Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer Expansion Preview
Introducing a Far Eastern feel to Age of Conan, Rise of the Godslayer includes a new race and a vast number of new playfields, dungeons, and instances stretching from level 20 to level 80. It's no understatement to sat that this represents one of the most sweeping MMORPG expansions ever made. Today marks not only RotG's release, but is also nearly two years to the day since Age of Conan's launch. To celebrate the dual occasion, Ten Ton Hammer previews the race, zones, mounts, factions, instances, and much more from Age of Conan's premier retail expansion.
Khitan - The New Race
While choosing the Khitan (pronounced "kit-TAHN") race doesn't impact gameplay or offer different starting stats - all races and both genders in Age of Conan are equal in this respect - Khitan characters add a distinctly Asian element to the European (Cimmerian, Aquilonian) and North African (Stygian) character models in pre-expansion AoC. A whole new set of hairstyles, facial features, body markings, and tattooes is just the beginning of Funcom's collaboration with Korean partner Neowiz to deliver an authentic Far Eastern flavor for the expansion.
While no new classes were introduced with the expansion, Khitans have eight class choices - more than any other race - and tend towards soldiers, rogues, and especially mages. (The complete list of Khitan classes: Guardian, Dark Templar, Bear Shaman, Assassin, Ranger, Demonologist, Herald of Xotli, and Necromancer.)
The Journey to Khitai
The Gateway to Khitai (with the Great Wall distant center)
As represented on Robert E. Howard's maps, Khitai is a long way away from the playfields of classic Age of Conan. Both the Vilayet Sea (Howard's Caspian Sea) and the vast desert of Hyrkania stand in your way. To cover the distance at level 20, players will either sign on for guard duty or pay for passage on an eastbound caravan from either Tortage or Khemi, the Stygian hub city.
Pay your way and you can sit back and enjoy a Gateway to Khitai loading screen. However, if you're short on cash or if you have a spare 15-20 minutes and want to take the authentic Conan route, enlist as a guard. You'll enter one of nine different solo instances, ranging from firing the ship's ballistas to discourage a hungry kraken, foraging water and food from an cove infested with pirates, or investigating a strange oasis plagued by the undead. None of the challenges should be particularly difficult for a seasoned adventurer, but fail and it's back to your port of origin.
Gateway to Khitai
From the stinging deserts of Hyrkania, you'll set foot in Khitai, a land nominally controlled by the crumbling Khitan empire. In the distance players will see shrines on many hilltops, a gigantic wagon that forms the centerpiece of a nearby Hyrkanian village, and the Great Wall, which forms the western boundary of the Northern Grasslands. Gateway to Khitai will be your home for levels 20-40, and you'll begin your level-up experience by aiding a caravan ravaged by Hyrkanian raiders. In typical Howard-esque faction, you'll trade sides and help the Hyrkanian villagers, where two clans vie for power to stop the strange taint affecting their nearby burial ground- a taint that they feel is Khatani in origin. This will be your first experience with dynamic content in Khitai - the Hyrkanian burial ground is filled with strange, powerful animals by day and something far more disturbing at night.
One item of particular interest - the giant Hyrkanian "welcome wagon" - is filled with half-naked concubines, so if you missed out on the bare-chested women in your original Age of Conan experience, well, there you go (just level-up a bit first, lest a Hyrkanian marksman make short work of you). If you're offended by mature content, aside from asking yourself why you're playing Age of Conan, you might want to uncheck "Show Mature Content" on the options screen.
The Hyrkanian welcome wagon (left) and burial grounds.
From there, you'll explore the trading village at the foot of the Great Wall. Here you'll encounter shrines where the gods respond to your donations and emotes. Drop a copper and you might earn a 10 minute buff. Try out another of the game's long list of emotes (type /help for inspiration), and you might experience something else. I wouldn't recommend loosing a /fart at the gods, but for the third-grade comedians among us, thankfully debuffs (and buffs) don't stack.
You'll also find plenty of tasks to perform for the small detachment of the Last Legion still left guarding the wall, clearing out the strange ruins in the surrounding wastes. These ruins are fortified by the degenerate apemen descendants of escaped slaves that were involved in building the Great Wall. True to Age of Conan fashion, the playfield is far from linear and you'll find yourself ranging east and west chasing quests to complete, but AoC's minimap arrows and markings on your map guide players easily to their objectives.
Mounts and Factions
The Temple of Yun is home to one of the creepier factions you'll encounter.
In the Northern Grasslands, players will have their first real encounter another significant part of the Rise of the Godslayer expansions - an extensive faction system that, in time, will grant you powerful mounts, pets, and faction armor sets. Players can't be all things to all factions, however. Like concubine tatas, factions occur in pairs - pleasing one faction through quests and kills will anger its opposing faction.
For example, The Yellow Priests of Yun, a death cult, are natural enemies of the Children of Yag-kosha, who serve a gentle "god." Parenthetically, and not to mention sadly, Conan killed this alien exile revered as a god out of mercy in "The Tower of the Elephant" - hence the name of this expansion. There are twelve major factions in all, two of which are hidden. Other pairings include the Shadows of Jade and Brittle Blade, the Last Legion and Scarlet Circle, and the Wolves of the Steppes and Tamaran's Tigers.
The last two represent factions, as you might have guessed, will put you in line for an awesome new pet or mount. Tiger and wolf mounts are among the longest anticipated features of the expansion, and players will complete a series of quests to grow their tiger or wolf to maturity in three stages: cub, adolescent, and finally a combat-ready pet or mount. At the last step, players will have to make a permanent choice between mount or pet, but Funcom has in the past stated that completing the questlines several times for different outcomes (e.g. getting a wolf pet and a tiger mount) is possible.
