Aion (Previously known as Aion: The Tower of Eternity until the subtitle was dropped late last month) is the next big massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) from genre veterans NCSoft. Some publications have heralded the game as an Eastern answer to World of WarCraft and while we don't necessarily agree entirely with that, Aion does undoubtedly combine the style and flair of Eastern RPGs with many of the successful gameplay mainstays of popular Western MMOs.
The first point worth noting is that Aion has actually already launched in both China and Korea. Being developed in-house by NCSoft Korea (much like Lineage and Lineage II), both of those Asian markets have been used as launch-pads for the game and NCSoft is already boasting over 3.5 million subscribers - not bad for a game that many Australian gamers have probably never even heard of. So Aion is a game that is essentially feature complete (or at least as much as you'd expect one to be six months after launch) and we're told the extra development time pending its Western release is for language localisation.
QV Software are handling local Aussie distribution of the game -- due to launch here this Spring (US Fall) -- and in addition to closed-beta access, they were also kind enough to hook AusGamers up with a detailed presentation and gameplay demonstration by NCSoft at the Beverly Hills Hilton -- off-site and away from the mad rabble of the E3 2009 expo.
The world of Aion, as you'd expect from any top-shelf MMO, is an intricately crafted Universe with it's own unique legends and lore. In brief, the history of the world is as follows. The god Aion
created angel-like beings called the Balaur to look after his planet Atreia, they eventually revolted so he created another dozen even more powerful beings called the Empyrean Lords who fended the Balaur off and protected Atreia for a time. After thousands of years of battle though, half of the Lords grew tired of fighting and tried to negotiate peace. Peace talks crumbled and the resulting dispute destroyed the Tower of Eternity -- a structural embodiment of the god Aion -- literally severing the planet into two halves.
See Atreia isn't a standard planet like Earth, it's spherical, but hollow, and the habitable surface of the world is on the inside of this terrestrial shell, with the Tower of Eternity acting as an axle that holds the two halves together. When the tower was destroyed, the planet separated, with the sun that shines in only directly reaching the bottom hemisphere, leaving the top hemisphere in illuminated darkness.
The half of the lords who wanted peace shipped off to the light half and the half that supported continued war took the other, their environments and contrasting attitudes affecting the very physical appearance of the lands they watched over and the people who inhabited them. For those still paying attention, this the basis for the two warring factions of Aion. In the light corner, with flawless skin and beautiful hair we have the Elyos, frolicking around their home city of Elysea. On the dark side, complete with shadier complexions, claws and manes, calling Pandemonium their home town - the Azmodians. These two sides obviously don't get along and their differences form the crux of Aion's gameplay narrative. Then of course, there's the Balaur who hate everyone else.
In Aion, players can choose between creating an Elysea character or an Azmodian - the Balaur being an AI controlled faction. Beyond their charter objectives and contrasting appearance, the two player factions are largely symmetrical. Each have access to the same four base classes with the same skill sets. Nothing out of the ordinary here. When the game kicks off you can choose between Warrior, Scout, Mage and Priest and taking matters further, when you complete the game's training area at level 10 (the level cap is 50) you'll earn ascension to the ranks of The Daeva. Daeva are basically Aion's chosen elite - once ordinary human citizens selected for a higher calling to fight for their Lords and protect their people. Becoming a Daeva rewards you with an immortal spirit and literally earns you your wings (more on that later) but comes at the cost of eternal loyalty to your faction and the protection of your people.
Your first taste of the game is character customisation, with depth currently unparalleled in the MMO space. Aion sports a level of body configuration on par with that of offline RPGs like Mass Effect or Oblivion. At face value you can select from a limited choice of presets, but dig a little deeper and there's a whole range of sliders that let you adjust every little nuance of your avatar's head and body. The only limitations are governed by your chosen faction, ie: Azmodians have claws, manes and a more saturated skin pigment selection than the Elyos but you're both essentially human.
There aren't any other races or species to choose from, but due to the depth of the character builder, you can point your ears to look like an elf or make yourself short and stocky with a bushy dwarven beard. In fact, the extreme variation of player height and girth the game allows is actually pretty surprising - as you can see by the image below (note: I'm really not sure what was going on in that room, I wandered into a villa in Pandemonium and just had to take a quick screenshot before getting out of there... fast).
The second portion of NCSoft's closed beta process took place this weekend just passed (June 19-21/09) and featured levels 1 to 10 of the Azmodian faction, offering us a hands-on look at one of the starting areas through to ascension as a Daeva with a little taste beyond.
I mentioned earlier that Aion had the style and flair of an Eastern RPG, this is thanks in large part to it's lush environments and vibrant colour scheme. The game is powered by Crytek's CryEngine, the same core tech as the original FarCry. As soon as I heard that, I thought "great, another game that looks good but won't run well on most PCs for another few years". To my surprise, however, Aion ran silky smooth on my rig (Intel Core 2 Quad @ 2.4GHZ, 4GB Ram, GeForce 8800 GTX) with most
of the dials turned to 11. NCSoft boasts that this graphics vs performance success is due to their focus on detailed art and design thus relying less on fancy particle, shader and lighting effects.
