Playing Aion is like taking a trip down memory lane. This slice of fairy-winged MMOing dates my career as a writer of words about this genre; it was my first professional gig, and try as I might, free-copy in hand and smug grin settled upon my phizog - I didn't care for it all that much at the time.
But that was in 2009 - an hedonistic time of "yes we can(s)" and splish-splashing in the Gulf of Mexico without gulping down oil. Things have changed, the world has moved on, and so has gaming. The Old Republic, Rift, and Tera have all settled upon the crowded ledge termed "MMORPG" but does this leave Aion 3.0 dangling precariously off? Well, it's a "yes" and "no" type of answer.
When Aion hit South Korea in late 2008, it was using an old engine. The CryENGINE was four years old to be precise, coming from that surprise-hit FarCry. It was a pretty piece of software if you recall - a palette of bright colours, nice effects, and lovely draw-distance, and it served NCSoft's game well, up until a point.
The unfortunate thing for this 3 year old game, is that is now using an 8 year old engine. Crytek's technology is still undoubtedly impressive, and it speaks volumes for its sophistication in 2004, but with almost a decade under its belt, it's no surprise that Aion has aged more than its peers.
Textures can appear stretched, there's a general fuzz of colours, and some ever-so-slightly blocky character models give tell-tale signs of a dated powerhouse working in the background. Aion isn't ugly - it just isn't as handsome it should be. There are still pretty effects; spells sparkle and crackle, and combat explodes with ferocious Korean-grinder aplomb, but these moments of beauty jar with the moments of malaise. Good, but no longer great.
Reviewing Aion was a much simpler task just 6 months ago. Before December reared its rosy cheeks, Aion was a fine example of how the MMORPG genre was getting on - a paragon of PvP, PvE, and emergent ideas: and now months later, its coughing on a cloud of kicked-up dust.
While you can only remain dominant for so long in any sector of gaming, quite suddenly Aion is looking like an elder statesman, rather than an online adventure in its prime. Bioware have thrown their story-telling hat into the ring, and at the time of writing En Masse Entertainment has just unleashed Tera. All of a sudden it seems as though NCSoft are being lapped on the MMO race track.
It is these two recent developments that make talking about Aion 3.0 such a more complex task. Whatever way you look at previous accolades, a lot of this has been abruptly outdated. A game that impressed us 6 months ago now sports a white beard and a rather unfashionable coat, and it's sad because there's a lot of fun to be had with the Asmodians and Eylos, but a some of the glamour has shifted elsewhere.
The questing seems a little drab, the once frenetic combat is slightly dull, and the aforementioned visuals are dragging their heels. It is easy to look at Aion now and completely write it off, but that would be missing some of the point. At first glance, this is a slightly dated MMO, but under close inspection this is one online-'em-up that bustles with ideas, refinement, and content: to miss it would be criminal.
With 3 years under its belt, NCSoft's game is one of the most fully-formed packages out there. The world is absolutely huge, with dozens of updates and a standalone expansion adding to its once sparse lands. Zones have gone from linear paths, to epic landscapes containing settlements, towns, and hulking fortresses. New innovations such as a slip streams give a real purpose to the once underwhelming flight ability, and the PvP is a glorious mix of DAoC ideals and Korean-inspired combat. To put it simply, there's a hell of a lot to love here.
It also seems as though the developers aren't content with simply pushing one idea on a player, but dozens at a time. The amount of options for travel, crafting, and levelling are huge. You can customise classes, while also fine tune armour sets, socketing, forging new items, and using different supplements - in short it puts most other games to shame by giving you choice, choice, and more choice.
Levelling too appears to have been given a slight overhaul. Aion at launch was in the finest tradition of a "SK Grindfest" but this has now been toned down for a more delicate western audience. Quests bustle from every corner, crevice, and NPC with a slight suggestive look - and yes, these are common or garden X of Y adventures, but it breaks up the tedium allowing players to progress without culling a significant portion of wildlife.
In all, yes Aion is old, yes it feels dated at times, but the amount of care and attention gone into this MMO allows you to overlook the faults and enjoy a game that is in its own way very special. It may not have the storytelling of The Old Republic, or the frantic combat of Tera, but it's still able to punch its own weight with the best of them.
Aion does a lot of things, and does them well. It takes existing ideas and builds upon them, adds in extra elements, and presents them to players as better constructed and refined features than most other games. Having said that, even with this latest update, NCSoft are still labouring on a familiar foundation - the combat is solid, the PvP excellent, the innovations in flight and craft are all noted, but it isn't anything particularly new. In essence it sums up the Aion experience: solid, refined, and familiar.
One of the advantages of a game being around for a few years is that it will be an undoubtedly better experience than at launch (unless you're SWG of course). What this means for Aion is that over many updates, patches, expansions, and now F2P conversion, the game is nicely polished. The opening areas pass quicker, the grind is lessened, and the kinks of PvP have been worked out. This isn't to say that ganking isn't still an issue, and that certain elements are still lacking a certain lustre, but its definitely a nod in the right direction.
Like any game suddenly converted to the "free side," there are a lot of people playing. MMORPG players are obviously misers, so opening the doors and beckoning every money grubber in always works. The result of this is an Aion flooded with newbies, and oldies.
The upshot is that chat channels are constantly buzzing, groups are always forming, and content is rarely left alone for more than 5 minutes. Guilds are easy to find, and starting out solo and friendless will rarely last more than an hour as the community is always willing to extend and arm and offer a kind word. Why can't every game be like it?
With 4 classes, 8 sub-classes, and dual factions, Aion has a few tricks up its sleeve to keep you playing. The PvP alone will keeping you coming after the cap, and with a massive array of raids and instances to adventure through, and more gear to collect than is humanly possible, you might find a second life here.
Player housing, cosmetic items, and general collecting also make an appearance, and will keep you chasing the proverbial carrot on a stick. It's enough to keep your interest, but perhaps not as much as other games.
When you term your MMO as "Truly F2P," you better have the goods to deliver. Fortunately for NCSoft and the baying mob, there will be no bloodshed tonight - Aion delivers better than almost every "freebie" online game I've ever played.
There are hardly any limitations, no real paid-for advantages, or restricted content à la Turbine. In the most simple terms: you sign up for an account and play, it doesn't get much more complicated.
Of course the trade-off with this is a sparkling new button for "Black Market Trade" which gives you experience boosters, and consumer items - meaning that you can throw your hard earned green at a pair of virtual bunny ears; why not? You deserve it.
This is possibly the greatest success of Aion 3.0, in that it truly delivers on the promise of giving a Triple-A game for the grand price of zilch. You can enjoy the endless battle of dark and light, without spending a dime. Isn't it nice when publishers come good?
In conclusion, Aion 3.0 is all things to all people. It's dated, and it's bustling with content, it's slightly antiquated, and yet brimming with innovative ideas. To come back to my original gambit, whether or not Aion has yet been surpassed is still a "yes and no" type of answer, because it will depend on you: if you're willing to look past some dated questing and visuals, then there's a hell of lot here to love - and why not, it's free.