EverQuest introduced Alternate Advancement with the Shadows of Luclin expansion in December 2001, so the system is by no means new to MMORPGs. But AAs are new to Age of Conan with the Rise of the Godslayer expansion. Separate from the existing Feats system (called a "talent tree" in other MMOGs) and primarily geared to allow level cap players a way to grow and customize their characters at level cap, most AA spells and abilities (deemed "perks") will await level cap players at level 80. But according to perk stats found late in beta, a handful of perks are available at level 20.
Perks come in 3 ladders (Player vs. Environment (PvE) or "Mastery", General or "Expertise", and Player vs. Player (PvP) or "Prowess") and 3 layers of specialization (general, archetype, and class), but only 6 1-slot perks (or 3 2-slot perks) can be active at any given time. Once active (done by dragging the perk to a new UI element - the perks bar), the perk may be added to the hotbar or clicked on the perks bar.
How the points are earned to obtain these perks is still something of a mystery in late beta. Mastery and prowess points begin to accrue from your PvE and PvP kills and quest at the very start of the game, and it appears that the AA system has an offline leveling component as well to allow for expertise points. But details or formulas for how this all works were not available in the beta.
Paikang and Group Content
Several playfields come between players and Paikang, Northern Grasslands and Chosain Province among them, but Paikang - the final chaos-ridden zone in the expansion, is where factional rivalries really heat up. Lead Designer Joel Bylos, who took us through some of the more inaccessible areas of the expansion, notes that the similarites between the intro area of Paikang and Tortage were intentional - it's a very Robert E. Howard thing to do to take characters on a long journey back to where they started. Here, however, unlike Tortage, your past decisions will come back to impact you. The main stomping grounds for most of the major factions are scattered around Paikang, and depending on the combat and quest decisions you've made, you'll be deemed kill-on-sight as a foe or welcomed as a friend. There's no path of resistance, either; side with Brittle Blade to have an easy early experience in Paikang, and you'll have to tangle with the Shadows of Jade later on. It amounts to a great way to make your decisions meaningful and add new paths through the content for replayability.
Not that faction boosting is all there is to do in Paikang. A giant but thoroughly dead sea creature that might have put H.P. Lovecraft at a loss for adjectives has washed up on the beach, and while the villagers appreciate the convenient calamari, the parasites feeding on it are becoming a nuisance. Once players clean up that little problem, they'll find that something far more sinister is going on in the village proper. Bylos notes, "It's typical Conan that we have beauty on the surface and something ugly underneath." In Jujia Village, a seemingly calm coastal fishing village, townspeople have been disappearing, later found staked to the underwater piers of the village. Is it the emergence of a new cult, or a game of Operation gone horribly wrong? The only thing for sure at this point is that the village is a mystery left for players to solve.
Celestial Necropolis (left) and Jujia Village.
Further inland, no tour of Paikang is complete without a visit to the Temple of Yun, the home of the vile skull-faced Yellow Priests of Yun, a death cult that's probably as M for Mature as anything you'll find in AoC. Their nightly jollies include a "Dance of Sacrifice" to cheer their young female nudies into a fit of religious enthusiasm that, at its climax, sees them jumping like lemmings into the sacrificial pit. If you're thinking that this is all an incredible waste of these nubile nudes, your thoughts match mine, but maybe there's some NPC dialogue, symbolic significance, or Howardian societal commentary we can glean from this madness should we make a post-launch visit.
Should all this death and destruction get you down, Funcom has made a serene showpiece of their collaboration with Neowiz at Heaven's Lake Village. Funcom is taking Age of Conan to Korea later in 2010, and Heaven's Lake is what Bylos called a "peaceful bastion in Paikang's chaos", where Korean arts, architecture, and costume are on full display.
Finally, players will arrive at the Gates of Paikang. All this while we've fooled you into thinking that Paikang is a region, and it's actually a walled city with, as Robert E. Howard described, "purple minarets rising from the vine choked jungles of bamboo." But no matter your faction allegiances, there's only one way into Paikang (at least the first time you visit), and that's by force. Paikang is the hub for Rise of the Godslayer's tier 4 (level 70-80) raid instances, the first of which - Jade Citadel - will see your raid group taking on a massive army at the gates of the city.
Paikang (left) and Jade Citadel.
Paikang isn't the only raid or group content available in Rise of the Godslayer. Bylos also took us briefly into Celestial Necropolis, a group instance where the fellow creatures of Yag-kosha (the winged elephant alien thing revered as a god, mentioned above) bury their dead. As with the shrine system, emotes deepen the gameplay. Players must execute the correct emotes in the right places to build bridges over chasms or to raised platforms, to trap animals, or to escape burning floors. As in the GDC demo,players must sometimes leave part of your group behind to cross the intact bridge. Bylos hinted at a "trial of the godslayer" mode, which could be triggered by elite play in dungeons like Celestial Necropolis leading to tougher encounters but better loot.
Just My Opinion...
Rise of the Godslayer is a mid-game redux for a game largely lacking a compelling level-up experience, and from what players have seen so far, it delivers. It's tough to convey the intangibles in a written preview, but the graphics engine, animations, and art direction are just about as fresh today as they were at launch, the level of attention and polish in the story, armor sets, environments, and dialogue is astonishing. Even the soundtrack alone is unique and compelling.
If you loved AoC before, Rise of the Godslayer should help in a big way to justify your devotion. If you (like me) were one of those that shelved the game after Tortage, you owe it to yourself to give Age of Conan another shot - see if the game doesn't meet or exceed your original expectations. A full review and score is coming soon, but in the meantime, I'm going to think of creative ways to keep Funcom from releasing games two years and one expansion too soon.