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.

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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.

"Very good, very pretty - will it last?"
- Aion
Follow Own it? Rating: M   Difficulty: Medium   Learning Curve: 3+ Hours


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Comments Comments (8)

Posted by Donutta
On Wednesday 30 Sep 2009 10:14 AM
Eh, all I can say is that I disagree with this review. Nothing in the review is inaccurate, it's just that all the flaws and bugs in the game seem to have been left out. Of course, given that private stores are mentioned -- a patch has nerfed them to the point of uselessness now -- I'm assuming this was written before the problems kicked in.

Also, I think the grind should have been addressed. WoW has 79 instances, not including Heroics. Aion has... nine. It's also possible to run out of quests in Aion, meaning that you have to grind mobs to level up.

Also, the first quests are just bad game design. Needing to go through a rift to attune to the abyss is just frustrating. You basically have to sit there waiting for one to randomly open up (and you can wait for up to five hours) and there is no way to know one is open. Worse, when they are open they can only send through like about 10 people.

Plus NCsoft's support is a joke.

The game is a mess and I'm pissed I spent $90 on it.
Posted by Trigun
On Wednesday 30 Sep 2009 11:08 PM
You only have to go through the Rift if you choose that quest path. They give you a choice of how you want to do the attunement for a reason. Go kill kill some mobs if you can't be bothered waiting for a rift.

Also there's a giant message in that pops up in the middle of your screen when a rift is open in your area and people caps range from 20-40 per rift.
Posted by SpawnSeekSlay
On Thursday 1 Oct 2009 8:34 AM
I think any MMORPG will struggle against the WOW machine.
Ive been WoW free for nearly a year and a half. It ate my soul for nearly 3 years lol I loved it and miss it.
To fix my addiction ive gone to a console.. a 360, and in the New Year ill hav a PS3 too. Probably not helping myself really? lol
Will definitely try Aion if a free trial comes out?
Then again thats how I started with the WoW, from the trial! lol
Posted by Donutta
On Thursday 1 Oct 2009 10:29 AM
1 October 2009, 08:34 AM Reply to SpawnSeekSlay
I think any MMORPG will struggle against the WOW machine.
Ive been WoW free for nearly a year and a half. It ate my soul for nearly 3 years lol I loved it and miss it.
To fix my addiction ive gone to a console.. a 360, and in the New Year ill hav a PS3 too. Probably not helping myself really? lol
Will definitely try Aion if a free trial comes out?
Then again thats how I started with the WoW, from the trial! lol
I've never had a hard time walking away from WoW, but I think that's because I don't get into the hardcore wank that so many people seem to get sucked into. It seems to be a community thing more than a game thing. That's another reason why I can't get into Aion; the community is just too toxic. They're like everything I hate about MMORPGs personified.

I've seen a lot of people play MMORPGs who have stopped having fun a long time ago. I think the e-rep thing just destroys the fun, but people keep playing because they have become addicted to that e-rep. I've started modelling how I play WoW off my flatmate, who has been playing for a year and is only level 63. She absolutely loves the game.

I was hoping I could do that in Aion, but alas it was not meant to be.
Posted by PotatoLegs
On Wednesday 7 Oct 2009 1:45 PM
but it looks pretty?
Posted by emetic
On Saturday 10 Oct 2009 10:13 PM
Aion is a nice name.
Posted by Gargant86
On Monday 12 Oct 2009 2:56 AM
WoW is a pathetic attempt on a Hack and Slash MMO,
and NCsoft should be ashamed of themselves for trying to mimick such a boring game.
Posted by Takuyafire
On Monday 12 Oct 2009 10:29 AM
7 October 2009, 01:45 PM Reply to PotatoLegs
but it looks pretty?
Bit of a late reply, but look again, the entire armoury is NOT in any way pretty.

Its the same as every other game, some piss poor texture slapped on a skeleton