Monday, July 6, 2009

Aion Beta Impressions and Details: Part 1

Meet Hatch.

Hatch is a warrior. His likes include swords and killing things with swords. His dislikes include the Elyos and togs, which are about the ugliest creatures ever created. Think of one of those ugly bulldogs with the squished-up, wrinkly faces that look like a stack of gross vaginas. Now mate that with the ugliest boar you can imagine. That merely begins to describe these fucking togs.

As an Asmodean, he lives in the inside of the bottom bowl of what was once a sphere, before some great battle felled the "Tower of Eternity", and the warring factions, consisting of humans, ferret people, and immortal "Daevas" (angels), were split amongst the two remaining bowls, with a chunk of earth extending between the two halves, creating a chaotic Abyss. While the Elyos are all shiny and pretty and would fit perfeclty into an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog shot in heaven itself, the Asmodeans have greyish-blue skin, talons, and a severe case of back hair.

Much ado has been made about the graphics in Aion, and for good reason. My computer is by no means up-to-date, but it can run most games reasonably smoothly, and I had to pump down the graphics settings to get it to run at a consistent framerate. That said, once I had the video settings squared away, this beta ran like a dream and was still quite beatiful, which is a testament to both the engine and the art direction. If you have a crap computer, you can still play the game, and it will still look good. It will look like a modern game. But if you have a state-of-the art system, it's going to look really, really good.

I pointed my camera straight up at the sky to get a shot of some beautiful art up there, and out of nowhere I caught an airship floating by.

My understanding is that Aion is already out in China, and is in the process of some serious Westernization. Though I ran across some localization errors, the rest of the game is mostly stable, given that even in this early beta I encountered no crashes or gamebreaking errors whatsoever. The only technical problem I encountered was that I would be unable to launch any programs on my computer after exiting the game, but that was easily remedied with a system restart.

The biggest technical problems are control limitations that the localization team claims to be working on. For one, you can't invert your camera controls. For someone like me, who has played FPS games for over a decade and WoW for 5 years with up being toward me and down being away from me, this makes the game nearly unplayable at first. But I really, really wanted to play it, so I just dealt with the annoyance and pushed on through, adjusting the camera as little as possible. The other is that certain actions can't be bound to certain keys. I'll get back to that later.

As I said, the art direction is top-notch. It's drawn in an eastern style, and shows many parrellels to the style of Final Fantasy, to the point that it was a bit uncanny. This is a good thing. If you like the Square/Enix asthetic at all, then you are going to like this game. The character animations sing. They just feel right and look great.

The polish level is top-tier. Like Tobold said, this game would have given WoW a run for it's money if released 4-5 years ago. I mean, even the flight paths are eye-popping, with a transparent ghostbird ferrying you from gorgeous vista to gorgeous vista:

But enough drooling. How does it play?

Gameplay is in the now-standard MMO questing idiom. After spending a lot of time in the character creator selecting hairstyles (all of them are extremely well done) and playing with various sliders that adjust everything from eyebrow height to hand thickness to neck length, you are dropped into a comfortable and pretty open field, a noobie area, with an NPC with a glowing blue diamond symbol over his head. So that's what exclamation points look like in Japan!

During this weekend's playtest, I focused on a single character, Hatch, a Gladiator that I leveled to 13. Next event, I'll make it a point to try out the other classes. At the start, you can pick from 4 basic classes, and then each of those specializes into one of two advanced classes at level 10. If, like me, you start as a warrior, you take some time to become familiar with all kinds of basic abilities, then you are given the choice between the tanking Templar and the plate/melee Gladiator. Scouts can eventually become Assassins (rogues) or Rangers (hunters). Mages grow into either Sorcerers (mages) or Spiritmasters (warlocks), while Priests go on to become Clerics (melee priests) or Chanters (paladins). As you can see, they've got everything but druids and shaman covered. Expect some kind of "Elementalist" xpac down the road.

And so Hatch and I began our journey through lower Asmodea. The quests are pretty standard "kill x gerbilmen" or "gather x fruit baskets". Quest items in the environment are easy to pick out because they shimmer, though at present the game lacks the type of map quest objective guides that are in Champions and are being added to WoW in the upcoming patch. At first, it appeared that I'd have to read through all of the quest text, but as it turns out important locations, NPCs, and mobs are highlighted in blue in the text, and clickable. Clicking them brings up a little window with basic information about them, including a rough location and other tidbits (including notes on NPCs like "She doesn't take kindly to strangers". A nice little touch.).

Here's a screenshot of the quest log:

So far the quest writing is surprisingly good. The NPCs get personalities, and there were a few points that were memorable. On top of that, the enemies and animals you fight are quite imaginative, though often based on a fusing of two real animals (fucking togs!) or screwing up the proportions of something familiar (giant spindly elephantosaurs!). I was surprised to find the lore of the game and its NPCs as fleshed-out as it was. I expected something fairly generic, and what I found, while quite standard, had enough personality and heart put into it to make it enjoyable.

