When Aion came out in 2009, it was supposed to rock the foundations of the MMO world. I mean, what new hyped released in the genre isn’t these days? But Aion found itself falling short of greatness in the West not because it wasn’t a polished and well-made game, but because it’s pacing and mechanics catered more towards the Eastern market. Over the course of the twelve-plus months since it launched NCsoft has been toiling away vigorously, with the western and eastern studios trying earnestly to make the game what it needs to be to draw more North American and European gamers. I’ve been playing the title now for a while, and feel it’s safe to suggest that Aion is much closer now to the game NCsoft needs it to be than it was at launch. It’s polished, pretty, and content complete with a much smoother progression that will please most Western gamers looking for an Eastern-influenced fantasy MMO that comes without the mindless mob-grind. Still it does rely a little heavily on repeatable quests to fill in gaps, but new solo dungeons help spice things up quite a bit. By and large Aion of today is a much better game than it was at launch, but it still won’t be a title to attract the masses.
Oh So Pretty
Aion was and still is one of the prettiest games on the market, in my eyes. I’m not even a big fan of Anime-centric art, but there’s little denying that the character and scenery design in Aion is of the highest quality. It scales pretty wonderfully too. I have a rather shoddy laptop with little in the way of graphical horsepower, and even it can play the game on lower settings. Sure it looks worse, but it’s a testament to the scalability of the engine that it plays at all. Still, to best appreciate Aion’s visuals, you’ll want to be running on a system that allows high settings. From the spell effects to the little critters that little the landscape and the big bads that rove the countryside, everything seems to fit in the world of Atreia.
A Cacophony of Pets
Where the visuals are stunning in one way, the sound I find stunning in an altogether different fashion. As in: if I was wearing headphones when I first entered one of the capital cities, my skull probably would have exploded and my brain would have oozed out of my ear canals. It’s not that the sound effects are bad, or the music off-putting. It’s the combat effects and the chattering of the game’s many new pets that made it absolutely necessary for me to turn down the in-game sound after a while.
My wife heard so many grunts, yells, and hoo-ahs coming from my office that she was pretty sure I was up to something I shouldn’t be. Luckily both hands were on my desk when she popped her head in. It’s a shame really, because the music in Aion is phenomenal and perfectly epic sounding. It’s just the ambient noises that will wind up making you pop a few aspirin unless you tone it down a bit.
A-Dungeon Crawling We Will Go
When Aion was launched in 2009, the real focus seemed to be on the game’s intriguing promise of PvPvE. But for my own time spent in the game, it seems that today the PvP takes a back seat to the dungeon crawling aspects. As mentioned briefly before, there are several new solo dungeons at different level sections that are specifically intended to help bridge the content gaps that players noticed before Balaurea. You might be saying to yourself, “Boring. Dungeons should be for groups!” But for what it’s worth the solo dungeons are actually quite rich in content and loot for solo players and really do help keep you away from grinding repeatable quests to level up. For my own time spent in Aion, I really valued being able to log in and run these solo dungeons when I only had a little bit of time and didn’t want to spend it all running around. Because one thing that hasn’t changed in Aion is that most quests have an odd sense that you as a player must really want to spend half an hour running from point A to point B just to turn in a kill-quest. Flying doesn’t help much, and I found myself wishing early on that the timer on flight was long gone.
At the level cap Balaurea has also added a ton of new dungeon content for players to advance through, and they are most definitely difficult and arduous experiences. I had the opportunity to run a few dungeons with some of the development team, and even with the folks who wrote the community guides to said dungeons we found ourselves wiping if we didn’t work in harmony. Needless to say, players who are sick of the “easy” games will find a home in Aion’s dungeon content. Recent patches have made it so that the game’s best gear is much more likely to drop, and while this has kind of skewed the economy a bit, I won’t complain. I’d rather the auctions be a little out of whack, than spend hours in dungeons with no reward.
A Virtual Petting Zoo
One of the coolest new features of Aion is the helpful pets that the team has added to the game. You can buy or earn most of these in-game, and others are available through the Aion website for real world money, but all of them are useful. Some will turn loot into items for your use, while others will fight alongside you, and some are glorified extra storage space. But they’re damnably cute critters, and collection-aholics will no doubt salivate over owning every single one. I’m actually pretty intrigued to see where NCsoft takes this system in the future. The idea that in-game pets could be more than just for looks or the helpful friends of certain classes is pretty unique. I hope that the fun of these little guys goes into some other areas, maybe even being an additional way to spec out one’s character in the future.
Elyos and Asmodians Still Player-Hate
Though I personally feel the atmosphere of the game these days has shifted towards PvE content, that doesn’t mean Aion is light on PvP things to do. With Balaurea NCsoft has added two brand new fortresses for players to fight over, and in the few times I experienced these fights it was both hectic and fun. I just got the feeling that with the focus on PvE-attainable gear and dungeon progression NCsoft’s focus lies in a different direction these days. Maybe I’m wrong, and this is just a result of the expansion fleshing out the PvE content, but there’s little denying on my server at least that players spent the bulk of their time inside of instances.
The Difference A Year (and a little more) Makes
Back on September 7th of 2010, Assault on Balaurea launched as a massive free expansion to Aion. Its aim was to give more life to the high level experience, as well as flatten out the curve and grind that turned off many western gamers shortly after the title’s original launch. A host of other features came bundled in and recent patches have further addressed many issues players once found off-putting. The result is an Aion of today that is much more approachable by western gaming standards. It’s a traditionally molded fantasy MMORPG with an Eastern artistic flare, and if you haven’t yet tried the game now would be a great time to do so.
Just remember that some arbitrary score a reviewer applies to a game doesn’t mean everything or even anything. Hell, even I realize that most of my scores on this site lately have been in the 8.0 range. I’m like MMORPG’s own Peter Travers. But it’s really just my best guess at what “grade” Aion should get these days, were it a high school student. I don’t know if I’d put it on honor roll, but I sure as heck wouldn’t be holding it back or sticking it in detention. If you left the title previously because the gameplay just wasn’t your thing, don’t expect Assault on Balaurea to change your mind. Aion still plays largely the same, albeit with a much smoother content progression and a lot more things to do besides grind on mobs. Its solo combat is a little slower-paced that most will be used to, perhaps more methodical would be the best word. But in groups and in group content, Aion truly shines. In short, it’s a solid game with a lot to offer, but players averse to a long trip to the end game will probably be turned off.