It's hard to remember such a carefully controlled, ruthlessly organised, painstakingly cautious, generally locked-down and sewn-up MMO launch preparation as that currently being undertaken by NCsoft West for the US and European launch of Aion: The Tower of Eternity. That's because there's probably never been one.
As it picks its way through a series of short closed beta previews ahead of its late-September launch, Aion is looking slick and confident and playing as smooth as silk. But the servers are never up long enough for it to truly get under our skin, or for us to properly penetrate its mysteries. Is NCsoft discreetly drawing a veil over its Korean beauty-queen's blemishes, or simply playing the PR tease? After a couple of weekends with the game, my money's on the latter.
That's partly because Aion's been rocking the Asian PC cafés and subsidising bubble-tea sales since late last year, and has had plenty of time for its kinks to be ironed out ahead of what NCsoft likes to call its Western "culturalisation". The benefits of taking one's time and using a solid technology base - CryEngine, in this case - are immediately apparent when you install the game. The Aion client is excellent. Being stable, scalable, reliable and fuss-free is far from a given in MMOs, but Aion is all those things, and can already stand alongside the genre's usability kings, EVE Online and World of Warcraft. Its expansive, zone-free open-world environments look terrific and run smoothly on a wide variety of systems. It just works.
That's not just true of the game's technical side. Aion has evidently been put together - and localised - with tremendous care and attention to detail. It's hardly surprising. This could not be a more critical game for NCsoft, which hasn't had a successful launch since 2005's Guild Wars, has suffered a couple of high-profile flops (Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa), and hasn't previously managed to convert huge Asian hits like Lineage and Lineage II into magnets for Western players. Aion needs to change that, and NCsoft certainly isn't going to leave it to chance.
The result is a highly polished and deeply conservative MMORPG that blends what NCsoft does best - ornate Eastern fantasy-lands peopled by weird creatures and gorgeous, matinee-idol characters - with what a post-WOW world expects, and hardly puts a foot wrong in its early stages. Solid, solo-able questing, finely-judged difficulty, tangible and steady advancement, generous rewards, and punchy, well-tuned combat are all present and manifestly correct - not to mention a full and functional suite of community features and a seemingly well-rounded crafting system.
You start out as a mere human on either the Elyos or Asmodian side of Aion's ruptured world. It's composed of two hemispheres, the Elyos' bathed in light, the Asmodians' in darkness, with the latter's crepuscular habitat granting them edgy, wild-looking manes and claws but losing them nothing in classical cheekbone structure or fashionable coiffure. (Here we must make mention of Aion's remarkable character editor, which somehow combines huge flexibility and a vast range of options with almost always good-looking results. You don't have to look like a Eurasian underwear model if you don't want to, although it does seem impossible to be ugly.)
The strict division of the two factions' homeworlds - separated as they are by the high-level player-versus-player zone the Abyss, and the broken Tower of Eternity - might well be Aion's most controversial design choice. This relegates all PVP action to the game's later stages, so those with a keen interest in large-scale player combat (which ought to be many, given the game's Lineage heritage, flying combat and intriguing third AI faction) are faced with a fairly solid questing grind to get to it. It also divides a substantial amount of the game's content in two, with the result that you'd need to roll at least two characters to see everything Aion has to offer. It also stands to reason that the questing and exploration on each side might be curtailed as a result.
It's true the first half of the levelling curve is quite a linear progression from one quest hub and zone to the next - but it's also a densely-packed and well-paced one. There are exactly the right amount of quests for grind-free levelling - no fewer, but not many more, either - and each NPC village and monster enclave has been frugally spun out for as much story, entertainment and all-important XP as it can yield. One excellent move is to split off the critical quests that deliver the best rewards and most satisfying story chains into a separate "campaign" category, giving you a clear idea of what's not to be missed, and what's just grist for the XP mill. The campaign quests also neatly divide the game into chapters, the first taking you up to level 10 and your ascension as a Daeva (which means a pair of wings, the power of flight, and a powerful Daeva super-skill).
