Aion Preview: Onward Towards AscensionS

After taking part in several weekend beta test events, we're finally ready to turn a slight more critical eye on NCsoft's latest massively-multiplayer offering, Aion.

What Is It?
Aion, formerly Aion: The Tower of Eternity, is a massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game created by Korean developer NCsoft. It takes place on the world of Atreia, which was torn apart ages ago during a war between two powerful heavenly forces created by the benevolent god Aion. The planet was split into dark and light halves, with the humans on the light side retaining their characteristic beauty, while those on the dark developed claws and talons to help survive their harsh environment.

At its heart, Aion is your basic massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game. Players choose one of four classes - Mage, Priest, Scout, and Warrior - with each class splitting into two separate careers once they reach level 10. That level is also when players gain the ability to fly, adding another dimension to traditional MMO movement and combat.

What We Saw
I've now played in three beta events, taking three of the four starting classes - Warrior, Mage, and Scout - to level 10, at which point you get to select your final class and earn your wings. For a good portion of the time I spent I played with a friend, which can make the experience more fulfilling. Something to keep in mind.

How Far Along Is It?
The game is already out in China and Korea, with NCsoft working around the clock to make sure that when it releases it feels more like a Western product and less like one of the shoddy Korean imports currently flooding the MMO market. Ramping up towards a September release in Europe and North America.

What Needs Improvement?
Getting Started: The new player experience is amazingly fleshed out and well crafted the first time you go through it. By the fourth, you know the routine by heart, however. There are two different factions in Aion, and each progresses from levels 1-10 in their own unique way, but each time you start a new character you get the same experience, just with extra powers. It makes leveling easier - I can get a character to 10 in five hours - but I'd like to see a bit more variety, especially considering you have to reach level 10 to pick your final class, and you can't swap. Perhaps some class-specific quests to keep things fresh?

Buy, Sell, Trade: It's disappointing to me that a game this lovely uses an archaic system that lets players set themselves into private store mode anywhere and everywhere. You'll find them in great numbers around major cities and key quest locations, sitting their idle with advertisement text over their heads. It's not so bad in instanced areas, but zoning into one of the major cities is a laggy pain in the ass, thanks to the hordes of merchants who have set up shop right at the zone-in point. What should be glorious first steps into a beautiful new area becomes a stuttering mess. They need to cordon off specific areas for traders.

What Should Stay The Same?
East Meets West: Too many times have I seen a gorgeous online game with that signature Korean art style, only to log in and find the game mechanics are a bloody, unpolished mess. Aion manages to keep the polished look of a Korean MMO and marry it with a Western presentation in a way I've dreamt of but never seen come to fruition. The grind that normally plagues these types of games is so far absent, and the emphasis on story so far verges on that of games like World of Warcraft and Everquest II. These have been some very impressive first steps.

Cinematic Quests: Aion often takes the focus away from the player to deliver quest objectives, presenting them as cinematic cut scenes rather than simple lines of text. As big as a full-fledged induction ceremony to celebrate the player's ascension to daeva-hood or as small as a simple pan over the area where your quest takes place, the feature adds a sense of grandeur to the proceedings.

Familiar Yet Distinctive Graphics: While the characters in Aion are rendered with the signature Korean flair, the world itself is quite unique. The creatures that I encountered were, for the most part, unlike anything I've experienced before, and even the more traditional Asian monster mainstays, like mushrooms, carried their own distinct style. The world itself is gorgeous and quite varied, especially considering the small slice of the game world I was able to experience during the beta events.

Mad Skills: While the first few levels of any class in Aion are what you'd expect from any MMO, once the combination skills kick in, things really start to liven up. Similar to Age of Conan, some skills are linked directly to others, meaning that you must fire off one, and then the next becomes available. Eventually you have multiple choices of how you'll string your powers together, adding a lovely bit of strategy to the combat. The game also features certain skills that can only be fired off after a gauge is filled by delivering and taking damage, similar to the way Limit Breaks worked in Final Fantasy VII, which I felt was a very nice touch.

Flying For Fun: After spending 10 levels hoofing it, taking to the air in your very own set of wings is an exhilarating experience. The flight mechanic works very well, with a duration that can been enhanced as you progress in level opening up new places to explore as well as new ways to combat your enemies. As an added plus, if you're sitting around bored, waiting for your group mates to return from the bathroom, you can find a nice spot and see how close you can get to the ground before hitting the wings button. Try not to miss.

Final Thoughts
So far Aion has been a rather pleasant surprise. Like many of you, I saw the beautiful screenshots and immediately expected another run-of-the-mill Asian online game, but it looks like Aion could have the substance to back up all of that style.