Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online are two of the fantasy MMORPG contenders battling for World of Warcraft’s leftovers. The games are well into their life cycles at this point: more than one year for Conan, two years for LotR. If you’re planning to dip into your gaming fund to immerse yourself in one of these worlds, which one should you choose? Depends what you like.
I’ll preface this review with the caveat that I didn’t play every class or get to high level content in either game, nor did I participate in any PVP, so I can’t claim to have experienced even half of what these games have to offer. However, I did spend a few weeks with each one and developed a pretty solid overall impression. One thing I can say for certain – they’re both good games, and I liked them both significantly better than World of Warcraft.
LotR Online is the game most similar to the familiar WoW. A lot of the fantasy tropes WoW is based on come straight from Tolkien, after all. Pick a race, pick a class, go out and take on missions. Especially in the early game, LotR suffers from a lot of “FedEx” missions. Killing assorted creatures, carrying things from one place to another, “mining” a certain number of minerals by clicking and waiting…game designers need to stop using these kinds of missions. They are simply not fun. They never were. For a game like LotR, which is supposedly focused on an epic high fantasy story, it feels especially lame.
Luckily, there is a major plotline that draws your character forward. I’m assuming it grows in significance as you reach higher levels. Depending on your race, you’ll deal with a seemingly minor local problem. You quickly discover that Sauron’s minions have their shadowy fingers poking into your business.
A lot of the missions in Age of Conan are similar, but by its very nature, the game makes them feel more gritty and immediate. Rather than finding some herbs for the hobbit healer, you might find yourself searching for a missing prostitute and slaughtering the pirates who kidnapped her. And when I say slaughtered, I mean slaughtered. Combat involves dismemberment, decapitations and spurts of blood sticking to your screen. The characters are unsavory, the morality loose and the combat brutal. Also, there are naked breasts and foul language.
The major plot thread in AoC is evident from the beginning. In fact, your first 20 levels all lead you to an exceptional set piece in which a revolution breaks out in the starting city. You must fight your way through the mobs and reach the end boss. Even before you get to that point, you’ll have climbed to the top of a volcano, infiltrated an evil sorceress’ citadel and exacted your revenge on the city guard who’s been vexing you (and mocking, cursing and belittling you) ever since level 1. Conan ends up feeling more epic, and you feel like your character is more important and tied to the story than in LotR.
In the graphics department, Conan wins again. I was able to run both games with maximum graphics settings. LotR doesn’t look bad by any means, but the characters are a bit cartoony looking compared to those in AoC, and the textures are not quite as vivid. At times, the architecture feels a bit blocky and non-organic (and I’m speaking not just in terms of buildings, but also trees and people). In Conan, I spent a great deal of time simply exploring the world, literally sightseeing. LotR didn’t capture that same feeling of awe as I wandered the world. The water in Conan is particularly impressive. You can check out some screenshot galleries below.
That’s not to say that Conan’s graphics are flawless. Some of the creatures look like they could use some extra detail. The zombies that can be summoned by Necromancers in the early levels look atrocious. LotR, on the other hand, does capture the vastness of some of the ancient ruins and dungeons in Middle Earth. Everywhere you go, you’ll find crumbling stone walls and massive statues. Enter a dwarfhold and you’ll feel tiny as you gaze at the distant ceiling, or try to find your way through the cavernous halls.
There are a few differences in actual game mechanics. LotR sticks with the tried and true MMORPG format – you gain new powers as you level up, and you activate the powers by clicking on the appropriate icon. Each attack strikes the foe you currently have targeted, or sets off an area of attack effect, or heals a teammate. Not innovative, but it works. Conan uses a somewhat more interactive system so long as you’re using a melee class. For close range combat, you still click icons for certain attacks. However, you don’t necessarily have to target a specific foe. Anyone who gets in the way of your axe swipe will take damage. Some attacks have a wider arc than others.
In addition, Conan uses a combo system and varying shield locations. There are three icons for basic attacks: overhead, left and right. When you make certain attacks, a sequence of these high, left or right icons will show up. If you click them in the right order, you’ll follow up the initial attack with some extra slashes that really stack on the damage. Sometimes you can even link attacks together for devastating blows. Opponents have three “shield markers” that they can arrange in either of the three swing locations. If they have all their shield markers stacked on the overhead location, you’ll want to use attacks that come in from the left or right, because you do a lot more damage hitting unshielded locations. It’s a pretty good system that incorporates a little of a fighting game feel, and makes combat much more interesting than the usual “target, click, repeat.” Unfortunately, if you play a spellcaster or ranged class, you won’t get to use the system much at all.
The worlds of both games are pretty large. Not all of Middle Earth has been developed yet for LotR – you can’t visit Rohan or Minas Tirith, for instance. But the developers are continually adding to the world with free updates as well as paid expansions. Apparently Mirkwood is being prepared at the moment. The game takes place shortly after Bilbo’s birthday party – I’m not sure if they intend to let the story play out as written, or if the story could somehow be altered or affected. This timeline does present the potential opportunity to meet and interact with some of Tolkien’s major characters. Age of Conan takes place late in Conan’s career, after he has become king of Aquilonia. Conan himself is mentioned frequently, but seems never (or very rarely) to appear in the game.
I’m not sure which game I like more (and, indeed, haven’t decided which I plan to play long-term). If it weren’t set in Middle Earth, Lord of the Rings Online would come off as a fairly generic fantasy game. But it is set in Middle Earth, and that’s huge. From reading the forums and talking to other players, it seems that, generally speaking, LotR’s players are more interested in participating in a shared world, role-playing and taking their time to experience the stories woven into their adventures than players in certain other online games. Yes, there are power-levelers and loot hunters, but their presence seems the exception rather than the rule. You tend to find a lot more characters with names accurate to the world, rather than an endless parade of “pwnu579″ and other nonsense. The game also has some fun systems that help flesh out the world. Crafting is a big deal. You can create a name for yourself by completing certain tasks. For example, by making it to level 5 without dying, my dwarf became known as Deoin the Wary. There’s a family system, too, which allows you to designate other players’ characters as part of your lineage, up to 40 generations deep.
If the world of Conan isn’t quite as well developed as Middle Earth, it’s no less spectacular. If you’ve read the Robert E. Howard stories, it’s a real treat to recognize characters and places from those tales. By the way, to make it perfectly clear, this game is based on those stories, not on any film or other Conan property. That’s a very, very good thing. In any case, in Conan I found that the missions and plots seemed a bit more personal, the people you meet a bit more realistic. The developers seem to have a strong desire to avoid creating the same old online game. There are some unique missions mixed in, like one in which a magistrate is trying to determine which of three men is responsible for a theft. You find out by talking to them, and can get the right answer by sorting out their stories or just intimidating them at the right time.That sort of thing is a welcome change from the “Kill 20 orcs” grind that is the bane of these games (to be sure, Conan suffers from them as well).
I’m still torn. I like both games for different reasons. When I decide, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, enjoy the galleries.