Note: This review is based on the Korean version of the game.
I apologize ahead of time for this wall of text as reviewing an MMORPG requires a more expansive analysis due to the multitude of content and mechanics therein. This is not a short review, so read at your discretion as time allows.
Atreia was once a beautiful world. Picturesque and serene, now shattered irreparably by an ancient cataclysm, the planet continues to struggle from within. The disparate halves of Atreia have given rise to two new species of humanity and their divine protectors, the Daeva. Their ongoing war is the centerpiece for NCsoft’s anticipated upcoming MMORPG Aion: The Tower of Eternity.
Having first played an early alpha of AION during its first debut at E3 2006, the game showed promise with a gorgeous new graphics engine, as well as the concept of real-time flight and aerial combat, all wrapped in a familiar gameplay package. Three years and copious beta testing later, Aion has finally seen retail release in Korea and China, and is currently slated for Fall 2009 release in North America and Europe. In a market dominated by World of Warcraft, many MMOs struggle to hold onto their niche, so what makes Aion special? I’ve spent the last few weeks playing the Chinese retail release (ver. 1.0) to give you an opinion.
The story behind the current state of the world of Aion is fascinating. Having created Atreia as a hollow world with its landscape on the inner crust of the planet, the god Aion illuminated the world from within as the Tower of Eternity. Within this closed garden Aion created its first race, the Balaur, to watch over and protect Atreia. Soon Aion begat humans and other sentient creatures, and the Balaur began to prey upon them. Once guardians, the dragon-like Balaur became obsessed with conquest and subjugation. Realizing that the god, the Tower of Eternity itself, would not empower the Balaur any further, they sought to destroy him. In response to this threat Aion created the twelve Empyrean Lords. These immortals were gifted with flight and the ability to manipulate aether to fight the Balaur and protect the tower. In time, the strongest of the humans would ascend to a similar level of divine power; these people were called Daevas. Together with the Empyrean Lords, the Daevas fought back against the Balaur in a struggle that would become known as The Millennium War.
Eventually the war would come to an end, but at a tragic price. In an attempt to make peace with the Balaur, the Tower was compromised and shattered: threatening to take Atreia with it. In a moment of tremendous sacrifice, the Lords Siel and Israphel gave up their life energy to save as much of the tower and Atreia as possible. It was not enough to save everything, but the world survived. Atreia was now torn in two, save for the bases of the tower on each hemisphere; the place where the Tower of Eternity once stood has become an abyss.
Those who survived on each half-world would recover. Those on the lower half would benefit from the light of a nearby star and flourish into a bountiful garden. Physically, there wasn’t much change to their appearance. The humans there called themselves the Elyos and the surviving Empyrean Lords would become the Seraphim Lords. Their ascended Daevas would soar the skies on pure white wings.
Those unfortunate souls who survived on the upper crust would have to suffer a more hostile environment. These humans would call their world Asmodae, and themselves Asmodians. They adapted to their harsh environment–growing talons on their hands and claws on their feet. Their eyes took on a luminescence so they could see easily in the darkness of their realm. Deprived of sunlight, their skin took on strange tones. Likewise, their Daeva and Empyrean Lords–now known as Shedim Lords–would fly on wings of pitchest black.
For centuries both races were ignorant of each others’ survival, until both began exploration of the Abyss where the Tower of Eternity once stood. Aside from discovering each other and an old hatred (each blamed the other for the Cataclysm), they also encountered an ancient foe, the Balaur. Thus are we thrust into the midst of a three-sided war for the future of Atreia and the survival of what remains of the Tower of Eternity.
The game continues its lore through numerous well-written quests and several scripted cinematic missions as you progress from peon to Daeva and beyond. The sheer quantity of dialogue is staggering. While this is excellent news for bibliophiles and lore enthusiasts, most MMO players will be skipping through pages of text to get to quest and mission objectives. While the genre has been intermittently graced with credible writing in recent years, Aion is refreshing in its consistency. If players choose to speak with an NPC, they will be greeted with a response instead of a mannequin. Depending on which side the player chooses, Elyos or Asmodian, there will be recurrent NPCs throughout the adventure and not all of them are friendly.
