Review: Aion Beta Weekend
After my last entry about some of the upcoming MMOs, luck would have it that I was able to get a chance to play Aion during one of their recent beta preview weekend type events. Today I am going to try to give you my impressions from playing during the recent weekend event that had a level limit of 10, but did allow players to make characters from both of the game's factions. While I will be the first to admit that 10 levels is hardly enough to review much of anything, but I think I got a chance to sample the game and take a look at various aspects that were present.
Just to recap quickly here before I get started, I went into this with a few preconceptions about the game in terms of graphics, polish, and whether or not the game would be bringing anything new to table. I have seen some pretty remarkable screenshots of the game, so graphically I set the bar pretty high. The game has also been out in a foreign market for a while, so I expected a fair amount of polish. In terms of innovations I approached Aion with fairly low expectations. As soon as the log-in screen popped up as seen above, I felt somewhat reaffirmed that graphically I would not be disappointed. So with all that being said, let's get started!
Before we can do anything, we have to create a character. The game is based around 2 main factions that are to be pitted against each other akin to what we have seen in Warhammer and World of Warcraft. One of the main differences with Aion is that the game only features 2 races to chose from, the Elyos (Angels) and the Asmodian (Demons). If your used to some of the other RvR MMOs out there where each team has several races to chose from, this might concern you as it did me.
As soon as I saw the actual character creator, my concerns about character customization for my appearance pretty much vanished. I have to say in all honesty that Aion sports one of the most customizable character creators I have seen. Aion gives you infinitely more options than many of its competitors, and rivals and possibly exceeds Age of Conan. For starters, the creator has a color palettes that enable you to make almost any part of your character into any color you can imagine. This opens the door for some very creative and also very silly looking toons. Hair, skin, and lip color can be anything from standard colors to wild shades of green and purple.
Sliders and more sliders. This creator has sliders for everything you mind can think of, as well as stuff probably wouldn't have considered. When you make your character, the 2 main aspects are designing your face and your body. The body creator has 12 sliders alone, one of which includes a height slider that can make your character as small as a child or a tall as an ogre. As if that wasn't quite enough, the face customizer has another 25 sliders! It's very easy to lose yourself at this point, and if it wasn't a beta, I might have been there for quite some time trying to sculpt my guys face. In conclusion here, there are enough options to make your character look unique despite the fact there are only 2 races to chose from.
The other decision you have to make is what archetype do you want your character to be, as well as the gender of your character (this is actually done before the customizing step). This probably where my first beef comes into play. I am the type of person who would rather pick a class right out of the gate, rather than an archetype. My concern with this route is that you do not actually get to play the class you want until you have put in 9 levels into your guy. While this is not really a large time investment by any means (took me 90 minutes my first time), I'd like to find out sooner rather than later if the class I am going to be is to my liking without having to invest the time to find out. I don't want to put in the time and finally get to my class only to find out it's not a good fit for me, then have to reroll and repeat the early content again just to try again.
The Aion User Interface is pretty much the cookie-cutter UI we have seen from most of the traditional style MMOs in recent memory. If you spent any time at all playing WoW, EQ2, AoC, or WAR, you will pretty much feel right at home instantly.
You will find most of the standard UI elements here along with the ability to customize it a bit. Aion gives you 3 rows of hotbars to be stacked on top of one another, but they remain completely invisible if there are no abilities dropped into them. Aion also uses the same exact keyboard buttons assigned to some of the basic functions from previous MMOs as well. Again if you have played a recent traditional MMO, you will find yourself open your inventory, character window, map, etc. without even having to look up the predefined assigned key.
The character window itself is broken into several different tabs of information. The main screen features the standard equipment paperdoll which is accompanied by all of your characters primary stats, defensive skills, and resistances. Below that you will find your backpack contents and gold totals. One confusing things for me was the fact that instead of using the term backpack, Aion calls it the "Cube". The cube initially only has a limited number of slots, but there is an NPC who will expand your cube for a fee.
Another interesting aspect is that much like Warhammer Online, Aion also features an unlockable title system. It seems that by completing certain quest or quest chains you can unlock new titles to be displayed next to your name. What makes this system a bit different than WAR's title system is that the Aion titles actually have different bonuses associated to them. I was able to unlock Tree-Hugger by completing one of the early quest chains that gave me an accuracy boost. The list seems to have 50 hidden titles in total, so most likely there will be certain titles that end up being favored by certain classes in the game because of the bonuses they give.
Aion's combat style follows the traditional MMO style combat from games like WoW, EQ2, and WAR. The game features the standard tab targeting system, and activated abilities that are on various different cooldowns. The game's mini-map color codes aggressive monsters as red, and when you target them you even see their aggro radius as if it were a tiny radar.
