reprint: Mr Angry Reviews Aion

Originally published @ Bite My Review on Oct 19, 2009

Prologue

Aion, for those of you living under a large, Tauren-shaped rock, is the latest MMO from NCsoft. Originally released in the Asian markets a year ago the North American launch begins with the expanded 1.5 release. Titled “Shadow of the Belaur” the birds-eye highlights are a significant boost in content from the original including 12 new instances, the Dredgion PvPvE battleground and an additional 10 levels tacked on to the cap.

In the interests of effective time-management (HA!) let me take a moment to point at the review score in the corner. I gave the game a five. Neither positive nor negative, but right in between. In the last week I’ve read more than a few Aion reviews and if I mash them all together I’m not sure they deliver a single nugget of useful information. Reviewers seem to be deathly afraid of actually talking about the game. They seem content to regurgitate press info or something they saw on Wikipedia, as if that could in any way assist a potential game-buyer in making an informed decision. If that’s what you’re looking for you can give this review a pass. My goal, dear reader, is to tell you about Aion. Launch Aion to be precise. Together we shall explore what is and what could be, the pitfalls and possibilities, so that in the end you will be more than capable of deciding if it’s worth 50 of your hard-earned simoleons.

The Low-Hanging Fruit

Aion is gorgeous. Be it in raw graphical prowess, individual artistic elements or the overall design. The character style belies its Eastern roots, but I found them to be a welcome change. These are not the near-identical silhouettes of Warcraft or the lifeless plastic dolls of Vanguard. Aion is one of the most visually stunning games I’ve played – easily holding up against any AAA title on the market. I can spend pages upon pages talking about how attractive the game is, but it serves no useful purpose. I’ll repeat myself to underline the point and move on – Aion is gorgeous.

The art and video folks weren’t the only ones who swung for the fences. While at times the combat audio just turns into obnoxious noise the musical score and audio f/x easily hold their own. In recent years developers have chosen to invest more and more resources into crafting a solid audio component and it has certainly paid dividends in this case.

Also, a very special note to whoever is responsible for prop-based emotes in Aion: “Niiiiiiice.”

Score: Bananas.

Presentation is Everything

In a post-WoW world my expectations for user interfaces, in both capability and usability, have been dialed up to absurd levels. The Aion interface is… what’s the opposite of capable and usable again? There is little to be excited about and more than a few things that will frustrate and aggravate you.

There’s no option to configure your interface on a server or account basis. Each and every character on each and every server must be reconfigured individually. During launch I was all but evicted from my first AND second choice servers by the queues of deathly dying. Combined with the fact that I’m currently playing four characters across three archetypes and being forced to repeat menial setup tasks over and over just turns into a painful slog. I have to believe that players who didn’t have the benefit of closed and open beta events would be even more frustrated as they tried the various archetypes looking for their match.

Many commands have their console equivalents in the tooltip which would be a stand-out feature in the event that the macro system becomes meaningful and/or all functions get slash capability. There are a fair, if finite, number of action buttons but combined with the number of consumables, click-to-activate items and class abilities you’ll acquire it quickly becomes a tricky balancing act.

UI buttons work well in general and despite its faults the interface is snappy and responsive. Toggled abilities (think auras or stances) have clear indicators that they are active and your available abilities are easy to spot – save one. Unlike other toggled abilities the standard player auto-attack shows no indication that it’s active. Chalk that one up to Whiny McWhinerston, but there’s currently a nasty little bug that deactivates your auto-attack when you use certain abilities. Oopsie!

As I’ve mentioned the overall UI mechanics are functional, but there’s certainly someone at NCsoft with a clicking fetish. Including the various closed beta events and the first few weeks of launch I’ve clicked through more quests, vendor dialogs and random crap than in years of WoW. Differences are to be expected but the world will not end if you chop out the confirmation of your confirmation dialogs. Along those same lines is the necessity of opening a context menu to deactivate a buff. Why, exactly? I’m sure there’s a good reason… While we’re flitting about the UI dialog issue let’s chat about movement closing NPC windows. It is a hateful, hateful mechanic. Next!

The management of inventory is a constant issue all games that have inventories must reconcile and Aion is no exception. In this regard Aion seems to be sending mixed messages. On one hand we have the ultra-useful shared warehouse space. These extra slots allow you to provide any tradable item to any of your characters on the server. Extremely useful for crafters, but I can’t imagine anyone not finding a novel way to apply the system. Personal inventory space can be expanded at the proper NPC for a rapidly escalating fee. No MMO titles have really nailed a perfect inventory system to-date and Aion doesn’t go out of its way to end the streak. Your expanded inventory space is added to a separate tab on your backpack or character sheet making an all-in-one view impossible and overall quick-glance inventory rather cumbersome.

