Saturday, 29 January 2011

Seven more things I want to see in the new Conan game

The Battle of Venarium as the tutorial level, please.

Since Mr Holmes of Destructoid's wishes amount to pretty much "if it was in Conan the Barbarian, stick it in," I thought I'd give my ideas, continued!

In Conan's hands, all things are lethal weapons
And that includes hapless mooks.

Conan games always give Conan a sword: sometimes if we're lucky, it's something other than the Atlantean sword. On occasion, he gets an axe, too.  In a few games, Conan has the option for both.  But Conan isn't purely a sword/axe guy: Conan has proficiency in a variety of weapons, even ones he doesn't consider to be "manly" like bows. If there is a weapon in the game, Conan should be able to use it: he shouldn't be restricted to a set.

Oh, but it isn't just weapons: anything that can be thrown, swung, lobbed or thrust has been put to deadly use by Conan. He has sent foes screaming to their ancestors with stools, beef bones, benches and more. This would extend to furniture, rubble, tools, utensils, rocks, lumber, bones, chains, treasure.  If he can pick it up, Conan should be able to kill someone with it. Conan should even be able to pick up foes themselves, lifting them bodily into the air and launching them off precipices, into spikes, through scenery, and onto a crowd of his fellows.  Obviously he couldn't bench-press someone like Baal-pteor or Sergius of Khrosha like he did Arpello, but he should still be able to pick them up and toss them like a sack of wet cement.

Balance between Conan the Invincible and Conan the Mortal
In gaming parlance, Conan is a 1337 Tank with epic DPS.

Contrary to the popular idea of Conan being a boring invincible hero, there are many examples of Conan in a position of vulnerability - trapped, drugged, or simply facing an implacable foe.  However, there's little denying the appeal of Conan as an unstoppable whirlwind of death, too.  The Conan game should cater to both in different situations.

When faced with hordes of corsairs, soldiers, pirates, hillmen, bandits and others, the player should feel like Death reaping his grim harvest.  A single human enemy should be nothing to him.  When one gets to seasoned veterans, knights, pirate captains, fellow barbarians and the like, they should be more formidable.  One-on-one, they would be easy to dispatch, if quite a bit more resilient than their fellows: but in groups of three or more, they would be a greater challenge.  So, for example, Conan could defeat a battalion of twenty Nemedian soldiers in about the same length of time it would take for him to defeat four Adventurers. Twenty Nemedian soldiers accompanied by four Adventurers and a captain would thus be quite a challenge.

Each enemy group has different strengths and weaknesses:
 - Picts, Cimmerians, and Afghuli can hide in their native environments, making them exceedingly difficult to evade or detect, even for Conan
 - Nordheimr never rout, have berserk strength & endurance, and fight to the death
 - Hyborians have the best armour of human enemies

When Conan's facing human foes, the player should feel nigh-unstoppable.  Cleaving skulls to the teeth, hewing limbs and heads, splitting torsos in twain, unleashing bloody ruin in the madness and fury of battle.  Few could stand against him in battle, and fewer still live to tell the tale.  As Conan, players should feel like an avatar of death and destruction, though of course, always aware that for all Conan's prowess, he's still mortal.  He is no Kratos with divinely-embued resilience and magical weapons, nor is he the Incredible Hulk with limitless endurance and strength: be it against man or beast, Conan is at the absolute apex of man as killer.  And the player should feel like that.

When Conan faces the supernatural, however, that sense of might and dominance is completely inverted.  Conan is no longer the indomitable, unstoppable force, but a defiant insect in the shadow of a giant.  There are some supernatural foes Conan can defeat without supernatural aid - Thog, the Black Stranger, Swamp Devils, the Devil of the Vale, Zogar Sag's brother - but it's only through immense physical effort or fortuitous circumstance that he comes out alive.  The player should get the feeling that not only should the fight be hard-going, but that flight might be the only option in some cases.  A level based on "The Devil in Iron," for example, would involve Conan running away from Khosatral Khel for a substantial portion, until he finds the Yuetshi blade.  In those cases, only the aid of a magical item, a helpful sorcerer, or the might of an army could help Conan.

Thus a Conan game would switch from The Mark of Kri, where the player's a total badass, into Resident Evil, where the player has little choice but to run from some monsters.

Battles against giant animals should be worthy boss fights

Oh no, it's aggro! Quick Conan! Hit its weak spot for massive damage!

