Growing up, my first brush with this internationally popular culture of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) was EverQuest, the game that brought it to the forefront. Shortly thereafter, I joined with friends to play Asheron's Call (still can't get over what happened to Arwic), and after some stints with Ragnarok Online and Star Wars Galaxies, I have spent the last several years playing Final Fantasy XI on and off.
After a while though, things started to take its toll on my social life and on my wallet, and I could no longer truly justify paying the monthly subscription fees, especially since I was moving into my university and would not have as much free time to use so liberally. Luckily, I have been very fortunate during my time here, and have been able to try out a brand new game, AION, and see how it compares to some of the greatest titles out there, especially those that I have a history with.
Aion is the name of the god of Atreia, the world where the story takes place. He created the humans, and then made the Draken, the protectors of the humans. Eventually, the Draken got all power hungry (like those in power tend to do), eventually ushering in the egotistical Balaur. What unfolded was the eventual destruction of the Tower of Eternity that held Atreia together and gave Aion his power, consequently splitting the world in half.
Two races of humans emerged from this cataclysmic event: the humans that inhabited the side of the world that was filled with light became the angelic Elyos; those that lived on the other side of the world that was bathed in darkness became the evil and demonic Asmodians. Both of these races have teamed up to defeat the game's common enemy, the Balaur, and to end their reign of destruction. Throughout the game, you will be able to see your actions come to fruition with the fight against the Balaur; even early on, the story hints at what is to come for your character, helping to build the game’s epic scope.
After waiting through the beginning cut scene explaining the story, players will come across one of the most amazing features of Aion, its character generator. There is no limit to the number of combinations you are able to pick and modify, offering a wide variety of character models that helps the player create something completely unique to their personal preferences. Everything from an elf with large horns to a towering mass of goofy-looking facial features can be created. Being the juvenile person that I am, I decided to create a small boy, because I was delighted by the idea of being a little rascal dealing copious amounts of damage. Never underestimate shorty!
After choosing between the typical classes of Warrior, Scout, Mage and Priest, you are then thrust into the amazing world of Aion. AION is beautifully rendered using the CryEngine, and it shows: it is quite easy to get lost in the game just staring at the fascinating architecture, the intricately-detailed character models, and the awe-inspiring city landscapes. I can't count the number of times I didn't run around the place, snapping dozens of screenshots in just one of the areas.
Bar none, AION is one of the best-looking MMORPGs to come out in years, and makes the competition look antiquated, perhaps setting the standard for games to follow. It strikes a reasonable balance between realistic and abstract -- not too real to take you out of the fantasy setting, and not so abstract that it starts to become cartoonish (one of the things that turned me off of Warcraft).
And yet, I do not possess that strong a computer -- my graphics card is on the lower end -- and yet I can still experience plenty of eye-candy. It appears that not only did NC Soft buy the engine, but they also helped optimize it for those of us that can't afford thousand-dollar rigs, which I am sure many will appreciate and will certainly help the game garner wider appeal.
I would also like to mention that the creatures themselves present a splendid range of creativity from the developers. Every mob has its own compelling design that helps stimulate the imagination and improve upon the fantasy realm that the player is dropped into. The boss creatures are particularly captivating, and definitely helps the rest of the game and its artwork score high marks for.
The quest system tends to be hit-or-miss sometimes. Although there was certainly an abundance of quests, things pretty much devolved into defeating an X number of monsters, collecting X number of drops from these monsters, or gathering from X number of plants in the area; pretty standard MMO fare that made the game at times mundane. It does not help that most of time at the beginning of the game is solely dedicated to these missions.
Thankfully, this does not become as much of an annoyance later on in the game, and overall, I did enjoy its vibrancy. There was not a time where I was not taking on half a dozen different tasks, offering many opportunities to quickly level up and move myself further along the storyline and onto the more interesting plot elements. Also, it helps to substantially lower the amount of grinding in the game, something that I downright despised in games like Final Fantasy XI.