If your user experience is everything to everyone please ignore what I’m about to say. Also, say hello to the Chupacabra and Loch Ness Monster as, like them, you are not real. Allowing the player the ability to hand-craft their control interface is NO LONGER OPTIONAL. Give them all and only the data you want them to have and let them get creative. I’m just spit-ballin’ here, but I’d bet there are AAA MMO titles out there that would commit all sorts of depraved acts for a fraction of the traffic WoWAce or Curse see every day.

Score: Roflcopter.

In The Beginning

Character creation is enjoyable and quite deep. It’s just the right mix of fancy sliders and prefab templates. My gripes in this area are trivial ones and easily dismissed as personal aesthetic whim. There are nearly 50 hairstyles available, yet I find myself sticking to just two or three. The colors available to paint your avatar’s parts and pieces are tuned to the overall art design of each faction. Unfortunately the colors available in the picker are rather narrow and the fidelity on the color palette is akin to using an etch-a-sketch wearing oven mitts.

There are two factions – Asmodian and Elyos. Outside of some lore distinctions your experience from 1 through 10 will be entirely linear and you will do every quest. The narrative is tightly woven and interesting – the first time. Not so much the 3rd time. Aion uses a system similar to Dark Age of Camelot in that you choose a general archetype in the beginning which evolves into the specialist class at the end of the newbie experience. Little time is spent teaching you how to utilize the skills of your archetype. This issue can go either way. The scout archetype is meaningful preparation to play an Assassin and all but useless for Rangers. The life of a Mage translates perfectly to that of the Sorcerer, but does nothing to truly prepare the budding Spiritmaster. In all honesty I’ve never been a fan of this type of system. I’ve always felt that the journey is important from start to finish. If any given span of levels is meaningless then they shouldn’t have been there in the first place!

Score: Yangtze Kiang.

The Wing’s the Thing

Once you learn the basics the flight system is functional and enjoyable. In some cases very enjoyable. Soaring carefree through the ether, alas, was not meant to last. Flight in Aion is not considered a travel power as it is elsewhere. For the moment it’s more of an unfunny prank. Large swathes of the countryside are no-fly zones protected by invisible barriers of buzz-kill. Flight time is strictly limited as a function of PvP balance, boosted by various items and time-extending consumables. These limits are understandable and necessary evils given the nature of the game.

Humanity has been fascinated by natural flight for thousands of years. You don’t have to go far in popular culture to see how we’ve idealized the concept. You won’t even need to look past Aion’s own cinematic videos. Sadly the spot on the map where expectation meets reality is marked by tears and recrimination. As Aion matures in the Western market I hope to see the restrictions of time and space removed, but I’m not holding my breath.

Score: Chipotlaway.

Action is Eloquence

Combat in Aion is fluid, well-paced and an entirely active endeavor. You will not auto-attack your way to victory. Each class has areas of focus, but all have moves and counter-moves to make PvE and PvP combat an enjoyable experience. Class synergies and status change abilities are intuitive and work well together. Skilled players will excel mightily. Skilled groups are deadly. Unskilled players will complain about their class being gimped and every other class being OP.

One of the most enjoyable features of combat is the skill chain system. A seasoned MMO player is already familiar with the concepts of reactive skills and damage rotations. Aion has refined the standard tropes into an elegant, branching system of skill chains. The standard skill-acquisition system layers new abilities into the old ones creating a framework for effective choice-based combat. One of the early warrior skill chains starts with a damaging strike and is followed by either a damage shield or second strike. In the later levels these chains grow deeper and include chances to proc knockdowns, stuns and other effects. It’s less about what combination is optimal and more about what effect do I need to deliver to the target.

For the moment the player must either manually choose their path through the chain or take the preset default path. Not a huge issue, for certain, and recent developer notes indicate that in an upcoming patch the player will be allowed adjust these paths which will make the system all but perfect. I know I said this will be about the game that is right now, but the changes in question are already in testing so no shenanigans can be called.

Score: Xylophone.

Previously on the West Wing

Now that we’ve talked about both combat and flight we can talk about combat in flight. It’s interesting, to say the least. I haven’t enjoyed flying combat as I’ve experienced it so far. There’s still a lot of room for skill, content and character growth to enhance the system I have direct experience playing. I freely admit there could be much more depth to be explored in this arena.

Score: Snuffleupagus.

