AION: Tower of Eternity - Chinese Release Review
NCSoft is a company you either love or hate, and for the most part I'm not a fan of NCSoft. They certainly take chances with some of the MMOs they publish, but there are more disappointments than treasures. Lineage was the first game released by NCSoft in 1998, and was a great game at the time. When Lineage II released in 2004, it felt like the series had taken two steps backwards. Set 150 years before Lineage and sporting impressive 3D graphics, the character creation and gameplay were both just extremely limited. City of Heroes, which was also released in 2004, was a title I was ambitiously following. I had hero concepts made and participated on the forums, but once the game released and the thrill of creating a hero wore off the game just couldn't hold up for me.
Guild Wars was released in 2005 and marketed itself as an 'MMORPG without the subscription'. This always bugged me, since the 'MMO' aspect was nothing more than a city hub in the style of the Diablo 2 lobby. Aside from the false marketing, there was no jumping and many invisible walls, which made the fairly short journey to level twenty feel even more limited and linear. NCSoft really started getting on my bad side when they shut down Auto Assault, an awesome post-apocalyptic vehicular combat MMO, released in 2006 and closed shortly after in 2007. Later in 2007 Tabula Rasa was released and had a similar feel to Auto Assault, but of course was closed in early 2009. Both Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa were amazing games that I really enjoyed, but to NCSoft they just didn't have enough development to fulfill their potential. So after all of these disappointments, I promised myself I wouldn't play another NCSoft game no matter how good it looked....
AION was announced on May 2006 along with a preview at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. I was reluctant to care since it was coming from NCSoft, shrugging it off as another Lineage II style game with shallow game play and nice graphics. In the months following, trailers were released which looked great but again I had absolutely no interest in falling for a game that NCSoft was publishing. I hadn't heard about AION again until April 2009 when the Chinese version was released, so I decided to at least give it a try so I could back up any negative critique I may have about the game. To my complete and utter disbelief, AION: The Tower of Eternity, is likely the most fulfilling and enjoyable experience I've ever had in an MMO. It's clear that NCSoft has spent lots of time on every facet of AION, from the smallest of details, to the story, all the way down to the method of payment. After it's numerous failures, it's finally time NCSoft got one right, and it seems like they know it's good.
Let me just get this out of the way, AION is an incredibly gorgeous game in both visuals and sound. The game uses a heavily modified version of the CryEngine, and the presentation as well as the performance is unlike anything I've seen in an MMO. The world has a grand scale, and the idle animations are based on your surroundings. If it's raining your character will hold an elephant ear leaf, if you're in the water it'll reach down and grab a fish out of the water, and there's something different for every environment. The music is beautifully composed by Ryo Kunihiko, whose most notable works were the soundtracks to The Twelve Kingdoms and Emma. The world of Ateria and the music go so well together to create a mood, that you hardly ever notice it's there. The interface is also wonderfully done, and works to complement the gameplay experience rather than control it. The heads-up display is defaulted at the bottom, but you can move it to the top which you might be more accustom to.
In AION you start off by choosing a faction, either the light influenced Elyos or the dark influenced Asmodians. This isn't to say that the Elyos are good and the Asmodians evil, but reflects the side of Ateria they were born and raised on. Once you choose a faction, you're asked to choose from one of four basic archetypes: Warrior, Scout, Mage, and Priest. Warriors excel at heavily armored close-quarters combat, and can later specialize in Gladiator or Templar. The Gladiator is a heavily armored close combat DPS class that can use a large range of weapons, while the Templar is a heavily armored tanking class with the ability to use protection chants. Scouts combine agility with swift attacks, and can later specialize in Ranger or Assassin. The Ranger has many varied long range attacks and has the ability to use traps, while the Assassin sneaks around and strikes without being detected.
The Mage is physically weak but casts devastatingly powerful magic, and can specialize in Spiritmaster or Sorcerer. The Spiritmaster can summon and control the four elements (Air, Earth, Fire, and Water), while the Sorcerer uses the four elements in long-ranged magical combat. The Priest can use healing, self-protection, melee combat, and ranged magic attacks, and later specializes in Cleric or Chanter. The Cleric is your main healer and protector, while the Chanter is a healer but with emphasis on buffing and fortification. The Elyos and Asmodian classes are the same, though armor and weapon styles differ between the two races. This is where my only complaint comes in, as you don't have much control over differentiating your character from another of the same class. In a small attempt to remedy this, AION has Stigma which are five slots that allow you to place the ability of another class into each one starting at level 20. It's mainly intended to surprise enemies in PVP combat, as you won't know which special abilities the player is capable of using.
