Initial Impressions of Aion

Lately the MMO world has been buzzing with interest about a new offering from NCSoft called Aion. I purchased the Collectors Edition in order to get access to the paid preview otherwise known as the closed beta which is only available on select “beta weekends”. Kudos to the NCSoft marketing department for this clever ploy.

I’d just like to share a few of my thoughts regarding Aion while they are still fresh. This is going to be a rapid-fire guerrilla blog post. By no means is this a complete analysis or review of this MMO. It’s just what I saw and remembered after playing a few nights.

The Setting

Aion takes place in an all too familiar setting of a war torn world that has been split into two factions which are pitted against each other. This time the world is named Etrea and the good guys are the angel-like Elyos and the bad guys are the demon-like Asmodians. In the middle is the Abyss which was formed by the Cataclysm which destroyed the Tower of Eternity that used to join both of the worlds.

Both sides also face “an ancient evil” called the Balaur that threatens the very fabric of their world and which serves as convenient PVE villains much like the Burning Crusade or the Scourge from WoW. Of course, all of this is standard fantasy MMO stuff.

Class Selection

The interactive screen that the player is presented with is the class creation screen. You have 4 choices that fill the traditional fantasy RPG roles:

  • warrior
  • scout
  • mage
  • priest

What I find interesting is that these classes are displayed in their full regalia — obviously high level gear. This is important because NCSoft is trying to tantalize the player and sell them the future power and prestige of each class. It’s very hard to resist this MMO with such impressive demonstrations of each class. Select one and they come to life with animation and speech.

Also worth noting, at around level 9 when you complete the main campaign quest line you qualify to “ascend” and become a Daeva which is an immortal with wings (eventually flying is a major part of PVP combat in an area known as the Abyss). At this point you get to choose between 2 classes. So a mage would be able to become a sorcerer or a spiritmaster. I thought they handled this quite well.

Character Creation

After you select your class and gender it’s time to customize your avatar. Creating a character is a joy to behold in Aion. The artwork is outstanding with very few Uncanny Valleys. The developers have wisely created an extensive number of attractive/handsome preset appearances that enables the player to quickly choose one without having to fuss over details of choosing the right nose, face, ears, etc. This lets the player get right into the game.

For players that like to create their characters from scratch NCSoft offers players an ingenious system that let’s you change any feature in a basic way then gets even more detailed with advanced customized features. The key here is that the player can decide how much they want to customize their avatars.

Since Aion was purportedly developed in Korea there is a distinctive Asian feeling to many of the faces which is understandable. Many of them are done in the anime style.

One issue that I’m concerned about is that there is only one race that players can play in Aion: humans. For most fantasy MMO enthusiasts who delight in being able to choose from a wide variety of races this may be limiting and as Tobold aptly noted will affect replayability. Another thing I’m worried about is that it could lead to a very boring and homogeneous world where everyone is the same.

User Interface

State of the art. Still a bit buggy dragging icons from your ability panel on to your hot bar. I loved the transparent map feature that comes on the screen when you press N.

Combat

I found the mage class to be a bit laggy while I was casting spells. On the other hand the melee classes were very fast and exciting to play. Lots of sound effects and visual effects.

Each time you level your existing spells get upgraded to the next level which is convenient. However you still have to visit your class trainer to learn new spells and abilities which is a good thing. The more reasons that players have to visit towns and cities the better. Other MMOs like EQ2 have made class trainers all but obsolete by giving the player almost no reason to ever visit them which I find perplexing.

One feature I really fell in love with is the concept of “chains”. Each chain requires that you know 2 spells: the spell which triggers the chain and the chain spell itself. Once you select the trigger spell/ability on your hot bar if your chain spell is available it will replace the trigger icon on your hot bar and it starts to flash.

This is brilliant because it saves you time and due to the onscreen visual cue which has been placed in an easy to view place on the screen, you can watch combat instead of having to focus on your hot bar.

Another reason I like chains is that it saves you valuable real estate on your hot bar. Instead of having both the trigger ability and the chain ability you only need the trigger ability situated on your hotbar. This is pure genius.

There is nothing worse then having a MMO that is so complex that you can’t enjoy the combat on your screen and instead have to watch for your abilities to refresh on your hotbar.

Another great feature that really excited me was the concept of Divinity Points. These points have their own bar and acrue to the player after each kill where they get experience. They are used in more complex spells and abilities and can turn the tide in battle if used correctly. If you die you lose all of your Divinity Points. This is a great way to encourage the player to play well instead of a more severe punishment for dying. Once the player becomes aware of the power of these points they suddenly step up their game to prevent dying. For me this is nothing short of terrific game design.

Typical Quest-Centric Gameplay

This is basically a WoW clone as far as the quest-centric gameplay that I witnessed from levels 1-14 — that’s as far as I got. It’s essentially a single-player MMO. Not once was a group ever required to get anything done. I’m not even sure if they have general chat channels. I could not find any except /say and /shout.

Quests are broken down into 3 different types: main plot storyline/campaign, quests and tasks. Complete enough of the storyline quests and you get nice rewards along with personalized and/or stock cutscenes. This is a page right out of Blizzard’s Wrath of the Lich King.

