I've been caught up with projects around the house, so I haven't had that much time to devote to WoW lately.
Yes, I've heard about some funky new patch thingie that dropped last Tuesday, but in typical Redbeard fashion I took a huge pass on fighting the crowd in Hyjal and putzed around with other things.
"Are you grinding rep?" a toon asked me when I offered assistance on his plea for help on the Ring of Blood.
"No, working on Loremaster." Okay, I took advange of the PvP flag being on after a BG to go and take Halaa --again, something this Wrath baby had never done before-- but I was exploring Outland as part of my ongoing quest for double Loremaster.
If a toon could look disappointed, it was this guy. "Oh."
"Well, that and avoiding the nuthouse in Hyjal."
In addition to doing some out of the way stuff, I've also been examining yet another MMO. No, not the upcoming Star Wars MMO The Old Republic, although I'll say that what I've seen via the vid clips looks very interesting. The MMO I'm speaking of is Age of Conan, which just went F2P last week.
I'll be honest: I only have the money in the budget for one pay-type MMO at a time, so F2P MMOs hold a great amount of appeal to me. The F2P model allows me to explore different MMOs without incurring additional cost, and while I'm aware that I'm observing only a small slice of the entire MMO, the F2P MMOs give me a bit more breadth in the MMO space.
And what breadth it is.
I suppose Age of Conan is most famous for it's 'M' rating, and I'll be honest: the first thing that I heard gamer podcasters mention about AoC --even more than the graphic violence-- was the nudity. The concept of "OMG bewbs!!" from more than a few people kind of turned me away from the game, not that I'm a prude by any stretch, but nudity for shock purposes doesn't appeal to me. And now, with the recent addition of vanity armor to AoC, that also means that you can deliberately customize your toon to walk around almost literally naked.*
However, let's get something straight. This is Hyboria. This is Conan. This is Robert E. Howard's vision.
And nudity is part of the tapestry of the Dreaming West.
I've read several books worth of the original Robert E. Howard short stories, so I know a bit about Hyboria and the Sword and Sorcery genre that it helped spawn. For a Sword and Sorcery environment, you need a few things you don't typically see in traditional Epic Fantasy RPGs or MMOs: all magic is tainted to some degree or another, and rarely --if ever-- used for purely good purposes; the noble savage ala Conan or Tarzan (or even Fafhrd) as a skilled hero; an overall feel of a more primitive lost world whose time is approaching it's end (less Tolkien's Middle-earth and more Moorcock's Melnibone); that nobody has really pure morals and/or motives; and sex and betrayal are often integral to the plotline.
Judging by those tropes, Age of Conan really succeeds in capturing the feel of Howard's Hyboria. The only mages as a playable class deal with those from the tales who wielded the Dark Arts: Stygians and Khitans. The emphasis from Aquilonians and Cimmerians is on Rogues and Soldiers, with the odd Priest or Shaman thrown in for good measure. The quests in Tortage (the starting zone) focus on evils awakened by the Picts, the Stygian witch Myrelle, and the twisted and evil tyrant Strom of the Red Hand. The questlines often present choices where there are really no good answers, only varying shades of gray. Undercurrents of sex, whoring, racketeering, greed, and violence really fill out the quest lines. Consider that you become part of the Resistance against Strom, hoping to overthrow him and Myrelle so that the city can return to being a bustling pirate haven full of greed, slaves, and prostitution, and you get the point.
This is not fodder for kids.
WoW, by comparison, is pretty tame stuff. Sure, you have shades of gray with NPCs' morals, but you also have discernable good and bad guys. There's nothing like dark and darker imagery that you get out of Age of Conan. Considering that WoW is doing something completely different with it's blend of High Fantasy and Steampunk, that's to be expected. Blizzard doesn't take itself too seriously, while AoC is like the student dressed all in black sitting at a table in a dimly lit coffeehouse, grousing about 'art'.
One thing that did strike me about the environment was how AoC equalized the sexes. Sure, you've got your standard-issue damsel in distress style stuff and the omnipresent skimpily clad NPCs, but AoC is set up so that as far as profession is concerned, the sex of the NPC is irrelevant. Sure, some of the female NPCs do show an interest in your toon (I played a male toon, so I don't know what the female toons deal with), but the banter reminded me more of a Mike Hammer episode than anything else.
The graphics are beautiful in a realistic manner, but they make my PC strain more than WoW does. That's kind of a bummer, but it's a tradeoff. The character customization is something that every MMO ought to have; it does a fantastic job of tweaking your toon to just the right size and shape. And yes, for the record, the shape of the human body isn't the cartoony top-heavy look that you get out of humans in WoW.
One huge problem I noticed was the size creep in the game's database. When I started playing the game, the DB was about 8 GB. The next day, it was 12 GB. On Sunday, 16 GB. By this morning, it had ballooned out to 20 GB but seemed to have stopped growing. If it starts expanding again, I'm going to run out of disk space before too long. Additionally, the game kept informing me on startup that the DB might be corrupted, and would I like to thoroughly check the DB. So, what began as a 4 minute startup turned into a 10-15 minute startup. This doesn't lend AoC well to the "okay, I've got a few minutes, let me login and play for a bit" mode that I can slip into.
Another annoyance is that the graphics settings would need to be tweaked on game startup. I mean, every single freaking time. At first I thought it was because I was stressing the graphics card so I backed off on the settings, but it still did it the next time I booted up. Oh well.
I suppose I could talk about the Real Combat system, where combos are a succession of keys pressed in the correct order, but that's really secondary to the environment. The thing that really struck me about combat wasn't the Real Combat system, but how mobs attack. You attack one Pict in a village, and the others will step up and rally to his/her defense. You don't take on a mob lightly, because they will swarm you and attack you intelligently: take you from behind, stand at distance and conduct ranged attacks, and stay disciplined in their movement. If you move to keep the mob in front of you, the mob won't just stand there passively: it will respond to your movements to regain the upper hand. While you do have heroic combat, it's definitely a "make 'em sweat" style of combat where two of the enemy at one time can be a dicey event.
On the whole, I like what Age of Conan is doing, and I'll probably play it a bit here and there. It's not going to replace WoW by any means --I get the impression that Funcom is going to really restrict what is in the F2P area, above and beyond what LOTRO does-- but for a real Sword and Sorcery environment, it can't be beat.
Now, is it asking too much to have an MMO based on Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser?
*And don't think that people haven't done that either. After a while I started to get annoyed at the people who had created female toons with names like "Goodforyou" and paraded them around the city. By the end of the weekend, however, those sort of toons seemed to disappear as the crowd thinned, but still there was one guy in Trial chat who asked if he was "a bad man for checking out his Succubus' rack."