There's nothing much to surprise in the quest design; this is straightforward, school-of-classic-WOW stuff. Collect the drops, kill the boss mob, sabotage the wagon. Inspiring it may not be, but the tuning is a cut above, with landscapes and enemy placement that have clearly been planned with caution and just a soupçon of sadistic pleasure. Aion is a totally solo-able game, and a scrupulously fair one, but if you want to go it alone, don't expect it to be easy. Dense enemy placement, frequent patrols, tight level banding - a monster just two levels above you is to be avoided, and fighting two of your own level is far from a cakewalk - all ensure that you'll die a few times.
Dying incurs a small experience penalty and short debuff, both of which can be eliminated with a fee. (If you're initially surprised by how much money you seem to make in Aion, don't be, because in this game you get it to spend it. Everything costs - travel, some of your better skills, crafting - and it costs a fair bit, too.) However, after level 10 you'll find yourself more concerned at the irreparable loss of Daeva Points, or DP, when you die. These build up to unlock your mouth-watering super-skills, and it takes an hour or two's faultless and uninterrupted play to get there.
Although it employs a simple combo system and some slightly advantages to positional play, combat won't convert any MMO naysayers, being a textbook skill-clicking affair at its root. It does, however, enjoy the advantages of fine animation and sound effects, very crisp timing, and clearly-defined skills with obvious and tangible effects - all areas where, for example, even a well-balanced and enjoyable game like Warhammer Online fell down at launch. This stuff couldn't be more important in a classical MMO, and it's another area where NCsoft has clearly studied long and hard.
There's not much to say about the strictly conventional classes, which break four standard archetypes (scout, warrior, mage and priest) into eight entirely predictable and sensible specialisations. The chance to hybridise your class comes with the Stigma system later in the game, but for now there seems little wrong with what's on offer, beyond perhaps the slightly lumpy delivery of new skills and one or two cases (the two Scouts, Ranger and Assassin, for example) where one specialisation seems better-developed than the other.
In most areas, Aion proves to be a game that's been fine-tuned for progression without undue angst - this is no Final Fantasy XI, or early-days Lineage II - but without undue ease either. Levelling is fast, but it's not necessarily easy. Quests are ample, but sometimes involve arduous, low-drop-rate grinds. Even crafting balances a generous work order system (which makes it possible to level up crafting skills without gathering or buying tons of materials) with exacting requirements for making items to keep or sell, and the risk of failure with every item you craft.
For an easy life, Aion is probably best played in a duo or small group, although on the beta servers there doesn't seem to be a culture of random grouping, with determined soloing the order of the day. There's a great sense of life though, helped in part by the fact you can plant your character down on a stool and leave it as an open, personal shop for others to buy from, with your choice of message displayed. The resulting crowds of hawking merchants around points of interest are a distant echo of Ultima Online's bustling heyday.
But most of this is a matter of tuning and taste, and there can be no doubt that NCsoft's Korean developers, in tandem with the NCsoft West's localisation teams, have left the barren and flavourless grinding of the Lineage games far, far behind them. With its colourful and atmospheric environments, captivating bestiary, and occasionally rough but chewy and nourishing questing, Aion recalls no more nor less than the early days of original, pre-expansion World of Warcraft, and there are many who won't see that as a bad thing. As an RPG, it has already proven its worth.
As an MMO? That remains to be seen. Aion's serious dungeons and player-on-player combat don't reveal themselves early in the game, and its unique selling point - the early and integral power of flight, and winged combat - is rather undersold to begin with, with questing zones in the teens mostly ruling it out after your first level-10 flirtation with the air. The same can be said of the Stigma system, arguably the most original facet of Aion's RPG system. If Aion seems a little conventional and characterless up to level 20, that's most likely because it hasn't really begun to show its true character yet.
But it has shown its foundations, and they are considered, solidly built, carefully designed, and sunk deep in hard-won experience. They're also dressed in some starkly beautiful artwork and a surprisingly well-realised world. Later phases of the beta will show us more, but for now it's clear that Aion has done enough to give itself the best possible chance of success.