Reviewing an MMO is like taking a ride in a supercar. It’s fun at first. Everything is all shiny and new. Promotional material is glossy, promising to provide you with everything you need for an amazing experience. You step in, boot things up and take a ride. It is fun. It does seem to meet its promises. You walk away feeling a little bit giddy and hopeful.
But then reality sinks in. After a few experiences you start to realise that it’s not everything you thought it would be. It performs, but not in the ways that you want it to. Little issues creep up, you pretend to ignore them because, god, it just looks so gorgeous and it handles so well. But there is something missing, an element, a factor that was apparent in the others you tried and ended up enjoying. It’s not bad by any means of the word, but it’s different.
It’s lucky them, if World of Warcraft is the Bugatti Veyron, Aion is the Ferrari Enzo of MMOs.
If you are reading this review, you are possibly one of two gamer sub-types. The first; the veteran. The seasoned MMO player, (ex or current), curious from the hype, deliriously bored of playing the same raids or simply filling time during maintenance. You want raw data. The second; the casual. You like a new experience and the screenshots looked pretty cool. In any case, both parties have most likely have indulged in “the grind”, thus, we’ll skip the introductory appetizer and go straight to the main course.
Aion is not a World of Warcraft killer. It’s not designed to be, it doesn’t try to be and, most importantly, it doesn’t need to be. It’s already established itself as a successful franchise throughout most of developed Asia for the past year or so, and the product that’s hit our western shores is simply a localised version of that finished product. As a result, most of the cultural aspects that tend to exclude western players have been modified or toned down, although it’s essentially just an overall polish.
Aion is set within a world that has been literally torn in half, spawning two separate races, forced to evolve in order to survive on the ragged environments that have befallen them. Civilisation’s split has formed a nasty civil war, but the introduction of a common enemy has forced the foes to unite in order to save what’s left of their chaotic existence. It’s an interesting setting, pushed forward by a genuinely compelling story told through quest dialogue, cutscenes and the odd interactive instance.
The player chooses a side, a class, and becomes set on a path to greatness. As tends to be the trend in modern MMO’s, the character creation element is vastly superior to World of Warcraft’s. The ability to customise every element, from height and build, to hair and eye colour genuinely allows your avatar to break free from common conventions, along with the ability to die and customise gear to suit. It’s possible to recognise your friends just from appearance, which is a nice change from the identical clones that tend to populate most games in the genre.
Choosing a class, unfortunately, isn’t really that interesting. You have your bog standard tank, dps (ranged/melee), and healer. The class you choose will be expanded (or restricted) to a second sub class at level 10. Just like most MMO’s, you need to be careful what you choose. Most classes play almost identically as they would in any other title, with the exception of Clerics (Healers) being able to eventually wear chainmail. Thus, making Mages the physically weakest class. This is made up via some decent spells, along with other strengths and weaknesses for class balance.
Gameplay strings back to the conventional MMO playbook. Aion doesn’t decide to break the chain or develop a complex method for combat or player interaction. The game was developed to be simple to learn, and difficult to master. You visit NPCs to get quests, you kill things for experience, loot and quest items. But at the same time, there are a few tweaks to add some new tactics to play.
The first is Ascension. At level 10, your character ascends to a new plane of existance, becoming superhuman. As a result, you are given wings and the ability to fly. With limitations. First of all, you can only fly in certain areas, and for a certain amount of time. The time limit can be extended with items and buffs, but essentially (in open areas) it’s a bit of a gimmick. The general purpose of the wings are for end game, where there are no time limits and raid tactics require them, thus your leveling simply pushes you to get used to using them.
Ascension also allows you to choose a sub-class. All I can say is, choose carefully. Your subclass determines your place in battle for the rest of the game, and while your choices are clearly laid out for you, it’s disappointing that there is no ability to reset later in the game. Once of the few pleasures in WoW is resetting your talent tree, giving providing you with a different avenue of play. In any case, all of the usual advanced classes are there, so those of you who love having pets or aoe spamming abilities will not be left unsatisfied.
Generally, the improvements to the stalwarts of MMO play are a culmination of intense study of game elements that have worked previously well in other titles, along with amalgamations of successful mods and UI improvements. Quests contain hyperlinks that provide extra information on points, or quick locations on the map of directives. Additionally, tasks are automatically logged and categorised, making it easy to keep track. The minimap shows NPC and mob locations along with threat radiuses.
