Sunday, November 08, 2009

What's Aion Doing Right?

I mentioned in a previous post that I'd been playing and enjoying Aion lately, somewhat to my surprise.  While I haven't had much free time to play it, aspects of it have impressed me very much and I'm still enjoying it when I can log in.

Aion seems to be one of those games where people either love it or hate it; I rarely hear anybody in between.  I actually had no intention of playing it myself, for a few reasons:  one, I hate playing humans and the only race choice in Aion looks basically human; two, I heard it was fairly centered around PvP and I don't enjoy PvP; and three, I heard it was a bit grindy, and I don't much like that either.  I was vaguely aware it was in beta, but I'd planned to play Champions Online instead since I enjoyed City of Villains a lot.  Unfortunately, Champions Online turned out to be a disappointment to the point I considered it unplayable.  So when some friends decided to play Aion and invited me to join them, I gave it a try.

I certainly won't try to claim that it's a perfect game or is going to make WoW obsolete or any such thing. The former is clearly not true and the latter seems highly unlikely, although Massively posted an article this weekend that shows the game really is apparently doing extremely well in terms of sales. In terms of game play it's pretty standard MMO fare, not a lot of innovation, and it could certainly use a bit of polishing in a few areas (see my previous post on view predicates, for example).  And they have a serious, serious bot and spammer problem - I think they are really remiss to have launched the game without having a better (read: apparently any) framework in place to address it.

In other areas, however, it's very polished indeed and very well designed. The little tutorial videos that new characters can choose to play are excellent, particularly when contrasted to Champions Online's terrible walls of unhelpful NPC text. Some nice little features like hotlinks in the quest journal are small things but extremely nice: you can click into key words in your quest to learn more about areas or NPCs referenced, and click a handy 'locate' button to mark them on your mini map for ease of finding. The "campaign" special questline that runs through the game is really great, helping the player easily identify the major plot of the game and feel as if they're making real contributions to it.  Tradeskills (I'm currently a 100 skill handicrafter) are nothing innovative and there are certainly elements I don't like there, but seem well balanced and well thought out with elements from both WoW and Vanguard, and fit well into the game's role for them.  And the main reason there is such a draw for bots and spammers is that the economy is actually very well balanced indeed, no small task in a big MMO.

In particular the use of little cut-scenes to highlight the campaign quests is an example to us all of how they could be used really effectively. The storyline about your character 'recovering' his or her lost memories draws the player right into the story and make them feel really special - in what other game do you get to fly around, fighting armies, and battling uber monsters... at level 6? The use of cut scenes and "visions" to flash forward and preview how cool and powerful you WILL be if you keep playing is a very effective technique that really pulls you in and makes you feel special.  Look at these screenshots, which are game content I was experiencing at level 6:

Really?  Flying around in fantastic armor in a stunning landscape, fighting powerful and awesome looking evil Balaur?  How can this not win, compared to most standard MMO games where at level 6 you're generally running around in your underwear, or at best grungy brown leather, trying to find a rusty sword to smack rats with?  Aion is absolutely outstanding at making you feel special, from sequences like the above to cut scenes at the completion of important quest lines where you see yourself surrounded by the entire village cheering you.  Heck yes.

One of my minor peeves with RPG style games is when you complete some huge epic questline that the game tells you is super important, and you return to the questgiver having saved the entire world, and the guy says "hey thanks, here's some gold!" and never mentions it again, and nobody else ever mentions it again or even seems to know about it.  That pretty much sucks, yes.  And happily, Aion tries to avoid this and do it right.  Make the player feel important, and they will in turn feel it is important to keep playing.

The other thing that really gets my attention is just how darn pretty the world is.  I just love looking around a beautiful world and ever since EQ1 I've been amassing an enormous collection of screenshots of beautiful views from various virtual worlds.  Call me an MMO tourist if you like, but I love finding things of beauty in the world and taking those screenshots.  It's one thing I love about EQ2, and Aion is also a beautiful, detailed world just begging me to hit that screenshot button over and over.

