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Editor's note: I've been interested in Aion since I first read about it last year. It's been available in the U.S. since Sept. 22. Jack takes us on a tour of its world — and reports that it's a surprisingly polished for something that recently launched. Is it interesting enough to get MMO players to set aside World of Warcraft? -Jason
Aion is another fantasy-based MMORPG. You may be thinking, "Oh, gee, another fantasy-themed MMO. Whoop dee do." There's plenty of MMOs out on the market, so what's so special about this one? How about flying with wings, which can lead to aerial combat at the game's later levels, Player-vs.-Player-vs.-Environment gameplay, gorgeous graphics, and the one thing MMOs could only wish for at launch — polish.
See, Aion's already been out for a year. Not in North America, obviously, but in Korea, where it was developed, where's it's extremely popular. I can see why; even though I've only made it to level 16, I've really enjoyed the game.
This isn't my first MMO. I started playing World of Warcraft in December 2004, and I've been an on-and-off player ever since. I was in the beta for Warhammer Online and played The Lord of the Rings Online, Tabula Rasa, Age of Conan, Vanguard, and Guild Wars. I'd always come back to WOW, though, as it seemed other MMOs just couldn't keep me interested long enough to continue past the free month. The only MMO that stuck with me was Tabula Rasa, which featured fast-paced combat and a futuristic setting. But Tabula Rasa shut down in February.
Aion stands out. This game's beautiful. LOTRO is pretty, but Aion looks so much better. It uses the CryEngine, which powered Far Cry. I'm very impressed with the character animations. You really almost need make a melee character just to see them do a front flip and slam their giant polearm down on the enemy. Every animation that I've seen is very fluid, and nothing looks out of place. My only minor complaint with the visuals is that some of the textures on landscapes look as if they weren't finished.
Aion's character customization's insane! You could spend hours making your character look exactly the way you want. Body size, hip size, eye color — it's all there. Aion has two playable races, the Elyos and the Asmodians, and it's got a third unplayable faction, the Balaur. Both Elyos and Asmodians look very similar. Elyos look more human and angelic than their claw-footed, dark-winged enemies, the Asmodians.[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JA278DO7Uw 560×340]
Many MMO players should feel right at home in Aion questing and killing creatures. It's got many "kill 'X' number of monsters," "talk to certain people," "run errands for people because they're too lazy" type of quests. The interesting thing about the quests is the Campaign quests. These often have short cinematic videos to show you what you need to do, and sometimes regular quests have these cinematic events as well.
I really like that Aion's added a few handy features — WOW vets should appreciate these. The game gives you quest-helper type features. You can open your quest log and important items, and the NPCs or locations are highlighted in blue. Click on the text to bring up the map showing your target's location.
I haven't experienced much grouping yet, although I do believe grouping in later levels becomes very important. In my experience, solo play has been enjoyable, but killing foes seems to take longer than I'm used to. Levels 1 through 10 will probably be the most difficult.
When you start the game, you can choose from four classes: Warrior, Mage, Scout, and Priest. Once you reach level 9 or level 10, you'll Ascend, gaining wings, and pick between two classes. I now have a Spiritmaster at level 16 and a Gladiator at level 13. I found that the melee classes have a harder time questing and killing mobs before Ascension. Both of my characters are a blast to play; it makes it difficult for me to choose which class to play.
Combat's fairly standard, with a mix of autoattacking and using your skill-based abilities. What makes it different than other standard MMO-combat sequences is the use of chains. These chain abilities, when available, replace the current ability on the hotbar, so you can keep pressing the same key to continue your chain. As you level up, you'll learn more chains as well as expand each chain with more abilities. Eventually, you learn multiple maneuvers on the same chain level, forcing you to choose between moves. Say good-bye to crowded action bars! Hurray![video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AvjO825ljY 560×340]
For those who enjoy more than simple questing and grinding, Aion has crafting professions. It appears that you can have as many of the six professions as you want, although the most I have had are two professions for one character. The professions are fairly standard, such as weaponsmithing, armorsmithing , tailoring, and alchemy. I've noticed that crafting takes up a lot of time and money, so you're probably better off saving money without crafting. Buying your equipment, as opposed to making your own, seems to cost about the same, so it's basically a personal preference. I have no idea how effective crafting becomes later in the game, so perhaps it is in fact necessary.
Aion handles traveling differently than other MMOs. It does have some of the standard methods. Running is, of course, an option, but we all know how painful it can be to run from region to region. Most games have some sort of travel system, and Aion's no exception with its flight paths and teleports. Flight paths are for traveling within a single region, and teleporting takes you to either your main city or nearby regions. Traveling does not come free, so expect to pay for a quick leap across the map.
The other method of travel is a little more personal and kicks in after your Acesnsion — you can use your wings to fly. The system works quite well, as it allows you 1 minute of flight time from take-off to landing. You may also glide by pressing the spacebar, which results in the use of less flight time. Some areas I've come across don't allow flying, which is a shame.
This game's had a pretty good launch (minus the gold spammers). Some servers get lag spikes and crash due to very high populations, but it seems that NCSoft has begun to take care of that. The game looks great, plays great, and is well polished. Most MMOs don't have this level of polish, which I attribute to the game already being out for a year overseas. That extra level of polish really pushes it ahead of other MMOs, helping it stand out in a fairly crowded market. I hope that polish's still there in the later content. Let's hope so.