Visiting the South Korean capital, Seoul, is an eye-opener to a side of gaming you probably knew existed, but never quite believed in. In a waiting area in Incheon Airport, plasma screens show a televised Counter-Strike match in progress. In one of the city's vast shopping malls, you find a television studio set up specifically for professional Starcraft matches, where perfectly coiffed young men in sponsored team tracksuits zerg rush each other to shrieked encouragement from an audience of female fans.
In the multi-storeyed nightlife districts familiar to any space-conscious city across the Asia-Pacific region, buildings teem with "PC baang", specialised internet cafes where gamers come to spend their evenings playing against one another - not just boys, but girls, grown men and women, and even couples in specially designed areas with cinema-style loveseats facing two PC terminals.
In the sprawling in-game support centre of NCsoft, one of the country's biggest online games operations, a female manager tells me about how often they help people who have fallen for each other in-game to meet up in real life, how many of them end up married, and how the team also helps huge guilds to organise outings to concerts or sports matches together. She speaks matter-of-factly, as though this were normal. For young people in Seoul, maybe it is.
NCsoft knows a thing or three about online games. Long before Blizzard's World of Warcraft pushed its player numbers into the millions, NCsoft's Lineage series was boasting around five million players around the world - a phenomenon largely unreported in the west, where the game failed to gain a significant foothold, but which was at the forefront of a genuine social revolution in South Korea and various other high-tech nations in the Far East. As a company wholly devoted to online gaming, though, Lineage is only the start of the NCsoft story (although it remains the company's most popular game to this day); here in the west, they're probably best known for US-developed MMOGs City of Heroes and Guild Wars, and Ultima creator Richard Garriott is busy working away on one of the firm's Next Big Things, sci-fi action MMO Tabula Rasa.
On the Korean side, though, things had been pretty quiet for a while; NCsoft is dabbling in some interesting casual game and digital distribution initiatives, and keeping Lineage updated is a full-time job for a pretty big development studio, but a Korean-developed MMO that could concievably be a successor to Lineage in the Asian market - and bring that success to the west - was conspicuous by its absence from the line-up.
Until Aion, that is - NCsoft's big revelation at the Gstar show in Seoul last November, and arguably one of the most ambitious and graphically stunning MMOs in development anywhere in the world right now. It's not a small claim by any means - but as videos, shots and information about Aion gradually seep out of NCsoft's tightly guarded development studios, it's hard for an MMO fan not to be excited about what we're seeing.
Keeping An Aion Business
Admittedly, hard facts about how the game works remain thin on the ground - so we're forced to work in broad generalisations, to some degree. We do know that the world of the game is divided up into three factions - Angels ("The Chosen"), Demons ("The Fallen") and a race of dragons whom they upset rather greviously, triggering a bit of a ruck between the factions. Players will be able to pick sides between the Angels and the Demons; the dragons are a non-playable faction who serve as protagonists for the events of the game.
Think angels and demons, and what comes to mind? Wings, of course - and this is perhaps Aion's most well-known hook. Yes, the game will allow you to fly around the game world, soaring over cliffs, valleys and lord knows what else, and dropping down into the middle of battles in progress. The impact on the game is obvious; it'll open the whole experience up in a way previously unseen in any MMOG, although of course, there's always the slightly worrying possibility that you'll need to reach a certain level before earning your first set of wings, or some such. Regardless, watching people soar around the game world is a compelling view - and far from being simply a gimmick that makes travelling around more interesting for players, the ability to fly is a core part of Aion's gameplay.
Key to that is the ability to battle in the air, with players (and presumably creatures, although we've not seen that yet) duking it out in epic dogfights high above the ground. The mechanics of these battles still aren't entirely clear to us - they use similar weapon and magical attacks to the ground-based battles, but there seems to be an added element of positioning and maneouvering, as well as the need to avoid taking serious damage which might unbalance your character enough to make him plummet towards the unforgiving earth.
Battles on the ground, too, appear to be quite different to what we're used to from MMOG battle systems - with early glimpses hinting at a strong emphasis on the stance and state of the player. Gameplay videos suggest a complex set of interlocking assault and defense moves which have a distinctly more martial arts feel than the traditional MMOG system of relatively straightforward attacks, buffs and so on. Executing defensive moves in response to an enemy's attacks, and modifying your attacks to allow for defensive moves, appears to be a key part of the game - while from the outset videos have shown that players who are knocked to the ground by particularly powerful attacks are then open to a whole new range of attacks which can pin them to the earth, or exploit their prone position to inflict maximum damage.
None of this happens with the kind of speed that you might expect from, say, a beat 'em up - and Aion does still suffer from the ongoing problem of many MMOs, namely that in a concession to imperfect network conditions, combat is more focused on statistics and less on actually providing a visceral experience with proper physics and clashing weapons. However, the game's martial emphasis is definitely a step in the right direction, and we'll be fascinated to learn more about how the system works as the game progresses in development.
Aion The Horizon
On a more macrocosmic level, Aion also promises to actually allow players to influence the progress of the storyline and the relationships between the various factions to a much greater degree than we've seen in the majority of MMOGs to date. Details of how, exactly, this will work are sketchy, but NCsoft has waxed lyrical on several occasions about creating a world where the actions of players will influence the outcome of various events, and shift the balance of power between the factions.
Of course, other games have done this to a lesser or greater degree in the past - Final Fantasy XI, to pick an example, shifted power and control of regions between various different factions depending on the accomplishments of their players in the previous week. NCsoft seems to be suggesting something even more involved than that, however - and while we don't expect anything like the freedom of a game such as EVE Online, the potential for an evolving and adapting storyline in an MMOG is something we've been waxing lyrical about for years, so you'll forgive us a little frisson of excitement every time a developer looks like they're taking a step closer to that goal.
Then, of course, there are the visuals of the game. Preach about gameplay over graphics all you like, but graphics are clearly an important factor for many players - after all, the chances are you'll spend weeks staring at an MMOG, so it might as well look pretty. Aion certainly ticks this box, with beautiful visuals which are particularly adept at depicting lush jungle and forest environments, stunning draw distances that really bring home the epic scale of the world, and incredibly pretty and detailed (albeit somewhat androgynous) character models. The game runs on an engine called Crytec, which we can only assume is a variant of German developer Crytek's superb graphics engine - if so, it's no surprise that the game looks so good, and being developed on a mature graphics engine whose strength lies in vast landscapes probably means that it'll perform pretty well, too.
All of which conspires to put Aion near the top of our hitlist for games to keep a close eye on in 2007 - with a release date, we believe, tentatively pencilled in for the last quarter of this year. Of course, anything could go wrong between now and then - and we're particularly mindful of the legendary tolerance of the Korean market for grind-fest MMOGs with a relentless levelling treadmill, which could effectively prevent Aion from ever making an impact outside its home market if NCsoft chooses to follow that path. There's also a question mark over the subscription model for the game, with some rumours suggesting that it may be free to play in the style of Guild Wars, which would of course make it into a much more accessible title for many people. NCsoft is keeping its lips firmly pursed on that question, and a host of others - so for now, you'll just have to gawp at the lovely screenshots and videos, while we wait for the firm to start spilling the beans on what may well be its biggest new release since Lineage II.