Reviewing an MMO is like being asked to step outside and put a score on the moon. No matter how long you look, you'll never see all of it. What follows are impressions of Age of Conan's first expansion, gleaned from a sliver of its hundreds of hours of content.
With some help from Funcom I set up four alts: a level 20 and a level 40 character to attack the lower level area from both sides, and two maxed-out level 80 warriors to explore the high level zones. With the paint still drying on the new world I braved three dungeons, joined and quested for two factions and explored every corner of the new lands.
Here's what I found.Rise of the Godslayer adds Khitai, Robert E Howard's take on East Asia. It boasts five huge new areas, packed with quest lines and loot. The Gateway to Khitai is set aside for level 20-40 play, adding some much-needed substance to the middle game. Your first hour or so will be spent protecting a stalled caravan from raiders, but before long you'll find that the dead are rising and a race of irritating ape men running amok. The wide open areas, with their abandoned crypts and ancient ruins, provide plenty of adventure but the Gateway is easily the weakest zone of the five, lacking the dungeons and spectacular sights of the level 80 areas that lie beyond the iron-clad Gates of Khitai.
Cross the threshold of the great gate and you'll see what Khitai is all about. It's a place where samurai fight giant spiders among the bamboo canes, death cults worship huge stone statues deep in the jungles and cannibals ride colossal war tigers past the tall pagodas of the southern swamplands. Riding in a straight line from one end to the other sees you pass over wide grasslands, through Chosain's autumnal forests and into the jungle of Paikang before finally coming to the white beaches on the far eastern shore. The huge areas transition perfectly between the varied climes, and the whole place is filled with meticulously researched detail borrowed from oriental cultures.
[MPU]It may be pretty, but it wouldn't be Conan without muscle-bound warriors braining each other. In this respect also, Khitai doesn't disappoint. It's a land marred by conflict, its ten new factions at war in every corner. You can ally with them, curry favour by attacking their enemies, rise through the ranks and eventually earn serious rewards in the form of stunning armour sets and in the best cases, an epic mount.
Getting one of those mounts is one of the best quests in the game. Gain enough favour with Tamarin's Tigers and you'll have the opportunity to steal a tiger cub. Like real cats, they're hard to impress, so you'll need to strip naked and beat a tigress to death with your bare hands before they'll follow you. With that done, you'll need to train your loyal cub to fight for you. Then you can craft a saddle to turn your war beast into a truly impressive mount. It's a difficult and lengthy task that builds a bond between you and your creature, turning the best rewards in the game into something more than just another loot drop.
There are a few duff kill quests and collection tasks, but Rise of the Godslayer's great success lies in creating a world that never feels like a quest factory. There are places where idle spiders or wolves loiter waiting to be slain by the next adventurer, but for the most part your actions will have context and meaning. There's an area of Chosain torn apart by the war between local factions: you'll be taking quests aiding the faction of your choice, but you can also help the innocent peasants caught up in the conflict, searching for lost loved ones and helping the wounded. It's touches like this that make Khitai a consistent and believable place. I never had the ugly feeling that I was just another member of a conveyor belt of warriors ploughing through the same quests for loot.
With its powerful character classes, offline levelling and emphasis on PvE, Age of Conan has made a niche for itself among casual solo players. The expansion hasn't touched the player vs player side at all and Conan feels more like a singleplayer RPG than it ever has before. Fortunately, there's still plenty here for groups, who can test their mettle across the 13 new dungeons scattered through the high level lands. The underpopulated beta server I was on made grouping difficult, but the dungeons I did see were inventive affairs. The most challenging lie at the base of the vast, ominous crater that scars the northern land of Kara Korum, where a six-man dungeon turns into a huge puzzle, with players activating combinations of switches to tailor their path to the boss. These instances may be tough but they're nothing compared to the tier 4 Jade Citadel raids that pit you and an army of friends against the Emperor's forces. You'll need military grade organisation and help from the new alternative advancement system to stand a hope.
This new system means that at level 20 players now get access to one of three extra skill trees. Points earned in PvE can be spent on one half of the table and points from PvP kills on the other. Earn enough points in either class and you'll be given Expertise, which can be spent on both sides of the table, which means that even if you don't participate in PvP you can still gain abilities from that skill tree, albeit at a slower rate. There are new abilities to play with, but many of the new advancements work by buffing or altering existing spells and combos.
You can also use the alternative advancement system to train perks. These skills are passive bonuses activated by dragging them into a slot on a special taskbar that limits the number of perks you can have running at any one time. This means you'll be switching between them depending on your enemy. Local wildlife bothering you? Boost your damage and finish them off faster. Angered a giant reanimated undead golem? Buff your toughness and you might survive the fight.
The system enables you to enhance the particular abilities you rely on, making your chosen play style more powerful, while also granting you the stat increases you'll need to take on the challenges of the highest areas. Hit level 80 and the other two thirds of the advancement tree open up. When this happens you'll have the option of learning these skills over the course of just a day or so. This removes the need for players to grind their way up the skill trees, while at the same time allowing casual players to spec up and keep pace with more active friends.
Rise of the Godslayer is a huge update that plays to Conan's strengths and addresses many of its flaws, although there are still parts of the core game that need reworking. Veteran players will be disappointed that the starting area of Tortage remains unchanged, with only slight differences if you start as a Khitan character. Some uninspired writing and manneqinlike NPCs threaten to undermine the drama, and PvP enthusiasts, served so well by many of the free updates, will find nothing in the expansion beyond the extra skills.
Overall, though, there's a sense that Godslayer is exactly what Age of Conan needed. The low level Gateway to Khitai area will ease the transition to Ymir's Pass, one of the level 60-80 areas added last year, and the other four zones of Khitai offer months of activity at the highest level. Lapsed high-level players will be rewarded if they return, and there's never been a better time for new barbarians to join the fun.