We are unabashed fans of Robert E. Howard’s Conan mythos, so naturally we jumped at the chance to sit down and talk with Funcom’s Craig Morrison at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference. Morrison, executive producer and game director for the Norwegian game maker’s Age of Conan MMORPG, gave a presentation on the forthcoming Rise of the Godslayer expansion and then took a few of our questions about the additions in store for the sword and sorcery title.
First things first: the eye-catching title refers to the expansion’s place in Howard lore, and the game makes use of the events in The Tower of the Elephant, one of the most highly regarded Howard short stories. In a nutshell, twenty years prior to the setting of original game, a young thief named Conan managed to slay the god Yag-Kosha. Unaware of the god’s role as a protector of the lands of Khitai, the barbarian unwittingly loosed a tide of dark forces on the eastern lands which have coalesced into a threat to the modern day Aquilonian kingdom, which of course is now ruled by King Conan.
Players will be swept up in the story of Khitai as they travel to the far east and attempt to deal with the dangers presented by the evil that has been corrupting the lands for the last two decades.
Age of Conan is a title that has undergone significant changes since its May 2008 launch, not the least of which are personnel moves (Morrison taking over for Gaute Godager) as well as many performance optimizations and game play tweaks. Morrison spoke of the development team’s mindset from launch on into the present day, using that as a spring board to present details on the forthcoming expansion’s feature set.
“Before our launch we had this mantra of combat, combat, combat, and for the last eighteen months after launch we shifted it slightly to content, looking into the content gaps that existed when the game launched, adding new community features like guild renown, PvP functions that increase the longevity of the game and rebind the players into the game world,” he said. With Rise of the Godslayer, combat is still essential, but there is also a laser focus on player choice and game play consequences.
Factions, Factions, and More Factions
Factions play a large role in the troubled lands of Khitai, with a total of ten separate groups vying for the player’s loyalty. True to the source material, Age of Conan’s factions present many shades of grey, rather than the clear cut good versus evil nature of many MMORPG faction choices. Morrison commented that players will generally be aligning themselves with between three and five factions at any given time, and the fact that many of these groups dislike one another will force gamers to make definitive choices that will affect everything from equipment to quest availability and therefore progression through the expansion’s content.
In terms of gear, each faction offers new armor and weapons to the player, with a total of eighty new armor sets spread among the ten groups. Each set will be visually and statistically unique, thereby appealing to a broad range of tastes while simultaneously furthering the expansion’s goal of choice and consequence. There are also two new faction mounts, the tiger and the wolf, available through a new loyalty quest line that sees the player acquire a young cub before guiding it along the path to becoming either a dedicated mount or a combat companion.
In addition to factions, the other systemic addition brought on by Rise of the Godslayer is a form of alternate advancement. As with most MMO expansions, there are new general feats, archetypal feats, and class-specific feats, but Morrison was quick to point out that Funcom put a lot of work into these additions rather than simply layering them on top of the existing game. Of particular interest is a new mechanic that draws inspiration from Guild Wars by allowing the player access to dozens of new powers while simultaneously requiring that they choose six of them to take into combat. Abilities can be chosen based on the types of situations the player might encounter, but no changes are possible to this new ability bar once combat has begun.
Another noteworthy addition is the concept of perks, which are basically abilities that can have a major impact on situational combat and therefore occupy two slots on the aforementioned bar. Finally, Morrison unveiled a new training mode, likening it to EVE Online’s offline skill progression. Players will select an ability to train, and after a period of elapsed time, will return to find it more powerful and useful.
Dungeons and Barbarians
New dungeons and instances are plentiful in the lands of Khitai, and with them comes an overhaul to dungeon-running mechanics that Funcom hopes will add both longevity and challenge to the PvE portions of the game. In one example, Morrison showed players using the game’s emote system to navigate portions of the new Celestial Necropolis instance, and explained how the party will need to plan tactically in order to have enough bodies to solve puzzles and take on enemy mobs simultaneously. “it’s the first time in MMOs that I’ve heard of anyone using their animation system to actually trigger gameplay,” Morrison commented.
In addition, all of the puzzles and challenges in an instanced dungeon will hint at the tactics necessary to take down the final boss. Each dungeon will also feature a hard mode which can only be activated via contextual gameplay. As an example, Morrison spoke of a particular type of emote angering a particular boss, which would in turn trigger the instance’s elite mode.
As if all that weren’t enough, Rise of the Godslayer also features a brand new playable race, the Khitan, available at character creation, as well as a plethora of quests for both new and existing characters. Veteran players will also be able to further customize the appearance of their older characters through vendors that offer new tattoos, hairstyles, and other options. Morrison also hinted at further customization options during initial character creation. One oft-requested feature that won’t be shipping with the expansion is social armor and clothing tabs. Morrison explained that cosmetic clothing is something that Funcom has wanted to implement for awhile but has taken a back seat to more necessary gameplay and balancing issues. “Once the expansion is done it will likely find its way into one of the updates,” he said.
In the zone
Finally, the land of Khitai itself brings several changes to the Age of Conan game world. Five expansive new play fields have been added, all of them featuring the lush eastern terrain and architecture from Howard’s stories. Morrison also spoke about Funcom’s incorporation of player feedback on the initial game with regard to zones and feelings of linearity and disconnection when loading across huge distances.
“While we’re still using our zoning technology, what we’ve done is kind of stitched the play fields of Khitai together so while we still achieve this fantastic level of high detail art, the experience is much more consistent for the player, the play fields are much more open and vast so when a player moves from one region to another they can literally turn around and see where they’ve just come from, with visual landmarks off in the distance that allow them to navigate,” he said.
All in all, Rise of the Godslayer will certainly make a huge impact on the world of Age of Conan and its players.
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