It's impossible to review a MMORPG without making a comparison to World of Warcraft. With its huge following none have come close to being able to match it, although a few recent games have tried.
This has now changed, because with Guild Wars, Lineage and City of Heroes under its belt NCSoft have finally released what can only be described as a work of MMORPG art.
Set in the world of Atreia, the lands are split between the Seraphim Lords (the Elyos) and the forces of the earth (the Asmodians). As a new player you must select between either of these two races. Having only two races is not a bad thing, particularly where in other games multiple races and different racial skills caused considerable balancing issues. So much so that subsequent patching has largely seen these tweaked to such an extent that racials have lost their meaning.
Having only two races does not mean that you are devoid of choice on how your character will look. In fact, the choice is huge. With the ability to adjust height radically, head size, features, colour, hair style, shoulders, girth, neck, waist and tattoo you can be that gnome you always wanted to be, or that heroic giant. Character generation is almost a game in itself.
You are initially limited in classes. The basic RPG staples of Fighter, Healer, Magic User and Ranged Melee class. When you reach level ten you then have to choose a new path, as each class splits into two. Fighter becomes Gladiator or Templar, the Healer becomes a cleric or chantor, the magic user a Sorcerer or Spirit Master while the ranged becomes either a Ranger or a Assassin. Eight characters in all, and the set common to each side in the game.
When arriving in the starting area for your race you are immediately greeted with the visual masterpiece that is the world of Aion. With a half decent graphics card you can wind everything up on high and enjoy. The game is certainly more contained that others in the genre, with the designers opting for smaller areas of play rather than wide open spaces (less travelling!) but also a lot more detail. Using all the colours and effects, the water flows, ripples and reflects. The waves ebb and flow on the beaches, the wildlife springs up and takes flight as you pass, and every object is extensively modelled. Add to this a fantastic musical score and sound effects that match the location - such as dripping water echoing off cave walls, or birds and insects chirping nearby - and you have a game that is rich in detail.
The initial quests ease you in to the world. This is helped with a great little tutorial system that has a pop up window with video and audio explaining an event or an aspect of combat. It's a good idea to level up your character to the third or fourth level in the initial starting area. It's very easy to do and gives you a real advantage in the next few areas. Each character starts with a couple of basic skills that increase in power as you level. Additional skills are purchased at a class trainer in the form of books.
These skills can be organised on a task bar at the bottom of the screen, with later skills being chained skills coming into play when another skill is triggered. A good feature is how the initial skill icon flashes to the next chained skill making access to the skill navigation a breeze. Each of the eight classes have the same skills until level twenty. After this you further enhance your character by adding Stigma stones that are specific to your character. Bought or found, these come in various forms that allow you to differentiate your play style from other players of the same class.
Levelling is relatively straightforward. Quests are designed around questing nodes, and if you complete all the quests in a node you are generally levelled enough to move onto the next node. There is very little grinding (killing monsters for experience points) to level. This is a well thought out feature of the game as it constantly keeps your interest.
The monsters are also a refreshing change, with some interesting and some just plain bizarre. The floating box that unfolds when approaching a squat goblin-like creature is brilliant, while the oozes look positively revolting. Carnivorous plants, hulking moss bears, plagued rabbits, and the MuMu (dumpy Ewoks) all add to the mix.
Itemisation is good with many and varied items available to find or buy. There is usually a trader and a broker in the major node of a region. These items can be further enhanced by placing mana stones into slots in the item. These are found in abundance and requires no special skill to equip. Although, the process is not guaranteed, and if you fail one in a series all the stones are lost. Armour can also be further enhanced with coloured dyes to add the extra panache to your rig. It's best to upgrade your weapon when ever you level (if you can afford it), and put relevant mana stones in it as well. The slight increase in weapon damage on each upgrade does not seem much but the other stats like magic boost, evasion and critical hit can make a big difference.
Getting killed can be an ordeal. If you do die, you are resurrected back at the last obelisk you saved to. These can be a bit of a hike, and not only do you lose some stamina for a while, you also lose experience points. These can be purchased back at a price, but regardless, it certainly makes you careful in how you approach combat. For this reason it's best to mana and health up as soon as you can. Often fights can take you to the wire, particularly when the mob critically hits you. Sitting down recharges quite fast while bandages are a good top up, and going into a fight at less than full health is very risky.
