The massively multiplayer online RPG hasn't changed much in the past ten years. Ever since Everquest introduced gamers to a large, 3D world, most that followed have only added their own spin on that idea, polishing and expanding where necessary, but hardly ever innovating. Blizzard's World of Warcraft is a fantastic example of this, and is, for the most part, the pinnacle of that formula, sitting atop a throne that seems unreachable. Aion looks to change that with a few clever mechanics, which might seem like gimmicks at first. They are, in fact, actually incredibly important to the game, and manage to make it feel different, all the while helping it rise up above most of the genre. Why is that line really funny? You'll have to keep reading to find out.
In the beginning, there were two ruling races in Atreia: the humans and the Balaur. Over time, the Balaur grew power-hungry, and attempted to take over Atreia and wipe out both humans and the gods. As a response, the god Aion created the The Empyrean Lords to help watch over the world, and some humans began to evolve, ascending to become Daeva and growing wings to help fight the Balaur. In a massive attack, the Balaur destroyed the Tower of Eternity, splitting the world into two halves: a dark and a light side. While the light side was fairly peaceful and its people, called Elyos, safe from trouble, the other half was filled with danger and darkness. Over the course of thousands of years the inhabitants became Asmodians, clawed, evil creatures with a hatred for the light, lead by a handful of fallen Empyrean Lords who blame Aion's pacifism for the world's destruction. Beyond looking technically advanced, it has one of the best styles of any game in its class. The world's two sides are represented well, with the Asmodians living in death and darkness while the Elyos' lands are paradise by comparison. Though different, they share many similarities, which makes sense within the lore.
This three-front war between a once united people serves as the backdrop for Aion, NCSoft's latest MMORPG. The backstory is very important to the core game, and works its way into the many unique elements that make Aion. Players only choose between two races, which might seem low for anyone coming from an MMO with half a dozen or more. On the contrary, while there are only two "races," the character builder is adaptive enough to allow for a huge amount of customization, meaning players can make a one-foot tall Asmodian or a nine-foot tall Elyos. There's actually more variety than there usually is on the battlefield, something which wouldn't be expected considering there are only two humanoid choices. Classes are fairly typical, with players starting as one of four, each of which can be specialized at level ten to fill a more specific role. For instance, starting as a Warrior can lead to a defense-focused Templar or a DPS-focused Gladiator, both of which have their own skill trees, with only a handful of shared abilities. Also at level ten, players are transformed into Daevas, who have access to the power of flight. The flying aspect is likely the biggest draw of Aion, and for good reason.
The idea of zipping around the skies certainly isn't unique to Aion - City of Heroes is likely the first with that element - but none have ever made it such an integral part of the core. Since every character sprouts wings, many of the game's areas demand flying, with some spots in the Abyss being made up of giant, floating rocks, with no way to travel between them without using wings. Early on, the time spent in the air is very limited, and it's used mostly as a mode of transportation to get from one area to another. Slowly, the timer is lengthened and players earn bonuses when in the sky, until most PvP encounters are spent zipping around in the air, landing only briefly to recharge before jumping back into the skirmish. It really adds a huge amount to the game, giving the developers an additional dimension to work with, and serves as a worthwhile mechanic, far from a gimmick. It also gives players a chance to enjoy the game's visuals, which are easily the best in MMOs.
Character design of the different enemies and allies encountered have a wonderful look of their own, something that stands out in the MMOspace. Running on the CryEngine means Aion is one of the best looking games in terms of graphical presentation. Characters are simply beautiful and the visuals are stunning. The cost of not being able to run on low-end machines is troublesome, especially since that has always been a calling card of the MMO, but if you have a system that can run it there are few games in the genre that look even remotely as good.
As is the case with most MMORPGs, there's a fair amount of borrowing from other games and some splashes of innovation from time to time. In order to help make finding quest locations easier there's a locator that will pinpoint the area on the map where the next target/NPC currently resides. When it works, it means hunting 10 bears or collecting 14 teeth isn't as annoying, since there's less searching and more killing. When it doesn't, it's annoying, and the radar and map can often become stuck, refusing to update or show the location of other players. Another feature that's simply brilliant is the personal store, which allows any player to set up shop and turn their avatar into a temporary shopkeeper. It helps the player-built economy a huge amount by lessening the amount of items that are sold on the Broker (Aion’s take on the Auction House), and makes distributing wares much simpler.
