Review by FFrulz2000
"The soul of EQ, the polish of WoW, and the spirit of Asia. By and large, the best MMO of the past several years."
MMO's, to be completely honest, are both the most difficult genre to "get in to" as a gamer, and the most difficult genre for developers to correctly structure. Couple that with the need for developers to continuously update, expand, appease the community, and tune, and you'll understand why so many MMO's fail and so many MMO's quite honestly just aren't worth your time and dollar.
The very nature of MMO's has changed slightly, for better or worse, because of WoW. In the days of Everquest (the first juggernaut of an MMO that really ignited a passion for the genre in many gamers including myself), gameplay was nothing but a grind; killing x amount of mobs until you level, either alone (which in EQ's time was much more difficult) or with a party of fellow gamers. WoW came along, and with its immaculate level of polish and slightly altered approach to the genre, masked a lot of that grind with the introduction of an easy to use questing system that rewarded players with experience for the completion of, mostly mundane, tasks such as "kill x number of y and return to me for a reward." The result? Well, we all know how massively successful WoW is. It brought the genre to the masses. It also introduced a whole new generation of gamers to the MMO scene, as well, again for better or worse, completely reinventing the genre by making future games copy WoW's "ultra accessible" framework in at least some form.
Enter Aion, Korea's latest offering at the tail end of what was a string of overly hyped and under developed MMO's that failed fairly hard in the first few months (Here's looking at you, Tabula Rasa, Age of Conan, and Warhammer). Aion avoided one of the initial reasons for the failures of the aforementioned games, that being a total lack of polish and content at the launch of the game. Aion, having been released for over a year in Asia, has had the benefit of being tweaked, tuned, polished, and westernized for its US debut, and the result is nothing short of a near immaculate launch, marred only by annoying server queues. One has to understand that such server queues, mere weeks after the game's launch on western shores, is to more or less be expected when the balancing of populations on each server is such a delicate task. Have too few servers, and queues and latency issues run amok, as well as the world feeling totally overcrowded. Have too many servers, and you may as well be playing a single player game. It's a difficult thing to predict just how many servers you need at launch, and all indications point to NCSoft doing what they can to eliminate the queues. Also worth noting is that Aion is neither as unforgiving and difficult as EQ, nor as lighthearted and accessible as WoW. Aion hits what I would call the sweet spot between the two.
When you do get to log into the game, expect to be overwhelmed by one of the best character generators in the genre. It's not quite on the level of CoX or Champions Online, but it's the best generator in a fantasy MMORPG. Countless facial tweaks are matched by the ability to create a character ranging from a pudgy dwarf to a hulking giant. Demon horns? Check. Cloud Strife face/hair combo? Check. You can even customize your character's voice, although the options are limited, it's nice to have at least some control so you're not sitting there hating the way your character sounds. Although I have yet to figure out why anyone would ever make a character with the "Youth" voice, which sounds like a prepubescent 13 year old.
After selecting your starting class, either a Scout, Warrior, Mage, or Priest and spending time with the generator, get ready to head into the world of Aion. Your adventure begins in a location based upon the race you chose, either Elyos, the light blessed high elves of MMO's past, or the Asmodians, the shadow "cursed" dark elves. Neither faction is "good" or "evil," as the lore will explain the reason the two are at war. It's more of a political severance than one race being stereotypically "evil." This works well, because the real evil race are the Balaur, mutual enemies inhabiting the center abyssal area of the world of Atreia essentially making Aion a PvPvE MMO.
Atreia is a pretty beautiful place. Although I think the use of the Cryengine is slightly overhyped, the overall graphical charm of the world is very strong. You'll see some beautiful colors at work, especially in the Asmodian sky, and the best part is for once an MMO developer has properly optimized their engine so that you don't need a time machine to be capable of properly running the game. Character models are more or less the most detailed and interesting thing in the game, while armor and weapons are also excellently done.
Playing Aion will be a very familiar experience if you've played other MMO's. This isn't necessarily good or bad, in fact I think it works in Aion's favor. Aion is a traditional MMO, solidly nailing down all the aspects typical to the genre, from challenging and rewarding dungeons to a solid and surprisingly fun crafting system. You'll feel right at home playing Aion, yet I guarantee you'll begin to feel its inescapable charm. Actual gameplay is your standard auto attack skill based system, but the addition of progressive skill chains, while not revolutionary, is good enough to provide an interesting dynamic to what would be otherwise standard MMO combat. Where the gameplay truly shines is in how polished, fluid and kinetic it is. We're talking some of the best animated combat in the genre. Did I mention how incredibly cool combat animations are? Watch some Gladiator youtube videos if you need reassurance.
There are two elements that really elevate (no pun intended >_>) Aion above the rest of the genre: the addition of flight and flight oriented combat, and the Abyss, a large, open aired PvP zone where flying is a requirement not merely an option. At level ten, in addition to changing classes, you'll be given your first set of wings and a restricted flight time (that improves with gear and levels, more or less). By level 25, you'll have full access to one of the most unique, interesting, and fun takes on PvP within the genre. A cataclysmic event fractured the world into halves, and the entire middle is known as the Abyss, where the Elyos and Asmodians are caught in constant conflict both with each other and the Balaur. The combat in this area is chaotic, challenging, and fun. Much better than other large scale implementations of PvP in other MMOs.
Lastly, it's worth pointing out that Aion does not have a tremendous selection of classes, and merely two races to choose from. While this may seem limiting, for some strange reason the lore behind the two races is interesting and compelling enough to never make you think about the fact that there's only two playable races. As far as classes go, they're mostly your standard MMO fare, but to an extent much greater than most MMO's, especially at this stage in development, they're balanced, unique, and fun. What really sets the classes apart is their varied, exciting, and fluid battle animations and spell effects.
Aion is more or less an amalgamation of everything good about the MMO genre while avoiding some of the most common mistakes. It really brings me back to some of my fonder memories both with EQ and WoW, while remaining a feel that's entirely its own much to Aion's credit. I was very surprised by how well the game works as a whole; I have specific issues with things here and there, but Aion is a better game than the some of its parts. If I had to nitpick, the game, for an MMO, is very linear in structure, but the zones and environments are so lively and detailed it's a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. Again, collectively, everything Aion does well far outweighs the minor annoyances.
If you're looking for what I'd consider the best MMO since WoW debuted in 2004, and EQ five years before that, look no further than Aion. Give it a chance, and it may just grow on you.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 10/12/09
Game Release: Aion (US, 09/22/09)
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