Even normal animals are dangerous foes in real life.  Chimpanzees are, pound for pound, much stronger than humans, after all, and I think it's pretty clear that gorillas are terrifying and dangerous foes.  I can't understand Funcom's decision to make apes so easy to kill in Age of Conan for this reason.  But I digress. Every time Conan faces a giant snake or ape, it's a stand-out of the story. Even if the actual fight takes mere seconds, the setup takes its time, and emphasises what a confrontation it is.  Witness how an entire chapter of The Hour of the Dragon was spent on the build up to a battle lasting a fraction of a second.

The problem with these sorts of fights is... well, how can you make a satisfactory boss fight with them?  The easiest way is to draw them out, but doesn't it ruin verisimilitude if your unstoppable Cimmerian has to hack and hack at a foe when you should be cutting it to pieces?  My solution: up the speed and power of the beasts.  A direct strong strike to the heart of a Grey Ape, for example, would end the fight.  However, a Grey Ape isn't just going to stand there like a mug and let you take stabs at its chest: you have to find a way to tire it out.  Either dodge its charges and attacks long enough for it to slow enough for a shot, or slash at it, hoping it loses energy through blood loss.  A strong strike to a limb ought to dismember it, but that leaves Conan open for an attack itself.

Ideally, there should be a number of ways to deal with giant apes:
 - If Conan has a slashing weapon, he could attempt to kill the creature through dismemberment and hope for decapitation, or survive long enough for exsanguination to take effect ("Iron Shadows in the Moon")
 - If Conan has a stabbing weapon, he could get in just the right position to stab the beast in the heart as it charges (The Hour of the Dragon - and I note that the 2007 Conan game actually has this as an option, which is incredibly cool) Or he can climb on the brute's back and stab away ("Rogues in the House")
 - If Conan is unarmed, he must rely on his wits to avoid it until he can get a weapon, or use the environment to his advantage (like how he cast stones on the undescribed "monstrous being" in the Nestor synopsis)
 - If Conan has a bow/spear, a shot in just the right place should kill it.  "Attack its weak spot for massive damage," so to speak. (the were-hyenas in "Queen of the Black Coast")

Giant snakes are a different problem: their danger isn't just in their speed, but in their resilience.  A snake will slowly crush Conan in its grasp, and Conan must struggle to get his sword-arm free for a deadly slash.  Conan must use leverage, the environment, and his own strength to get out of the pythonic squeeze.  If Conan is not ensnared by the snake, then he must do what he does with the Ape - dodge the darting snake's bites.
 - Conan with a slashing weapon can try to cut the snake into bits ("The Devil in Iron")
 - Conan with a stabbing weapon can attempt to goad the snake into a strike, where he can stab it in the head
 - If Conan is unarmed, he can do it the old fashioned way and break the python's neck (alluded to in "The Scarlet Citadel") or use the environment to his advantage (the Nestor fragment again).
 - Conan with a bow/spear can attempt to strike the snake in the brain ("Beyond the Black River")

There are other beasts - big cats, wolves, wolves and whatnot - who each have their own tactics to consider, and they deserve more than to be annoying nuisances.

Magic should be mighty

Uber AE Crowd Control Nuke doesn't even begin to cover it.

Magic in the Hyborian Age is a spectrum of extremes: subtle, and grand. There are no vendors selling health potions for tuppence, no mages hawking scrolls of Cone of Cold to low-level sorcerers, no second-hand Boots of Elvenkind. There is subtle magic, and mighty magic.

Subtle magic are those mysterious elements that aren't accompanied by glowing runes or sparks of light, but are no less impressive. Telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, mesmerism, divination with outer forces, protection from sorcery, sorcerous powders, poisons and devices: they aren't flashy or visually impressive, but they get the job done. Conan will occassionally employ such magic on his adventures. He uses the Sign of Jhebbal-Sag to ward off a panther; he uses a sword imbued with the Mark of Epemitreus to slay a demon; he wears Khemsa's girdle to protect him from the Black Circle. He may mistrust it, but Conan is a pragmatist, and not above using subtle magic when he needs to.

Mighty magic's another thing altogether. This is magic on a colossal scale: transmogrification of geography to a facsimile of the ancient past, entire armies wiped out in a fiery blast, cliffs, walls and cities cast down in moments, storms and floods drowning whole regions, wars of souls between sorcerers of unimaginable power. Conan has nothing to do with this, and more importantly, can't do anything against it: this sort of magic cannot be battled any more than one can battle a storm or earthquake. Conan has to avoid this magic, and seek an opportunity to kill the sorcerer either before he strikes, or during a period of weariness. Sorcerers are surprisingly easy to slay, but getting to a position where one can make the killing blow is hard indeed.

Rescuing Damsels Shouldn't Be A Chore

Even max-level fighters have to babysit the occasional n00b.

