[[A New Contender]]
Occasionally, an MMO comes along that threatens to dethrone the reigning champ of online gaming, World of Warcraft. Aion is one of those games.
A new MMORPG by NCSoft, makers of Guild Wars, City of Heroes/Villains, and, er, LoveBeat, Aion released to much fanfare earlier this fall. Is there room for Aion in the swollen MMORPG market? Will it make room for itself by knocking WoW right off its pedestal? Does every MMORPG need to be compared to WoW? Allow us to clue you in before you start snatching up the entire Jinx! Aion t-shirt collection.
[[In the Beginning...]]
The world of Atreia has been almost literally torn apart by the Epic Cataclysm. From space, the planet looks like the discarded remains of a Galactus-sized devoured apple. Figuratively, it's already there. The two playable races have split off into rival factions, despite having a terrible enemy in common. The Elyos live in Elysea, the lower half of Atreia, where they are beautiful and bathed in light. The pale Asmodians inhabit the upper half of Atreia in darkness. I expected their positions on the planet to be reversed (the heavenly Elysium on the top, the hellish Asmodae on the bottom) and that was one thing that kept gnawing at me whenever the game made mention of it. Maybe I'm just too used to Western theological conventions, but it was one small design choice that mentally took me out of the game, briefly-especially considering how Western the light with wings/dark and hairy with claws and wings dichotomy is.
Further complicating the conflict, Aion has a third unplayable race, the Balaur. As opposed to the Elyos and Asmodians, the Balaur are pure evil. A blight upon Atreia, the Balaur were originally created by the god Aion to rule the planet's people. After they became power-obsessed, Aion created the Empyrean Lords to protect Atreia from them. The Balaur were sealed in the Abyss, the unstable area between Elysea and Asmodae. As you can imagine, Atreia did not find eternal peace, and the Balaur are back with a vengeance.
[[A Flair for Design]]
When you're ready to start a game, you'll need to choose between the Elyos and the Asmodians. Make your choice carefully, because you'll only be able to have characters of that race on the server you selected. That's not to say you can't create other characters of a different race on another server, but it's something to consider.
The character customization in this game is simply stellar. Across both races and genders, you'll have almost 100 faces to choose from alone, and these are further customizable. That's not to mention hair, facial tattoos (Asmodian Lil Wayne, here I come!), and the entire rest of your character's body. By the time you're done, you won't find anyone on your server who looks just like you. It may seem trivial at first, but recognizing other players by their faces goes a long way towards full immersion.
You'll then choose between one of the four standard RPG classes: Warrior, Scout, Mage, and Priest. Later on in the game, each class will split into two paths of specialization for you to choose between.
As you progress through the game, you'll pick up Titles you can use to customize your character further. Titles appear before your character's name and are visible by all. Accomplishing certain goals and making choices lets you unlock Titles, which you can then choose to assign to your character. Titles give bonuses are varying usefulness, so applying them is both strategic and cosmetic.
[[Let's Play Already!]]
Aion is a Korean-flavored fantasy MMORPG with some Western conventions that functions almost identically to WoW and company. Level up, complete quests from a variety of quest-givers, make some coin, explore new areas, etc. It's a very beautiful game with some nasty old scars.
Aion does little to distance itself from traditional MMO cliches. For example, if your character falls in battle, you will respawn at the Obelisk you have designated and you will be charged some experience points for your incompetence; and then you can pay someone to restore these points for a moderately high price. In essence, Aion gives you the choice between getting an experience or money penalty for dying. Aion also follows lots of MMO clichés such as having the hero be a "formerly powerful characters with missing backstories due to amnesia," and losing all your items when you fail at crafting items.
Another old tradition Aion whole-heartedly embraces is grinding. To give you a quick example: one quest has you killing nine crabs for a poor fellow who has been condemned to the form of one of the game's unfriendly creatures. Once you complete it, you're given a meager reward of XP. You can repeat the quest, though. Up to 100 times. If I wanted to slay 900 crabs, I'd be off not taking a bath and then pitching a show to the Discovery Channel. The fact that this is an option-and one that the game encourages-should give you an idea of what you're in for. There are quests here that are sometimes interesting and emotionally captivating. I stood in awe before an elder tree that granted me a glimpse into my forgotten past. But you should settle in for a lot of grinding and retrieval quests. After reaching Level 10 and finally getting my wings, I began to tire of the constant grind and wish for more varied play.
