Age of Conan: Adventures in Oslo
"You cannot escape me!" he roared. "Lead me into a trap and I'll pile the heads of your kinsmen at your feet! Hide from me and I'll tear apart the mountains to find you! I'll follow you to hell!" -- Robert E. Howard
Sunday, May 11, 2008
And then there was Oslo, a completely charming city of intensely exquisite parks, blooming flowers, and medieval architecture, so seemingly perfect that when you walk its cobbled streets, you feel that tulips are blooming under your very skin. Yeah, you can amble down Karl Johans Gate after the Nordic sun sets to get a GTA IV feel: Somalian prostitutes will beg for your every dollar. But mainly, it's a city of graceful beauty; of well-dressed, well-coiffed Uma Thurmans and Brad Pitts everywhere you look. You just want to consume it all, eat it up again and again like a hungry LocoRoco blob. So it may appear strange and feel unforeseen to realize that this is the nation that spawned the awfully mature brutality of the Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, an MMORPG full of bloody decapitations and so rife with the suggestion of sex that you can almost smell it. And this is the edited version of the game -- the one without the suggestion of date rape and without the scene where one particularly smarmy character beats and urinates on a chained prisoner.
Yet it somehow makes sense. Looking deeper in present-day Oslo, you'll find expressions of every imaginable emotion -- of note, the 212 sculptures within the 80 acres of Frognerparken with its odd Vigeland Park: twisted bodies upon mangled bodies frozen in moments of anger, passion and violence. Then, at the very top where the ancient Akershus Fortress guarded over its citizens, I look down past a wedding party to see four scruffy young denizens shooting each other up in the webs of their fingers. Oslo surely has its darker side, and there are those who relish it. Some of these people work at Funcom, a company that has poured millions of krones and pails of perspiration into their Robert E. Howard creation over the past four years. I was invited to this Viking city because their barbarian baby was about to be delivered.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008, Afternoon
It's early in the day. We're in a random club next to a random amusement park that's pretty pitiful. In addition to journos, the invitees here included vociferous members of clans and guilds from various virtual worlds, including the Age of Conan beta. MMO lovers aren't just passionate, they're obsessed. When they like something, they're like PR people with a deeper, intimate knowledge. These guys get together as strangers and after they talk shop for hours on end they seem like lifelong friends. It's like they were born of the same mother, related from the moment their fetuses became entities.
For four hours, I watched and played. The upshot? Age of Conan's graphics are the best ever seen in an MMO, especially the Thunder River level full of waterfalls and pools, something like Victoria Falls meets Niagara. But there's more than graphics. You can have massive hundred-person raids in the game as if you were acting out a scene in "Braveheart." Want to chill after a big battle? Go to a bar and listen to the barkeeps spew one of 30 Robert E. Howard poems. Want to play single-player? You can do that for the first 20 levels. Can't get to Level 85? A more powerful friend can anoint you with strength for a while and take you along to see what being so strong will look and feel like. Want to fight like in a Street Fighter game? Pull off a few special moves and you'll see some intricate fisticuffs. Want to play as stealthily as Alta?r in Assassin's Creed? You can do that, too. I saw a player creep up into a wealthy landowner's room and stab him to death as he slept. When you're potent enough to go on a raid, you can do so with two dozen people. Heck, there's even mounted combat on a mammoth or a rhino. Tired of fighting? You and your pals can build a complete city ? la SimCity. Said droll Game Director Gaute Godager, a self-described "total nerd," "It became bigger and better than we dreamed it could be when we started out."
The only problems? What I saw was a little latency during fighting, especially when pulling off wide, slashing moves, and drops in frame rates occurred maybe three times in a one-hour period.
Tuesday May 13, 2008, Night
Up we go into the wild bluish-ebony yonder to that famous Holmenkollen ski jump high above Oslo where in 1952 two Norwegians took the gold and silver medals. It was too much for some to take. One kid, on his first press trip, became so excited, he swooned, passing out in the thin air and falling to the ground, due to awe and possibly hunger. Steps away, Funcom unveiled what was billed as the biggest entertainment launch ever to hit Norway.
They had created the kind of party videogame companies just don't do anymore, spending hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a true barbarian environment for us journos and guild invitees. In the 45-degrees-Fahrenheit night, we walked past semi-clothed and angry-looking men and women clad in animal skins and tattoos. We watched mock battles where dozens died on the dusty field, as Conan watched on a throne hundreds of yards away. We ate the charred meat from the loins of pigs on spits. Fire eaters spewed flames from their gaping maws. Near a tent, a fight broke out among barbarians over a leg of lamb. An apple-faced barbarian toddler wrapped in swaddling skin clutched a fork as if it were a dagger. On the stage, the Oslo Philharmonic played the haunting game soundtrack and many got drunk on Ringnes Beer as fireworks exploded over our 21st century heads, the warm shrapnel hitting us in the chest or eyes. And Conan looked on, stuck in the same sprawling position he held hours ago. This swarthy dude's back was going to hurt royally in the morning.
When the night wind blew too cold, we descended into a bunker tricked out to be a barbarian club over which one of Conan's enemies held court and trailers from the game looped until 2 a.m. I imbibed horrid tasting blueberry vodka drinks with Hyborian names, and when it was all over, when we stumbled down the mountain in the direction of our buses, there was only one thing we wanted to do: Play the game.
On the bus, I talked at length with the German community manager, a guy who loves his 14-hour-a-day job of answering questions from community members who complain about patch download times and the ineffable bugs that come up in all beta projects. And yet, like all of the Funcom team, I saw this excitement, an exhilarated zeal and gusto, when talking about any aspect of the game. I've never seen this kind of thing in all my years, even when I was at Sony and the company was all-consumed with the making of the first EverQuest. This dashing, earnest individual loved the fact that, when he interviewed for the job at Funcom, Gaute Godager went out and listened to his complaints about the beta and then tipped more than a few with him and the Funcom crew as well. I don't think Smedley at Verant ever was anything like that, at least not based on what I saw when I was at Sony. And up past the ski jump on the mountain into the deep blue as the Norwegian moon shone its spotlight on Hyboria, the silent, brooding Conan saw it and thought it was good, probably because there's a little bit of the horror of Howard's pal H. P. Lovecraft in everything Funcom did with the game ? and the party.