English translation of the game is also looking pretty solid. Although cut-scene voice dialogue, character emotes and localised video tutorials had not yet been implemented, all the quest dialogue (text, no voice) was well written and I didn't notice a single trace of Engrish
Gameplay is much more by-the-book Western style MMO. Building on more of the gaps they bridge with Guild Wars, players of World of WarCraft, Warhammer Online, Age of Conan etc will find most everything about questing, gathering, crafting and phat lewt all familiar and self-explanatory. That's not to say that there aren't a few divergences, but nothing that's astonishingly genre-changing or groundbreaking - at least not in the small portion of the game that we were able to experience. One little feature that deserves mention is while in combat, the direction you move in will slightly modify your damage and defense ratios - moving forward while striking hits harder, while back-peddling will increase your chance of parry. Nothing major, but does serve as encouragement for players to stay mobile during a fight, rather than just stand still, repeatedly whacking away. Some skills can also only be activated as a follow-up to a prerequisite skill - a chain system not unlike Age of Conan's (without the directional arrow combo).
After level 10 things get a little more interesting. Building on your initial class, you get the choice of a further speciality. Warriors will become either a damage dealing Gladiator or a tanking Templar; Mages can choose either the hard hitting Sorcerer or the pet conjuring Spiritmaster; Scouts will either graduate to sneaky Assassins or long range Rangers and Priests will become either Chanters, specialising in buffs and fortification, or Clerics geared to heal the wounded and bring fallen comrades back from the grave.
Again, no wild or groundbreaking additions, but it is kind of cool getting this further layer of choice after you've had some time to get a feel for your preferred style of play. Also worth noting is that there was no use of private instancing during our play-time, everything was shared open-world with separate channels that you can switch between if a particular area gets too crowded.
The biggest new feature Aion brings to the table (available at level 10) is flight. Becoming a Daeva and developing wings allows you to take the skies, not just as a mode of transportation but for interaction and combat, too. NC have geared the storyline around this ability in that players require the presence of a mystical substance called Aether in order to fly. The Tower of Eternity was the source of Aether and when it fell, scattered pockets of it all over the World, giving explanation for why you can fly in some areas but not in others. Aether is also the limiting factor for how long you're able to fly. In some Aether-heavy areas you might be able to fly near indefinitely and for only very limited bursts in Aether-starved zones - equitable items and environmental buffs will also be available to lengthen the time you can spend in the air.
Another new feature are Stigma stones, which we weren't able to experience in the early levels of the game but NCSoft's explanation painted them as sort of auxiliary skills to those available to your given class, with the ability to enhance your existing class skills as well as give you access to skills of other classes. These aren't permanent choices either. They won't let you change them on-the-fly, but you will be able to re-configure them via NPCs in town and mix and match different skills - something that will no-doubt become a key to end-game PvP (Player vs Player) strategies.
On the topic of PvP, we didn't get to experience too much (selected duelling and Arena fights within your faction are par for the course), but we did get a terrific guided tour of Aion's core PvP\RvR (Realm vs Realm) playground The Abyss
. Originally intended just for note-taking, the video we shot of this presentation scrubbed up better than expected so you can check it out for yourself right here
on AusGamers. The Abyss is a region that exists solely for epic scale PvPvE, the E standing for Environment, which in this case is the AI controlled faction we mentioned earlier called the Balaur.
There will be various instances launched from here all for the purpose of banding players together with hundreds of others from their chosen faction to capture as much territory as possible. Incentives and objectives will vary wildly, as will the number of players required to participate. There is, of course, a full guild and grouping system - guilds (referred to as legions) being handled through an in-game registrar where you pay a fee to create one and can unlock new features, such as creating a custom logo, as your legion progresses.
Servers for the Western release are planned in Los Angeles and Washington DC in the US and Frankfurt, Germany. No local Australian server of course, but we are told that there will likely be an Oceanic preferred server or two in the LA cabal - nothing less than seasoned Aussie MMO players would expect.
Retailers EB Games and Game will be the Australian stores for eager Daevas to check out as each have their own limited release package of the game: more details on those here
. There's also the option to buy direct from NCSoft Store
for online delivery, users with low download caps beware though, the client is around 7GB - although there will most hopefully be local download mirrors (including AusGamers) available after launch.
While Aion might not be "an Eastern answer to World of WarCraft", it's certainly looking worthy of stealing some attention. One thing that I'm extremely glad to report is the lack of bugs in the closed beta so far. While I'm sure there are plenty of niggling things still being reported by testers, I can honestly say that in what was about eight hours play from levels 1 to 10, I did not experience any noticeable crashes, glitches or quest bugs. Sure, this is an admittedly small portion of the game but what other MMO closed beta tests could that be said about? We think that this is definitely good sign that Australian, European and North American players will indeed benefit from the extra wait after the Korean and Chinese launch.
Aion is currently slated for release on PC in Europe, North America and on September 25th, 2009 and we've just received word from QVS that the official release date for Australia is September 23rd 2009.