Combat is, at it's base, standard MMO fare. As a melee character, you run up to the target and autoattack. And as though the game weren't already accessible enough, it will actually run up to your target for you. How courteous.

Once you reach the target, you use hotkeys to activate attacks, which are on cooldowns. My warrior didn't use the mana bar, or have any discernable resource that was actually consumed, so it appears their abilities are mediated solely by their cooldowns. This does force you to use all of your abilities, rather than spamming your one best ability over and over. On top of that, some abilities are part of escalating, branching chains. For instance, I use Ferocious Strike, and the key is replaced by a second chain ability that I can only activate after a FS. At level 13, I had reached the point where FS could chain up to 3 steps in total, and had two branches: one of them had a self-buffing "shout" at the 2nd step of the chain, and one of them was a combo of 3 increasingly spectacular melee attacks. The shout and the 3rd move were each on a cooldown twice the length of FS's cooldown, so it made sense to alternate them rather than just repeating whichever one turned out to be mathematically stronger. Because of this, combat is a lot more mentally involving than WoW. Granted, I was still low level, but I was using my full suite of abilities every single fight. And just to drive the point of "polish" home, whenever you use a chain ability, the game both: 1) flashes a border around the buttons of the next possible steps in the combo, practically shouting that they are available to you, and 2) shows the icons for those abilities right next to your character model, in much the same way a WoW addon like Powerauras or Satrina's buff frames would.

I also found myself more engaged by the combat because regular old mobs could actually kill you. It was possible to win consistently, but only if you were paying attention. And pulling two mobs at once usually meant that you either had to pop a potion, beat an undignified retreat, or get a one-way ticket to resurrection city (death sends you back to town and incurs a small xp penalty and 30-second sickness, but you can get the xp back for a small monetary payment to a Soul Healer at the graveyard). I like this tuning because soloing is very possible, but requires forethought, attention, and smart play. It also has the benefit of making grouping much more appealing than it is in WoW. Towards the end of my playtest, I grouped up for an unusually difficult quest to face down a named mob with 2 henchman (far beyond my abilities - by the way, group quests aren't labeled as such in Aion). The templar and I fared much better against the small groups of bandits, though we still couldn't be entirely reckless. He ended up inviting me to a small guild, called a Legion. The game automatically added to my outfit a black cloth displaying my Legion's crest, which was a nice touch.

The grouping, legion, and raid interfaces look and function exactly like WoW from what I could tell from my brief overview of them.

You gain new combat abilities as you level, roughly every 2-3 levels. You gain the skills from books purchased from a trainer, which is nice because you can buy the books ahead of time if you expect to ding while out in the field, and start using your new abilities immediately instead of having to take a trip back to the capitol. So far I haven't encountered anything like talent points or other character customization options (though I have yet to discover what the "Stigma" pane, which looks suspiciously like the WoW Inscription pane, does). The closest thing is gear, which works along the same lines as WoW, with each piece giving certain stat bonuses and certain armor classes favoring certain stats. You start out with only a basic sword, pants, and shirt, but over time you'll fill up about a dozen slots with different pieces of gear. Gemming is in the game from the start, with even the earlier peices of white gear sporting a "manastone socket". Manastones drop randomly from mobs, and grant minor stat bonuses.

Itemization so far runs on a very sensible tier system. You can buy white gear from a vendor that is minimally appropriate for your level. The next step up is to craft white gear that has slightly better stats at the same equip level. After that are greens and blues, which escalate predictably. I don't get the impression that anyone is decked out in even all greens in their teens, given their rarity. Here's a shot of my character pane, showing my equipment and inventory, and demonstrating how the system auto-compares my loot for me, with green text denoting where the new shield is superior to my current one.

The stat system is quite a bit simpler than current WoW. Casters can improve their magic power and MP. Fighters like Attack bonuses, physical crit, and accuracy. Survival can be augmented through dodge, parry, shield block, physical resistance (in place of armor value) and magic resistance. It's pretty straightforward.

So far, the game is beautifully polished, combat is engaging, and though the questing is cliched and derivative, it is executed well. It's shaping up to be a nice alternative to WoW. Though I can't imagine it being anything close to a WoW-killer, it has the potential to be a really fun and worthwhile game. I can't wait to see how it develops as its release approaches.

I've run out of steam for today, but check back on Wednesday for Part the Second , wherein I will discuss tradeskills, the hub city, economy, flying, and Ascension!


Ixobelle said...

yeah, I reallly like it.

I only played it for one full day, but it was enough to know I'll subscribe (and probably actually just preorder it now, since I'm back home).

It isn't breaking any huge molds (yet), but it does WoW good enough to be a good clean break for a bit, without being anything overwhelmingly different, which many will frown on, but is a plus in my book.

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