Overall the storyline is impressive, taking a more serious note regarding world affairs rather than the occasional tongue-in-cheek approach presented in similar titles. Unfortunately the amount of dialogue can be a turn-off for players who might be in a rush or more interested in getting from point A to point B. During several of the lengthier missions, some brevity would have been appreciated. The lack of spoken dialogue in all of the major cinematics is surprising, though this lacking feature may be included in the North American release.
Visually, Aion is a treat, but not without some pitfalls. Atreia is not a seamless world but one that is divided into zones that must be loaded each time. The game uses a modified version of the Crytek engine originally used in FarCry with some spectacular lighting and environmental effects. Passing through your first stream or pond is an arresting experience. The character models themselves are gorgeous. So gorgeous, in fact, that they completely take away from many of the world’s locales. While some locations like Sanctum and Pandaemonium are stunning, there are several zones that are obviously low polygon count with high texture map quality in an attempt to save resources. When placed side by side with some of the more detailed character or monster models, it looks inconsistent. The fact that the sky depicting the shattered Tower is nothing more than a static image is also disappointing. Moving clouds? Not much of that either. Maybe they should have sprung for Crytek Engine 2. Highly detailed character models are no substitute for limiting the quality of your world graphics, no matter how well done your texture maps are. Granted, there are many breathtaking vistas to be seen on both sides of Atreia but there are enough average sights to remind you of how old the engine really is.
Character animation overall is well done, though many of the emotes and several combat animations seem wooden. The Asmodian male running animation looks fantastically feral, but the Elyos female’s saunter looks doll-like. Paradoxically, the female dances are very well done yet the males look awful. It’s understandable that trying to make so many thousands of animations look natural is challenging, but with all the middleware available for established graphics engines, we should not be seeing this kind of disparity within one game. Hopefully this gap will narrow in future updates.
Also, there seems to be a very large difference in visual quality between the two races’ environments. While it’s within the game’s context that Asmodae is inhospitable, several zones there can’t hold a candle to their Elyos equivalent in regards to detail and overall artistic quality. I don’t know if this is a case of perhaps more development time on one side than the other, but as far as eye-candy is concerned it’s noticeably one-sided.
Despite these issues, Aion remains a breathtaking visual experience in many respects. The overall artistic vision and design are original and certainly praiseworthy. The disconnect in graphic standard is not. Fortunately, most players will likely be too enamored with their characters to notice much of the graphical sleight-of-hand used to mask some of the engine’s limitations.
Acoustically Aion is as diverse as its landscape, with a score that borrows from not only classical but many tribal and ethnic sources as well. To further impress there are many instances of vocal harmony to accompany the varying mix of melodies. The combat music is respectable but is sometimes jarring. To transition from a flute arrangement to electric guitars is somewhat bewildering. Thankfully the music is decent and there is a wider arrangement of combat music that varies based on race as well as location.
Within the context of gameplay, Aion soars on those trademark wings. Probably the easiest way to explain this is to go through the first time player experience and highlight as we go. Upon logging into the game the player must choose a side of the conflict, the Elyos or the Asmodians. Currently players can only create characters of the same race on the same server. This is due to the major PVP component of the game.
It is important to note that while there is PvE content, much of it braches into PvP environments. Those of you who only approve if consensual PvP, consider yourself warned. Thankfully NCsoft is addressing penalties for players who abuse PvP to grief lower level players, which was a common annoyance in Lineage and Lineage 2.
Upon choosing a race, the player must then choose a class from the four basic professions. This might sound limiting, but upon reaching level 10 the player may choose a new class from two options within their original job. Warriors may opt to become Templar or Gladiators. Templar are the tanks, Gladiators are multi-weapon damage dealers. Priests may become Clerics, which are battle capable healers, or Chanters, whose primarily role is to buff the party and assist in healing. Mages can choose to become Spiritmasters, a heavy debuffing pet-enabled class, or Sorcerers, a.k.a. crowd-controlling glass cannons. Scouts can become Assassins, a sneaky dual-wield high damage melee class, or Rangers, long-ranged bowmen who can inflict heavy damage as well as limit the mobility of enemies.
Once these decisions are made, the player must then design their character, and this is where Aion begins to shine. The character creation depth and versatility is hands down the best I’ve ever seen in an MMORPG. This is character creation done right. While the presets are more than acceptable, the array of customization options would make an Elder Scrolls game balk. Thankfully, unlike Oblivion, it doesn’t take a Master’s degree in 3D modeling to make a female look more like a woman and less like an ugly man. They even allow you to see how your character looks sans clothing or in endgame armor: very cool.