The combat sounds and animations struck me as being pretty well done. While the combat seems to be in many ways the same recycled form of combat we have seen in the last few MMOs, it does feel responsive and look well. The game's combat does feature positional attacks and a combo type system for chaining weapon attacks together.
They really seem to go out of their way to make the skill chains easy to learn compared to some other MMOs. As an example, the character I picked was under scout archetype. One of my stun attacks can only be performed directly after my character evades an incoming enemy attack. In some previous games, it would be up to the player to watch the combat very closely for the evade message or animation. In Aion, when my character evades I get a visual flashing effect on the ability that pretty much screams "press me!", that get accompanied by another visual in plain view near the center of my screen. This makes it fairly user-friendly for even new and inexperienced players to know when to seize the opportunity to use a situational skill.
One final quick note here. This game also seems to feature items that can be socketed with other stat boosting items to give very specific effects much like the Warhammer talisman system. The stones can be popped into both weapons and armor and seem to drop fairly regularly off of mobs I fought. They effects I saw ranged from adding HP and MP, all the way to boosting crit chances and evade percentages. This gives a little bit of room for the player to mess around with various set ups, and the stones can be removed from a special NPC in case you want to try a different stone.
Questing in Aion is pretty lame to be honest, there just isn't really any other way to say it. You can tell as soon as you talk to your first NPC that your questing career in Aion will pretty much consist of the same drab recycled kill and collection quests that we have seen in WoW, EQ2, AoC, WAR etc. Quest NPCs can be spotted by the usual floating icons over their heads to indicate quest offerings or turn-ins.
This is yet another game where the work of a hero is to collect flowers, kill animals, collect dingleberries, and do some part time work for Fed-Ex. I won't harp on this too long as I have already ranted on this countless times in the past, but there really isn't much anyone can write at this point in a quest box to make collecting sacks of grain into something heroic. I didn't really care for it in Warhammer, but at least Warhammer mixed things up with their public quest system, there just isn't anything along those lines here to help break up what will be a long chain of tedium.
The one thing Aion seems to do a little different in the quest department is their campaign quest system. The quest journal is divided into normal quests and the campaign quests. Each of Aion's major zones seems to feature a campaign series of quests. These are pretty much a long series of quests that chain together that help walk you through the area and give you a little story at the same time. The initial level 1-10 noobie area campaign seems to revolve around the fact that you have lost your memory and need to try to recall it. The bad news is these quests pretty much are the same exact kill and collection quests you will find in the other part of your journal. When the campaign starts, you will see all of the quests listed with the recommended character level for it, although at the start you can't see the specifics of the quests. As you start to progress through the campaign, you will unlock the ability to see quests further down the list as well as their reward.
The one saving grace about the campaign system is that they do seem to go a little out of their way to help drive home the story element that comes along with some of them. A lot of these quests will reward you with cutscenes at various stages to help give you an idea of what is going on. Not all cutscenes seem to be created equally though. In the quest to recover your lost memory, the final stages have some pretty impressive and entertaining ones (as seen above), but at the same time there are some that tell you a farm has been pillaged that seem unnecessary. I'll take anything that helps break up the tedium though I guess.
I wanted to devote a section here about some observations I made about the world and some features it has.
The first thing I want to touch on are the graphics and the games performance. This game probably has the best graphics of all the traditional MMOs on the market with the exception of Age of Conan which I think has a completely different art style. Performance wise, the game runs great on a wide variety of systems. I also have to say the sound and music seemed pretty well done as well. A lot of the musical scores I heard in some of the various areas seemed to be professionally composed and helped add to the immersion factor.
There are a lot of familiar features to Aion that seems to have been copied from other games. I noticed right out of the gate that they have flight masters for flying you across a zone the same as found in WoW, EQ2, and Warhammer. The only difference here is that instead of riding a flying animal, your character uses a special pair if wings to fly himself over to wherever he is going. Aion also seems to have a working mail system and auction house system in place much like its competition. One good feature that I think is new to this game is a fast way of selling vendor trash type loot at the merchants with a single button. One thing that I did find somewhat annoying was the fact that binding to a new location costs money.
One of my biggest concerns regarding the world is the layout of it. The world is divided into 3 parts, one of the Elyos, one for the Asmodians, and the Abyss PvP area in the center. Each of the race's section of the world map seem to be divided into 5 main zones and a city. After leveling from 1-10, I had completely exhausted the first zone, leaving 4 more to be explored. Given the amount of areas remaining, and the number of levels I have yet to climb, I suspect that the game is extremely linear in terms of how you progress through the content and the map. In a lot of other games, you are given choices on which zone you want to spend your time adventuring in at any given level. Since other games have multiple races and multiple areas to go with them, in WoW for example if you tire of the human areas, you can head over to the elves for a change of scenery and content. I fear that Aion will send you down a very narrow set of rails in order to reach the max level with little room for deviation. This can be worse if you decide to level up an alt because you will be forced to do all of the exact same content you did the firs time around in all of the same places, including the campaign quests.
