Aion – Review
I’m not going to beat around the bush with this one so let me save you the trouble of reading the whole text-wall below: it’s the best looking fantasy MMO currently on the market and also the most boring one I have ever had the misfortune of playing.
After an open beta period and a head-start for the preordering customers, Aion was launched by NCSoft in North America and Europe on the 22nd and 25th of September. Except for a few problems regarding overwhelming server population that resulted in monster log in queues and the lack of a grace period for upgrading an account that should have tackled possible game boxes delivery issues, boxes which contained the code needed for the upgrade, the launch was smooth enough to get a thumb-almost-up. Don’t get me wrong, this was not some mind-blowing coordination between hordes of customer support guys with “How can I help you?!” hats. It was simply better than the Mythic/GOA disaster back when WAR was launched I can’t help myself not to compare the two. Anyway, after a couple of weeks the hype burned itself down, a couple of new servers were rushed out and put online and the missing boxes were finally delivered by the evil retailers. So the angry mob armed with torches, axes and forks that was until a few days ago pillaging the forums, is now happily playing the game. Here’s what they found.
The first thing you notice about AION, and then sticks with you no matter what you do or where you go inside the game, is the level of polish that would make even a Hollywood blockbuster shiver in shame and cry itself to sleep in a dark corner. The environment looks great and it’s packed with breath taking scenery, the characters and their armors come with a level of detail I have never encountered in an MMO before and all this is wrapped in an amazing soundtrack that really enhances your game experience. As a side note, just make sure you turn off any combat voice related sounds from the early beginning because they seem to have been created by whipping a deaf chimpanzee and recording everything that came out of his mouth. They are that bad that upon hearing them you will not know whether to laugh or cry.
Getting back to the way the game looks, there are so many layers of customization you can add to your character upon creation that I can now understand why NC Soft has been boasting about this for months. If you spend a few minutes playing with the sliders that control your character’s facial and body features, selecting its hair style and color, its skin color, lip color, eye color and many, many other colors, and eventually its voice that hopefully you will never have to listen to again, you can be pretty sure that your character is unique even on a really crowded server. Too bad you won’t be able to enjoy the way it looks unless you zoom in and take a look at it every two seconds, and this because they have allowed repositioning the camera miles behind the character. Any decent player will immediately do this both for PVE and PVP because a comprehensive knowledge of your surroundings reduces the chances of being the victim of a surprise attack. But if you do this, your character becomes nothing more than a smudge, a bunch of angry pixels swirling around in otherwise nice looking animations.
So yeah, as I’ve mentioned from the early begging, the game looks great and has a high level of polish. Not only that, but it runs as smoothly as one could expect from product with such highly detailed graphics. I played on a decent PC, but not your latest, state of the art, NASA grade, gaming platform. And yet, with almost every slider up to maximum and every checkbox activated under the video setting, I have never experienced less than 50fps, not even in the most crowded areas or the most epic fights. So it’s fair to say that the Cry Engine on which the game is built seems to have been a great developer choice and I can only hope this will serve as an important lesson to other MMO developers in the future.
This pretty much sums up all I can say about AION’s outer layer, the wrapping if you wish. But as we all know there is more to games than that and especially more when it comes to MMOs and this is where AION simply refuses to shine. Even from the begging the game sinks into the same old pool of pestilent stereotypes. Choosing your class comes down to choosing from the basic four archetypes: physical DPS (scout), magical DPS (mage), healer (priest) and tank (warrior). No, you can’t be a fairy, an elm, an old lady or a midget drug dealer because that would mean some sort of innovative design and huge marketing risks which you will never find in relation to a profit orientated company such as NC Soft. Later on these four classes branch out into eight specializations: ranger, assassin, sorcerer, spirit master, chanter, cleric, templar and gladiator. I think all of them are self explanatory when it comes to abilities and armor/weapon proficiencies. This is where diversity comes to a full stop; this is where the bag of character related ideas has run dry. To be more precise this happens at level 10 which you will reach in about 2 hours if you rush for it – there is a level 50 cap by the way. From this point on you are the same as about 1/8 of the server population since there is no further character customization. There are no class development trees, you cannot enhance certain skill in the detriment of others, and your character is almost exactly the same as any other of the same class. And this similarity is server wide because both factions have exactly the same classes. Of course there is this diversity of eye and lip color that really makes a difference when it comes to PVP because we all know that green eyed rangers are far superior to the blue eyed ones /irony.