It's inevitable that some parts of the game would involve having to rescue a damsel of some sort. Most games of this ilk require you to protect some daft wench from hordes of enemies, often getting either the player or themselves killed with their own stupidity. Even the better examples, like in Resident Evil 4, can't fail to be immensely frustrating in some instances. Thus, I propose that there should be one way to alleviate this: have Conan be able to pick a girl up and carry her away with him. That way there's no need to worry about leaving her behind, or having to take note of where they are, or unexpectedly seeing them fall off a precipice/charge at the enemy/get in the way of your attacks.

Actually adapt the bloody stories.

Well, duh.

Actually, I came up with a neat idea: instead of using an arbitrary chronology, why not go with the written order for the stories? How would that work? I think a Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (the game, not the heinous film) approached mixed with Assassin's Creed would be pretty good.  You start the game off as King Conan, and can go certain places only available to him as king.  At the start of a game, an historian is interviewing Conan about his life and experiences, which Conan is all to happy to oblige.

The main menu would be Conan sitting on his throne, where one can access options, save/load, and whatnot. When one chooses "Adventures," they are taken to a list of the stories, which take the form of missions. Shorter stories like "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "The God in the Bowl" would only be one-part missions, while longer ones would be split into chapters. The unfinished stories, drafts, fragments and synopses would function as "bonus missions," which are completed as the player sees fit from a variety of options.

Alternatively, one could take a page out of Overlord's playbook, and use Conan's palace as a hub, to which all the other adventures are connected. Thus, Conan could explore different aspects of the game by going to different rooms.  In this case, accessing the adventures might be more involved, though ideally there would be a choice between using a purely text-based menu, and the more atmospheric one.

The Map
A map of the Hyborian Age, where the start of each mission is marked with a pin (or a red nail?). This could start right at the beginning of the story, or incorporate elements of the tale that are related later: the battle of Shamla in "The Scarlet Citadel," the Kothic army blazing through Shem and Stygia in "Xuthal of the Dusk," Conan joining Amalric's mercenaries in "Black Colossus," and whatnot. If the story starts with another character than Conan, then the location of Conan himself at the earliest point of the story should be used.
"The Phoenix on the Sword" - Tamar, Aquilonia
"The Frost-Giant's Daughter" - Æsir/Vanir border, Nordheim
"The God in the Bowl" - Numalia, Nemedia
"The Tower of the Elephant" - Thief-City, Zamora
"The Scarlet Citadel" - Plain of Shamu, Ophir
"Queen of the Black Coast" - Messantia, Argos
"Black Colossus" - Khoraja
"Iron Shadows in the Moon" - Illbars river, Turan
"Xuthal of the Dusk" - Xuthal, Southern Desert
"The Pool of the Black One" - west of the Barachan Islands (at sea)
"Rogues in the House" - Corinthian-Zamorian Marches
"The Vale of Lost Women" - Bakalah
"The Devil In Iron" - Xapur the Fortified
"The People of the Black Circle" - Peshkauri
"The Hour of the Dragon" - The River Valkia
"A Witch Shall Be Born" - Khauran
"The Servants of Bit-Yakin" - Alkmeenon
"Beyond the Black River" - Conajohara, the Westermarck
"The Black Stranger" - Sea Tribe territory, Pictish Wilderness
"The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" - Zamboula
"Red Nails" - Xuchotl
"Cimmeria" - Pictish/Vanir/Cimmerian junction, Cimmeria
"Nestor" - Corinthian/Zamorian Marches
"Yaralet" - Kothian/Corinthian/Ophirean/Zamorian junction
"Shumballa" - Shumballa, Kush
"Tombalku" - Tombalku, Southern Desert
"Wolves Beyond the Border" -Fort Thandara, the Westermarck

The Cabinet
A room where trinkets or baubles symbolising the adventures are collected. The broken sword with the Mark of Epemitreus for "The Phoenix on the Sword," the gossamer wisp for "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," the Yuetshi Knife for "The Devil in Iron," etc.  They needn't be the actual items Conan would have retained, just functioning symbolically.
"The Phoenix on the Sword" - broken sword with the Mark of Epemitreus
"The Frost-Giant's Daughter" - gossamer wisp
"The God in the Bowl" - Zamorian diamond goblet
"The Tower of the Elephant" - Heart of Yag-Kosha
"The Scarlet Citadel" - Tsotha-Lanti's ring
"Queen of the Black Coast" - ruby necklace
"Black Colossus" - Coin of Kuthchemes
"Iron Shadows in the Moon" - green feather
"Xuthal of the Dusk" - vial of Xuthallan elixir
"The Pool of the Black One" - figurine
"Rogues in the House" - ear in a box
"The Vale of Lost Women" - white blossom
"The Devil In Iron" - Yuetshi knife
"The People of the Black Circle" - Khemsa's girdle
"The Hour of the Dragon" - The Heart of Ahriman
"A Witch Shall Be Born" - pliers
"The Servants of Bit-Yakin" - Teeth of Gwahlur
"Beyond the Black River" - sign of Jhebbal-Sag on a Pictish amulet
"The Black Stranger" - Valenso's medallion
"The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" - The Star of Khorala
"Red Nails" - red nail
"Cimmeria," "Nestor," "Yaralet," "Shumballa," "Tombalku," and "Wolves Beyond the Border" - on a scroll.

