Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Aion Impressions

Here they are, my Aion impressions. The post is very long but I’ve broken it down into sections so that you might be able to skip stuff that you don’t care about. This beta weekend is over but there will be more. If you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll try to answer them. If I don’t know, I’ll try to find out in the next beta. For now, enjoy.

Whenever a new MMO comes out ,the big question everybody asks is “Is this the WoW killer?” – and the answer is always no. So I got into the closed Aion beta and, well, it’s not the WoW killer. That said, I don’t believe there can actually be such a thing. A good MMO will start sucking subscribers from WoW a couple thousand at a time. If it’s really good it might stabilize at 3 million or so subscribers but WoW will die on itself at somepoint in a slow decline, it won’t just get killed by another game.
Below the fold you’ll find my first experiences in Aion and my ideas on whether the game is worth trying out or not.

If you’ve never heard about Aion, here’s the executive summary. Aion is a new MMO developed by NCSoft featuring what’s basically the battle between two factions of divine beings – Elyos (angels) and Asmodians (demons). That setting is mainly apparent in the fact that every character above level 10 has wings which can be used to fly for a limited time (more on that later.) Apparently there is also an eternal struggle going on in the abyss between the 2 player factions and an NPC faction. I have not experienced this yet, but the idea of fighting world bosses while being in constant danger of being ganked seems odd to me. PvPvE seems to be one of their major selling points though.

The game has been out in Korea for a while now and is supposed to launch in North America and Europe in September.

Graphics

I’m not usually one to start a review with the graphics but this time I feel it is necessary. Aion uses the CryEngine which has been published in 2004 and therefore is somewhat outdated. Considering that, the game looks really good. Models are crafted with a lot of love, detail and creativity while saving polygons wherever possible. In my opinion it looks a lot better than WoW and, a first in MMOs of this day and age, it actually has well designed animations. There have been many games that looked better than WoW, but often only if you watched stills, once characters started moving you’d feel like playing with stickfigures.
Not so in Aion, oh no sir. Animations look very natural and you really see the hurt my gladiator is packing in her combat animations. She jumps into the air, does huge firey swings and then blocks incoming hits with her sword.

But the best thing? It runs so smoothly. I have an older gaming machine, the kind that was good three years ago. WoW runs on it but in Dalaran I get roughly 10 fps (on lowest settings) and some bossfights drop me to 3. Aion on the other hand runs on maximum settings on my system and still never drops below 30 fps, usually sitting around 50. So it looks better and requires less oomph from my PC? Sign me up!

In addition to all of the above, the designers were just so damn creative. The regions look real and cool at the same time. Unlike WoW the zone borders are fluent and believable. And the models! There are so many types of creative enemies and NPCs in the game it’s just great.
The character customization options are very good too, literally everyone looks different. The character creation screen looks like something you could see in a single player RPG but I’ve never seen this in an MMO. For those that don’t care there’s a variety of presets available.

One funny thing I noticed here – the height slider really means business! In most systems like this one, you can adjust the size between small-ish adult and large adult. So i turned down the slider quite a bit – and man did I turn out tiny!

Flying

Flying is a huge selling point for the game, so I obviously was excited when I got my first pair of wings at level 10. Well, meh. When you can fly it’s cool. It looks good, steers well and the wings are spread instantly – no three second mount cast. Also, you can nuke mobs from the air, how cool is that?
Noticed how I said “when you can fly”? Yepp, it’s severly limited. At level 10 you leave the main city and get into a new zone with some gimmick flying quests to get you get used to it. These feel a bit tedious because you can only fly for one minute at a time and then have to wait for your wing power to recharge. I guess it’s very tiring to flap those things, I get that, it still sucks. I’m told that you get upgrades on your flight time later on but I haven’t seen any so far.

Alright, so it is limited. Makes sense or you could just nuke all mobs from the air and never take any damage. So I play a bit, enjoy my wings, try to fly to the next zone and BAM – “you cannot fly here.” That’s right, Only a very small zone is flyable at the start, everything else I’ve found so far is not. This will change when you get to level 25 and into the abyss. But really, giving me flying only to take it right away again? That’s just mean.