Auction houses are still around, and work the same way. Some improvements to the search and catagorisation of items are needed, although this could be simply due to the sheer amount of junk items that have been added in early play. What Aion provides as a nice alternative to the AH in the form of a private store. At the drop of a hat, any player can setup public shop, anywhere (safe) and sell their wares. What seems like a nice touch quickly becomes irritating, due to the sheer amount of store spam that plagues any starting/spawning area. NCSoft have solved this with a 30minute limit, but whether this is a reasonable solution is yet to be known.
Combat leaves nothing to the imagination, although it is very crisp, stunning to watch and fun to play. Skills are originally setup on the standard keypad numerical system, but the addition of “chains” allows things to be mixed up somewhat. In this system, spells/skills can be linked together, one after the other, in a quick combo succession, allowing fluid and ridiculously fast battles. The only problem is that it’s almost completely dependant on a low ping, high framerate situation; a situation many mmo regulars can agree doesn’t always find itself happening.
As a result, the real-time basis of battle (there are few cooldowns between actions) can backfire since enemies can attack in similarily swifty succession. There were times where a small “stab” of latency knocked me flat on my dead back within seconds. Which leads me to death. Death isn’t cheap in Aion, along with travel, items and pretty much everything else. You need to buy experience back that was lost on death, you need to pay for teleports, flight paths and so on. It can be frustrating to find the money you gained on a tough quest quickly wittled down paying for the items and travel you used to complete it.
The other issue that plagues combat, and gameplay in general, is the grind. The lovely grind. From around level 15 on, you’ll notice that quests alone aren’t going to hit the spot, nor cover the rising costs of battle, thus the epic mining of mobs will become your world. I found, in comparison to other MMOs, that the grind in Aion was relatively comparative. While slightly excessive in some areas, playing with friends made the experience less horrific and the fast pace of combat, and along with the relatively high exp gain from most mobs, quicker than in other games which discourage the practise.
To help ease the monotony of the grind, players are allowed to engage in world pvp at level 20 with the “rift” system. Every so often, an entry and exit portal for the enemy faction’s mirrored area will open, allowing raid groups to either invade enemy territory, or stay back and defend their city. Rift pvp is simply a blast: as soon as a portal opens, there are hundreds of frenzied players shouting in chat “where’s the portal?!?!?” Players are extremely friendly during this time, encouraging people to create huge parties to take down enemy forces: as an added bonus, you also gain experience, and acquire a number of rift quests!
Aion has a level cap of 50, but the beginning of “End Game” content begins at 25 where players are invited to enter “The Abyss”, the epic battleground where the 3 sides battle for glory and, well, Abyss points. These points acrue to provide Legions (guilds) with status and ranking, along with special items, ranks and so forth. Unfortunately, the sheer time required to level prevented me from reaching this point by the time of publishing, but we will be providing an detailed insight to this portion of the game within the next month.
But I can’t conclude this review until I mention the breathtaking aesthetics. Basically, the game is absolutely gorgeous. Built on a heavy modified version of the CryEngine, what has been produced is a scaleable, fluid and completely sexy plethora of colour, detail and awe. Everything looks amazing. Armour, weapons, magic effects, wild boars, hell, even a slimy swamp monster looks enthralling. Those of you with medium based PC’s need not worry, the game runs well on nearly every system we tested it on.
Aion may not the new messiah, but it’s certainly an alternative for those who haven’t been all that satisfied with other titles in the genre. It’s a polished, complete, interesting, graphically breathtaking example that proves other companies can develop intuitive and playable MMOs. It doesn’t re-write the rulebook nor introduce generational change, but it does make other failed contenders (Warhammer Online, Age of Conan) look like mauled, decaying animals in comparison. If you’re looking for something new to suck up all of your spare time, then you could do a lot worse then Aion.
Aside from a few localisation bugs and some interface niggles, Aion is one of the most polished MMO's ever released.
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It doesn't break much new ground, but combat is fast, fun and different enough to be exciting.
The soundtrack is fantastic combining satisfying combat effects with a booming, orchestral main score.
If NCSoft supports Aion like they have their other properties, you could be still playing in 6 years time.
On its own merits, Aion is a supremely impressive MMO that should appeal to both casual and veteran players alike.