Aion Review

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Aion Publisher: NCsoft
Developer: NCsoft

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: 2.8 GHz Processor, 1 GB RAM, DirectX 9.0c compatible video card (ATIx700 or nVidia 5900 Ultra with 128 MB of VRAM), 15 GB HD space, DVD-ROM, broadband internet connection, Windows XP SP2 or more recent operating system

Aion created the world of Atrea, a world with two hemispheres connected at the center by the Tower of Eternity. Aion then created humanity and other sapient species as subjects for the Balaur to rule over. But ultimately the nigh-demonic Balaur lusted after power, becoming Dragon Lords and violating the restrictions placed upon them by Aion. When humanity was the only species to resist the Balaur, Aion rewarded certain humans with ascension, transforming them into Daevas – immortal winged beings capable of battling the Balaur. Daeva's cannot die, although they can be forced to collect their essence at certain obelisks when grievously harmed.

Following a millennium of battle between humanity, the Daevas and the Balaur, a cataclysm occurred in which the Tower of Eternity shattered, leaving the world split permanently in half. One half, inhabited by the Asmodians, was plunged into eternal darkness. The Asmodians became dark-skinned and fierce to cope with their environment. At the same time, the Elyos lived in the half of Atrea bathed in light and joy. The Asmodians and Elyos are perpetually at odds, with both fearing and fighting the Balaur who inhabit the Abyss floating between the two halves of the world.

Kyle Ackerman

It's been around two weeks since Aion launched, and while I can't give a complete picture of the game, let alone how the end-game player-vs.-player combat will shape up, I can give you a solid picture, particularly of the experience leading up to that.

Fundamentally, Aion's emphasis is on the competitive end-game. Word is that NCsoft added lots of quest and story content for Western gamers to the version released here (the game was released late last year in Korea), but to be frank, Aion exceeds expectations in just about every respect except for questing. The game is gorgeous, with superlative (even interesting!) crafting, a rich world, solid skill systems, and dangerous enemies. But at lower levels, it relies regularly on repeatable quests and repeatedly farming monsters for experience. That makes Aion decidedly a game for experienced and hardcore gamers interested in the rich game systems and end-game, rather than casual gamers who luxuriate in lower-level questing.

Characters Both Perky and Sultry

The launch was typical for a subscription-based MMOG with a hard launch date. Even with certain customers getting a two-day head start, NCsoft's servers were overwhelmed by the launch traffic, and it was difficult for many to log in and create an account for the first two days or so. For another few days following that, I experienced queue times of up to an hour when trying to log on during peak hours. The fact that that's a comparatively smooth launch for an MMOG speaks more to our expectations than the preparations for the game's launch.

A slightly bigger problem is that everyone seems to prefer playing the darker side of Aion. All the servers are set up not only with overall population caps, but with the requirement that the server maintain a balance between Asmodians and the Elyos. That meant that very quickly, it was difficult to find a server on which to create a darker Asmodian. It was, of course, no problem to create an angelic, goody-two-shoes sort with feathery white wings, but the grimmer characters remained harder to come by at the time of this review. Ultimately, it's not a big deal unless a group of friends or a guild are all trying to create characters on the same server. Then it's a serious irritation.

The First Ten Levels Earn Your Wings

Despite not having earned my wings, my initial experience in Aion drew me in quickly. I found myself rapidly drinking in the lore as I ran about killing ten of this for someone and a dozen of that for someone else. My immediate impression was that Aion is easily accessible to the veteran of any other massively multiplayer online game, but still has quite a learning curve for newbies. The game strives to offer the best of other MMOGs (and usually succeeds), but in doing so, typifies the remarkable complexity of the genre.

I immediately responded to the depth of the world, but was put off by certain customizability issues. I could only move some of the user interface windows around, and even those reverted to their starting positions once I rebooted the game. At the same time, the game implements some wonderful conveniences. Combat builds on chained skills, and when the second skill in a chain is available, it briefly replaces the button of the first skill in your hotkey bar. This helps avoid the unbelievable clutter some games present.

I was also immediately drawn to the in-game quest tracking system. I often feel guilty about resorting to such things, but NCsoft found a nice compromise. Most quests and individuals can be pinpointed on the map, reflecting the fact that NPCs whose identities and locations should be common knowledge can be easily found. However, some things in the tracking system are simply "hard to find," giving you little specific information on the items you are intended to search for. For those who want that kind of quest spoiler, you can still check out the usual suspects.

Brooding and Lovelorn

Oddly, my initial experience as an Asmodian felt a lot like looking at Tabula Rasa. The early landscapes are brilliantly colorful, filled with saturated purples and greens, looking a lot like the alien worlds of that other game, and the character animations while doing things like running are very similar. Not surprising, perhaps, given both came from the same publisher, but there were moments when I expected my Asmodian to reach for a ray gun.

It also struck me as a bit strange that for a race that's supposed to be brooding, violent and nearly demonic, a lot of the early Asmodian quests involve brief romance stories. Somehow that doesn't seem at all out of place with the Elyos, but it was a bit disconcerting to encounter troubled Asmodians afraid to make their feelings known to a potential mate or desperate to learn the identity of their birth parents. Perhaps it can be chalked up to the localization of a Korean game, but it felt very strange.

Spread Those Wings and Flap!

My early levels, building up to becoming a Daeva and receiving my wings, felt like a tense prologue. Soon I would be able to soar! When I did receive my wings, it was something of a disappointment. Aion may be the MMOG where everyone can fly, but not most of the time. It made sense that I was earthbound in the early levels, learning the lore and my class abilities as I ran between monsters. But once I became a daeva, I could still only fly in a few specific areas (mostly cities), and even then only briefly.

