Sunday, 11 October 2009

Aion - hardcore or hard labour?

Just over a week ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Aion and asked me to review it. He also challenged me to time how long it would take for me to want to log off… Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I agreed and began mentally preparing myself for a land of pastel colours and cutesy eastern style graphics.


I knew it was going to be grindy and having played games like Lineage and that crappy one with robots (name escapes me), from a gameplay perspective I wasn’t keen at all. But to be honest I was still somewhat intrigued by Aion, purely because of it being an oriental game. I’m very interested in far eastern culture, if you’re interested particularly Japanese history and also films by the likes of Kurosawa and Park Chan-wook. However, I like it gritty and real, not anime, or airy-fairy FF cuteness. And God no pokemon pls, but give me Sanjuro any day! So in that respect whilst the game’s setting intrigued me, I was at the same time very put off by the look of it.

Yet I was very aware that I had hated the look and lore of WoW, but I still ended up playing that for a few years. My long and sometimes arduous journey since Ultima Online has taught me that a MMO can grab your attention when you least expect it. So as I watched the installation progress bar fill up, I decided to put my preconceptions aside and give Aion a fair chance to impress.

I made it a whole 17 minutes before I first wanted to log off.

Character creation is a farce. At first I was quite impressed by the character creator with it’s many options, but then I got into the game itself. Everyone looks the same unless you are right next to them, or they’re some kind of bloody mutant from a hall of mirrors. It’s one of a few things that totally kill any immersion into the game world. It’s not good when you keep seeing people that look like a distorted reflection thing from Twin Peaks dream sequences.

I’ve seen many people talk about how this game was a cry back to the glory years of MMOs, how it brought back memories of Everquest and Asheron’s Call. Yes Aion does bring back memories, but its all the bad things from that era. It’s not dumping you in a wide dangerous world and leaving you to explore, it’s putting you in a linear grind with a ropey storyline and crap dialogue. They have taken the old grind mentality and combined it with the linear progress that WoW introduced. Honestly, the first 10 levels PvE questing experience is hideous. Run there, kill 8 of those, run back to claim bugger all, run there again, kill 10 of those, run back to claim bugger all, run there a-bloody-gain and collect 6 of these... AGGH!

Essentially all modern MMOs follow this same format with their questing, but at least they try to mask the grind, at least they try to limit the repetition. Aion makes no attempt to do so. Quite the opposite, it revels in repetition. Other than some of its imagery, the starting experience is utterly without imagination. It is a big step backwards and not in a good way. It was a truly horrible experience and very nearly stopped me from going any further at all.

Combat starts of diabolically bad. Your abilities have huge cool down timers, which means you spend the majority of your time watching your character auto attack. Obviously it gets more engaging as you level up and get more skills, but the levels and abilities do not come quickly. Combining that with the foul decision of going back to having to sit down and rest up ALL THE BLOODY TIME, and it means you spend a huge amount of time feeling like you’re logged in just to watch your character, rather than actually interacting with it. This does nothing to build any attachment to your character. Once you get to level 10 and choose your class properly, it does get better with more abilities and a bit more flavour to your character, but it’s still rather uninspiring. You’re also theoretically freer to explore, but because of issues with the flying, in reality you’re not.

The graphics are good, but not as wonderful as they are made out to be. In particular I was gobsmacked by how the skies are god awful, with completely static images ruining any feeling of being in an actual world. The game’s textures are very varied in their quality; with some being beautiful and some being total crap. It’s surprising to see a game with both moments of utter beauty and pixelated hideousness just a few yards from each other...



Pretty!

UGH!

Animations are pretty good, particularly in combat, but running (which you will be doing a LOT) looks dodgy. However, on the whole the graphics are solid and the mobs have some very nice detail, it’s just a real shame about those bad textures and the terrible sky.

There were a lot of things I found irritating; the currency is stupid, the PvE carrot and stick balance is wrong, it’s got that stupid choose your class at level 10 crap, the dodgy cut scenes… I could go on for a while to be honest.

One thing that is a huge turn off is the in-game community. It appears to have attracted a lot of youngsters and/or people with attitude problems… Every time you log in, and this is no exaggeration, region chat will look something like this:

[ashjakiykhl] Power levelling much cheapness from no-trojans-here-honestly.com 1 million gold only 300 Euros!
[kjklkjsdfsdl] Power levelling much cheapness from no-trojans-here-honestly.com 1 million gold only 300 Euros!
[fdsffuuuool] Power levelling much cheapness from no-trojans-here-honestly.com 1 million gold only 300 Euros!
[RandomJoe] This is like my Warlock
[RandomBob] **** OFF BACK TO WOW
[RandomJoe] I was just saying.. **** tard
[RandomTom] ***** care bear *** **** noob
[RandomJoe] ***** WoW was win! **** noob ****
[ashjakiykhl] Power levelling much cheapness from no-trojans-here-honestly.com 1 million gold only 300 Euros!
[kjklkjsdfsdl] Power levelling much cheapness from no-trojans-here-honestly.com 1 million gold only 300 Euros!
[fdsffuuuool] Power levelling much cheapness from no-trojans-here-honestly.com 1 million gold only 300 Euros!
[RandomPat] WoW is the best you *****!11!1 m8 12 million subs you ****
[RandomTom] **** WoW **** subs can *** *** *** *********
[RandomBob] Are we angels?
[RandomJoe] ****
[RandomTom] ***** care bear *** **** noob