Since I mentioned factions, let’s get the subject out of the way as fast as we can because it has gameplay relevance whatsoever. Initially there was one race on the world of Atreia, but there was this big cataclysm and the world literally got blown to pieces, resulting in the fact that now two big chunks of the former planet which was hollow on the inside, now float in space, separated by The Abyss. The whole thing is a highly improbable scenario from the physics point of view, but we’re going to let it slide since it is a fantasy game. Each of these “half-planets” is now inhabited by a fraction of the former Atreia population. Due to different environment conditions they developed differently. So if you like black wings, glowing red eyes and claws, go with Asmodians which inhabit the upper part and if you are into more angelic features, choose the Elyos faction which of course inhabits the lower part. That’s pretty much all you ever need to know about the game lore and trust me: don’t bother trying to learn more because it’s a poor background story with no substance, credibility or appeal.
Yes, wings, both factions have them. This is the most interesting and the only innovating gameplay element AION dares to introduce: flight. Starting with level ten you can use your wings to glide or fly. The first you can do basically anywhere as long as you are going downhill, while the second can be used in specially designed PVE areas and in The Abyss, which is the PVP zone that becomes available only at level 25. It is indeed a very nice feature and it’s as appealing as it sounds. Unfortunately it’s poorly implemented in connection to the other gameplay elements such as casting time or melee range. This is because when you fly your speed is greatly increased. Synchronizing your flight in such a way to get close enough to your target in order to engage it in melee, is almost impossible. Also finishing casting a spell while a target stays within range is another hard trick to do because the spell will not land if the target gets out of range by the time you finish casting. These are just a couple of flight related problems and it’s probably just a matter of time until solutions are found and added to the game, but until that point the wings will only get you from point A to point B in a really cool fashion and will not be used in most of the fights you are going to have.
After level 25 most of these fights will take place in The Abyss, which is the former core of the planet. The Abyss features 3 layers and each of these layers is fragmented into floating islands of different shapes and sizes. Upon some of these islands you will find Artifacts and Fortresses. These represent the PVP objectives of the game. The Artifacts can be activated after conquering them and they function as a faction buff/debuff mechanic, while conquering a Fortresses will unlock dungeons, special vendors and travel nodes. Both are originally held by The Balaur, which is an NPC faction. And that, apart from your random skirmishes, sums up all the PVP opportunities currently in the game. Sounds decent enough in theory, much like everything else in AION, but once you start doing it you realize there is no fun and no actual point to it. I was hoping for a more meaningful PVP, for Fortresses that are highly important to guilds and accessible only to them and not the entire faction, for a PVP progression system much like the one in Warhammer, for… a lot more. All you get is a system where you do PVP in order to obtain Abyss Points that in turn can be used to purchase items. So why bother?
The same goes for the crafting system which at first I thought to be great. You pick up every single profession there is, but you can only master two of the crafting professions from a total of six and all gathering ones. This sounds great because it means that no matter what you do you can never be fully independent, which is always bad when it comes to MMOs that strive to bring people together, to have them work together for a common goal. The problem is that the best items in the game are ones you buy with Abyss Points. So the crafting system works up to a point, and then drastically looses a great deal of its importance as people advance through the game and gain access to better items than the crafted ones. So again: why bother? Here’s an idea NC Soft, and I’m going to share it with you for free. Introduce loot that comes from dead opposing faction players that is bound on pick up and in turn you can use to craft items that are far superior to the ones you can buy and that can only be used by the crafter. This way you make sure players go out to PVP and in the same time do not neglect PVE aspects of the game and the crafting system.
Not that PVE is one of the greatest I’ve seen, quite the opposite. Most of the quests consist of gathering X amount of Y, killing X amounts of Y or delivering hundreds of X item that take hours to get, in order to obtain some piece of Y equipment. On top of that a lot of the dungeons and dungeon bosses are non-challenging, the zones are almost identical with ones of the opposing faction in the same level range (for example: explain to me the lake in both starting areas please) and the whole PVE experience feels meaningless. When updating the game from the early Asian version to one that is more suited to a western audience, I read that a lot of effort has been placed by the developers in removing the grind, the countless hours spent in doing the same thing over and over again in order to level up or to increase a skill. Apparently it was no enough since the “grindish” feeling is still there. It doesn’t make any difference if I need to kill hundreds of the same mob because a quest tells me so or if I simply need the experience points they give – in both cases is boring, depressing and you grow sick of it in a very short time. And that’s what you will find in AION after a certain level: endless hours of meaningless grind. I don’t even want to mention the xp you get from PVP because it’s hilarious.
My analysis of the game may seem a bit harsh, but that simply because I’m expecting a whole lot more from companies such as NC Soft, Blizzard or Mythic. When such companies release a game I’m expecting it to aim high and deliver because unlike other companies they have the financial power and the experience to do it. But this is not the case with AION. It just feels like a simple collection of features we were fed with countless times before, all wrapped up nicely and sold as something that it is not: a fun a game.