I can only suppose that maintaining the constant option for fully 3D aerial combat was just too much to manage – it's hard to provide constrained paths and force characters to run a gauntlet of guards to reach a quest objective when the option to just fly over them exists. So the nature of flight in Aion isn't a mark against the game, it's just that I was hoping the complexities of flight would help overhaul the genre's conventions. Instead, flight is often simply turned off to preserve those conventions.

Although you can't fly in most locations, you can glide, and that's entertaining. Jump off a high platform and you can glide down, allowing quick downhill transport and the ability to occasionally pass over an enemy or two. Unfortunately, flight is usually irrelevant, and I found myself running long distances or paying transportation vendors as in most MMOGs. Zone changes typically involve tunnels to ensure you can't glide over impassible mountains. But when it's allowed, it's supremely cool to pop up in the air and kick the crap out of something that might otherwise be a terrifying enemy.

The Heart of the Grind

The weakest part of Aion is the portion of the game that bridges when you first earn your wings at level 10 and when you pass the tests that earn your entrance into the Abyss at level 25. There are quests to help bridge this gap, but not nearly enough to keep things interesting. I found that after around level 15, I was doing repeatable quests over and over again for a little bit of supplemental experience while hunting whole species of monsters into extinction.

This period is a great time to perfect your skills, do a bit of crafting, and ensure that your equipment is up to snuff. It also marks the point at which you need a group to complete many of the quests, so it's the point in Aion when you decide if you want to be aligned with a particular group of players or constantly struggle to find a party with whom to adventure. If a lot more quests were added, possibly with multiple paths for both Asmodians and Elyos, this part of the game would be more palatable. Players can pick from the Asmodian grind or the Elyos grind, but either way it's a period of repetitive killing.

There's another issue with this mid-game that could prove a major obstacle to casual players. Travel is expensive. Recovering experience after death is expensive. Crafting is expensive. In an effort to experience multiple crafts and check out the territory, I overextended my character and quickly bankrupted myself at a low level. Once I understood how strict the game's finances were, I played more conservatively, but I found myself grinding lower-level enemies to ensure sufficient reserves for travel and death. This could easily frustrate casual players to the point of quitting before ever seeing what Aion is really about – the competitive and cruel abyss.

The Balaur of the Abyss

Despite being the tiny, fragmented center of the world of Atrea, the Abyss is the crux of Aion's most interesting play. Flight is critical in the Abyss even if it's still limited. Flight is required to travel from floating hunk of rock to floating hunk of rock, and it's easy to get caught up in combat while flying, so flight does add constant tension to play. It's vital to make sure that you don't run out of flight time while in space or caught up in combat. The short flight time also allows the developers to constrain the paths that players can take through the Abyss.

What remains to be seen in Aion is what will happen to the later portions of the game once there is an established, high-level player base. Will it turn into a "gank-fest" like some Lineage II servers, where junior players will require higher-level protection to avoid being executed by marauding executioners? Or will things remain relatively friendly? During this launch period, I found myself sometimes competing for spawns against allies of the same level (or regularly having those spawns stolen), but most players were in the same band of levels, outpaced only by the occasional player with the stamina to play virtually constantly since launch.

For the Love of the Craft

Despite the aerial player-vs.-player combat, if Aion is the perfect game for anyone, it's for hardcore crafters with the support of a guild. There are tons of resources to gather, and crafters can pursue all the crafting skills. Certainly, each player can only be a master in a single skill, but a single persistent player could keep an entire guild in most equipment, potions, food and supplies. More importantly, crafting grants experience, and there are tons of gathering and crafting quests, so crafting can be rewarding both from an obsessive standpoint and from a character advancement perspective.

Of course, crafting isn't as simple as just hanging out in the capital city's trade district, unless you have unlimited cash or a whole party hunting and gathering for you. Not only do you need to harvest food, minerals, crystals and aether from sources both on the ground and in the air, many critical components are only dropped by specific creatures. Then there are the components that must be purchased for a serious chunk of change. Crafting is neither easy nor cheap, and it's a good long while before the sale of items can really subsidize the cost, but it's rewarding, especially with the support of a guild filled with people who want the equipment but don't want to watch bars repetitively fill.

The only downside to this is that there are a few things (particularly Aether) that have their own grind comparable to that of farming monsters for 15 levels. I did find myself sitting in the same location for hours, racing against other players to grab those particular resources as they spawned, until I was practiced enough to grind the next level of resource. That said, Aion has one of the most rewarding crafting systems around, both literally and figuratively.

A Magic Carpet Ride

Aside from being a simply beautiful game, Aion is built for the late-game experience. And while I loved the beginning, there is a 15-level grind in the middle that requires stamina and stubbornness to surpass. Despite that, Aion boasts some wonderful systems and polish compared to many available MMOGs that make it a pleasure to play (when I'm not killing the same beast for hours on end). Ultimately, I found the sitting emote in Aion to be emblematic of the game as a whole. Other games just have your character sit on the ground. Aion has style – I could summon a floating magic carpet upon which to rest – why would divinely imbued, winged creatures sit on the ground?


Billy Andrews said:

Animations are pretty good, particularly in combat. And if I were to choose two words to summarise Aion it would be: Pretty tedious. But I still have to commend NCSoft for a job well done on this game.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 8, 2009 8:36 PM.

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