“Hold the line!”
He’s my captain. So I stand there, sweating under 40 pounds of 110-degree metal. The left side of my shield, which I would normally have tight to my side, is canted over the right side of Cedric, another newbie fighter. To my right is Jason, a vet. His shield is over mine. I can feel the press of them. A shield wall is no place for the homophobic.
Running towards us, the crazy, armor-hating bastards called the Tuchucks are running at us in a dead sprint. Screaming. Painted blue. Just behind them is an advancing line of orderly shields. Hundreds of them.
The noise when they ‘chucks hit our shield wall is a soundboard mix of screams and angry metal and breaking wood, so loud my ears crackle. My sword – just a hard, heavy stick of rattan - comes out from behind my shield. In a well practiced snap, I hit him on the head as hard as I possibly can. The shock travels all the way into my shoulder, which cries in pain as it pops out for the third time this week. The ‘chuck falls to the ground. “Good!” he yells.
Yes. Yes it is. It’s very good.
Over 10,000 people, from relatively normal history professors having a campout with their kids to whacked out social retrogrades following a Deadheads-but-with-mead-and-kilts lifestyle, show up every August for the Pennsic War. For many, the annual gathering of the Society for Creative Anachronism, is about dancing and fencing and pretending to be someone else. For me, it was only ever about one thing: hitting people as hard as I can.
SCA Heavy List Combat – the official name for putting on “realistic” 10-1600AD era armor and hitting people with sticks – was the last of my forays into contact sports. As the teen son of quaker pacifists at the end of the Vietnam era, what better rebellion could there be than an obsession with the pugilistic. By the age of 11 against objections that only spurred me on, I hung a heavy bag in the barn, took up fencing, and practiced hitting a like-minded friend as hard as I could with a quarterstaff made from an ash limb that fell down in an ice storm. We wore second hand lacrosse gear. I only broke my nose once.
As soon as I had a car, I switched to Tae Kwon Do. Not just normal Tae Kwon Do, but the studio of an admittedly off-the-reservation martial arts nut who would go on to thrive in the world of even-I-can't-watch mixed martial arts. Thursday night sparring at the studio frequently involved full helmets, chest protectors, neck guards and knee braces. At the end of two years I gave it up due primarily to incompetence: I was lucky to leave with three broken ribs, a broken thumb, rotator cuff injuries, a broken toe and two broken noses.
Even pretty-hard-contact sparring had nothing on the bloodlust of SCA combat. Of course, nobody says “hit me as hard as you can.” I have yet to meet a Tyler Durden in real life. In fact, my SCA marshals always said the opposite – hit people hard enough to register an inarguable hit, no more. But once I wasn’t training any more, and was just fighting with friends, the definition of what’s a “good hit” crept inexorably upwards as we all silently pushed it further and further.
Despite my complete and obvious ineptitude – I left SCA combat after breaking both thumbs, my nose (again), two more ribs, a knee injury, a probable concussion and a chronically dislocating right shoulder – I loved it. I loved getting hit almost as I loved being the ass-whooper. It’s real. It’s a barbaric yawp full of heat and blood.
As I’ve been tamed by life and love and children and conscience, I’ve tried to put this behind me. Despite my willingness to commit it to the page, I am in many ways ashamed of this uncivil need for expressive and unemotional violence. But the need for contact hasn’t gone away, so I’ve sublimated it. The heavy bag sits in the basement, not 15 feet from my computer, straps and gloves hanging. On a good day, I can see them hanging there, and my refusal to engage in the ritual of wrapping my hands is a kind of shallow and shameful victory. On a bad day, the house rattles with sweaty staccato until I can't lift my arms anymore. At the gym, I lift weights as hard as I possibly can. My continued membership is despite the tortured looks of the church ladies on treadmills as I grunt and hiss my way through 1-set-to-failure self-flagellations.
Age, infirmity, incompetence and inebriation lead inevitably to virtuality. Some small measure of the rush is there when watching a smashmouth football game, or a gung-ho superhero movie, or reading a well plotted comic book. The emotion can live on the back of Nine Inch Nails. They’re all expressions of the same chemical malfunctions whose suppression has likely allowed modern civilization to thrive.
But nowhere should the simulacrum of personal violence be more perfectly rendered than in our virtual worlds. But the silent click-and-poof of a well timed snipe, while an engaging experience, is nothing like delivering a well placed side kick to the chest of someone who falls over when you’re done. Being chainsawed in half by an alien malefactor is nothing like being laid low by a sharp thrust to the helmet, landing with a thud on the hot August dirt in a steel turtle-shell of sweat and ache.
Where games do succeed is in the formation of brotherhood. My small clan of shieldmates during my brief years in the SCA became tight and meaningful on the battlefield. In the real world, we never, ever crossed paths. We were not friends in any normal sense of the word. But when 10 of us were in a line together, there was a sense of the whole that can be very nearly simulated during a perfect night of online, voice-enabled mayhem. But that physical sense of contact is rarely well simulated, even with a vibrating controller in hand.
Often, the harder a game tries to recreate this intensity, the more it fails. Grand Theft Auto strives for gritty and violent while actually leaving the grit and violence to the storytelling. The actual acts are rote and uninteresting. Fight Night 3, while brilliant in its use of controls to create a real simulation, went too far in the other direction, making the bloodheating acts of beatdown too technical to inspire an epic poem.
Which is why Age of Conan is so refreshing.
Age of Conan, the just-launching MMO from Funcom, is far from a perfect game. It suffers from everything every MMO suffers from – a bit of grind, spawn camping, idiot players, technical bugs. But what it gets right is that feeling of being there in the heat of combat, that feeling of conquest and contest and struggle.
There’s no one thing that makes this so. I can only assume it's the concerted effort of a team of artists, animators, game designers, story tellers, sound designers, donut-gatherers and secretaries that focused on a single mantra: “get the combat right.” The sound design is brilliant, neither overbearing nor an afterthought. The combat animations are quick and real and heroic. Not realistic, in the sense that nobody I know can swing a 4 foot long sledgehammer 30 times a minute, but fluid and believable.
Ultimately it comes down to mashing keys – what else can it come down to really? But in Age of Conan, there is a real sense that you as the player are influencing combat. But because the game implements an active defense system, I have to be constantly worrying about how to attack (left, right, thrust, set up a combo) in relation to my understanding of my opponents’ defense. If I gauge it right, I can dodge, block and attack my foe into a position where I can unleash my strongest attacks against his weakest defense. This is a long, long way from the fire-and-forget combat of every other MMO I’ve played.
This difference is much more important than I would have expected. As Torgana, Tempest of Set charges into combat, I can see through on-screen cues that my unsuspecting pict opponent has a balanced defense. As I pound at my foe with my hammer, he starts raising the shield on his left side. Duped, one quick backhand and he goes down. Throughout the combat, I dodge out of his way, swooping in for attacks when the timing is right. In a group, facing, positioning and shield coordination all work exactly like they should. I can cower behind my better armed companions, run around for flanking attacks, or cower under my shield in fear and shame. There's no "standing inside the tank" here.
Age of Conan feels like standing in that Pennsic shield wall. Not all the time, but often enough. Knowing my limitations, understanding my opponent and making quick decisions about tactics - it all actually matters, and results in blood and grunts and glorious victory.
Does this lead to a game with endless lifespan, or to wealth beyond the dreams of avarice for its publisher? Who knows. But that feeling of ripe aggression without the moral hangover is extremely rare, and they got it right.
The Tuchux would be proud.