Atreia is a world devoid of elves and orcs. No ancient evils have awakened to spread corruption recently, and dragons are twisted, ugly, mute things that only inhabit ruined places. At any moment in time, your fortress raid might be interrupted by an airship full of demons. Don’t fret; you can escape, because you have wings– big, strong, feathery motherfucking WINGS.
Ahem. I beg your pardon.
The way we rate and review MMOs needs to change. This is painfully apparent because when I mention that I play Aion, one of two things happens: either the listener rolls their eyes and mumbles something about a grindfest, or their eyes go wide as they gush about the CryEngine-powered graphics, which were beautiful to begin with and just received an upgrade.
Aion (also known as Aion: The Tower of Eternity) is a South Korean MMO that launched badly in the US back in 2009. Their servers couldn’t support the demand and the gameplay hadn’t been tweaked enough for Western audiences—the quests were too sparse and there were too many menial, repeatable tasks (grinds). All of these issues have since been resolved and the game is virtually unrecognizable, but we don’t have a periodical state-of-the-MMO review process. As a result, everyone thinks I’m playing a bad game, but I play Aion because it is the single best-crafted MMO I’ve ever played, and I’ve played them all.
To me, Aion’s graphics are not a big deal. I’m well aware of the game’s status as the prettiest MMO in existence, but I’m a miser who values performance over visuals. I switch all settings to Low the moment I launch any game; I would notice a split second delay and never want to risk encountering one. Even on the lowest settings, the game is a stunner and anyone looking over my shoulder immediately asks about the “pretty game”, which prompts me to switch everything to Ultra, making the spectator swoon over things like wooden crates, my outfit, and a school of translucent fish, floating languidly over my capital city of Sanctum.
Speaking of fish, there is no swimming in Aion. You won’t care.
Korean games have emphasized group play and cooperation since the Lineage days; in Aion you come to a point now and then when you need a group to progress. Is that such a big deal? It’s an MMO. Also, their LFG system is sublime—it’s completely open-ended. That’s right: if you want to farm kerubians and talk about soccer, you can “LFM Kerubian farming. Let’s talk soccer”. I’ve had some damn fine Shakespeare discussions. One look at the forums will prove that this game attracts a sophisticated crowd, relative to other MMOs. Also outside of the game itself, NCSoft rewards players every month with gifts that can be applied to any character– pets, emotes, consumables and even the occasional new pair of wings.
As far as I can tell, Aion pioneered purposeful crafting; professions have always given enough experience to be worthwhile. The things you create are valuable. The crafting system is solid and gratifying; if you’d like to level your craft faster, you can use Work Orders from NPC trainers. Gathering, called Essencetapping, nets you herbs, ore and food. You can learn as many professions as you’d like and become a master of two.
Small UI improvements make a large difference. Let’s start with the Auto Arrange Inventory button. It’s a small grid you can click at the bottom of your bag (actually an expandable “cube”) that puts like items together, laying all the vendor trash, gear, quest items and consumables neatly. The majority of your menus are in one of three places, with organized tabs. There is also a helpful transparent alpha-map overlay of each zone and a convenient Locate feature for quest targets, which feels both more exact and less intrusive than the ubiquitous big blue splotches, which are also an option. The exact nature of Locate isn’t always to your benefit; if you go to the opposite faction’s lowbie zone and gank fifty or so people, the opposite faction will see you as a big red X on their map. You had it coming, jerkface!
While using Locate to find something or someone, you are likely to run into my favorite thing about this game: the writing. Would you rather collect “10 Gray Wolf Pelts” or “10 Disgusting Deep Sea Mudthorn Saliva”? Perhaps you would like to haul this precious cargo to Ludina: “The owner of the Dionysia Tavern. She is a shrewd businesswoman and an excellent bartender, but tends to be attracted to bad men.”
Aion’s development team took the time to breathe life into every tiny aspect of the game, flavoring it heavily. Rare spawns have intriguing names; guards complain about their boring jobs (and each other). You have a huge range of funny emotes at your disposal; certain keywords in chat will cause your avatar to gesture. Even your companion pets will chatter adorable things at you. The day/night cycle is not gratuitous (although some of the cinematic sequences are); nighttime can bring different monsters or turn enemies into friends. If you bother to read the quest text, you will be treated to some seriously dry British humor. Yes, it’s still questing—you’ll still be killing, collecting, exploring and gathering, but this game makes it fun by throwing curve balls. Sometimes your starting-zone mentor will send you gifts after you complete a quest. Sometimes you will fall into an underground pit full of scorpions. Shit happens.
The overarching story unfolds gently, through gorgeous cut scenes and special Campaign quests; the factions’ backstories are distinct and never give the impression of a boring history lesson, embodying the “show, don’t tell” design philosophy magnificently. You learn to fly slowly, and your flight time increases as you level up. You can’t fly everywhere, but you don’t need to.
Combat is fast, furious and technical; your spell rotation will shift as you level and your stats are extremely flexible thanks to manastones, which allow you to adjust your gear to suit your needs. There is some risk in applying them, but they’re easy enough to come by. Stigmas are specialized, limited spells that you need to select carefully. If you’d like to do more damage, you can use Power Shards. PvP takes place primarily in the Abyss, an enormous open-flight playspace that begs to be explored. It’s full of secret islands, fortresses that can be overtaken by you and twenty-three of your closest friends, bizarre creatures and bloodthirsty members of the opposite faction. Large-scale battles feel epic, and participation in them means you will receive money and a recap of the battle’s outcome in the mail.
When you feel like flying solo, microdungeon (single-player instance) design is elevated to an art form in this game. My favorite so far is Kromede’s Trial, a dream/flashback sequence in which the player is transported to a desaturated, hazy past to witness firsthand the betrayal that turned a hero into a monster. You assume the form of Kromede, a noble and tough Asmodian woman, and find yourself running an errand for someone who subsequently betrays you, locks you in prison and kills your lover. There are optional bosses and special items you can use to aid your progress. The ominously beautiful music adds to the sense of urgency; by the time you finally get to avenge poor Robstin you feel like you’ve played, heaven forbid, a very good video game.
Aion’s world is something that any MMO player looking for something truly different should experience. I’m Frau, an Elyos Gladiator on Siel, if you’d like a tour.
Faith and arms, friend!