A World of Warcraft-killer it is not, but Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures stands tall amid a sea of second-place MMOs.

Hand it to FunCom: it took a leap of faith. Up until the recent release of Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures, massively-multiplayer games hadn't dared step into M-rated territory, much less flaunt it with gore-spattered gameplay and shameless sexuality.

A fantasy MMO of swords, spells, faith and bloodlust, Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures pits its players against the villains of an ancient and barbaric Earth. As King Conan wrestles with the consequences of his ascension to the Aquilonian throne, you - an escaped slave, cast ashore amid the debris of a violent shipwreck - are given the chance to build your name and memory from nothing, helping to shield the King from anarchists and warmongers.

That is, at least, how Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures begins. Although its latter levels require grouping for quests and its end-game content is wrapped entirely around PvP combat, your earliest experiences in Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures are solo. You'll spend your first five levels all by yourself and, for most of the first 20 levels, you have the option of playing the game in single-player mode.

Night and day

The benefit of this system, according to maker FunCom, is two-fold: new players can break into MMO-style gameplay without having to worry about other players, and can play a story that wraps entirely around them. But in practice, the single- and multiplayer experiences in Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures are so vastly different that migrating from one to the other nearly breaks the game.

Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures matches the single-/multiplayer shift to the time of day. If the sun is shining, you're in multiplayer mode; if the moon rises, you're playing alone; and you can switch between them at will. The night quests are more inventive than their multiplayer counterparts, and sometimes even involve scripted events, but they're inherently alienating-in such a massive world - having no one around can get mighty lonesome.

If you try a day quest during your first 20 levels, you'll realise that none of Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures' early quests require grouping, either. A cloth-wearing priest can easily solo a level-20 'group' quest that is supposedly designed for multiple players. While this certainly isn't a problem on its own, Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures changes the face of the game soon after, ratcheting up the difficulty once you leave the starting area of Tortage.

Grouping becomes a virtual requirement in Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures, and the concept of story starts fading away. With an early game that trains players to think alone, it's a disorienting transition.

>> NEXT PAGE: The art of the sword and our expert verdict


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