Once you have your class selected, you'll be brought to the character creation screen. You have full control over your character, with sliders to modify the head and body however you want. If you're looking to get right into the game without creating a character, AION provides a number of pre-made character appearances that you can edit or use as is. The number of available options is impressive, especially since every face, hairstyle, beard, and tattoo is viable and stylish. When you get into the advanced options of the face and body, you can literally make any character you can think of. From a child to a giant to a freak, it's all up to you and AION gives you the tools to easily get it done. The customization doesn't end there though as you're able to alter the color of your equipment, and use any weapon or armor style you like to craft with the stats of a different item. This allows you to control the look of your equipment without sacrificing better stats of an item you might find visually unappealing.
When you finally enter the game you may be tempted to start killing everything you see, or blindly accept quests and focus on what needs to get done. If you do either of these you'll be missing out on the amazing story that AION provides. Every mission, quest, and NPC is aware of what is going on in the world, which means everything you do carries with you on your journey. There's conflict in the world of Ateria, and all of the quests and missions you receive will be directly related to this conflict. On the Elyos side you have the Kobolds and Krall that are attempting to refine Odium, while the Mumu and Mau work to refine Odella on the Asmodian side. The conflicts are similar, but the differences between the Elysos and Asmodian campaign are in the details. Your character also has a personal journey to uncover their past or future, depending on which race you choose to play as. Some quest descriptions can go on five to six pages, but it's worth taking in every detail the AION developers worked so hard to create. If you choose not to read everything, you may get stuck on some quests as the key to completing them can only be found in the initial quest description when you accept it.
Combat in AION is nicely paced and visually exciting, especially once skill chains are presented to your character. Skill chains are combos that can only be used by linking together skills in a particular order, or once certain prerequisites have been met. Some skill chains can branch into alternate combos, which can be more useful in certain situations. To obtain these and other skills, you'll have to visit a trainer and purchase skill books from them. You can buy them regardless of level as long as you have the funds, that way you can have the skill books on hand if you're close to leveling. Another aspect to combat is Divine Power, also known as DP, which you're able to use once you become a Daeva at level 10. DP is accumulated over time by killing monsters, and is used to cast powerful class-specific abilities. These can range from a helpful heal to a massive burst of damage, but the rate at which DP accumulates keeps these skills from being over powered.
As a Daeva you can also take up crafting in the main city, Sanctum or Pandemonium depending on your faction. There are 6 production professions: Weapon-smith, Armor-smith, Tailoring, Alchemy, Handyman, and Chef; and 2 extracting professions: Materials and Aether. You can master all the professions if you have the money, and work orders are available to help you level them. Work Orders are profession specific quests that give you a temporary recipe and the materials to make it, minus the fuel. As you level your chosen profession, you'll be able to buy recipes from a profession specific supplier.
The act of crafting and gathering in AION is simple, but quite rewarding and can be a relaxing experience. When you begin to craft or gather, a Pass/Fail meter will appear and begin to figure the odds automatically. Sometimes you can get critical passes and fill an entire bar instantly, and I'll note that I've never gotten a critical failure so I'm not sure if they exist. While crafting or gathering you also have a random chance to obtain a rare version of the item you're trying to obtain. It's not clear what triggers this, but I've heard DP plays a part though it could be completely random.
When you get around level 25, you'll start making your way into the PVP area known as the Abyss. The abyss is a dark and twisted wasteland of past wars, where there's no flight timer and legions capture castles from the opposing faction. Participating in PVP will reward you with increased ranks as you battle against fellow players, changing the appearance of your wings to reflect your status. Also while fighting against other players in PVP, you'll receive points that can be used to purchase high-end armor and weapons. Joining a Legion, AIONs version of a guild, will not only give you other players to group with but will also yield rewards while your legion holds a castle in the Abyss. As the legion levels up, you'll be able to create legion capes from a variety of styles, and even upload your own custom made images to display on the back.
AION is an amazing game, and for me it's biggest innovation is the price model. Usually the price models for MMOs are either subscription based or free to play with cash shop, but AION doesn't use either of them. Instead you pay for the time you want to play, which some may love and others hate. Your average MMO subscription is about $15.00 for a month of play time, but when you aren't playing you're still paying for that time. I play an MMO about 30 hours a week, so the other 138 hours in that week are just going to waste.
I've spent $8.00 on AION for 104 hours of game time, which after two weeks of playing still has about 40 hours left. When I'm not playing my time is still there, so when I want to take a break for a month or so my time will still be there when I get back. I'll give you another example. $18.00 will get you 205 hours, and to use up all of that time you'd have to play nearly 8 hours a day, everyday for a month. $35.00 will get you 410 hours, and to use up all of that time you'd have to play nearly 5 hours a day, everyday for three months. The more time you buy, the less per 2 hour unit you pay so buy in bulk.
AION is amazingly easy to try, and free to download. There's a 6 hour game time trial and is probably the most enjoyable MMO you'll ever play. Of course this is strictly speaking of the Chinese release so all of this is subject to change for the US release, but either way this game shouldn't be missed.