This leads to me another concern regarding how someone will experience PvP during the leveling process. In Warhammer Online, each area you level up is connected to an area controlled by the enemy. This means that if someone really wants to experience the games PvP at any stage, they only need to wander over towards the local hotspot. While I haven't seen this during the preview weekend, I have heard there are portals that can open up randomly that send you to the enemy area for PvP. Depending on how rare these occur, your exposure to the PvP side of the game could be very limited initially. I like to have an opportunity to test my character in PvP even at the early stages so I can see how well the class I picked handles itself in a variety of situations.
No doubt one of the main selling points and innovations of Aion is the flight mechanic. Initially you can't fly right out of the gate when you start, but once you reach level 9 and complete the campaign to get your class you will be able to glide and fly after a ceremony.
The flight system seems to work very well and I found the controls very easy to get a handle on. In the bottom right part of user interface, there is a little flight indicator that tells you if you can fly in a certain area, and how much flight time you have left. If you are in a flight-enabled area, you simply press the "Page Up" button for your character to sprout their wings and take off. Once you are in the air, you can press "R" and "F" to fly up and down respectively, or you can hold your right mouse button down to tilt your altitude. The meter will start to tick down and when its out your wings will vanish sending you plummeting. You can manually land or turn off your wings by pressing the "Page Down" button. Sometimes I found the fastest way to get back to the ground safely from high up was do turn off my wings to fall, then turn them back on right before I hit the ground (use this method at your own risk).
Having a third dimension to the game is definitely a very interesting feature, and flying was genuinely a fun experience. Having that third dimension made finding some quest locations tougher though, as on several occasions I reach the quest waypoint only to realize my real destination was actually high above me on some floating island. My only beef is that the PvE areas I explored have certain parts you can fly, and others you can't, so you will find yourself hitting invisible walls that force you to land when transitioning to a no-fly area. I would love to see more areas be flight enabled.
Unfortunately the limitations of the weekend didn't give me a chance to really be able to check out the PvP. This is what will inevitably make or break the long term playability of this game. While I was unable to participate in any PvP, I did notice a few features related to it.
For starters there seems to be a tab on your main character window dedicated to your PvP stats from the Abyss. The window seems to keep track of your PvP rank, as well as your kills and points earned broken down into various time frames so you can monitor your progress. Everyone seems to start out as a rank 9 Soldier, and by earning points you can advance through the ranks. There is also a rank window that breaks down the point totals needed to reach certain ranks, as well as which players on each side are at the top of their game. Points are earned by killing players in the Abyss, and unlike other MMOs, they are lost when you are killed. This is one aspect that makes Aion stick out from its competition. Warhammer and WoW were both notorious for treating people with kid gloves by rewarding them with points even for a loss, while Aion seems to have some sort of consequence for a loss. This will undoubted stop competitive players from just rushing into fights without any fear of death, which is a good thing in my opinion.
The abyss seems to be the focal point of the Aion endgame and its PvP. By looking at the map, we can see that it has 3 different layers, and assorted keeps to fight over in it. I am not really sure how this endgame will stack up against what we saw in WAR, but this is going to be what makes or breaks this game. The area looks to be a decent size by looking at the maps, and I hope that is the case. If all of the endgame PvP is going to be in this area, it will need to be very large to stop it from getting old. Despite its flaws, Warhammer had a variety of areas and fronts for people to fight on to add a little variety to the PvP endgame, hopefully this area will offer enough to keep people entertained for a long time.
Aion is a graphically stunning game and has tons of polish. The game has been out overseas for a little while now, and I think that ultimately that fact will be a large benefit to the North American fans. Since the game has been out and patched for a while in other markets, NA players will be getting a game that is polished and feels complete. There are not that many MMOs that have come out in the last few years that players have been able to say that about. The game has a real focus on endgame PvP, and the patching the game has gone through already has no doubt made class balance less of an issue. I am glad to see that there is a loss for death in PvP, as bind and zerg rushing seems to plague a lot of other traditional style MMOs that have tried for the same goal.
On the flip side, Aion strikes me as very linear game. The way the overworld is layed out has me worried that in addition to being constricted, players will be forced to stomach through the same content over and over again every time they level up another character. Aion also is not a game that is oozing with innovation. Outside of the flight mechanic, I think a lot of people will legitimately be able to criticize this game for being somewhat of a clone in some aspects of some of the more recent traditional games. The endgame PvP is going to be the real test of whether or not this game breaks through to people and distinguishes itself from the rest, or if it gets written off as another MMO using an already exhausted formula. I think despite that, this game will appeal to a lot of people who might be current WoW and WAR subscribers. The game already has a huge following overseas, so it should be interesting to see how it fairs in a completely different market.
Co-Leader of Inquisition