Of course, you can't mention the quest system without also mentioning how the battle system performs. Unfortunately, it is also something that doesn't really offer a lot to get excited about. You have your standard shortcut keys and macros, culminating combat that is based on the roll of the dice (one character attacks, the other follows, and so on), although the player does attack a lot faster than normal. Things are slightly more organized than what you typically may find, which is a nice benefit. The combat is appealing and very fluid as far as animation and special effects are concerned, but those expecting something revolutionary at least as far as the combat is concerned should probably look elsewhere.
What tends to elevate the experience above all other games is the introduction of flight and the inclusion of flight-based combat. Early on, players get to see via a cut scene what their character will look like when they take to the skies, which only served to heighten the anticipation of being able to fly amongst the birds. When the player attains level 9, they are given a task where you basically earn your wings (both figuratively and literally), and are soon taken to the city where the real adventure begins. I spent a good twenty minutes just flying around the town and trying to find the areas where my wings could not take me. I did not really experience much in the way of fighting while in the air, but I am sure this becomes much more essential later on in the game.
Unfortunately, that moment came around early, as far too soon I realized that you could not go 10 feet outside of town without running into the dreaded invisible wall, where you are forced to descend to the ground and reduced to hovering from place to place. This is not exactly what I hoped for when I saw all of those gameplay videos online. I guess in the end however, that it was to be expected, because a lot of battles would probably turn into a lot of hit-and-run tactics, trying to chase creatures and players around for hours without any fruition. It is a let-down, but not a heavy one.
Of course, that isn't to say that the hovering can't be absolutely vital to survival. I cannot count the number of times where I was surrounded by several creatures that were slightly above my level, and before I could be hacked to pieces, I was off, back to the sanctity and security of the guardsmen on the other side of the area in only a few seconds, where I could rest and gain my strength back. I am sure that there are a lot of people whom have been using this strategy as I have been, as it is also a very easy way to level up without putting too much burden on your inventory of healing potions.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the game came pretty early in the time we spent reviewing the product. The weekend of the European release, game servers were seriously overcrowded, and the wait time to actually access the game ranged from minutes to hours, begging the question if my time was worth waiting three hours to play the game, or if I should just go grab some dinner, watch a movie, then come back and give it another go.
Things have leveled off since then, especially with the introduction of 30-minute automatic boots to private shopkeepers and larger server capacities, but considering the fact that so much anticipation had been riding this game for months, if not years before its release, with hundreds of thousands of preorders and an abundance of fan sites, this should have probably been a non-issue, especially in the case of such a strong MMO-oriented group like NC Soft. However, it really goes to show just how ridiculously popular AION has been and will be for years to come, which is hardly something to complain about.
For the past month, I have been testing out many different aspects of the gameplay and story elements, and have come out of it feeling good about the game. Despite some hiccups in the gameplay experience (including the overwhelming amount of gold sellers that plague all of the servers and spam the chat endlessly), it is the strong performance of the amazing technical prowess, the unique plot and gameplay elements, and the strong Quest system which alleviates much of the frustrating grind that plagues other games, that creates one of the most feature-rich gameplay experiences I have had in a long time.
AION has therefore created a wonderful composition of richness, taking the entirety of what makes MMORPGs fun and rewarding and discarding those features that make us regret our monthly subscription fees. In a sense, for every one step backwards, it takes five steps forwards.
Will the game continue to stay popular with the release of games such as Final Fantasy XIV and Star Wars: The Old Republic, and will NC Soft still continue to offer strong support of the game after they release their other column, Guild Wars 2? Will it ruin my social life again like so many other online games have? Time will tell, but for now, this game comes highly recommended for those wanting to experience what I personally believe is the best MMO of the year.
To check out the many other different screenshots that I took for this review, please check out our Media Vault section of Aion!
(Note: I was not able to get the chance to experience the PVP (Player Vs. Player) mode that this game has to offer, which becomes available to when you reach level 25. However, we would love to hear what you guys who were able to become a part of it thought about it and the great moments that you had fighting one another online, and if you want to contribute that part into this review, we will credit you for it.)