Luckily, you can still use your wings a little bit in those zones. You can glide. What you do is jump from somewhere high up, spread your wings and glide downwards until you hit the ground. This can be quite useful while travelling or fleeing but handles a bit odd. You can tilt up and down to either gain height or speed, which is cool, but you really drop down faar to fast and then get bounced off the ground if you have enough speed to keep gliding. It works, but the physics? Odd.

Classes

There are four classes to choose from at the start of the game which each can develop into 2 other classes at level 10, for a total of 8 classes. You get one real tanking class in the templar, one somewhat capable tank in the gladiator (who is really dps otherwise), one real healer in the cleric, one somewhat capable healer in the chanter (who really is a buffer) and 4 dps. The dps classes are nicely varied, you’ll recognize mage, warlock, rogue and hunter equivalents. It seems that group content will be shoehorned in very defined groups though. You will want one templar, one cleric, one chanter and three dps. With no skill trees and no alternatives to chose from, your tank will always be the same and so will your healer.

The job change system is nothing new and I’ve seen better implementations before. In Ragnarok Online, for example, what you did before your job change actually had an effect on your character later. The skills you chose in your first class continued to be available later on and you had the ability to delay the job change in order to gather more skill points first. A wizard that had been played to job level 50 as a mage was much better than one only played to 40.
Aion doesn’t do this. The first 10 levels are just an intro and then the game really starts.

Combat

I told you above how cool looking the combat is. All the jumping and stuff. Cool. Doesn’t mean anything though. The principle is virtually the same as in WoW, you have abilities on your action bars that have cooldowns and costs and that do things. The cool looking jump? Just a damage skill. In fact, you move even less in Aion’s combat than you do in WoW as there don’t seem to be any positional requirements. Your character will not only automatically turn towards the target you are hitting, it will even automatically run to it until it is in range. You can also parry and block from your back so really, position doesn’t matter.
The automatic following of the target can be really problematic by the way if you fight mobs that flee – if you’re not careful your toon will follow them like a hunter pet in WoW.


What is interesting is, that combat is somewhat hard. I didn’t notice this so much on my cleric since she could just heal herself through pretty much anything – but my gladiator actually dies. Even the fights I win often leave me low enough on health that I have to bandage before I can get the next mob. Alas, there isn’t really much you can do to fight differently – but I’ll go into detail about this in the next section.

Aion doesn’t seem to have creative combat mechanics (unlike, say, Warhammer), but then the mechanics in Warhammer weren’t implemented well enough to actual stay cool throughout the game. So maybe simpler is better if you can’t do it right.
One thing that you don’t see very often is chain skills. A chain skill is a skill that you can only use after successfully using a specific other skill first. My gladiator for example has Ferocious Strike which I can follow with a Robust Blow and that with a Wrathful Strike. Damage increases along the chain and the last one puts my target in the “Stumbled” state – a knockdown/stun really. Sometimes these chains are linear but sometimes you can branch in between, in my example I could follow up Ferocious Strike with Shout, buffing myself but ending the chain there.

There are three combat resources in the game: health, mana and deava points. The first two should be obvious and the third one is, well, irrelevant. You build DP slowly by killing mobs and can use it on very powerful abilities. In my gladiator’s case that’s a hit that damages and stuns. It takes ages to build up DP though (literally like half an hour!) and it vanishes on death. My cleric can use his DP ability to restore mana while grinding which is somewhat useful but in reality the whole system seems pointless.

My gladiator doesn’t even use mana, so use of skills is solely based on cooldowns. What this leads to is me hitting my chain and 2 additional skills and then autoattack until the cooldowns are back. Think retribution paladin. It also means that I don’t really have to think about what abilities to use, I can just use them all because I have the time.

Skill variety

So I started playing as an Eylos cleric because, well, I enjoy healing and I like playing as cute and/or hot girls. Sue me :p
She has essentially one 2-step melee attack chain and one 2-step ranged attack chain. Then one crowd control (6 seconds) and a bazillion heals. That makes solo play really boring. You nuke your target a couple of times and unload your melee attacks when they get near. Then you either CC them, run away, rinse and repeat; OR you just white-hit, heal yourself and melee again when the chain is off cooldown. Very boring and also very slow. If you want to do things faster, group with a dps.
So far not terribly surprising, though WoW does a better job at putting interesting dps abilities even on healers.