Now that’s not the game’s fault, but it gives you an idea of the type of people you’ll be subjected to and like it or not, that’s part of the game experience.

Where the game excels is in performance. Aion runs incredibly well. I was playing it with everything set to maximum and I was getting an average frames per second of over 100. The lowest it ever dropped was 25 (in Pandemonium, a fancy city and it was only a brief drop) and the highest it reached was 198 FPS. That is when moving around and fighting at the time too. For this I give it’s developers massive credit, the game performance is truly glorious.

Aion’s unique selling point was the winged characters. Yet for some strange reason once you get your wings you find yourself only able to fly for 1 minute. I struggle to see why they’ve done this, other than creating more grind opportunities. You’ll find this limited flight also limiting how far you feel you can explore and it makes the game feel strangely linear for something where you have wings… It’s hugely disappointing, because the flying is quite cool. It’s not amazing, but it has potential for some great PvP moments once you’re able to fly longer.

Regarding PvP… Apparently the PvP is good at 25 onwards, but I’m afraid I can’t confirm or deny that, because there’s just no way I can face levelling that far. I’d rather nail my scruttock to a door.

There are 2 key areas that an MMO developer needs to get right. Those being both the starting and end game experience. Your first hours in a new MMO need to grab you by the short and curlies, make you love the experience and drive you forwards towards the level cap. It needs to be good enough that we ignore any mid level grind, our subs happily staying active all the way until end game. Then the end game itself needs to have enough quality and variety that we still want to log in and keep our subscriptions going. Unfortunately Aion’s starting experience is so immensely dull; the idea of continuing through to the level cap is a horrible, horrible thought. It could have the best end game ever, but why go there if the journey is an epic chore?

I saw someone ranting in game how Aion is a proper hardcore MMO. What a load of old poo. Aion is not a hardcore MMO. Just because it takes ages and has costs attached to bloody breathing does not make a game or it’s players hardcore, it just means it’s a time sink. Hardcore? Hard labour is closer to the truth.

I think Aion got lucky. It’s not a bad game, it’s just an old game in new clothes, but it has come out at a convenient time. A time when many people are disappointed with WAR, where the Age of Conan shambles is in it’s death throes and a lot of folks are getting tired of WoW. Up strolls Aion covered in hype from the beta, with a different look and using a game engine that runs like a whippet whacked out of its mind on PCP. If WAR’s poor performance was pissing you off, then this alone could lure you in. Then over time as you start to notice the tedium; there are still no other major alternatives right now. You’ve already invested lots of time, so perhaps you subconsciously convince yourself it’s not dull as hell. We all do this with the products we like, for example it’s a contributing factor to people like me that are sticking with WAR. As we justify ourselves sticking with WAR that is to be honest a bug ridden, badly supported game that lacks direction (amongst things)...

Aion has demonstrated quite how well a MMO can run and is a lesson for other developers. But the game is without any doubt a dated throwback. If you played games like Everquest, Asherons Call, Anarchy Online, etc, etc, then levelling your first character in Aion feels like you’re just levelling yet another alt for one of those old games. Grinding out the same old shit, to get to the (in this case presumably) good stuff.

Maybe grinding is new to a lot of people. That’s quite possible; you only have to look at the old grinders sub numbers to see it’s mathematically impossible for all of today’s MMO subscribers to have played them. Maybe there are a lot of sado masochistic gamers out there that like paying to have their face’s sandpapered whilst listening to Vogon poetry. Or maybe it’s me? I paid my dues grinding up in the old MMOs, perhaps I’ve just burnt out on MMO grinds. There is no escaping that’s what Aion is. Whatever the reasons, I find it hard to comprehend why people are getting so pant wettingly excited about Aion.

If I were to choose two words to summarise Aion it would be: Pretty tedious. All the connotations you can get from those two words are correct.

13 comments:

  1. Hmm...I dunno about the west, but in Asia there aren't many non-grinder MMORPGs. Casual games still have a pretty grindy experience. Part of the reason is that the vast majority of the games over there are F2P, and the grind is introduced to entice people to purchase experience boosting items.
    The exception are a few games made by Japan and WoW, and even they accept hourly rates and not straight up monthly fee. A lot of people now think that there's no reason to pay for a whole month when you have to work/go to school/do other things for more than 12 hours a day.
    As such people figured grinding is a way of life, in exchange for not having to pay a monthly fee.