The Seraglio
This is more of a fun idea: a seraglio full of women who tell the tale to you, and function as advisors/hint providers for the player. Valeria retells "Red Nails," Olivia recounts "Iron Shadows in the Moon," Yasmina for "The People of the Black Circle." (Don't worry, Yasmina, Valeria and other awesome women won't be made mere harem girls, they'll be standing imperiously or sharpening their swords).  Those stories that don't feature women would have one from an appropriate context: a Westermarck settler for "Beyond the Black River," a dark-haired Zamorian girl for "The Tower of the Elephant," a Nemedian slip for "The God in the Bowl," and so forth.
"The Phoenix on the Sword" - One of Numa's dancing-girls
"The Frost-Giant's Daughter" - Atali
"The God in the Bowl" - One-eyed Nemedian prostitute
"The Tower of the Elephant" - Zamorian wench
"The Scarlet Citadel" - Hyrkanian royal beauty
"Queen of the Black Coast" - Belit
"Black Colossus" - Yasmela
"Iron Shadows in the Moon" - Olivia
"Xuthal of the Dusk" - Natala
"The Pool of the Black One" - Sancha
"Rogues in the House" - Conan's punk
"The Vale of Lost Women" - Livia
"The Devil In Iron" -Octavia
"The People of the Black Circle" - Yasmina
"The Hour of the Dragon" - Zelata
"A Witch Shall Be Born" - Taramis
"The Servants of Bit-Yakin" - Muriela
"Beyond the Black River" - Westermarck Matron
"The Black Stranger" - Belesa
"The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" - Nefertari
"Red Nails" - Valeria
"Cimmeria" - Cimmerian woman
"Nestor" - Conan's girl
"Yaralet" - the battlefield waif
"Shumballa" - Tananda
"Tombalku" - Lissa
"Wolves Beyond the Border" - Albiona
However, these missions wouldn't make up the totality of the gameplay - they are merely the story missions, akin to those in The Elder Scrolls games. You could play for ages and yet not touch any of the main missions, just wandering around the Hyborian Age.

There are other options for rooms not necessarily linked to the adventures:

The Library
A place where information on Conan lore can be found: bestiaries, gazetteers, atlases, histories, biographies and whatnot.

The Armoury
More of a meta-game, where Conan can pit himself against various enemies, in the guise of practise and sparring with the Black Dragons.

The Gallery
A place where one can view concept art, models, and movies (viewed through a crystal ball)

And so on.

There's a whole world out there

So... nobody for Turan? Vendhya? Iranistan? Hyrkania? Nemedia? Hyperborea? No?

Most of the Conan games we've already seen take place in at least one of the following: Aquilonia, Cimmeria, Stygia, the Pictish Wilderness, and Nordheim. Conan the Cimmerian had Zamboula, Cauldron's Conan had Darfar and Keshan, Nihilistic's Conan had Argos and Kush. Age of Conan had the Barachan Islands and recently added Khitai. There are dozens of Hyborian countries we don't even see a glimmer of. Who wouldn't want to explore the cities and countries Conan has visited and Howard described in detail that still haven't been seen in game form - Messantia, Poitain, the unnamed city of "Rogues in the House," Numalia, Zhaibar Pass, Khauran, Khoraja, Shumballa?

Not just the world, but the characters. Even Age of Conan, a game positively groaning with non-player characters, has a few glaring omissions. Pallantides and Prospero are present in Conan's castle, but where on earth are Trocero, Servius Gallanus, Hadrathus, and Athemides?  How could they go to the bother of putting Sancha, Tina and Belesa in the game and not give them the right hair colour, let alone what they do to their characters?

It just seems a shame Howard created such a vast world, only to just go to all the same places.


  1. "And that includes hapless mooks."

    Ah, the old +12 Throwing Mook trick, eh?

    Would you believe I have a +13?

    (how about a +1 Throwing Jawa?)

  2. hey Al, do you know if Age of Conan is published in Spain? is it an online game only or can you play alone at first?