It's simply full of forward-thinking ideas. There's even an option to upload an image that will serve as a guild logo, showing up not only when the player is clicked on, but on the equipable cape. Sadly, for every step in the right direction there's a half-step back, and certain elements make Aion seem frankly archaic. Being released in 2009 without built-in voice chat or a functional system to make finding groups easier is nearly unacceptable, and makes playing alone a hassle. No, that’s not saying that soloing is problematic, but going in without a group of friends is more of a detriment than it needs to be. In games like Lord of the Rings: Online, the built-in systems help bring the community together, helping players make friends, which makes the overall playing experience better. The crafting system also feels ultimately unfulfilling, and should have been cleaned up and made more unique. Instead, it falls victim to the same follies that often befall MMORPGs. Early game, it's a huge money dump, and by the time it begins to pay off, the items gained from questing and other merchants are good enough that the time and money spent crafting wasn't worth the effort. This is, in part, due to a resource gathering system that supports grinding over passively collecting goods, which isn't fun for anyone.
While on the subject of grinding, it's about time to get to the largest issue in Aion: the grind. Early on, everything is well balanced, and the quest to level 20 is, for the most part, without any trouble. After 25, however, things get rocky, and begin to become more troublesome at 30, eventually leading to a brick wall at around 40. There are some terrible balance issues with the leveling in the game, with quests giving much less experience than they should and oftentimes being disproportionately difficult to complete. Not difficult in the sense that it's actually hard, more that it simply takes too long thanks to what can only be described as broken loot tables. Anyone who has played an MMO has likely had to complete a mission that involved collecting objects off of the corpses of dead bodies. Usually, because developers want to stretch the leveling process as much as possible, there's only a 50% chance that any opponent will drop said object, which means killing two boars for every boar foot. Beyond being silly, it's also frustrating, especially when the percentage drops well below 50.
At times, in Aion, the chance for an object to drop seems closer to 5%, so dozens of opponents need to be killed for each object, and the reward for completing the quest is usually less than the experience earned for killing the opponents in the first place. When in a group, killing opponents goes faster, but that small chance to drop is for each person, not all, so completing trivial objectives can take hours, even at low levels. Quests giving low experience is a problem the developers have admitted, and said they're working on, but as of now the quest to level cap is slow and often painful. It's common to simply run out of quests to do, resorting to wandering around and killing monsters of repeating instanced dungeons. The other option is competing in player versus player combat, which, while a lot of fun, also runs into issues. Aion is based around gigantic battles with enemy players, fighting over capturable bases in the Abyss, but as of now these encounters cause the servers to fall apart, dropping players whenever they become too large. If left unaddressed, the game's end-game content is effectively shot, and it has to be fixed soon before players flee the battlefield.
None of the issues are unique to Aion in any way. The grinding, the lack of end-game content, the missing voice chat, the glitches, and the absence of an adequate means for finding a group beyond spamming the LFG chat room are all annoying, but they're in no way deal breakers, especially considering they are issues that most MMORPGs deal with early on. There's also a solution for most, even if it isn't the most intuitive. In order to deal with the grind and lack of group making, players can join a guild. In order to deal with the lack of voice chat, players can use Skype or Vent. In order to deal with the glitches, players can usually just work around them. The thing is, in an industry where World of Warcraft has nearly ten times the player base of any other MMO, these issues are unacceptable. To compete, NCSoft or any other developers out there can't settle for anything less than the best, and Aion is so, so very close to being there.
In a recent trailer entitled “Aion Vision,” NCSoft gives a look into the future of their MMO. It shows off a slew of new features that would hopefully add content to the level ranges there isn't enough, gigantic battles that will presumably mean optimization fixes, and player cities to help build a better community. If they're added soon, than gamers are in for a serious contender in the MMO space. If not, it's still a wild ride that anyone who enjoys the genre should enter. At the end of the video, the world of Atreia is described as “Teeming with potential.” This is a good way to describe the game itself, too.
Aion is a wonderful foundation to what can absolutely, positively become one of the best MMORPGs on the market. It's close, and the changes that would need to be made aren't so drastic that they seem out of the realm of possibility, but it's not there yet. That said, being the best isn't always necessary, and I can absolutely recommend Aion to anyone who considers themselves a fan of the genre and is looking for something different.