So I spent a lot of time in the air trying out my new humanoid wings. If you haven't spotted the Eastern influence in this game yet, your major cue is when a ten-foot, feathery wingspan mysteriously springs forth from your back amid a sprinkling of glitter and light. Flight in Aion is more than a means to get around. You can become a living fighter jet (those sound effects are up to you to make in the privacy of your own home) as you target enemies mid-air. Instead of flying on two axes (as in the plural of axis, not the weapon-although it would be cool to have flying axes) up-down and left-right, you can flap your wings in any direction. It feels so free to soar amongst the clouds-until you're grounded for flying in a no-fly zone or running out of flight time. You are permitted to glide in places where you can't fly, but you will need a high point to jump off of if you want to pick up any distance. While flight time can improve with items as you level up, these matters resonated as annoyances rather than challenges to be overcome. Other MMOs (notably, Champions Online, which we recently reviewed) allow for unmitigated flight, and it would have been nice to have this in Aion too.
There are some things Aion does very well. The graphics are absolutely stellar and look better than some of the big-budget offline, single-player games I have seen recently. Throw that in with the fact that the servers are supporting so many people and you have a veritable miracle of technology.
Menus are also very well organized. I never had a question about what quest I was on or where to find a person of interest. An in-game dictionary not only allows players to look up more information about most anyone or anything in the game, it allows them to locate them as well. Beasts you're assigned to kill multiples of can be located this way too, which saves a lot of time and brainpower. Perhaps the reason why this game feels especially plagued by grind is that practically everything can be done for you except the actual grinding. A blessing as well as a curse, maybe.
By the time you reach Level 25, you'll be able to enter the truly hellish Abyss, a "PvPvE" (player versus player versus environment) zone. While you're fighting against users who have chosen the other playable race, you'll both need to take on the non-playable Balaur race. Is the enemy of your enemy your friend, or should you just kick everyone's ass? It's a nice change from what we're used to, but it may not be enough to make the 25 levels of grinding worth it for some.
How do they make Aion's graphics look so luscious? Look no further than the famous Crytec engine of Far Cry and Crysis fame. This game runs on a modified first version of the CryEngine. The third version of the CryEngine is on its way, but enough modifications were apparently made to make the use of an outdated engine a visually stunning choice. Before you run away in terror at the thought of how much money you'll need to float to purchase a machine that'll run the game, know that Aion supports a surprisingly low level of PCs. To really appreciate how gorgeous the game is, we recommend finding a friend with a massive gaming rig.
NCSoft has been great about customer support. Players and browsers alike have access to an amazing Wiki http://powerwiki.na.aiononline.com/aion / maintained in-house. If you can't find an answer to your question here, you aren't looking hard enough. It even has a Beginner's Guide with directions on how to log in (we're talking a "Click OK to continue" level of basic). Rather than assuming you've been playing MMOs your whole life, NCSoft explains genre conventions like the difference between mage and warrior classes. This may not be of any use to you, but you've got to hand it to them for being noob-friendly.
I was also impressed by their attitude towards technical difficulties. Although I chose a recommended server, I did experience significant lag at one point. Just as I was about to log out in frustration, a happy little in-game messenger visited me with a gift and an apology from NCSoft. Take note, online developers: this classy touch will keep people coming back through a new game's initial bumps in the road. On top of that, the lag was fixed almost immediately thereafter.
If you decide to play Aion, you may be surprised to see people openly selling Kinah (Aion's currency) for real-world cash. Seriously, they just sit in the marketplace, announcing their wares for everyone to hear. Since WoW was outlawed in China, it looks like every gold farmer in the country has set up shop in Aion. Plenty of vocal users (myself included) hope that NCSoft starts sweeping more diligently to make the experience better for the rest of us-not to mention discouraging the practice for the sake of the many farmers who work in sweatshop conditions over in China.
Aion is a title that is superior to WoW in some areas; however, innovation is not one of them. Aion could have taken the genre so much further. Instead, it put some (albeit much-needed) shine on an old pair of shoes. If you haven't played many MMOs, this is the place to go. If you have, it may be worth checking out, but don't expect to be blown off . And until Aion is able to build the sense of community, lore, and meaning that WoW has, don't expect die-hards to jump ship quite yet for this good, but not great, game. It's good to be the king.