Monday, July 06, 2009
Aion review - beta version
As "how much time do you need to play an MMO to review it?" is a controversial subject, I'll start this by stating exactly how long I played and what I did: I played Aion during the 3rd closed beta event weekend, for over 20 hours, leveling a priest and a warrior to ascension (level 10) and a bit beyond, and playing the other two classes less than that. So I know nothing about the end game beyond of what I read. Let's call this Aion review a beta. A beta game gets a beta review. :)
Aion is a very pretty game, if you are into the Eastern style of MMO / RPG graphics. The animations are especially well done. It is also a very solid one, I didn't have a single crash, and only a few very minor bugs, like hair sticking through clothes, or translation errors. Aion is a very accessible game, easy to learn, easy to play, if you played any other MMORPG you need nearly no time to learn how to play this. All these great qualities mean that if Aion had come out in 2004, it would have given World of Warcraft a run for its money, much more so than Everquest 2 did at the time. But as it is now 5 years later, Aion will have to stand comparison with several other games.
If you would draw a map of the archipelago of MMORPGs (a bit like Tim Howgego's map of WoW online communities), the island of Aion would be extremely close to the island of World of Warcraft, and a bit in the direction of Warhammer Online. Term's like "WoW clone" or "copy" have such negative connotations, so I'll use the term WoW-a-like. It is impossible to deny a certain WoW-a-likeness in Aion, more so than for example WAR or LotRO.
You start the game by creating a character of one of only two races, Elyos or Asmodians. Aion's lore is one of civil war between those two races, so they don't look very different. There is a huge number of sliders for character creation (including one for boob size for females), so you can modify your look over an extremely wide range. For example your height can be anything from 4' to 8', regardless of race. As the end game has a strong PvP component, expect many people to choose the less easily clickable and visible minimum size.
Your character can be one of 4 different classes, warrior, priest, scout, or mage. On ascension at level 9 or 10 you will have to specialize into one of two sub-classes. For example tank or dps for the warrior, healer or buffer for the priest, etc. As the sub-classes still share a lot of spells and abilities, this is more like choosing a talent-tree in WoW than like having completely different classes. Aion doesn't have talent trees, but you can specialize your character further by choosing what manastones to put into your gear. Manastones are a nice feature, stat buffs you typically find as a loot drop, and which can be placed into slots in your gear. The ones giving critical hit seem to be the most sought after, makes me wonder whether the stones are already well balanced.
Once in the game, you meet an NPC with a glowing symbol over his head, click on him, and he'll ask you to kill some level 1 monsters. Just like WoW you'll spend most of your time doing such quests, usually involving going from A to B, and killing mobs, mostly pretty standard stuff. The monsters you kill are quite original though, not the standard wolves, boars, and orcs. Okay, so a "porgus" looks very much like a boar, but in general the monsters are quite well done. There is also a kind of "destiny" quest series, including some quests that have very nice cutscenes. Only drawback is that this destiny is the same for every player, regardless of race or class, I would have hoped for an AoC Tortage-like intervowen web of different destinies. Quests are relatively easy, and the quest text has hyperlinks to names and places which you click on for explanations, and even get locations shown on the map. Quest rewards are mostly cash, avoiding the problem WoW has with you getting too many gear rewards you don't need. Mobs also don't drop gear all that often, at least not in the lower levels, but NPC vendors have a handy "sell all junk" button to clear your inventory of grey items. Some quest chains earn you titles, and selecting a title also gives you some stat bonuses, nice!
Combat is mostly like WoW's, with a touch of WAR mixed in. So you target a mob, auto-attack, but do most of your damage with special attacks launched from your hotkey bar. There are combat ability chains, like in WAR, where you can launch the level 2 ability only after having done the level 1 ability related to it. But somebody decided that finding two buttons was too challenging for players, so after clicking on the level 1 ability button, the button automatically changes into the corresponding level 2 ability. It's a 1-button-chain system, a bit too simple in my opinion. At ascension you get the ability to fly, but only for a minute at a time, plus added time from flight potions, and only in certain areas. Flying combat is possible, but tricky due to the time restriction, and you can't just fly and hit non-flying mobs from above, they evade. Curiously swimming is not implemented, you just walk under water.
Crafting is better than in WoW or WAR (not much of a hurdle). Gathering works like in WoW, clicking on nodes, but you don't need to buy tools or train, and you even get a few xp from gathering. After ascension you have access to 6 crafting professions, from alchemy to weaponsmithing. You can learn all 6 to 399, but only one of them to the absolute cap of 450. Unfortunately the act of crafting itself is not interactive, so getting that high will involve a lot of downtime waiting for progress bars. Critical successes during crafting lead to better items. To avoid having to make items nobody wants, there are work requests from the crafting trainer. Except for the first one, these *do* cost you some money, in vendor bought materials, but skilling up that way is still much cheaper than crafting items nobody wants to buy. You can sell items on the auction house or open a personal shop while afk. Both work reasonably well, I'm just not sure the sorting of items in the AH is working as intended, and for items posted as stack you don't get the price per item calculated.
The only major disappointment of my Aion weekend was the severe lack of replayability. There being only two races means there are only two newbie zones from level 1 to 10. And the two newbie zones are very similar to each other, starting you in the wilderness, getting you to a first village with all the trainers, then a lake area, a forest, another wilderness area, a big camp full of enemies, and a cave. Several quests in the two zones are downright identical, for example the final quest in the cave where you need to activate three colored colums before destroying an abyss gate. As I mentioned, even the big cutscenes for the destiny quest line are the same for the two races, and for every class. So while Aion can compete with World of Warcraft in terms of quality and polish, in terms of amount of content WoW is far ahead, even if you compare 2004 WoW with 2009 Aion.
I haven't decided yet whether I want to buy Aion or not. While the leveling game is fun enough, it isn't much different of the leveling game of half a dozen other fantasy MMORPGs. And I'm a bit wary of the Aion endgame, which is labeled as PvPvE: It seems to be similar to WAR keep battles, with a PvE faction thrown in. There even appear to be world raid bosses in the PvPvE zone, apparently working a bit like Wintergrasp: Win the PvP battle to be able to battle the raid boss. I can't say how good this is going to be, but knowing myself, I probably won't like the PvP part of the endgame.
I would expect Aion to do quite well, there aren't all that many games out there with that level of polish and accessibility. But the mythical "WoW Killer" Aion is not. While Aion has some unique features, the same level of quality as WoW, and even surpassing WoW in some areas, World of Warcraft still comes out ahead with being much bigger, offering better replayability through more classes, races, and zones, and having the more popular PvE raid endgame. It is difficult to image millions of players quitting WoW to play Aion, when Aion isn't that different in the leveling game, and its endgame is PvP-heavy. It is hard to predict how much being WoW-a-like is going to help or hurt Aion in the long run.