Is Aion the next big online role-playing game, or will it be another 'also ran'? Has it got what it takes to knock World of Warcraft off its lofty perch? We've taken a look at the latest beta release and journeyed to the lands of Atreia, to see whether it deserves the hype.

After all, there are quite a few games recently that have attempted to take a share of the huge corporate juggernaut that is Blizzard's award-winning World of Warcraft, and although some have nipped at their heels like an angry hell hound puppy, none have managed to assail its fortress walls. However Aion may well be the beast that will rise up and - at the very least - take a sizeable chunk of the revenue gravy train, and perhaps even rock its foundation.

Unlike other pretenders, there is some pedigree behind the developers. NCSoft already has Lineage, City of Heroes, Guild Wars and Tabula Rasa under its belt, so this Korean software developer comes to the table with a fair amount of experience.

What struck us first was the size of the download faced by the beta testers. With a filesize of 5.5Gb coupled with a download server trying to cope with a lot of fans and journalists trying to get in on the act, we faced a download time of 48 hours on our fast internet link. That aside, the whole install process was pretty seamless with a nice little auto-downloader for updates. You need an NCsoft account as well as a game account to play, but again it was a breeze to set it all up.

The storyline is straightforward; however we won't spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, you can elect to play the good guys or the not so good guys. In this case you play as either Elyos or the Asmodians. You have a choice of four core characters, Warrior, Priest, Scout and Mage. Once you attain a certain level you then make a choice to specialise in one of the two sub-classes. In the case of the Warrior there is the Gladiator or Templar; for the Priest the choice is Cleric (yes you wear plate armour - an enlightened world at last!), or Chanter; with the Scout you can specialise as an Assassin or a Ranger; while the Mage can chose between Spiritmaster or Sorcerer. Overall it's not a bad mix, with something for all tastes.

Much has been hyped about the games character customisation and we have to say it's very impressive. You can change your characters face with slide adjustments for the length and breadth of the key features, heaps of colours, tattoos etc. Throw in the ability to make significant adjustments to size and height, and the chances of seeing a character exactly the same as yourself is slim.

The character models are smooth and realistic, much in the flavour of Guild Wars. Stand them side by side with a Warcraft character, and there is no competition. While World of Warcraft relies bold cartoon-like avatars that are low on detail, Aion has developed avatars that possess softer features plus subtle depth and animation that, technically, is streets ahead. Yes we know some like 'em chunky but smooth also has its fans.

Entering the game world, the first thing that strikes you (other than being as crowded as a Korean commuter train), is that the detail of the characters is backed up by the detail in the world itself. It has an artistic beauty that projects its Asian roots. No primary colours here - rather a blending of hues and shades to create a world that uses light and colour to immerse the player into their surroundings like never before. It's a real step up in the genre and sets new standards for all MMORPG developers.

We took most of the characters out for a spin, but we concentrated on the Priest as our first serious foray. Asmodious was our chosen faction (it's good to be bad). The interface builds very much on the Guild Wars interface, with the welcome inclusion of multiple action bars. A tactical map and some pull-up menus round off the player interface. What we did not like was the lack of bag or quest icons (hot keys, yes). Instead, they were accessed through a menu.

Combat follows the standard formula, with clicking on the chosen target and entering into melee by clicking on a specific action (spell, ability etc). What was particularly cool is when you did enter into combat, the background music switched immediately to a heavy rock audio track that we never tired of hearing. There were a few lag issues while in combat but the coding seemed to take this into account, with the target keeping pace with your time clock (coming out of lag you did not see a mass of accumulated damage delivered to you). How this works in group mode we are not sure, but it all still seemed to flow reasonably well.

The monsters in the early stages were an odd collection of humanoids, plus traditional forest-type animals and beasts, while others were quite innovative. The floating chests by the pirate ship that were disguised mimics were amusing, as were the 'ginseng root' walking vegetables. Others, like a large cat-like beast, possessed all the menace and power their size suggested. It was a quite a variety - particularly so early in the game.

As you level up your skills increase, and you gain power to your existing spells and abilities. At the trainer you can purchase books to add new skills. Some of these chain with other abilities and the trick is to chain them together to maximise the accumulated effects. Once you learn the basics it's not to hard to work out the best combinations.

The level of itemisation looks good, with a decent variety of weapons and armour to find. With these being slotted, and item power-up garnered relatively easily, you can customise your rig to suit your style of play. This depth of this area of play is a significant step-up from other games, and there is likely to be a big debate in the player base on what the best combination will be for a given situation.

The quests were straightforward, and many of them chained. We felt the interface needed some work; while it covered the basics there seemed to be too many steps to accept the quests. The difficulty of the quests were pitched at a veteran level of player. We could see someone new to the genre struggling with some of the quests and death at the early stages is a common occurrence. There are spirit healers but the penalty for dying is a loss of experience points (ouch). You have the option to buy these back from the healer (double ouch), which felt more realistic and player friendly than a time penalty.

Being a beta there were a few glitches still - mainly in the areas of collisions on objects (some stairs were hard to climb) and occasional crashes and some of the monster chain pulls could be ugly. Overall these were surprisingly rare.

We liked this game; with some of us being three-year veterans in World of Warcraft we felt there now appears to be a valid alternative. Yes, it's different in a lot of respects, but similar in the gaming experience. Aion has a lot of potential and longevity. This could well be a serious contender.

---

We've hosted the beta files at GP Downloads. Check out the official site for eligibility requirements.