Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I am of the opinion that games are something of a big deal, so if you don't want to read about them, you're going to have to go somewhere else today. Then come back, because I'm almost certain something is broken at work in an amusing way.
There is a new Massively Multiplayer Online Game in late development right now.
I'm applying for beta testing, because I need to be a part of the magic.
I did quite a bit of gaming over the weekend anyway. I only stopped playing because I hadn't blinked for probably three hours, and -- as it turns out -- your eyes become covered with a delicious film, almost like a pudding. Or perhaps flan.
This new game, though, is based on the actual world created by Robert E. Howard -- that of Conan the Barbarian. There is no Governor of California crap going on in Howard's world. There never has been.
In fact, Robert E. Howard (and I've been reading his work since before my age hit double digits) was one of the best pulp writers ever. His writing is rich and dark and his characters were miles ahead of the serialized action heroes that still stagger along in his footsteps.
Howard was, in fact, quite deranged for a guy from Peaster, Texas.
He was a frequent collaborator with H.P. Lovecraft, and no one has ever handled horror like that guy.
From what I've seen, Age of Conan will easily fill the dripping gouge left in the genre by Dungeons and Dragons Online.
Playing Dungeons and Dragons type games on the computer sort of compounds the geekiness, compressing it then shaping it into a giant golden statue that gets beaten up after lunch. I'm not going to give anything away, because I don't want to wreck it for anybody who hasn't tried Dungeons and Dragons Online, but I almost teared up when I saw some of my favorite monsters make an appearance. I mean, that's pretty sad, and I knew it was sad then.
I've been playing D&D 3rd Edition on pencil and paper since it came out (and first and second edition as long as I've been reading Howard), and other than playing everything out in real time you get to actually see feats like Cleave and concepts like Attack of Opportunity play out. Just to make some sense of this, Cleave allows you to strike another opponent immediately after you eliminate one, in the same round. Attacks of Opportunity are taken any time a whole vast assortment of designated events occur - someone runs into your attack range, out of your attack range, tries to cast a spell, tries to bake some muffins - but in actual play, that isn't always modeled properly without hordes of plastic figures scattered across a table annoying the cats. There's a lot of fudging that just inexorably takes place when you're playing a game to have fun, and the guy who is running the game (usually me) doesn't always have time to invest in rule-mongering. Just between the two things I described, crafty minds are already making some interesting connections. Let's say my 3rd level paladin is beset by three gibbering kobolds. Two engage me in melee combat, which is inadvisable, and it is behaviour like this that makes kobolds so difficult to insure. The last one runs up late, after combat has already started - he enters the area I can attack, and due to poor nutrition and a series of bad life choices he is slain in one mighty, manly strike. Now my Cleave comes in to effect, which is almost assured to take out another one, all because one of them got there late. Spread out rule interactions like this across an entire party of characters, and it's easy to see how a man might get a wild look in his eye.
Something else I never really grasped to full effect was the idea of Summon spells. The first character I made -- now discarded, like all my first characters -- ended up a priest, and priests can ask their god to send them a monster every once in a while, if he's not too busy. Now, in the pencil and paper game, yeah, sure. You summon something like that, often something hideous, and then he helps you kick ass, but it's typically for a very specific purpose. I never realized what a bizarre idea it is to wave your hands and have a grim-looking, surly celestial badger appear. And he's not just there when you're in a fight. Oh, hell no. He snorts and capers around after you, in that strange way extra-planar badgers do, whether you're in a pitched melee or just shopping at the store. And he's there for a really long time. In a tabletop game, again, you might forget to keep track of that duration, or imagine that no matter what you're doing, a badger with ADD is going to snuffle everything in the room. You can send him away, but I wouldn't if I were you. For who can know what offends a badger from betwixt worlds?
The game is true to its 3.5E roots where it matters, does things the way they need to be done in other cases, and is about as good as we could hope it to be. It even illuminates the original game in ways I didn't expect.
However, there isn't enough option in character creation. Most races are totally unavailable. I can't be the only one wanting to play a feral anthropomorphic squid, can I?
I gave up after the free trial and haven't looked back.
But Age of Conan has no auto-attack nonsense. The characters live and die by the player's skill. An entirely new combat engine looks to deliver a mature game for grown-up players. And, in accordance with the prophecy, scores of slavering tentacle beasts.
Will it reach (or exceed) World of Warcraft? I doubt it.
Age of Conan is probably a little too niche.
And likely too hardcore and awesome for most.
The graphics look amazing and the character creation is much more organic than anything on the market, but I fear this may actually make the game less accessible in the long run.
If I make it into the beta, don't expect too many updates. According to the non-disclosure agreement, I'm admonished from using the words "tense", "mind-expanding" and "life-affirming".

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