‘Age of Conan: Unchained is an award-winning and critically acclaimed massively multiplayer online game set in the sexy, savage and brutal world of Conan the Barbarian.’
The Free to Play model seems to be gaining a lot of momentum in the MMO market lately; while it was once only seen in the Asian market, more and more big name games are switching to the model with a great deal of success. Games like Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online have shown that with the right balance of free and pay content it’s possible to make more money than with subscriptions alone.
Age of Conan is a relatively recent member of the F2P club, and I thought I would delve back into the game to see how it has held up over the years. I remember when Age of Conan first came out; everybody was absolutely blown away by the visuals of the game, but the gameplay itself was riddled with bugs, lag, and a lack of content in the higher levels. Interest quickly waned in the game, and I stopped playing after the first 20 levels or so.
While most of the bugs seemed to have been ironed out, I still encountered a number of unexplained lag spikes in my play-through. I wasn’t the only one either, it seemed that half the general chat messages were asking about why the game was so laggy. It might have something to do with the server consolidation that the game underwent recently to ensure higher player populations, but even so it seemed like a long running problem. One amusing consequence of the server shrink was that I found whenever I joined a group, it was always with German players. My rusty German was quickly exhausted, and we all just hoped the other players would understand what we were doing without explanation.
Visually, Age of Conan still hold up fairly well. While it certainly isn’t mind-blowing, the locations are quite detailed and look true to the world described in Robert E. Howard’s books. The character models look interesting during the creation phase, but when moving around in the world they can often look quite odd with awkward animations and disproportionate limbs. The landscape still looks fairly impressive, and the ability to move up and down walls on ladders adds a nice extra dimension to the game.
The gear looks quite nice, and the option to have one set of gear dictate your appearance while the other dictates your stats is a great touch. I hate it in gear focused games when I am forced to ditch my awesome looking piece of kit for something stupid with higher stats. One problem this does create is the large amount of players that seem to get their thrills from running their characters around naked. I don’t really have a problem with nudity, but it is rather jarring to see naked women one-shotting demons while I’m having trouble surviving in my heavy armour. While I applaud the developers for trying to stay true to the adult nature of Howard’s world, I think that this could have been far better accomplished with mature quest content rather than allowing naked character models.
Outside of the visuals, Age of Conan has aged badly. Quest mechanics have come a long way over the last few years, and jumping back into a game whose quests consist solely of kill X monsters and/or collect X items. While those two types of quests make up the core of any MMO, developers have found a lot of creative ways to dress them up over the years so they’re not so boring and repetitive. But the fact that there are only kill/collect quests isn’t the only problem, it’s the fact that you have to repeat them over and over again e.g. Go to ancient ruin and kill X number of A, then return to quest giver who tells you to return to ancient ruin and kill X number of B etc. This gets old very quickly, and sucks what enjoyment there is out of the game. There is a reason that developers have done away with this style of questing, and it reminded me how grindy MMO’s used to be (they can still be grindy, but they’re getting better).
The other bugbear I have with Age of Conan is how they’ve chosen to implement the Free to Play model. Games like Dungeons and Dragons Online are a great example of F2P done right, with all the content available to the player if they are willing to put the time in to earn it. Alternatively, players can pay a small fee to unlock the content if they don’t want to spend a long time farming for in-game unlocks. In contrast, Age of Conan is strictly limited. There are only 3 of the games 12 classes available to players without cost, and they are the 3 least interesting classes in the game. Also, most of the higher level content is blocked off to players unless they are willing to pay extra. There is no in-game way to unlock this content, you have to pay.
While it seems a bit silly to complain about something that doesn’t cost me any money, DDO’s model shows that you don’t have to force people into paying to get money out of them. The F2P model is based around the good-will of the customer, and by luring them into the game so they feel that paying for extras is a worthwhile investment. By hiding away most of their interesting classes and content, Funcom is severely decreasing the chances of recruiting a new paying player.
Overall, Age of Conan hasn’t really stood the test of time. While there are a core group of avid players keeping it alive, the dated mechanics are unlikely to attract new players. Funcom has reported a large increase in players since switching to F2P, but I would imagine that a large portion of that increase comes from people coming in to try things out. At the moment I don’t think there is anything to keep those players there. If you’re looking for something different to try, there are worse games, but there are also far better Free to Play options out there.
What I Liked – Still a fairly good-looking game. Ladders. Reasonably faithful to Howard’s world.
What I Didn’t Like – Old quest mechanics. Repetitive questing. Lack of class choice.
Rating – 3 out of 5 (Average)