    Aion's model is a proven one, and I doubt NCSoft would change it even for the US audience. For many of us, the search for the perfect mmo continues.

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  2. For me Aion is a walk down memory lane. The grinding and the resting are like my distorted memories of EQ. I always find my self thinking about how much fun the old games were. But in reality I just did not know any better.

    I will leave as soon as the new patch for WAR comes out. It is a little vacation to a pretty place. I believe that a lot of people will return to there old games just like normal. Aion may keep them a little longer just because it takes longer to level but once that new patch for WoW comes out a lot will leave.

    The wings are stinking joke. You have them but cant use them in most places. I don't mind the timer but why cant I use them all the time.

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  3. I think what will make or break Aion is how the end game turns out. But even then if leveling isn't fun how long will people hang round.

    War with all it's problems for me provides the most fun leveling experience around. 3 zones, scenario's, open RvR, dungeons and public quests make War a very varied experience on the way up. What I think is even better is the end game and leveling are not two completely different experiences.

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  4. @One Shard

    I completely agree, WAR has one of the most diverse leveling experiences. It would not take much added PVE to make the leveling very fun. Being able to level completely with PVP either Orvr or Scenarios is very unique.

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  5. I couldn't agree more. WAR provides far more varied ways to level than practically anything else. It's just unfortunate that this gets overshadowed by WAR's other issues.

    Had WAR released with larger fully pvp enabled zones, 3+ factions and better performance, then it would be the top dog right now. Alas it doesn't have those and it isn't.

    Regardless, I've still had far more fun playing WAR than I did Aion. I understand why people have left WAR, but I really don't see why many went to Aion. Shiney new toy syndrome? Shiney old toy more like :P

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  6. @Bootae: Shiny toy is pretty much the reason. The game is extrememly grindy. The Crafting system is a perfect example, you just grind work orders.

    The PvP is overrated. Nothing seperates high level characters from low. So be ready to fight a 50 when you are 25.

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  7. 17 minutes, did you include the 10 minutes for grabbing a cup of coffee.

    Aion, is the new kid on the block. The performance thing is crucial here, no one likes to play a slide show, regardless of their antique hardware (Puts hand up).

    Personally I think Aion is a good thing, since it may? give people the necessary perspective to view Warhammer in a clearer light.

    I just hope some return, since I am quite lonely in my guild at the moment, basically being the only person around.

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  8. I play Aion because of a reason I play many MMOs - to play with friends and people I know. I can't say I disagree with what you're saying. I'm 27 or so now, and the grind doesn't get any better, trust me.

    I think that Aion will be viable and retain subscriptions, but there are a lot of people who thought it was the second coming who are in for a rude awakening come a month or so from now.

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  9. Spot on Frank mate. That is a reason I can understand. WAR needs to strike with an announcement at that moment when the realisation kicks in... More on that thought later :)

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  10. Pretty harsh there, mate.
    I do agree on many of the points you made, I also, however disagree with quite a few, but I'm too lazy to write a wall of text.

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  11. Hey dude, long time no see ;)

    Yeah I knew my review wouldn't be too popular with everyone, but then we all have different (sometimes subtlety so) things we want from our MMOs. I think Aion will continue to be very successful, after all the Lineage games were/are, there is certainly a place for this type of game. Just not for me :)

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  12. Hey, sure your review can´t be popular with everyone, but i have to say it´s one of the better ones :)

    A few points i wanted to point, it is grindy yes, but so are other popolar mmo´s, even the biggest western mmo is one big grind fest.

    Truth about the wings, i´m not a fan that you hardly can fly in the pve zones. The timer increases later on with gear and then it becomes realy interesting in pvp.

    I do enjoy the "rvr" experince more than in warhammer, one fact might be the 3th faction that makes it better for me, a point a lot of WAR fans wanted to see in Warhammer Online.

    I would say the game realy starts from lvl25 onwards. Funny however i made that in a very short time and i have no problem finding quests. I guess a lot of people have problems with lvl because the game is new here and there are no lvl guides out and sites featuring every quest etc.

    Overall it´s nice, still i don´t think i will play it for a very long time. One of the reasons is the community, it has become a lot better the last days and i hope it will get better after the free month. But the game attracted too many wow players for my taste and that totaly ruins the experince. On the other side i met a lot of old Lineage/EQ/UO etc players and had a great time with them.

    Nice review :) Thumps up.

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  13. I'm on your side here, Bootae. When a game is as mercilessly uninteresting as Aion, it's hard to wait until level 25 to start having fun.

    Aion is a dated game that has zero influence on the genre and will probably see its numbers fall off a cliff in the near future. Let's stop living in the past and start on the revolution.

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