Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste Brought death into the world, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat.
-- Paradise Lost, Lines 1 - 5, John Milton
While NCSoft's Aion is not actually based on the library of Milton, it would be difficult to say that the developers had not taken some inspiration from his classic works. When winged angelic beings clash, it is hard to not see these parallels. However, Aion actually weaves both a tale and a setting - far different than those we see in Paradise Lost - in which players can fight and explore.
Players create a character from one of one of two factions, the angelic Elyos - who live on the temperate and blessed half of a shattered world, or the black-winged Asmodians - who brave much harsher climates and have evolved to survive them. While each race might hold a stereotypical hero/villain appearance, neither fit these stereotypes. However, that doesn't mean that players won't be seeing plenty of combat between the two sides, and their true enemy, the NPC-controlled Balaur.
While the story is largely fluff, it does set the stage for Aion's main gameplay mechanic: PvPvE (Player vs. Player vs. Environment). While PvPvE largely focuses on faction-based PvP combat, it still manages to bring in plenty of PvE to add variety, and ensures that all playstyles will get some attention. However, despite its seamless and polished integration of both these systems, Aion still remains a conservative game.
To be straight-forward about it, outside of the flying system, Aion doesn't do anything that you haven't seen before if you're an MMO veteran, but what it does, it does well.
The first thing new players will experience with Aion is character creation. This is an area where the developers clearly paid plenty of attention. You aren't just presented with a few choices of heads, or even just a few sliders that slightly alter the way a character looks. Instead, you are presented with a gratuitous number of sliders that have a fairly dramatic effect. If you thought that Oblivion had a pretty impressive character creation system, then think again: Aion actually lets you create a very distinctive looking character, to the point that you can probably tell people apart purely on visuals without looking at their names.
Given that there are only two races in the game - and technically both sides are only Human - visual diversity is a plus. If you're a fan of traditional fantasy races, you'll have no trouble creating anything that looks like say, a Halfling, an Elf, a Dwarf, or a character akin to an Ogre.
Players begin with a choice of four classes that represent the normal archetypes you'd expect in an MMO: Warrior, Priest, Scout, and Mage. However, at level 10, each of these classes split off into different directions. Warriors can become Templars (tanks) or Gladiators (AoE-based melee DPS). Priests become Clerics (healers) or Chanters (buffers). Scouts become Rangers (Ranged DPS) or Assassins (single-target melee DPS). Mages become Sorcerers (ranged DPS and CC) or Spiritmasters (Pets).
The classes are all fairly distinct and bring something different to the table, and I can't say any of them felt useless either. While some may seem more powerful than others, the game is largely balanced around groups, and everyone seems to fit into a role pretty well. I can't say I could find any archetype that was noticeably missing either. If there's a class you like to play, you'll probably find it here. Although, once again, you won't find anything new to the genre here either.
Visuals and Interface
Visually, Aion is solid. Character models are well detailed and they certainly have a style to them, and - as suggested by character creation - there is plenty of variety. Armor is similarly well detailed and - provided you like the art style - you'll be pleased by how everything looks. Not only are the character models well done, but also the various mobs you'll find in the world also appear to be equally polished.
The environments themselves can be quite spectacular. Aion definitely features a high fantasy setting with a very magical world, and there are plenty of unique and stunning places to explore. From giant cities, to lush forests, to snow-capped peaks, to great fortresses, and even the floating islands of the Abyss, it is all quite stylized and magical. Needless to say, the art direction pulls it off well.
There is also an awful lot of variety in each of the large zones as well. While you might start in a snowy region, you will soon find yourself in a lush forest, then in a menacing swamp, then in a desert area, etc... It may not always seem realistic, but it does allow for a fair amount of variety in the places you'll be in, which is nice.
However, the environments - while they look nice - do not seem to have nearly the amount of resolution and detail seen in the character models. This is a bit of a shame as occasionally you can run into a rather poor, bland looking place, which will seem very strange with a very nice looking character. It creates a disconnected feeling.
Overall though, the game is a graphical treat, and easily one of the best looking MMOs on the market now. Given that I enjoy the art style, it appeals to me more than any other I've played.
Early Levels 1 - 10 and 11 - 25
When playing Aion, I noticed that the feeling of gameplay changes depending on your level range. When players begin the game, their character is a Human - as in, they don't have wings, and they only have one of the four basic classes. This part of the game feels like a very generic MMO. There is absolutely nothing in it that will make this part of the game seem different than anything else on the market. However, it does serve as a good introduction to Aion, letting you explore the controls, and it feels comfortable, regardless if you have played any prior games.
As you level, you will begin to gain some of the abilities of your basic class, learn some of the background of the world, run through quests, and bash some mobs. Eventually you will reach level 9, which gives you your Ascension Quest, that upon completion, will auto-level you to level 10. Here is where you gain your wings, your advanced class, and ascend to join the immortal Daevas!
Gaining your advanced class can be a pretty big deal, too. For example, my main character was a Chanter. As a Priest, I was mostly using ranged spells as I leveled up as a Human. However, upon ascending and becoming a Chanter, I became less and less reliant on ranged spells, and far more reliant on melee abilities. A Cleric, on the other hand, would notice less of a change as they continued to focus on ranged magical attacks mixed in with their healing abilities. For a Cleric, it is a natural flow, but even for my Chanter, the change was gradual over a few levels as I gained new abilities.
Even once you have your wings and your new class, Aion still pretty much plays like every other game. Glaringly, your flight is heavily restricted in most of the game. In fact, outside of the Abyss and a few key areas, you won't be able to fly at all.
However, you will be able to glide, which is a bit different. Gliding allows you to leap from high places (or on the tops of downward slopes) to ride air currents. This can speed up your travel significantly, and it can also be used strategically. For example, leaping from a high cliff to avoid being nuked by deadly mobs. As you glide to distant safety, the angry mobs will be stuck shaking their fists at you (well, they won't actually do that, but it creates a wonderful mental image!)
During this period you'll also get pretty familiar with the combat system, too. Really, it is pretty standard MMO combat. The only catch is Aion puts a greater focus on skill chains than most games. That is, when you use one ability, it will unlock another ability, which might unlock another ability, etc... The further you go down a skill chain, the more powerful the abilities get, but if you need to use an ability outside of the chain, the chain will be broken and you'll need to start over again.
During the earlier parts of the game, you won't notice much strategy in combat. However, as you go along, you gain more abilities, more chains, and there is a hint that eventually it'll get a bit more strategic, which ultimately it does.