If you take away one thing from this first look at Aion, I hope it's this: Do not do what I did, and switch between Free Realms and Aion in the same playing session. Your brain will explode. But I'll get to that in a minute.
Aion is big in the Far East. Really big. A localized, Westernized version is coming to North America this year. The development team behind the game is so confident they've got a hit on their hands that they allowed people to post screenshots from the beta event two weeks ago, and the NDA officially lifted on June 16th.
So what's it like?
There is an unholy degree of character customization. For my female warrior, I had 44 hairstyles, 20 faces, and six bodies. There were 23 "premade" face/hair combinations. There were tattoo options. And there were 25 face sliders to customize everything from eyebrows to nose tilt. And there will apparently be voice options as well, although they were not functional while I was testing. There are also body sliders. Some people pushed those sliders aaaaaaaaall the way to the right, predictably.
When you've finished creating your character, and you choose the avatar to be played from the character group on the beach, your little simulacrum is extremely excited to be chosen.
It is fantastically gorgeous, with thousands of little details to gorge on. The landscapes are sweeping and epic. The animations look like they were done with motion capture, and within a few feet of the opening spawn point, you're sure to find people testing their new emotes.
There's much more variance in terms of the differences between male animations and female animations. Even at level one, combat animations are flashy and dramatic.
On top of all this, the spawn rate during the beta event was jacked to eleven, with millions of two legged rat things and thousands of armadillo things waiting to die. I logged in for the first time within an hour of the floodgates opening. Should have been a slideshow, right?
My machine is a dual core Dell (1.86 Ghz), ,,P, with two GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GTS. As I've said elsewhere, it's two years old, and loaded up with every MMO in existence, half a dozen RPGs, and a crapload of my secret vice, puzzle adventures. While I was playing Aion, I had my email and IM running, as well as an image editing program open to crop screenshots on the fly. I did not attempt to play Aion on the road, so I only experienced the game on a Fios connection.
If it hadn't been for all the people, I might have thought I was playing a single player game. I never had the slightest delay at any point, doing anything, over the course of several days. I cannot name a single MMO in my experience where that was true at launch, let alone beta!
The sound was phenomenal. It was gorgeous, lush, and did a lot to create mood. It never sounded repetitive at all.
While I did not get to experience either flight or fighting other people in my three day journey of discovery, I found plenty of evidence that neither is an afterthought. Anyone following this title for any length of time already knew that, but if you're just now catching on to Aion: Koreans do not do PvP as an afterthought. The Asian market expects it to be an integral part of the game. The game is therefore not balanced by testing the PvE, and then tested for PvP at the last minute.
When you first log in, you're invulnerable. After you finish a fight, you remain in combat mode for several of the longest seconds of your life. These are the most basic anti-exploit mechanisms possible, and you would be stunned at how many PvP betas I've encountered without them. Or maybe you wouldn't be. Anyway, it's not just that:
The interface has elements you can mouseover to see if someone's in range, even flying people. The layout and location demonstrate that aerial combat is something the game was built around, as opposed to added into the game to sell a few extra copies.
Questing was both a disappointment and a wonder. Here is where I warn future Aion players to not even look at Free Realms. I was finishing up my FR review when the Aion event started, so I played both titles in the same hour. I swear that FR made me stupid. I kept looking for the green dots to lead me to each objective, I couldn't find simple objects because they weren't sparkling like a rapper's front teeth, and I felt vaguely let down that killing a rat wasn't a cause for fanfare, celebration, and text messages assuring me of my greatness. Instead, NPCs were openly insulting me, accusing me of sleeping on the job, of having no honor, of not caring about anyone but myself.
I got over it, mind you, but the disorientation persisted for a few minutes. The insult routine is a little odd, from a Western point of view, but it's stemming from a cultural ideal where newcomers must prove themselves. Respect is earned, not granted. Just relax and level up; the peasants will respect you by level five.
It's definitely not a Western MMO, even with all the cultural localization they've been doing. (That localization is not complete, or was not as of mid-June. Some of it is just funny - "We will not let you wretches to take the goal!" - and some of it's annoying, such as when the Korean word for a particular object could be either of several English words, and the NPC uses both in a single line of dialogue.) It's hard to put a finger on what makes it foreign, beyond the obvious stuff like the heckling. And the obvious stuff like the talking ferret. What is it with Asian games and talking furballs?
Anyway. Quests. The interface is marvelous. They don't load up your quest journal with tons of data you may not need, but all the nouns can be clicked to feed you more information:
There's a great waypoint system as well, where your destination of choice appears as a purple X, and as an arrow on the minimap.
The first few levels of quests, sadly, were mediocre at best. The standard "save the farm, kill the rats" material. When you're done, you are solemnly thanked for solving a problem that clearly still exists. I should have taken a screenshot of the farmer thanking me for solving his armadillo infestation as one respawned directly under his pitchfork.
There's no attempt at even hinting at the backstory (big apocalyptic event, sundered the world, erased your memory - got that from Google!), except that a few NPCs mention that you've lost your memory. The early quests don't do anything to set up the situation, or to even create a vague sense of curiosity over what's happened to you and your world. If you have played as many MMOs as I have, you are going to spend the first hour or two with a sense of "oh, god, not this again," and you will be strongly tempted to go back to the world where you already did these levels.
Do not make this mistake.
I finally completed this one quest, you see, as an ordinary earthbound warrior. The talking tree snapped me to a cutscene. It was a "recovered" memory, and it was wonderfully done. The environment, the music, the dialogue, it all worked together to create a sense of mood and expectation. Before I could over think it too much, my character suddenly ran to the edge of a cliff and jumped. The sense of falling was rendered so well that my physical stomach lurched a little.
And then my angel wings snapped open, and I could fly. And kill.
I haven't wanted to play an MMO until dawn in years, but I almost did that night. That quest marked a real turning point in the game. Many of the quests I got after that were better written, and the ones that weren't, well, I didn't mind so much. There was a new feeling to the game, like there was something I was working toward.
My first look was over much too soon. I'm looking forward to more.