Two forces arrayed against each other in an eternal struggle, interrupted from their feud by an unspeakable evil. An invading force that threatens both sects and their ascended representatives vies for domination and survival of a shattered world. This is the setting for Aion, the latest MMO from NCSoft, the company behind the popular Korean MMO Lineage, the free to play hit Guild Wars and a string of fairly high profile game failures such as Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa.
While their most recent title Tabula Rasa was a non-traditional sci-fi action game, Aion takes a much more traditional approach. The game sports only four character classes (though each class splits to two "prestige classes" later) and two races – one per side – both of which are basically human in nature but are slightly different thanks to the divergent evolution that occurred between the survivors of the pastoral Elysia and the hellish, harsh Asmodae.
The first thing that struck me about Aion was the visual design. While many MMOs are satisfied with cartoonish avatars and blocky environments (I’m looking at you World of Warcraft!) its obvious that Aion is a modern game. The visual design is gorgeous. Details in the environment look fantastic and even with the video options turned down a bit to optimize for performance the game is a joy to look at.
Like Guild Wars and Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online, Aion presents a pseudo-realistic” but stylized fantasy environment. The angelic Elysian world is rife with colorful fauna and verdant forest while the Abyssal hinterlands form a twisted mirror full of twisted trees and scorched earth. I experimented with both factions during the Closed Beta program and found that in many ways the only difference in the
early game between the two worlds is the visual style. Introductory areas follow a similar design model – Elysian quests are good and light, while the Asmodian missions are in some ways darker.
Its important however to point out that neither side is really good or evil. Despite the appearances the Asmodians are just as mixed with morality and light as their less corrupted counterparts. In fact while switching between the two groups it almost felt like I was player twin souls separated by the destruction of the planet but effectively the same sort of being.
Character creation (of course) is the first step in joining the world of Aion. I’m not going to discuss the mechanics of the four class offerings as the game is not final, but they do cover the basics of MMO design – the Tank/Melee class, the Mage class, the Rogue class and the Healer/Buffer class. Again, maybe it’s just my experience with Korean developed RPGs, but the androgynous beauty of many of the character visual options stood out. This is definitely a game whose design “feels” Asian without evoking traditionally Asian visual cues. While the character environments and gear scream traditional Western Europeans fantasy, the almost too pretty characters are an interesting juxtaposition.
One of the key selling points of the Aion experience is the much-hyped Player vs. Player vs. Environment system. During the course of my limited gameplay in Aion I didn’t really experience this game type. Early levels involve recovering your memory or earning your destiny as a normal being on the path to ascension and the war in the heavens surrounding the Tower of Eternity. You don't really start out embroiled in this grand setting so much as running errands and discovering you're "special" along the way.
Aion touts the ability for player characters to sprout wings and fly and in the initial stages the use of wings results in little more than sophisticated guided gliding. The game looks like it will expand on this greatly adding a true special level to tactics with players in flight –much like an avatar based space fighter I guess.
The early levels of the game however, play out like just about any other fantasy MMO on the market. Players earn skills, advance levels and complete missions or gather materials. The formula works and Aion does not upset that applecart early enough to distinguish itself as something different early enough. I found the game fun to play but given a choice of playing it long term I’d likely gravitate back to other MMOs with the same conventions despite the visual improvements because of the feeling of choice and customization I enjoy is somewhat lacking here.
Much can change in the course of a game’s development and players looking for a new twist on the traditional situation might find Aion worth the investment but only if they stick around for more than a few hours of initial gameplay. The aspects of story I experienced were interesting and hinted at a larger threat and greater dramatic pay off than the usual “Fed-Ex Hero” in a box of so many MMORPGs.
Unfortunately, I felt let down that I had so many hours of traditional questing and leveling before ever getting a chance to experience the concept that supposedly sets Aion apart from its peers. While I’m usually a fan of story progression I suspect a little more “en media res” might have solved this problem if for once I didn’t start out as a minor player in the fate of the world building my powers but instead jumped right into the core conflict and possibly got to experience the grander tale while working my way up the power and story ranks.
I’ll be keeping an eye on Aion as a secondary game to play if I grow bored with one of my regular titles, but frankly it didn’t grab me enough to drag me away from the games I already play with friends and allies. Aion just isn’t original or different enough soon enough and I’m not a huge fan of player vs. player models, preferring a much more cooperative multiplayer experience for my MMO time.