Anyhow, I can live with boring DPS abilities on the healer. Only, the heals are boring too. You get hots, fast direct heals, slow direct heals, fast group heals and slow group heals. Nothing interesting like Chain Heal or Power Word: Shield or anything. So essentially, if you want to play a healer, don’t play alone. Get a regular group. You can solo very well, but it’s really boring. So don’t.

Noticing that I didn’t have fun on my healer, I rolled a gladiator (basically a dps warrior) on Asmodian side. Her skills are definitely more fun and also a bit varied. One weakens the enemies for example so that I can then follow-up with a devastating damage chain. If you wear a shield you can also go into defensive mode. You then can’t use any skills but do get to do white attacks and have greatly increased block and parry. A good tactic here is to blow all your dps abilities, then activate defensive, wait for a chance to counterattack with your shield, do that and blow your dps cooldowns again. honestly though, I leave the shield stuff to the templars and wield a 2-hander myself. This shows though that templars might be fun too.

The main issue I have with skill variety is the absence of skill trees. There is something called the stigma system which comes into play later and which seems to work like glyphs in WoW. You have up to four slots that you can socket stigma stones into to customize your character. These are much more powerful than glyphs in WoW (A cleric can, for example, get a 20 sec CC spell, a Mortal Strike, or a Wild Growth.) These stigma stones can be acquired in various ways, including drops from boss monsters. That does open the possibility of introducing more skills as the game ages, which is cool. Right now I really miss talent trees though.

Questing

Questing is pretty much like in WoW, except a bit less creative. Almost all quest are either of the kill, collect, or fedex varieties and can be done without reading the quest text. (The text is supposedly very good though.) You can make the game locate almost every mob, npc , zone or item on your map but it doesn’t do that on default. Unlike Warhammer you can’t just look at your map to see where you need to go next but you need to open the quest menu, click on a hyperlink and select “locate” to mark one specific thing on your map. This is useful, but I can’t help thinking about how much more useful the system was in Warhammer.

Most quests are quickly done and follow a logical progression. Some are very hard and require a group, even if not marked as such, and some are just plain annoying. For some reason a few quests have just ridiculously low spawn or drop rates. That’s not how you make a quest hard NCSoft! It’s just frustrating. Worst one I had was a quest asking for rings of six special quest mobs which had what felt like a 10 minute spawn rate and only dropped one ring, even if you were in a group. So you could either try and tag the mob first on spawn or you could group up and let the dice decide who gets the drop. Laaame.

Questing was still fun though, especially in a group.

Crafting

Crafting is… odd. First of all, there are only 2 gathering skills. Extract Vitality gathers almost anything. From ore to herbs to wood to fish! The skill works pretty much like gathering skills in WoW oly that instead of one gathering bar, you get two: The success and the failure bar. Both fill up while you gather (or craft for that matter) and the one that’s full first determines the outcome. This means that higher skill not only increases the chance of success but also reduces the time spend gathering/crafting.
The fact that you can gather everything means that people will gather everything. You should see my inventory…


Players are also not limited in the number of crating skills they take. You will at some point be asked to specialize, and that limits you to only one skill at max level, but until then you can freely train all the professions you want. (And there are many.)
Crafting works pretty much as it does in WoW with the exception that you can get work orders from NPCs. They give you a quest and some materials, you buy some other mats (i.e. vials) and then craft the required item and return it to them for some reward, experience and skill-ups. Yes you get experience for crafting, even for gathering. Not a lot but at least some, which is cool.

Conclusion

As negative as a lot of the above stuff sounded, I still had fun. I really would like to try out real group content and PvP – supposedly the strength of the game. I will definitely play at launch (since I’ve bought it anyway) and try to get some friends to play with me. MMOs that I start alone usually tend to lose me quickly.
That said, the game is not the WoW killer and it really lacks the big innovations that would make it stand out. From what I’ve seen so far, only the graphics and wings really make it positively different from WoW. Aion is an OK game, but so far definitely not stellar.
My suggestion: Keep an eye on this, but don’t preorder. You might be very disappointed.

Unless you like playing hot chicks. Then this game is for you!

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