Chanter on an airship in the sky canals of Sanctum:

Newbie spiritmaster standing in the woods:

A specific area that annoys me very much about the art in many computer games (MMOs or not) is how they claim to be set in other worlds, and often populated with nonhuman races, but then the animals all over the world are just the same old animals we see on earth (and almost always North America).  Really, how many times do I need to see spiders, wolves, and rats?  If a world's ecosystem did not evolve humans, why does it make sense that it evolved every other animal that exists on earth?  And most of all, why does the game team expect me to take it seriously that this is another world, when all the flora and fauna are straight out of my back yard?  It's not just irritating, it's immersion breaking, and very sloppy design in my opinion.  And I hate it.  So I have been delighted to see Aion broke away from this.  What their art team seems to generally have done is take 2 or 3 familiar earth animals and then hybridize them into some new creature.  Similar enough looking to not seem completely weird to players, and for it to be believable that this creature could fill the same ecological niche as its earth equivalents, but original and not the same old rats, spiders, and wolves that have been boring players in every computer game since The Bard's Tale.

Darus - some kind of adorable sheep/kangaroo hybrid, with perhaps a touch of mountain goat?

A snuffler, an armadillo/mole/anteater cross?

A kirca - a kangaroo rat meets an armadillo?  These little hopping guys are so adorable, I fell of a cliff trying to screenshot them the first time I saw them.

A tog: a cross between a wild boar and a bulldog, having a really bad day:

Instead of wolves we have the worg: a lean, mean mix of fox, hyena, wolf, and perhaps a touch of rabid badger:

The ever so charming potcrab, some sort of lobster/crab hybrid, which always looks like it's smiling:

A sparkle, which appears to be a cross between a firefly and a stag beetle:

A porgus, which appears to be a tiger/pig mix with an almost monkey-like face:

Larail, a greenish hare/kangaroo sort of thing with almost ostrich-like feet:

I love the level of detail that's gone into creating all these original critters.  The same level of detail also impressed me hugely when I noticed that the player characters have idle animations that are weather and terrain specific.

When it rains, if you've gone idle for a moment, characters start to look up at the sky, hold up their hands to feel the rain, and then pull out a leaf umbrella to shelter under.

In hot terrain, characters fan themselves to keep cool.

If you go idle in water, characters will bend down and splash the water, or try to catch fish.

Small touches, but completely unexpected: when I first noticed it, I was absolutely delighted.  I really love finding little details in game worlds and the level of attention that the Aion artists have paid to small details has so far continued to surprise and impress me over and over.

So, with all that said,what about the gameplay itself?  I'm only level 20 (max is 50), so it's a little early to pass final judgement.  It's a bit more grindy than, say, EQ2, but not necessarily in a horrible way.  Many modern MMOs are highly quest-focused so that questing becomes the most efficient method of levelling up.  Aion takes a step back - while there are still plenty of quests and they are good to do, just plain killing stuff is also apparently quite acceptable as a levelling method, and in this it has almost a retro feel that reminds me a bit of EQ1, but without the ridiculous penalties and with lots more polish.  There have been plenty of quests so far, although the sudden jump at times between solo and group quests was a little jarring.  The quests are certainly nothing innovative, consisting almost entirely of "kill 10 X" or "talk to Y", although they're generally done with a high degree of polish and a very robust storyline, as mentioned.

I don't think this is a game that will suck me in long term the way EQ2 did: it's just not deep enough for that in the areas that are important to me.  (Other people's mileage may vary, obviously not every game appeals to every person equally.)  I'm guessing that most likely I will keep playing until either the solo gameplay is exhausted, or I'm forced into PvP content.  I'm not sure how far this will take me, but a gorgeous world, an interesting storyline, and a compelling narrative for my character's progression are keeping me coming back so far.  I was glad to see the Massively article that suggests the game is doing well, though.  While it's certainly not a perfect game by any means, I really like the things it's done right and I hope that it'll be successful enough give it time to address its weaker points, and to encourage future games learn from its strengths.

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