving us at the moment, just a taste to whet our appetites. Unfortunately, that taste has been... well... slightly different, but not overly flavorful. But since I've only taken a little nibble, I'll give it a chance and take a few more bites to see if I can acquire the taste.

Look for a followup post in the near future. I plan on trying some more PvP as well as investigating other classes and maybe a bit of additional exploration on the newbie island.

2 comments:

Alex Taldren said...

Yeah, playing AoC on an older machine can be a difficult experience. Even on the beefer machines, loading times can be an issue.

Apparently, on May 10, Funcom plans to open up the open beta a little bit. They are automatically pushing everyone to level 20, sending them to their respective main cities based on their race, and giving them lots of money to play with. They are also turning all the servers into PvP servers, so free-roaming PvP can be tested.

Should be an interesting day. If you have time, I'd check it out.

Tholal said...

Yes, I'm definitely looking forward to experiencing a larger slice of AoC after the 10th.