East Meets West
The latest MMORPG from the Korean developer behind Guild Wars and City of Heroes, Aion was first released in Korea and China in 2008 and early 2009, respectively, winning the "Best Korean Game of the Year" award for its "epic scale, immersive story, and stunning graphics and sound design". Running on 225 servers across South Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan, the game made $32.7 million in revenue in NCsoft's last fiscal quarter. Now, after undergoing English translation and localization, it has arrived on western shores. But will it take off in a genre that has already seen some much-hyped games (Age of Conan and Warhammer Online) fail to live up to expectations? Will it make a dent in Blizzard's juggernaut, World of Warcraft's, subscriber base?
Set in the fantasy world of Atreia, Aion lets the player choose between one of two factions: the angelic Elyos and the feral Asmodians. A hollow planet with all of its inhabitants on the inside, Atreia was once split in two by an ancient cataclysm, the two halves separated from each other by an Abyss. The bottom half of the world, called Elysea, would benefit from a nearby star and flourish into a land filled with lush vegetation and verdant forests. The Elyos make their home there and have become a beautiful, if arrogant, people. The Asmodians live in the upper half of the world, Asmodae, a place far more inhospitable. Their world is cold and dark. Forced to adapt, the Asmodians grew claws and manes and their eyes glow red. Unaware of each others existence for centuries, the two factions now battle each other for power in the Abyss where a third NPC race, the powerful Balaur, made their home.
To Soar Among the Clouds
One of Aion's most defining features is the power of flight. Every character at level 10 gains a pair of wings. Jump off a cliff, press the Space Bar, and your character will glide to the ground. Full flight is only available in the Abyss and in other areas where there is a concentration of a substance called Aether. An indicator button on the user interface lets the player know when they are in one of these areas. You can also only stay in the air for limited amounts of time and the button will tell you how much flight time you have left. If you are far above ground when you run out, you will quickly find yourself resurrecting at your bind point. Certain skills and items can improve your ability to fly as you progress in the game, extending the amount of time you can spend in the air.
Limitations on flight mean that players will have to think strategically about how it is used. Surrounded by a swarm of angry kobolds? Take to the skies to make your escape or blast them with ranged attacks. Looking for a particular quest objective or NPC? Get a bird's eye view of the area. Flight can also add a new layer of strategy to PvP as well, as you will now be able to attack your opponents from above, or on the ground, and vice versa. At least one of the classes, the Spiritmaster, will gain the ability to ground an enemy during combat, making tangling with such players in the air a dicey proposition.
The Not-So-Friendly Skies
Conflict is at the heart of any MMORPG and in Aion that conflict is delivered through a system the developers at NCsoft call "PvPvE" or Player vs. Player vs. Environment. The two factions, Elyos and Asmodians, battle each other constantly for control of fortresses and artifacts within the Abyss, the game's main PvP area. However, the two sides won't be battling just each other. The Balaur are in the Abyss as well and their allegiances are fickle. They could choose to help you, help your opponent, or attack everyone indiscriminately.
Players who are victorious in securing fortresses and artifacts will earn special bonuses and resources for their factions. They can earn Abyss points and ranks that enable them to buy new armor and weapons that can't be obtained anywhere else in the game world. Supposedly, control over the Abyss will also affect item prices and open up instances that are otherwise inaccessible. For those wondering how the other half lives, there are infiltration quests that send you through rifts to the opposing continent. There your group will have to fend off both mobs and enemy players as you work to fulfill quest objectives.
To survive, players have to make good use of the combat system. Similar to other MMOs, your character trains in new skills, or upgrades existing skills, as it levels up. But where Aion deviates from the norm is with its ability to create chain combos. When you use the first ability or spell in a combo, one or two other abilities or spells open up and will appear in the middle of the screen next to the mob. Cast the 2nd and the 3rd will appear, etc. Which combos you choose will largely depend on what you are fighting and who you are fighting it with. Movement also plays a part in combat, as the direction you move in will give you bonuses towards your offensive and defensive stats. Similar to Age of Conan's combo system, the combat in Aion is a step above the usual hit-auto-attack-and-make-a-sandwich combat of other MMOs. It keeps you engaged and makes you think about what abilities you want to use during a given encounter.
Deep character customization.
The standard quests are the same you see in every MMO.