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

The art of the sword

Disorientation pretty accurately describes much of the experience of playing Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures, since so much of the game feels painfully incomplete. Take the graphics engine, for instance: Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures is, hands-down, the most beautiful MMO we've ever seen. When the sun casts mottled shadows on lush, flowing underbrush and rivers gleam in a thousand points of light beneath a sapphire sky and rolling clouds, it's hard not to drop your jaw.

But zoom in on your character, and you'll notice that her hair clips through the headpieces you wear. Climb down a ladder and you'll start the descent from six feet above the highest rung, holding on to air. And next to Hyboria in daylight, Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures' night-time environments are so unimpressively dull that you'll crave the sunny companionship of multiplayer within minutes.

One feature that Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures was touted for early on was its brutal, interactive combat system, in which you can attack from different angles and chain them together into fatality-capped combos. There's no denying that if you play a melee class, you'll adore the interactivity; the combat is tangible and the finishers are brilliantly bloody. Indeed, even some healers are melee classes, and the bulk of players will be able to enjoy beautiful decapitations with a side order of XP. But if you play a caster, the fatalities you can expect will float targets off the ground for a few seconds, surround them in an aura of light, and then release them. No sweet camera shots, no blood fountains to speak of.

Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures: Specs

  • 2.4GHz dual-core processor
  • Windows XP/Vista
  • 2GB RAM
  • 27GB hard-disk space
  • 512MB DirectX 9.0 graphics card with Shader 3.0 support
  • 2.4GHz dual-core processor
  • Windows XP/Vista
  • 2GB RAM
  • 27GB hard-disk space
  • 512MB DirectX 9.0 graphics card with Shader 3.0 support

OUR VERDICT

Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures was released before it was ready. The 1-20 leveling experience is mostly complete, with nifty features such as voice-acted quest givers and a rich storyline granting players a solid, next-generation RPG experience. But the further you get from the starting levels, the more you'll have to deal with smudged content. The voice acting will mysteriously disappear, along with the quests, the single-player story and the engaging instances. The primary reason to keep playing the game will be forming guilds and engaging in epic, PvP sieges with characters that have grinded to 80. Nevertheless, Age of Conan: The Hyborian Adventures' core features are brilliant. Blood, sex, power, vengeance, lordship and lust together drive a game that has tremendous potential, despite its lacklustre polish. In the months to come, Hyboria will grow into a gladiatorial contender that you may well want to experience, World of Warcraft fan or not. For the moment, though, this is a game best left to the MMO crowd that's been craving an M-rated change of pace.

Find the best price