Once the preliminaries are over it’s on to the quests! I’ll be completely honest in saying that the quest system and GUI bare more than a passing resemblance to World of Warcraft with a few key “add-ons,” by which I mean exceptions. This includes tagging key words and names in quest dialogue that can be expanded upon for further information. You can even locate tagged words/names via a handy mini-map GPS. While these are subtle additions to the tried and true questing system in WoW, it’s nice they took the time to make it more user friendly without the need for third party software or a Wiki.
Quests are obtained from NPCs marked with glowing blue arrows above their heads, completed quests are blue suns or double blue arrows, missions are gold arrows and gold double arrows or suns respectively. See where I’m going with this? Most quests are the typical MMORPG fetch quests or kill quests, while Missions are more akin to quest chains with a bit more meat. Granted, Missions tend to be much more dialogue-oriented with lore centered on the primary tale featuring more prominent targets and the occasional cut scene. Think Final Fantasy XI mashed with World of Warcraft and you have the general idea. Not exactly an original recipe but a dish most people will find familiar and comfortable. Of course you also have the usual assortment of group quests but Aion introduces us to a new type of task: Infiltration. These quests direct the player to meet objectives in enemy territory. While Elysea and Asmodae are different worlds separated by the Abyss, it is possible to travel from one realm to the other via one-way portals called Rifts. Rifts appear randomly and are limited in how many times they can be used to bridge the gap. Players participating in Infiltration quests have to be well prepared, as when they reach their destination anything can, and usually does, happen.
Quests generally reward the player with experience points and currency while missions usually involve new weapons and armor along with huge chunks of exp. Infiltration usually rewards you with better than average items due to the risk involved. Money, however, seems to take a major role in Aion, from simple services like binding a home point to flying around zones to regaining lost experience points. To be honest, there never seems to be enough cash, as quests currently don’t give nearly enough income to meet the rising costs of leveling.
Now before you march on NCsoft with torches and pitchforks, gear drops from mobs sell for outrageous premiums to the vendor, though the drop rate is sporadic. Also, the XP loss on death is very small, approximately 3-5% and cannot cause the player to lose a level. Plus the loss can be regained entirely for a small fee at the Soul Healer. The crux of this loss is that the portion of the XP bar that is lost is grayed out and can potentially prevent you from gaining the next level unless healed. Of course the cost goes up each level and exponentially once you become a Daeva.
Thankfully there is no armor wear and tear, because Soul Healing can get really expensive if you don’t mind yourself. I’ve always thought an XP penalty on death was harsh but when I saw what it did to the general IQ of the typical MMO playerbase, I consider it a good mechanic if it’s done well, and Aion hit the sweet spot. Players have to pay attention to their surroundings and actually learn their classes well in order to survive most encounters.
Contrary to rumors, Aion is not quite an unforgiving level-grind (like Lineage 2 was). Players do need to explore older areas as they level because new quests do appear. The leveling isn’t entirely smooth as a few levels do appear several quests short of the bar. I believe some of that is meant to force players into the mass PvP content of the Abyss as well as the handful of instanced dungeons available. Regardless, many new quests and areas were introduced in the latest Korean patch 1.2 to alleviate this issue and will more than likely be included in the North American release.
With questing aside, let’s explore the combat system. The combat in Aion is in my opinion the next evolution in MMORPG combat. Not only is it fast, it’s contextual and time-sensitive; and you’ll learn to do it while flying too. As you level, new abilities and attacks are gained through purchasing skill books. Many special attacks can only be used in a specific sequence known as a combo chain. Anyone who is familiar with fighting games will feel right at home. However, these combos aren’t linear at all; many of these chains have branching points which may or may not appear depending on the combat situation.
The player has to think and act quickly before they lose the capacity to chain abilities and attacks that could reverse the outcome of an unfortunate fight. For example, a Templar might initiate a melee combo that branches into a defensive damage shield or an offensive sword barrage. Depending on the situation the correct choice could save you a trip to the Obelisk and a visit to the Soul Healer.
