Launching an MMO in 2009 is easy enough. Getting people interested in it is challenging. Keeping those people that you convinced to try it when their first month is up? That's something few recent MMOs have any anything more than moderate success with. There's a giant elephant in the room and it seems appropriate to call it out in the opening paragraph. Blizzard's mighty World of Warcraft, now five years old, dominates the mainstream MMO space to this day and anyone that has tried to take them on has been left with a tiny fraction of the market or, more commonly, utter failure has come calling and the games are long gone.
WoW's success is likely primarily due to its accessibility. A hardcore MMO, like Everquest before it, would almost certainly not have garnered the level of success seen in WoW without people feeling like they needed to be supernerds to get anything out of it. That level of accessibility is what NCSoft are clearly aiming for here. The UI and the experience are extremely streamlined, with information necessary to progress never far from your fingertips and useful information a well-placed tooltip away.
Aion is set in a fictional universe, where the previously united human residents have split into opposing factions and begun to fight amongst themselves. Against the backdrop of this civil war, the alien enemies that had previously been fought off by the humans have returned and the warring people of Aion are unable to fend them off by themselves. This story sets up the core quest storyline that you'll follow while levelling and also leads into the end-game, where players participate in an unusual PvPvE maelstrom as they fight for control of Aion.
Character customization during creation is infinitely superior to WoW and far more in line with what you might expect in a modern MMO. There are numerous presets to allow you to get close to what you want and if you're keen to get into the fine detail, you can open up the sliders panel and adjust almost everything about your new avatar's appearance. There are lots of options yet you have to work pretty hard to create a character that breaks the animation or suspension of disbelief. Even ridiculously long legs or massive breasts (yep, that's possible) still, for the most part, don't show up the limitations of the system.
To start with, you have one of four classes to choose from. At level ten, each of these classes has the opportunity to make a sub-selection, electing a specialization within that afforded by the selection they made at the start. The classic classes are all here, with classes specializing in Melee DPS, tanking, ranged DPS, pet classes, magic, etc. For the most part, they behave as you would expect them to; however, it was noticeable that WoW's lag-managing spell queue system resulted in a better experience when playing magic users in particular.
Questing is a similar experience to other MMOs or even offline RPG games, with quest NPCs clearly identified. There are different types of quest, some of which must be completed to continue the story, some of which are optional. When you're given a quest, key information in the quest panel is hyperlinked. Clicking this link brings up pertinent information about that item - explaining how to get to the area you need to be in, where a creature you're supposed to kill might be or where you might find that bottle of wine NPCs always seem to want.
This level of quest assistance goes beyond what even mods can provide in WoW, let alone out of the box. There's no tooltip or map information provided for quests, however, which is a slightly annoying omission after the excellent quest tools provided in Age of Conan. Some quests even provide you with in-game cinematics, showing you the location of the quest (or similar) while quest chains will somtimes even end with an in-game cinematic where the townsfolk (for example) all stop what they're doing and gather around to thank you for your help. These little touches tie what is still essentially a levelling grind together extremely well, exuding a seldom-seen level of polish.
Combat starts out a familiar affair - you've got a couple of skills, you get some more (by buying books from a trainer) and you've got limited mana to use them with. As you progress, however, there are multiple new types of in-combat resource management to consider (depending on class). Building up combos or using your DP (earned while you play, disappears when you log off) strategically is key to success no matter your class - strategising and number crunching in Aion is the stuff of dreams for forum warriors everywhere. Whether you like this level of interaction in your MMO combat engine is something only you can determine - success is typically eventual in most PvE encounters regardless; skill however will enable better results.
In addition to the standard Auction House, players in Aion can set up their own private stores. The interface is pretty much what you'd expect, allowing you to drag items from your inventory into a standard shop-style interface and set the price to whatever you want. Anything that isn't a quest item or soulbound can be put up for sale but if you want to sell it, well, you might as well go do something else because your character is rooted to the spot while the store is open. Some people seem to be using this as a way to go AFK without logging off, saving their DP points for the next time they want to play, as they clearly have no hopes of selling any of their overpriced junk.
One of the key things you can do in Aion that you can't do in most MMOs is fly. The game is built around it and, from level 10, a birds eye view is just a button click away. Unlike some other MMOs, however, flight time is limited - starting out at just a few seconds. As you level, this improves and you can get items (like the preorder / collectors edition items) that give you bonus time as well. You can even participate in combat while on the wing, with unique abilities to use in the air.
Another nifty Aion difference is the ability to switch "instances" in many parts of the world. If you're getting Age of Conan flashbacks, don't worry - this isn't due to limitations of the engine, forcing you to another server shard if the number of people in an area exceeds some tiny limit. Instead, this is a way whereby players can elect (optionally!) to go to another version of an area they're in, where perhaps the quest or elite mobs they're trying to kill are not being farmed by a guild group.
Guilds in Aion (known as legions) are more complex than the simple tiered structures seen elsewhere. Here, guilds need to level up - to start with, they are limited to a very small size and players must pay in order to improve them. You can also track your progress in the end-game against other guilds, with built-in leaderboards to show who is the best on the server and who, well, isn't.
Graphically Aion is very impressive. Not just because it's pretty but because of its incredible scalability. If you've got a basic PC, Aion works fine and still looks really nice. If you've got a beast you can make it work hard by dialling the sliders up, making Aion arguably the nicest looking MMO around. Additionally, unlike other "technically impressive" MMOs, the graphics in Aion fit together superbly - whoever's in charge of the art direction for this game clearly knows their trade. Everything from the armor to the faces to the creatures, user interface, architecture and more all looks right together. Aion is a beautiful game for many reasons more than just its excellent engine.
We've yet to reach end-game (at time of writing, no one on Nezekan is raiding end-game content) so there's not much to report on how that hangs together but NCSoft are already talking about new content and their history (City of Heroes, Guild Wars, Lineage, etc) should leave you in no doubt that there will be plenty to do for those that stick around after the first month. Once the raiding environment is established in Aion, we'll do a special article that covers how well it works and exactly what you should expect. After playing the levelling game, we've got high hopes.
It's not that different to WoW but the differences are quite noticeable - whether you like them or not is something only you can determine. If you're looking for something with a different storyline to WoW, don't play WoW for reasons other than its gameplay or want something more than combat, Aion is well worth checking out. It's arguably the best MMO at launch that we've ever seen - it took years for WoW to get to this level of polish and in some ways Aion tops even that.