While at PAX I got a second chance to visit the most ill-conceived meeting booth of all time – you know, the one next to the Harmonix booth. This time Funcom’s Craig Morrison, Executive Producer, soldiered on to tell me about the Age of Conan expansion, Rise of the Godslayer. Godslayer is set in Khitai, a Far East location from the imagination of Robert E. Howard, though Howard didn’t leave much to go on. The Tower of the Elephant survives as a very memorable tale, however, and so the framework for Godslayer was born. The story goes that the young, thieving Conan went in search of the Elepahnt’s Heart, a fabled gem kept in an ivory tower. He discovers not a gem but an alien, Yag-Kosha, controlled and bound by a sorcerer. Imprisoned for several hundred years, Yag-Kosha has been worshipped in the jungles of Khitai as a protective and beneficial deity but the creature is suffering and begs Conan to put it out of its misery. When Conan (rather uncharacteristically) obliges Khitai spirals into chaos and he earns the hatred of the residents of Khitai and the shiny new title of Godslayer. Basically, lots of people are very cheesed off at King Conan.
Funcom’s envisioning of the ancient east through European eyes is a re-imagined ancient world deliberately void of Japanese influence. The trailer shows the Great Wall as a gateway to the new land of the Orient, where kingdoms are alien and strange to the Conanites and convey to the player a real sense of exploration and discovery. There is a lot of visual storytelling at work here, and Funcom makes full use of their Beijing development office and ties to Korea to bring the locations to life.
Among the innovations Morrison highlighted are stitched together zones that allow you to see the last play field and into the next with dominating architectural features as directional cues like the Great Wall to help with navigation. In response to community feedback play fields are more vast and have more playable areas. The beautiful architecture, including the Great Wall, is dynamic and part of gameplay contributing to the estimated 30-40% more playable area. In the eastern tradition, the buildings are very open and become their own pathways, a welcome change from billboard style construction.
Rise of the Godslayer’s zones hold almost twice the 1,100 NPCS currently in AoC. There are five play field regions and within each region are ten primary factions and two hidden ones. The factions do not live in harmony and players will have to choose their alliances carefully. Betrayal quests are possible, but Age of Conan treats this with a degree of realism. According to Morrison, “It won’t be an easy choice, it won’t be like an on/off, because the immediate period after they betray a faction they’re going to be in a situation where they have to do specific things because the faction that used to hate them doesn’t just instantly love them because they hit the ‘I betray them’ button.” A betrayal quest, then, will put the player in a very tenuous place between two factions, an interesting risk-reward scenario.
The factions, more than just possible benefactors, are connected to the story. You can’t just show up in a town dominated by a faction that you have been offing and expect to be welcomed. The main faction armor is distinct, integral to deftly avoiding faction NPCs that may not be your besties. Each major faction has multiple sets of armor for players to earn. For every tier you unlock within a faction you get a brand new set of armor ranging from light to heavy. With twelve factions in-game and four tiers within each, that adds up to a lot of armor. The armor becomes more ornate with each new level, a great indicator for your allegiance and achievements. The attention to armor is not only an aesthetic perk, it’s a practical tool for avoiding enemy faction NPCs – or targeting them.
Playing off of Howard’s own perceptions of society, each faction has elements of good and evil, with none standing out as goodies or baddies. Some of the factions will call into question your alignment with King Conan, like the Priest faction, who consider Conan the Godslayer. If you align with this particular faction you are essentially betraying Conan, but the Priests are also as close as you can get to “good guys” in the game as they really look after their people. Another faction has the true heir to Khitai’s throne. They are wronged, this is true, but this faction is chock full of very nasty folks so while joining them might have a noble purpose there is going to be a lot of bad business mixed in. You can strike a tenuous balance of neutrality among the factions but doing so pretty much means you are missing the point – and a lot of gameplay. Yes, allying with a faction closes off areas belonging to another, but without allying yourself you don’t gain access to other areas and quests. The thorough player will be able to play through all the factions offerings in time, though switching always sacrifices certain perks.
Instead of introducing new classes or levels Rise of the Godslayer uses an alternate advancement system with additional feats. According to Morrison, the team is “trying to give the players a lot more diversity and options, rather than just adding a new level. We wanted it so that the players could go back and still experience some of the older content but with their new-found powers, so it’s more gradual and it’s adding more diversity to the classes”. Feat abilities are gained through points acquired just like XP, though exactly how the feat points will be amassed and applied has not yet been determined. Training, however, will be an important element. For every new skill players determine the focus of their training and over time the skill being trained will go up a level (similar to EVE). The intention is to bring an eastern feel to each of the existing classes. You earn ultimate advancement points that can be spent in brand new trees for skills, abilities and spells that pick up the culture and combat of the east, and in order to advance through the expansion you will have to master many of these abilities.
Two new, very cool mounts come with the expansion pack and offer the most epic of Godslayer quests: tigers and wolves. For example, the tiger mount requires that you locate the Tamarind Tigers by allying yourself with a faction in the know. You must then advance through the faction in order to pass initiation just so that you can strip down and leave your weapons behind to go off in search of the momma tiger. All buck nekkid and ready to fight bare-handed, should you succeed in stealing a tiger cub away players then complete quests to raise the critter up right. Having finally taught it to kill, you get a one-time choice: make Tigger a mount or a combat pet. The wolf mount is just as complex, and since each mount has factions in different areas you can acquire both – but it won’t be easy, mounts are pinnacle achievements.
If you have taken some time away from Age of Conan, or haven’t ventured in having heard tales of last fall’s struggles, you will be very tempted by the beautiful offering that is Rise of the Godslayer. Beyond the perseverance the team has exercised, I love their vision for gameplay, the way in which they balance story and art to deliver a more complete experience all the while playing with social tensions and moral grey areas. This may be questionable heroism and consequence-driven gameplay at its finest, though time will tell if Funcom’s aggressively hard work and response to community feedback will revive the player base.