I don't know why I still fall for it. A new game comes and promises to be new and different. A new combat system, a new world, a new way to play. And then I start the new game, wash up on yet another beach, see yet another quest giver with a golden exclamation mark over his head, and start slaying yet another endless number of beasts and monsters by pressing the same hotkeys over and over. After my first day in Age of Conan my biggest impression isn't of what is new, but how similar it is to all the other fantasy MMORPGs out there. At which point the question becomes why should I play AoC and not WoW?
Sure the graphics are more photorealistic pretty in Age of Conan. But not only do I like the cartoony graphics of WoW, they also work well on any computer. Age of Conan, even at times of low server load and in single-player instances, isn't running smoothly. I have a better than the recommended specs, and most of the time the game plays with a good framerate. And then sometimes the graphics just freeze up for a second or two. Now somebody is going to come with the age old "but this is just a beta / stress test" excuse. Well, I got enough experience with these games to tell what kind of flaws are normal for a stress test, and what kind of defects will still be there in three weeks when the game is released. And the jerkiness is going to stay with us, and it is extremely annoying.
Apart from that, Age of Conan is less buggy than I would have thought. Most things you do work as intended. Pre-WoW I would have called it "up to industry standards", but that is because industry standards were so low back then, and WoW pushed them up. AoC is not up to WoW technical excellence standards. I did get stuck more than once on my first day, I did fall through the floor, I saw graphical glitches like seeing a mob's grid of polygons instead of the texture. Nothing game stopping. If you come with a certain determination to play this game, you'll be able to overlook the bugs. If you only played WoW up to now and are under the mistaken impression that all MMORPGs are bug-free like WoW, you'll be in for a bad surprise.
The combat system of Age of Conan is "new", but not radically so. In fact, if you play a caster class, you won't even notice the difference. All your spells and special attacks are done in the same way as in EQ, EQ2, WoW, LotRO, etc., by targeting an enemy and pressing a hotkey. What is new is that there is no autoattack any more, a change which basically affects only melee classes. Instead of autotattack you get three buttons for striking left, right, or middle. You can get a video explanation of the system here. Enemies have three "shields" around them, which could be all protecting the same direction, or distributed over the three directions. Now if you repeatedly hit a mob with the left button for example, it is going to move its defences to the left. Which automatically exposes some other direction, which is now unprotected. If you are a rocket scientist, you just might come up with the idea to hit the mob on the unprotected side now. That is called an "active combat system". Melee characters hotkeys also have moves that don't happen instantly, but require you to press a combo of buttons, like left-left-right. You hit the hotkey for the special move, get a window showing you what to do, and when you do that combination, you'll do an extra move as well for more damage or other effects. Don't get me wrong, this *is* an improvement over auto-attack. It just isn't a huge improvement. I was needlessly afraid it would be twitchy, but it isn't. Worst you could say is that now every melee character has to press as many buttons as a rogue in WoW.
Gameplay is very similar to every other fantasy MMORPG out there. You get quests to kill someone, or to collect something, or to go somewhere and talk to someone. One improvement is that usually you just have to kill one guy for a quest, and all the other kills you do just happen to stand in the way. I haven't had a single "kill 10 foozles" quest yet. But as everywhere else, kills and quests give you xp, which make you rise up in levels, which gives you new spells and abilities. My first new spells and abilities just fell from the sky when I reached the new levels, but then I was sent to a "trainer". I expected him to sell me new spells, but instead he is sending me on various quests, the quest rewards of which are the new spells. Nice system! I just would have wished that the so-called destiny quests had a bit more to do with class abilities and acted as sort of an endless tutorial for your existing abilities. But in fact there is no tutorial at all, except for the tutorial videos on Fileplanet. Not that this isn't much of a hurdle for anyone who already played another MMORPG.
You start the game in what turns out to be an instance, and the destiny quests are also instanced. You can switch between "day" multi-player and "night" instance single-player mode by talking to certain NPCs. So if for example your destiny quest is too hard for you and you need another level to succeed, you switch into day mode and do other quests or farm mobs in the multi-player part of the world. The two modes use mirror images of the same world, but you can only do the day quests in day mode and the night quests in night mode. Still, it is an interesting system. And especially in a stress test it gives you the possibility to stick mostly to the solo part, and avoid the lag and kill-stealing which is inevitable in crowded multiplayer areas.
Age of Conan is not a bad game, and it brings some innovation to the genre. But unless you are bored of World of Warcraft, I can't think of any compelling reason to play AoC instead of WoW. You would really need to absolutely love some of the new features to make you willing to overlook the bugs and shortcomings of AoC. As a "I want to take a break from WoW until WotLK comes out" game, Age of Conan is good enough, although Lord of the Rings Online might be the better alternative if you don't know that one yet. I'll buy AoC and play around with it a bit more until WAR and WotLK come out, but I don't see it as more as a stop gap solution. Not bad, but not enough to topple World of Warcraft from it's throne.