You have the standard mana bar and health bar to contend with, and our testing shows that the balance between classes and how they use these bars is well thought out. Magic users do a lot of damage quickly, however equally their mana bar deteriorates just as fast. Magic users kill quickly but rest often.
Although the first instance/dungeon does not happen to around level 25 (the game is currently limited to level 50) there are plenty of early areas where a group is required to complete a quest. Overall the quests are well designed. There is the usual kill “x” amount of a type of mob, however the numbers are small. Others are more elaborate and involve mini-bosses, and are often accompanied with a short video sequence. When teaming up with other players to take on these quests or instances, it's a good idea to make sure you have a resurrection stone or two in your pack. This can be a godsend if your healer dies, as generally if you have no other way of bringing people back you will all have to regroup at the beginning of the area or dungeon entrance.
Level ten sees both races getting their Angel wings. These allow you to fly in certain areas for a certain period of time. Initially this is less than a minute, but this limit can be enhanced with items. Combat in flight is possible, and some quests even require it. The wings can also be used for short glides in no fly areas, and although you need a high point to launch yourself, it can be a good way to avoid a troublesome mob.
There is a very comprehensive crafting aspect to the game. You are not restricted to the number of crafts you take up, however with the amount of effort and material required to level crafts its inadvisable to try and do them all at once. Failure to craft an item results in the loss of the materials, which makes the event a bit of a challenge, especially when you are trying to craft stuff close to your level where the chance of failure is greater. Craft materials are picked up from mobs or 'extracted' from a node. These nodes include minerals, plants and fish, which means there is only one extraction skill required. For that reason, whenever there is an opportunity, it's beneficial to practice your extraction skill. There is a quite a few quests where you will need the gather materials and if you don't keep pace with your extraction skills you will need to revisit areas to bring up your skill.
You have an initial storage box called a cube, and slots within this can be expanded at the cube dealer for a price. The same applies for your warehouse (bank). A nice feature is how a section of your warehouse is devoted to shared slots for use by all your characters in the same faction. It's necessary to expand your cube whenever you have the spare cash because you will pick up a lot of stuff, and everything has value. There's nothing worse than running out of cube space when you are a long way from your the last obelisk you saved to.
There is a brokers house (auctioneer) in most of the main nodes with a seven day standard posting of your items for sale. By spreading these about you see less of the huge auction house crowds and less of the inherent lag. This overcrowding issue is also handled well as the more crowded nodes and areas have the ability to jump into another channel of play within the same server. If you find the mob you needed to kill as group already dead and on a timer, your group can elect to drop into one of the five channels in the hope of finding one where the mob is still alive.
Players can also set up their own store and advertise their items for sale. The more canny sellers set up by teleports and entrances to quest nodes. Just like in the real world you will find yourself having to navigate around these street sellers. It's unclear how long this aspect of the game will last as there is a large portion of the player base wanting the endless hawking restricted or gone altogether. It also seems the gold sellers and levelling services have also set up shop in Aion as well. Your ignore list is thankfully large.
Overall the game is very smooth and lag was only evident in small doses. The lag tended to be more communication related rather than gameplay related.
The game is not perfect though. The main cities are huge, bigger than some of the main play nodes. They can be a devil to navigate with elevators and moving platforms that seem to take an age. Inter-regional travel is far easier with teleporters and flight lines. The crafting aspect of the game is hard and complex. The game eventually runs to a PvP game (the server we played on had players that were yet to reach past 30) where players compete with the Abyss for points, honour and items, so PVE players will more than likely see the crafting side of the game as the main long term content.
With the game almost two years in development and beta, and the pedigree of previous games created by NCSoft, Aion fortunately isn't plagued with the usual opening night jitters. It's finely balanced and very well engineered. It delivers some real innovation in the genre, particularly in game balance and graphics, and it's a refreshing and very real alternative for MMORPG players.
If you are tired of the cry of the murlocs, pack your bow and spell book and enter the world of Aion.