First Exams
Aion: An MMO Tourist’s Perspective

This is a similar style post as our Champions Online Impressions

For as long as people have traveled the globe, they’ve done so carrying stereotypes tucked neatly away along side their other baggage. Despite your best intentions, sometimes it’s difficult to check these preconceptions at the gate. Occasionally, such a stereotype may be based on a partial truth. These scenarios make it even more challenging to remain unbiased. In my virtual travels, this has always been the case with the Asian market for online games. You may think that Ireland is filled with hapless drunks, or that Jamaicans are all ganja smoking Rastafarian – I think that China and South Korea churn out a dozen new MMORPG’s a week, greatly favoring quantity over quality.

This past week marked the last stage of beta testing for NCSoft’s new entry into this crowded space: Aion: The Tower of Eternity. Having launched in South Korea nearly a year prior, Aion is now taking aim at the western market. With equal amounts of flash and polish, does Aion really break new ground, or is it just more of the same?

Ryk Jaams in search of a super freak.

The path you take into the world of Atreia is pretty routine. After selecting which server you wish to create a new avatar on, you’re asked to pick a faction. The factions in Aion follow a pretty common formula; one faction is light, and one is dark. Unlike many modern MMORPG’s, the faction you’re aligned with is mostly a matter of aesthetics. Both factions have the same basic and advanced classes, so your choice mainly decides how you look, and on which end of a shattered world you wish to reside. If you feel like you’ve done this all before don’t worry you probably have.

Once you decide on your server and faction, it’s time to design your toon. You can chose between four starting classes at this point in your career: a warrior, a scout, a priest or a mage. These ultimately branch off into eight more advanced professions. Warriors can become gladiators or templars; scouts can advance as rangers or assassins; priests graduate into chanters or clerics; and mages ascend as sorcerers and spiritmasters. The intricacies of each advanced class could fill their own wiki, so it would be wise to do a little research before diving headfirst into any position. With your class and sex established, it’s time to decide on your appearance.

Showing off my wings.

The character customization, like much of the Aion experience, is medley of good and bad. The fundamental elements of your toon’s appearance will be the same regardless of your faction. There are a reasonable number of body types and features to take in, and beyond those basic options, you’re given a great deal of freedom in your physical proportions. While the latter may add a little diversity to Atreia’s population, it regrettably results in some rather hideous designs. You can just as easily create a beautiful avatar, but some players opt for super-deformed toons. The world of Aion is populated with an unhealthy mix of beautiful avatars and genetic freaks.

For my journey through the open beta event, I chose to create an “Asmodian” scout named “Killandra.” I chose the Asmodian (dark) faction so I could start in the same area as my friends, but given the opportunity I would have opted for the alternative. The Asmodians are ugly creatures. While the details of their appearance are mostly identical to their rivals (the Elyos), they have a few unique characteristics that you won’t find on the catwalk anytime soon. It’s especially difficult to make an attractive female avatar when they have hooves for feet and long flowing hair on their backs. Despite my apprehension, “Killandra” was ready to explore her new world.

Typical MMO nerd banter.

As an Asmodian, you begin your quest as a mortal on the island of “Ishalgen.” While Aion features a sort of pop up as you play tutorial, this area will be your home for your toon’s first ten levels. Aion’s world is literally divided in two, having been physically split down the middle by a previous catastrophy. The world of Atreia was protected by divine forces, but the cataclysm that fractured the planet’s surface also divided its population. The two factions continued to evolve down separate paths, which altered their appearance based largely on their environments. The divine forces at play seem to have diverged on separate paths as well, and it’s the goal of every inhabitant of Atreia to ascend to a higher level of existence. While this all plays directly into the games rather convoluted plot, it also has a more practical effect. Once you’re ready to ascend, you can leave this area and travel to your faction’s main city, where you’re granted with your advanced profession – and a pair of wings.

Flight is possible, but not always convenient.

Flight marks one of the more unique aspects Aion’s gameplay, but it’s not without compromise. You can’t freely coast through every area, but there are zones which are partially open to free flight, and you can still glide through other areas given enough height to get off the ground. While Aion’s advanced movement didn’t weigh heavily upon my experience in the beta, I’ve heard that it shines in the later stages of “PvPvE” (Player versus Player versus Environment) combat. Aion’s “endgame” faces players off against one another (as well as NPC’s) in an area known as the Abyss, where guilds compete for control and influence. Having not experienced Aion’s PvPvE zone, I can only hope that it adds more variety to what can often be a routine experience.

Many of Aion’s mechanics are very traditional, but while it doesn’t often venture into new territory, it does conventional things mostly well. Combat is your typical timed affair, but offers a little action and diversity through skill chains. As you learn new skills, some will form a chain. When the first skill from a chain connects, it opens up the next, allowing you to unleash a combo of attacks on your enemy. Other MMORPG mainstays, such as gathering, crafting and trading, are also competently executed. Ultimately (and quite unfortunately) the traditional nature of Aion also marks some of its biggest faults. For every thing it does well, there’s a classic genre pitfall waiting to bring it down. For every exciting moment of gameplay, there’s a time-sink waiting around the bend, and you’ll be waiting for quest items and mobs to respawn as you compete with other players to complete identical missions.

The game makes use of in game cinemas -- but don't expect blockbuster performances

The games direction, from music, to art, to gameplay is a bit of a sensory overload. I only wish that every bit of this assault was successful. The graphics are lush and detailed, but every surprising detail is packed along side some equally surprising flaw. The low tech lighting and shader treatment aren’t especially shocking, but some of the games muddy, low resolution textures are. The music is similarly awesome and awful – orchestral scores giving way to grating rock guitar riffs in combat. For all of the ways that Aion assaults the senses, it’s a little unfortunate that it can’t do so with some measure of consistency.

Aion may be gearing up for its western release, but it’s hardly a game that has followed western trends. This game follows a pretty standard formula, and while it does add a few new twists, it’s very oldschool. If I felt like being more critical, I might even call it archaic, but it’s important to note where Aion succeeds as well. There’s something oddly appealing about all of this, and it even managed to draw me in. One thing is certain though: This is not a casual experience. Aion has been crafted from the ground up for the genres more dedicated followers, who are ironically the genres least demanding demographic. If you’re looking for an easy going MMO adventure, this is probably not your game.

Hardcore MMO junkies – welcome home!

The sun sets on another open beta.

PvPvE is Player versus Player versus Environment