East Meets West: Aion

I’ve spent a large part of this weekend dabbling in the latest closed beta of Aion, the latest MMOG from genre specialist NCSoft. I have a compulsive relationship with all things MMO and RPG so I jumped at the chance to snag a key from Eurogamer earlier in the week, despite having no prior interest in the game. I went in with low expectations. I’m an old hand at this kind of thing and it set off all the warning bells: it’s from Korea, it has a gimmick (in this case, flight) and it has characters that look like this:

Oh yes, I know what you’re all thinking. The handful of character creation options will mean that two-fifths of the PCs and approximately one thousand, three hundred and seventy six NPCs will look exactly the same as this. You’ll have to grind seventy bazillion goblins to get to level two and it’ll have an interface that would embarrass Tarn Adams. I was thinking exactly the same thing.

I thought wrong.

After making the initial faction, class and gender choices (a female Asmodian warrior, in case you’re interested, screenshots of her coming up later,) you’re presented with what has become my favourite character customisation screen in any game, ever. City of Heroes beats it hands down in the “so good you could almost charge money for it on its own” stakes, but in CoH you’re doing a costume as well as the character wearing it. Aion allows you to have the same gorgeous characters seen in the likes of Lineage 2, but prodded and tweaked to suit your own personal vision. It’s flexible without being overwhelming and there’s little chance of your slider-twiddling resulting in some hideous man-beast or plastic surgery disaster. Character race is cleverly handled; while both the Elyos and the Asmodians are ostensibly human, despite the latter’s warped appearance, Aion makes it easy for you to style your character as an elf, dwarf or other common fantasy archetype. The graphical style is typically Asian MMO stuff, which will certainly be a turn-off for some, but you can’t deny that it’s marvellously constructed.

Once in game, you’re presented with an interface that’ll be instantly accesible to anyone who has played any of Everquest’s numerous descendants. In fact, you’ll probably sigh in a resigned fashion as the cloak of MMO familiarity settles about your shoulders. I’m not going to talk about the gameplay, simply because you’ve all played it before. You have an auto-attack. You have a numbered hotbar. You bandage after fights. It’s the genre standard and discussing it in detail would be like spending time talking about the WASD control scheme in a FPS.

What makes Aion worthy of note is the quality and the heritage. Everything in Aion is polished to a degree that puts most single-player console releases to shame. Visually, it’s stunning without being technically astounding. The starting gear, for example, looks better than anything I’ve seen in World of Warcraft and they’ve even managed to tread the fine line between sexy and slutty where female armour is concerned.

Practical leather, thick metal plates and you can still tell shes female! Its a miracle!

Practical leather, thick metal plates and you can still tell she's female! It's a miracle!

Look closer and you’ll see where corners have been cut, with some particularly low-poly rocks and other scenery. It’s very reminiscent of WoW and it puts you in mind of what that game would look like if it was released today (and developed in Korea.) It’s even more impressive in motion, with attack animations seamlessly flowing into each other to give combat a balletic feel with some real weight.

Quests are what you’d expect from the genre, with the exception of a series of storyline quests running through each area. Following the recent trend for single player experiences within MMOGs, they follow the development and ascension of your character and often include in-engine cutscenes, some of which are interactive.

What’s refreshing about the whole experience is the knowledge that it’s been developed in Korea. The region has become synonymous with free-to-play, grindy, disposable MMOGs and Aion bucks the trend with flair and panache. Imagine playing an Elder Scrolls clone and realising that it’s been developed by Square-Enix. While Aion is mostly a case of been there, done that, the same can be said of almost any Western MMO and Aion’s production values more than compensate.

When I logged into Aion, I expected to be logging out in less time than it took me to download the client in the first place. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a game that not only proves Korean developers can produce MMOGs that appeal to Western tastes, but also raises the quality bar for MMOGs across the globe.

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~ by bigjonno on July 5, 2009.

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