While the combat is refreshing, one might be concerned with variety, and that’s where the Stigma Stones come in. Upon reaching level 20, players will get the ability to set Stigma Stones, which give them access to abilities beyond the limits of their class. The only limiting factor is that you can only equip a precious few depending on your level and replacing them costs money and shards which aren’t easily obtained.
Finally, one cannot talk about Aion without discussing flight. When the player becomes a Daeva at level 10, they obtain their first set of wings. Though beautiful, they are extremely limited in use early on as there is a very strict flight timer that limits your soaring. Also, there are only a few locales that allow you to fly. Thankfully, all areas allow you to glide from elevation with your wings open. While this was initially disappointing, NCsoft’s goal was to make flight an important aspect of gameplay, not a triviality. With mid-air resources to gather for crafting as well as reaching portals to the Abyss, flight is a strategic element of play. The higher your goal, the more careful you have to be to reach it. Careless Daevas can find themselves plummeting to their doom very easily. PvP is much more forgiving as flight is completely unrestricted in the Abyss, and plays a major part in combat there also. As your avatar progresses you’ll find more areas that allow flying, as well as equipment that will increase your flight speed and max flight time. Much later on you may even obtain one of several new sets of armored wings.
The Abyss in Aion is where players are firmly introduced to the PvPvE (Player vs. Player vs. Environment) system. The Abyss home to the Balaur, who are natural enemies to both playable races. Not only that, you must also fight against the opposing side within the Abyss to gain and maintain several fortresses in the area. There are also several artifacts that must be claimed to aid in these large-scale land grabs. Aside from the unbridled chaos of flying combat between three factions, there are numerous quests to be had in the Abyss for those brave enough to attempt them. Players who participate in any PvP, particularly in the Abyss, gain points that will raise their ranks as well as enable them to purchase new armor and weaponry that cannot be obtained anywhere else.
In addition to the PvPvE content of the Abyss and the sprawling quest system, there are several instanced dungeons that are available for high-end content with more on the way. Sadly I haven’t had the chance to do any of them, but the gear obtained from them is simply awesome and seems to be a perfect PvE adjunct to the Abyss system.
I could ramble on for days about the crafting system and many of the subtle nuances I’ve discovered in my time on Atreia, but some things are best left for you to unravel on your own. Needless to say that Aion is jam packed with content, though the delivery comes in stages. At first the game seemed to be little more than a World of Warcraft clone with a few fancy ideas tossed in for kicks, but upon delving deeper, the game comes into its own with an amazing array of combat versatility, an expansive questing system, and the no-holds barred bonanza of PvPvE.
I had very high hopes for Aion when I first laid eyes on the game so many years ago. My first impression was that it was nothing more than a well-made WoW clone. From the quest system, to the first few hours of combat, it felt all too familiar. Visually the world and characters were impressive, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. The storyline was interesting and the music exceptional, but how long can those things inspire you in an experience that has no end? Honestly, I was terribly worried the experience would be derivative at best.
When my character reached Daeva status, my opinion began to change slowly. While drowning in familiarity, I started to notice the differences: subtle at first, but then more concrete. The framework began like an imitation, but began to broaden and diversify into something better. As I started to see this new world with wings of my own, I saw the gameplay evolve into a dynamic that was totally new to the genre. While concepts that are tried-and-true are brought together in this persistent world, Aion manages to fold them together and create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. The game challenged me to see past my first impression and rewarded me when for doing so.
In retrospect, I believe the similarities to other well-traveled MMORPGs works in Aion’s favor. Players will be able to instantly interact and participate in its world without fuss or confusion. Only gradually does the game introduce new elements to its palette; before long the whole breathtaking picture comes into view. Without a doubt, Aion is an incredibly polished experience that refines the best aspects of the genre and creates a spectacular new world. As a fan and critic of the genre, I wholeheartedly recommend Aion to both casual and experienced gamers.
While we have several months to wait until the North American/European release, NCsoft is already working hard on enhancements to the game in Korea (ver 1.2 currently) that adds new areas, items, wings, instances and more. We hope NCsoft has learned from Lineage 2’s content delays, and we look forward to seeing simultaneous worldwide updates to the game when it is fully launched in all territories. Aion is currently under a pay-per-time block structure in China. Pricing structure for the NA/EU territories has yet to be announced but we expect a monthly subscription fee plan to be used, but we will keep you posted.