The sound bite overview of Age of Conan is this: A+ for worldbuilding, D- for technical competence.
And relevant to this blog: it’s surprisingly free of the sexist crap usual to video games.
Which is a surprising statement, at first blush. Robert E. Howard was writing for the pulps (with its largely adolescent, male audience) in the 1930s; he wasn’t trying to be Mr. Progressive. In fact, one of the worst features of the Conan saga is that it’s larded with myopic, wince-inducing racism. (I’m particularly thinking of a short story where Conan rescues a damsel in distress from her imprisonment by ‘black savages’, not because he’s heroic or feels sorry for her personally, but because he can’t stand the idea of a white woman being ravished by blacks. Ugh.)
The MMORPG has, so far, neatly avoided the issue of racism. The dark kingdoms of Kush are notably absent from character creation, and we do see dark-skinned NPCs without any untoward comments. The Stygians are certainly sinister and given to worship of their snake god, Set, but they’re portrayed as having a culture somewhat like that of ancient Egypt. To be precise, ancient pulp-and-adventure-movie Egypt. Less on the complex history with the Ptolemies, more on the evil kohl-eyed priests and the magic of their dark and scaly gods. Plus mummies!
And yes, the game very neatly captures the feel of the Conan books, along with its scantily-clad whores and dancing girls. The nice thing is that they manage to preserve the pulp atmosphere without relegating women to that sphere. Plenty of NPCs are females who have skills well beyond looking good in gauzy dresses. Gender doesn’t affect your character’s class choices or abilities. The game does very much pick up on gender for some of your interactions with NPCs, which allows you to banter and flirt (although, this being a pulp-style universe, it never goes any farther than innuendo). On occasion, you get sleazy come-ons from villains, who you can pay back by dispatching bloodily.
As for cheesecake, AoC very nicely balances this out – and keeps the mighty-thewed atmosphere real – with beefcake. You know how some guys prefer to play female characters because if they’re going to stare at an avatar’s ass for 50 levels, it should be an ass they want to look at? FunCom decided there’s no reason only male players should have that option.
More later, when I can get some screenshots. Did I mention the regular server outages? D-, Funcom. D-.