With Aion getting so much hype in the MMO space, is it really all that it's made out to be, or is it just a game with... a LOT of good looks?
Every year it seems as though we get that one ultra-hyped MMO that has fans arguing whether it will be the 'the one' to blow industry dominator, World of Warcraft, out of the water. Last year it was Age of Conan and Warhammer Online; this year it's NCsoft's Aion: The Tower of Eternity. Now, I have to be honest here when I say that Aion was going to be in for a tough time with me, just because it has managed to attract so much hype. Interestingly enough, however, despite the fact that I did go into this with fairly (ok, extremely) high expectations, Aion was impressive enough that I could really understand what all of this hype was about.
For those of you who aren't 'in the know,' Aion is the next stellar MMORPG to come from NCsoft - the developers who brought you games like Lineage I and II, Guild Wars and City of Heroes. In reality, the game has already been released in Korea, about seven months ago, and it is now that we're seeing it being ported over to North America. In this way, Aion is entering the MMO market with a massive Asian following, very similar to NCsoft's incredibly successful Lineage II. Another important thing to note is that, because this game is already so popular in Asia, the Aion team can afford to take the time to make sure their launch is as smooth as possible in North America. Already we can see the huge advantages this team has over the 'predicted WoW killers' of '08', Age of Conan and Warhammer Online - both of which were released too early and to disastrous results.
Currently, there are three major aspects of Aion that are receiving a lot of praise in the industry: the games' incredible graphics, the smoothness of the combat system, and the intense PvP. The first aspect, the graphics, can instantly be appreciated the moment you start up your first character. Not only is it an absolute delight to make a character with the creation screen, but I am very happy that both factions in the game are uniquely gorgeous in their own ways. Players have the opportunity to choose between the Elyos or the Asmodians (they are essentially Angels and Demons, respectively), but the classes are available to both factions. Of the classes, you can choose between one of eight fairly typical classes: the Spiritmaster, the Sorcerer, the Chanter, the Cleric, the Assassin, the Ranger, the Gladiator and the Templar. Even looking at the names of these classes, it's fairly easy to guess what each is 'meant' to do, except for the Spiritmaster and Chanter. Despite having unique names, however, these two are also fairly standard in MMO archetypes, with the Spiritmaster being able to summon minions and use low power spells, and Chanters being the 'buffers' and off-healers.
Still, despite the lack of originality in the class spread, I'm certain that players will be happy enough with the massive amount of control you get over your character's appearance. While Aion subscribes mostly to the Asian aesthetic, it's not difficult to play around with the dozens of sliders available to adjust everything on your character. In fact, I managed to make an avatar that looks fairly similar to my girlfriend (the closest I'll get to getting her into MMOs!), which is something that I don't think I've ever managed to successfully pull off in a video game. In the games that do allow for a deep amount of customization, a lot of the time they get too complex to really do anything if you didn't know precisely what you were doing. Aion does a fantastic job of finding the happy medium between ease of use and depth of customization (check out... Wolverine!).
Following up on the creation of my Asmodian Chanter, I dove headfirst into the World of Atreia, wondering how my first experiences would shape up. The starter areas for the Elyos and the Asmodians are very different in their layout, but it is important to note that there is no diversity in quests when choosing different classes. While some people are making a big fuss about having to go through the same routine when levelling up multiple characters of the same race, I'm fairly indifferent. I'd much prefer new content being added to the end-game system, where I will be spending most of my time, rather than having a new forest and chain of quests designed to give me a 'choice' at level 20. On the other hand, I can understand this frustration for players who love to 'sample' every class, as it may start to feel tedious when you need to gather 10 sacks of grain for the fourth time.
The second most praised aspect of Aion, the combat, is definitely one of the things that I enjoyed while powering through my quests. Players have the opportunity to 'chain' their attacks together to create combos, but it is also important to note that these combos can change and evolve in different directions, with the end result being different for each combo path. To me, this encourages a fair amount of 'on the fly' thinking and stresses a certain degree of battle awareness, as opposed to some MMOs that just tell you to spam your strongest attack every time it's up. As a guy who was a huge fan of precise Hunter shot rotations, Warrior Slam rotations and Feral DPS rotations in older World of Warcraft, you can imagine just how happy I am to hear of this.
The only aspect of combat in Aion Online that is currently being argued over is the 'usefulness' of flying that is currently employed in the game. While I have yet to really engage in some aerial combat, I'd like to point out that flying gives a great form of initiating kills (or escaping them!) while not giving players the idea that, once you're in the air, you're absolutely safe. I'm sure anyone who's played World of Warcraft can attest to the absolute frustration that can come from two Rogues who sit in the sky, 60 feet in the air, landing on 'safe' targets, killing them, and then heading back to the safe skies. For me, the frustration did not stem from being killed by two Rogues, but it was the fact that there were absolutely no ways you could initiate a fight with them that they did not want. I'm extremely pleased to see that Aion has included flight in their game, but they wisely decided to use it as a tool, and not a method of safely going AFK.
Finally, there is a 'free world' type of PvP system in place, as players fight for control of a massive aerial battlefield called "The Abyss." By participating in the Abyss, you can choose to stick with a group to assault fortresses and kill other players, but there is also the opportunity to strike out on your own and kill any players you may encounter on your way. To be honest, this is the biggest drawing point of Aion for me, as I used to be that guy who would pick off the stragglers in Alterac Valley and Arathi Basin. Not only that, but I have to express a huge amount of appreciation for the fact that NCsoft is making it very viable for players to go off on their own, but it also has steep punishments for players who just like to rush in and die. While I have not yet stepped foot into the Abyss (I'm too low level), I hear numbers in the realms of 200-400 "Abyss Points" per kill, but up to thousands of points can be lost per death.
I suppose the real reason why I'm so excited about the Abyss is the fact that it really is a sprawling PvP zone with no 'absolute' objectives to clutter up the gameplay. I do appreciate 'proper' objectives in battleground style settings (as in, once the objective is completed, you have lost the game), but I've always adored the fast paced 'World PvP' that occurs in games like Warhammer Online and World of Warcraft Online. I can honestly say that I had much more fun wandering deep into enemy territories in Warhammer, or the incredibly funfilled PvP sessions that took place on the Elemental Plateau (or Blackrock Mountain if anyone remembers that) in World of Warcraft. The problem with both of these MMOs, however, is that the developers don't really reward players for engaging in this kind of combat. It's only when you turn it into a static objective that it becomes 'worth' doing, so it always makes me sad to know that I could earn 10x the 'honor' for just sitting on the frontlines of AV, leeching points while stealthed.
All in all, the only criticism that I can levy at Aion is the fact that it might not be enough for players who do not love free world PvP as much as I do. The game virtually forces players to PvP if they really want to enjoy all that Aion has to offer. On the other hand, games like World of Warcraft have the ability to separate their endgame activities into a huge variety of different spheres, thereby allowing players to sample the ones that they like best.
Either way, for those of you who, like me, love to PvP in unique environments and want a gorgeous 'next-gen' MMO, I can honestly say that Aion may be the one for you.
Christopher "Pwyff" Tom