The Zones

The zones are laid out like one big long amusement park ride on rails. Very rarely is there any reason to deviate from the “golden path”. As I watched players running from point A to point B I suddenly remembered that old but fun video game called Lemmings. Everyone seemed to be behaving like a lemming, doing as their told by the questgivers.

Aion Poeta

It was reminiscent of the plot devices you used to see in action thriller movies where the psychopathic villain makes the hero run from phone booth to phone both and calling in instructions and threatening the hostage with death if he doesn’t make it in time. So explorers may be a bit disappointed in this MMO. Time will tell though.

The zones are very linear as noted by Keen:

In games like WAR, LOTRO, and even Aion the worlds are so linear that all we have to do is follow a road to the next location.  Players have no reason, and often no option, to diverge down a different path. There is often only one way to play a MMORPG released in today’s market, and trying to play it differently makes you a “niche gamer”, a “roleplayer” or a “nostalgic”.  I do not want my content handed to me one instance at a time and I certainly do not want to have to follow one road the entire game.  I can understand that people find comfort from some form of linearity, but we’ve crossed the line.

The artwork of the zones is top notch. There is a harmonious and consistent art style used throughout this MMO. Each time you enter a new area you know it by the contrast in colors and vegetation. This is directly out of the Blizzard MMO playbook and not a bad thing.

The Mobs

I found the mobs to be a bit of a disappointment. They felt a bit too cutesy and not menacing enough — just my personal taste. It was hard to relate to many of them as they were completely original creations. I think adding more traditional mob types into the mix wouldn’t hurt this MMO. I didn’t notice any undead mobs…yet. Is this because of Asian superstitions that we can’t have undead mobs? I know that skeletons depicted in an MMO are taboo in China.

It seemed there were just too many mobs around in the newbie areas. At times it felt like being in a wildlife park. Every square foot of Aion seems to have a mob on it. Less is more.

The animations were very well done. The mobs seemed to have the illusion of life and behaved and wandered around quite nicely. Contrast that with what you see often in Turbine offerings where mobs are mostly stationary pinatas.

The NPCs

I was impressed by the variety of NPCs. They weren’t just recycled versions of character avatars which is the cheap way out for many MMOs. I saw some old people and lots of different vendor graphics in the towns and cities.

The Music

The music has its high points and low points. At best it’s some very ethereal New Age which works well for a MMO at worst it sounds like fusion jazz or progressive rock. I spent most of my time playing the “good” Elyos race so I didn’t get to hear much of the “evil” race the Asmodians. In my brief time there I heard lots of thrash metal music which was a bit over the top to be honest.

My advice for them would be to choose music that is more universal and orchestral in nature. As a musician, I would urge NCSoft not to skimp by exclusively using samplers and synths.

Gathering and Crafting

Gathering a resource node takes quite a while. You have a success bar and a failure bar. Not sure how the player can influence either but I noticed that the success rate increased significantly with each attempt at gathering the same node. Also there is just one gathering skill unlike other MMOs where you need to train in a special skill to harvest a particular resource.

I didn’t get a chance to experience crafting.

Asian Influence

One thing is certain, this game was created with Asian sensibilities and initially aimed at the Asian market. The avatar artwork is decidedly anime inspired although if you work at it you can get some nice western style avatars as well.

Many of the vocal sounds have not been yet translated into English. According to Aion Associate Producer Lanier Blazier they intend to have English as well as German and French voices for their respective countries once they launch.

Much of the text in the game needs a second pass with someone who speaks, understands and thinks in English. If NCSoft wants this MMO to be successful then they should use their remaining time before the game is released to properly localize it.

Special Mention

The emotes are truly outstanding. Typing /sleep makes you sleep on a cloud. Typing /sit has you pull out a chair. Once they get all of the voices synced up to the emotes this MMO is going to be a role-players dream.

One last thing which I absolutely loved is the mechanic that turns your avatar into a vendor. This reminded me of the days players would sell items back in the East Commons tunnel in EverQuest except without the hassle!

This cool feature enables you to sell items, set prices and set your vending message. After you enable your “store”, suddenly your avatar pulls out a chair and starts going into vendor type animations. I really thought this was amazing and a wonderful way to personalize having to sell items to other players. And yes there is an auction house too for people who prefer to sell that way.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite some of the refreshing innovations, I got the feeling that with Aion is playing it rather safe and we are seeing nothing terribly new here. Aion is the kind of world class MMO that we’re going to be seeing a lot of in the future. It has all the elements of polish and refinement that players have come to expect in a MMO and it most surely will follow in the well-trodden footsteps of Blizzard’s WoW if all goes according to NCSoft’s plans.

Still, success is not absolutely assured. There are many questions that are going to come up. One of my concerns is that leveling seemed a bit too fast and I wonder how this MMO will feel beyond level 14?  Will it have staying power? Will there be enough community building mechanics? How much PVP vs. PVE will be in the MMO? What do players do once the quests run out at the endgame?

Although I’ve only seen a fraction of what to expect, Aion has made quite an impression on me. This is one smooth, slick and seductive MMO and it’s going to be very hard to resist this once it goes live. And did I mention that players get wings? 🙂

-Wolfshead

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