The latest game from NCSoft to hit the market is the MMO-with-wings, Aion. Set in a world, quite literally, torn asunder, players join one of two factions to participate in an on-going war between an ancient enemy, and each other. While still set in a fantasy world like most MMOs, Aion presents itself with a fairly interesting setting. It also promises high quality gameplay, a lot of polish, and even some intense PvP with a twist.
Of course, many games have promised very similar things in recent years, but such promises are difficult ones to achieve, and more than one development studio has been burned because of that. Having already spent a year in release in Korea and China, Aion has a step up on that, at the very least. However, Eastern MMOs don't always catch on so well in Western markets.
Luckily, I was able to take a peek into the world of Atreia for the duration of the open beta week to get a better feel for the game.
When entering into a new virtual world, you usully have the chance to create your own avatar - which you see in just about every MMO on the market. Aion is no different in that respect, but this isn't a game that is content to provide you with a few options here and there, or a few preset faces to choose from. Instead, Aion features a robust character creation system, complete with a near-obscene amount of sliders to fine-tune the minute details of your character's face and body.
This is probably a good thing, because the game only features two races (although technically only one). However, while the Asmodians and Elyos do look moderately different from each other, the character creation allows for a huge amount of variation within the races themselves. If you like playing Dwarves, you can manage a short, stout character just fine. If you like Elves, you can easily manage a tall character complete with the pointed ears. You can range from decently realistic looking characters, to characters that look like they just jumped out of an Anime.
Of course, with so many options, you will definitely see people walking around with some absolutely ridiculous looking characters. However, you can rest assured that those people tried to look bad, as I found it didn't take much effort to make something look appealing. Plus, the game also provides a large number of pre-configured faces to tweak.
Graphics and Presentation
Once my character was set up, I ventured into the world itself and was treated to a pretty nice visual feast. The character models in Aion are easily the best I've seen in an MMO. They're detailed, they've got variety, and they have style. They're easily the best part of the game, graphically.
The world of Atreia is definitely not shabby to look at either, and the developers put the Crytek engine to good use. The world itself looks pretty nice and it definitely has a lot of style to, much like the character models. The zones themselves, at least on the Asmodian side where I spent most of my time, had a ton of variety in them. The world may be broken up into different zones, but each zone can have a large range of environment types, from snowy fields, to lush forests, to swamps, and even deserts.
While this is true, I do have to admit that the environments don't seem to hold up to the quality of the character models. Some textures look like they could have been higher resolutions, even on the highest settings. The small details that exist on character models just aren't really present in the world. Sometimes it can be a little awkward seeing a fantastic looking character model on a fairly uninspired bit of ground with a texture that's slightly too low of resolution.
That said, that's still largely a nitpick more than anything serious I found against the game.
When actually playing Aion, I felt pretty much at home immediately. While the game provided me plenty of tutorial information, complete with short videos and voice overs I could have paid attention to, given that I've played MMOs made within the last few years, I already knew what was going on. At its core, Aion is still a very straight forward, normal MMO that doesn't do much to break the mold. If you've played WoW, WAR, or any other recent games, you will find a very familiar experience in Aion.
I do admit, the skill chains in combat are pretty fun - and the fighting looks fantastic. However, it isn't like other games haven't done skill chains before, although Aion does them very well. While during the early game, the skill chains won't seem to add much in the way of strategy of combat, as you gain more and longer chains, I can see how that could make a pretty major effect on how involved you feel in combat. That said, I didn't get far enough during the week to really make that call.
Of course, it is one thing to talk about combat and normal MMO mechanics, but what about flight? After all, that's the very thing that this game seems to push so hard to make it stand out. Well, once you gain your wings, the game does seem a bit different, and it definitely makes for quick travel and some interesting area designs. However, there are a few things to keep in mind: You can't fly forever, you do have a time limit that depends on your wings and other factors, and you can't fly everywhere in the game. Yes, there are areas that disallow flying. However, you can "glide" anywhere in the world.
Gliding is exactly what it sounds like. If you're on an elevated position, you can hit space once to jump, then hit space again to spread your wings and glide until you hit the ground. Gliding can take a bit of practice, as it is actually possible to extend the length of your flight, and you can cover some pretty impressive distances while doing so. It also can have some interesting effects in gameplay, too. For example, I've glided from high distances to completely blow past a ton of powerful aggro mobs to get myself to safety - often leaping from the top of a cliff to escape an otherwise certain death from a mob chasing me, too. It is different and I have to admit, it is fun.
While I didn't have a chance to check out much of the PvP, I did enjoy a few solid arena matches. I can't offer up much of a comment on the high end PvP of the game will hold out, but the matches themselves were pretty fun. I felt like how I was playing my character really impacted my performance, and movement -and even flight - seemed to be decently strategic. I'm looking forward to exploring this aspect of the game more in the future.
For you crafters out there, I can add a few comments as well. First off, gathering is easy and even nets a decent amount of experience. You can gather any type of resource regardless of your crafting focus, and even some quests require you to gather materials. Crafting also nets a decent amount of experience, too, although the system itself doesn't seem to feature anything earth shattering. It is simple, straight forward, and exactly what you would expect in a generic MMO crafting system. However, it works and seems casual enough, too.
A week of game time is far from enough to actually say anything really conclusive about Aion, but I have been left with some thoughts: the gameplay does feel like a standard MMO, but it does also seem very polished. The servers were relatively stable, although they had some very nasty latency issues on the first day, but as the week went on, I noticed the problems lessened and lessened. The world itself seems pretty interesting, and while even the quests are the generic blend, they seemed to be decently well written.
If you're looking for something new and earth shattering, I don't think Aion is going to be the game for you. However, if you're looking for a solid MMO experience that seems to be quite a bit of fun, then Aion might be a good place to focus your attention.
Be sure to check back for the complete review.