Preview: Aion

Last year at PAX ’08, I gave NCSoft’s next-gen MMORPG Aion the “Miss Teen South Carolina” award because, to paraphrase: It almost didn’t matter if the game had any substance to it, because the world was so jaw-droppingly gorgeous. After getting a weekend of hands-on time with the Aion beta, I’ve come to understand the game a little bit better.

The good news is, after spending a weekend with the game and playing through the first zone and the first ten levels, there’s certainly more beneath the hood than was visible from a 15-minute session on the crowded and bustling PAX show floor.

Aion tells the story of a world literally torn apart by an ancient cataclysm, with players choosing one of two opposing races – the sun-blessed Elyos or the darkness-dwelling Asmodians. Both races have the same four class archetypes to choose from: Warriors are heavily armored physical fighters, Scouts are quick and deadly from range and in close, Mages control powerful damage-dealing magic, and Priests heal and support their comrades.

There are actually eight classes in the game – after hitting level 10, you’ll be given the choice to choose a branch of your archetype to focus on. For example, Warriors can choose to either become a brutal melee fighter by following the Gladiator path, or a more defense-oriented combatant that protects his allies by choosing to become a Templar. It’s an interesting design choice, and at a first look it holds up rather well. With time, though, it’s possible that having to play ten levels before you even get the chance to find out if you like a particular class might get irritating.

The Aion team really does deserve particular credit for the character creation tools. There are so many different options and sliders to play around with that it’s almost overwhelming. There’s a ton of freedom in Aion‘s character creation, whether you want to create a waist-high midget with a giant head or a hulking brute. It’s even fun to just mash “Random” a few times and see if you get anything cool – with tweaking, I ended up with both a cute female Warrior and a rather, er… fabulous male Scout.

Once you’ve entered the world, though, things start to feel a bit more familiar. The gameplay of Aion is, for the most part, standard MMORPG fare. You will get quests, you will level up and get new skills, and you will get new gear. We’ve seen it all before, to be honest. To its credit, Aion does have a few things that separate it from other titles – even something as simple as the in-game dictionary (letting you click on relevant terms in quest dialogue to find out more about the world of the game) is a nice touch.

Another new-ish thing that Aion toys with is the idea of skill chains – where attacks combo into each other, getting more powerful as you go on. After hitting with a basic Warrior attack, you have the choice of branching off into another offensive move or a defensive one. There’s definitely potential in this mechanic, though it’ll be interesting to see if the game’s higher levels will demand genuine flexibility when playing or if it will just come down to a simple rotation.

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There’s an emphasis on story in Aion that most MMORPGs lack, and the game is fond of cutscenes. There were at least four or five individual cutscenes within the first zone alone, though whether that will persist through the rest of the game or if that’s only the developers going “Hey, we’re going to introduce you to the world and the plotline with these super keen cutscenes, okay?” and packing them all into that introduction remains to be seen. Either way, little cinematics featuring your character being celebrated as the big cool savior is actually a really neat touch, and make you feel like, well, you’re actually part of the game’s overarching plot.

All of these little tweaks to the MMORPG formula are nice enough, but the main ‘gimmick’ in Aion is, naturally, the wings: Hit level 10, choose your class path, and you get a pair of wings with which you can fly around the world as you please. Or, at least mostly as you please – there are areas where you won’t be able to fly freely, but you’ll still be able to glide. The free flight is an interesting idea, but it remains to be seen if the flight will actually be pertinent to the gameplay and combat at all, or if it’s just another way to get around town. If the former, it’d add an extra layer to fights in the game that would really help Aion stand out from the crowd; if the latter, well, then it’s just a fancy-looking flying mount.

But boy, is it ever fancy: Aion is still a gorgeous game in all meanings of the word. The art direction is fantastic, from looking into the sky to see the other half of your shattered world hanging above you to traipsing through a mushroom forest filled with deadly fungi to wandering through an ethereal city suspended in the sky. The artistic beauty is bolstered by a powerful technical engine – turn everything up to max, and the game looks great. It should run decently even on computers that aren’t top of the top line, too (though the cutscenes chug a little bit when you’re running a program like Fraps).

In the end, it’s still way too early to make a call either way about Aion. Not only is it still in beta, but there’s no way to tell whether or not all the mechanics and touches that were really cool over the first ten or so levels will still be as interesting and compelling when players are level 40 and beyond.

Bottom Line: A treat for the eyes and a treat for the ears, Aion mixes run-of-the-mill MMORPG gameplay with some cool new touches and nifty-looking cutscenes, and it’s clear that effort was spent actually localizing it, which is rare for oversea MMOGs. Will it hold up over time? There’s no way to tell. Even so, Aion has a ton of potential and is worth keeping an eye on.

(Correction: We’ve been informed by NCSoft that the official name is now just “Aion.”)

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