The First Rule of Fight Club

PvP and PvPvE combat is an integral part of Aion and the elder-game. There are reasonable incentives to enter the PvP system and it definitely has the feel of something given a great deal of thought. Class balance is solid and for the most part things work the same in both facets of the game.

Roving gank-squads exist. If you venture out (at any level) as a solo player sooner or later you will be nailed by 2+ enemy players. If you expect something different from any PvP+ game I have a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.

Aion PvP is enjoyable. Losing a battle doesn’t leave me feeling frustrated or aggravated. I have a chance to win or lose any fair fight. For the most part combat really is skill-based, which can go a long way towards ensuring a healthy and active population.

Score: You don’t talk about fight club.

The New Yankee Workshop

Crafting. Tradeskills. Love it or leave it you can’t help but have some sort of emotional response to the words. For those craftophobes out there I can only recommend two things. First – make friends with someone who loves crafting. Second – give Aion’s system a try. On the giant continuum of pain and suffering over time vs. reward Aion is sitting pretty.

Aion uses the standard gather stuff to make stuff to increase skill to make better stuff model with few twists. Gathering is broken into two categories and is granted to all players. Gather stuff to increase your skill to gather higher level stuff, etc, etc. When used in conjunction with the shared warehouse feature your entire stable of characters become a flower-picking army for any and all trade disciplines you choose.

The crafting landscape is broken up in such a way as to provide some real bang for your buck. The Handicrafts profession, for example, is charged with crafting jewelry, bows and staves. This makes it a great fit for Rangers and Chanters, but a solid skill for any class. Crafted items are comparable to equal-level looted items and in some cases surpassed if you’re lucky enough to proc a super-duper item. The process of manufacturing an item can sometimes result in the production of one of a higher grade. I’ve yet to hit a proc, but the mechanic has some appeal.

Skill advancement is a grind, but it’s mitigated significantly by the work order system. Simply put, you can advance your skill without leaving your crafting master or gathering a single item from the field. The only items you are required to gather for are items you actually want to use or sell. All work and no play can make crafting a rather dull endeavor. A fair assessment, but one must remember that the vast majority of flair present in other games was introduced as a conduit to reduce grinding fatigue. With the work order system such a conceit is not required.

Score: Technotronic.

Skip This Section (or Minor Aggravations)

Player Titles – You’ll get them early and often. They’re also tied to statistical bonuses. I’m not a fan of the mechanic. I don’t like being forced to choose floaty text above my character on the basis of both form and function.

Throughout the leveling process you’ll be treated to your fair share of “useless skills”. Why am I buying a skill to get 5% more health or parry or whatever? Why add things you just have to show in an already crowded UI? Just give me the stats as part of the ding and price the abilities at whatever rate is appropriate.

The character sheet UI has a lot of fancy numbers printed all over. The only problem is there’s no explanation as to what any of them actually do or what adding/subtracting from the totals means to your character. The only information I’ve come across so far has been anecdotal and/or from conversations in the /Chanter or /Gladiator chat channels. Both of which, I might add, are great after you dodge the gold-spammers.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

The careful observer will notice that I haven’t spent much time speaking about content. There’s a great reason – there’s very little content to speak about. If you restrict your view to the launch state of previous titles Aion compares favorably, but that’s not saying a great deal. MMO titles, even (or especially) AAA ones, are notorious for launching with only the most basic level of content required under the assumption that their content team will stay ahead of the wailing masses. Sometimes it works out that way, but it’s not the path to fortune and glory.

Aion as-shipped is lighter than I hoped in the content department, but that may simply be the WoW effect. There is certainly room for a pro-PvP game in the marketplace, but it can’t be to the exclusion of all else. The lack of variance in the newbie experience is the most troubling. It belies a lack of interest or concern with the affairs of repeat players. You will not enjoy repeating the current low-level experience more than twice, and it’s hard to frame that in any positive way. No matter your game’s focus, PvP and PvE are the shoes on your feet – you’ll get a lot farther with both than with just one.

Epilogue

Aion is not the game for everyone. Aion is not a WoW-killer. Keep that in mind and we might just make have a shot at some fun.

Beyond that I hope you’ve found this review useful in some way. Grab a coffee and stop by the comments, we’ll talk, no big whoop.

P.S.

It was pointed out to me in an email this morning that any review of Aion would be remiss if it didn’t mention GameGuard. Thomas covered the recent removal of the software from Aion a few weeks back and from my own experience I can say there was much rejoicing. There is no news at the time of this writing as to what the fate of GameGuard (or an alternative) will be, but I would expect something in the near future. They made the right choice removing the software before release, but the spam/botting does need to be addressed.