NCsoft - or, we should say, NCsoft West - is in a rather odd position with Aion. Its first major MMO launch since the ill-fated Tabula Rasa has already debuted in Korea, and is proving to be a major draw. The company isn't talking total player numbers, but not long after launch it saw a peak concurrency (number of people online simultaneously) of 200,000, a huge headcount by anyone's standards.
But the American and European release is still at least six months away, as NCsoft West's Seattle office puts it through an exhaustive "culturalisation" process. Few know better than NCsoft the difficulties involved in bringing mainstream Korean games west, after its blockbuster Lineage games failed to make a dent in the US or European online gaming scene, so it's taking its time. Success may have been quick, but NCsoft's true objective - to create a genuinely global MMO, a trick only Blizzard has pulled off - still hangs in the balance.
On a lesser level, it has to find ways to build excitement around a game that's already public property, with a feature set that's already set in stone (as much as any MMO feature set is). Demoing the game at GDC this week, NCsoft wasn't able to offer a great deal more detail than it did in last summer's exhaustive previews.
If you're lacking background on what will probably be 2009's biggest MMO launch, start there. The executive summary: Aion is a highly polished and largely conventional MMO, blending the ornate artwork and large-scale player-versus-player endgame of Korean tradition with the more vibrant world, storyline, and rich questing of World of Warcraft. Eight classic character classes belonging to four archetypes; two factions warring with each other; a third, AI-controlled race in the central Abyss; a Stigma system that allows you to equip skills from other classes, and combo-chain combat; the power of flight and a pretty pair of wings for everyone at level 10.
Nevertheless, we saw and heard a few more interesting things about Aion this week, and got to try it for ourselves. A striking demo of the character-creation system proved that it combines the drop-dead, pop-star looks of Lineage or Guild Wars with the insane, slider-tweaking detail of an EverQuest II to great effect, and with a little imagination, isn't just limited to creating feather-cut fops and slinky temptresses. In fact, the Elyos race could convincingly be adjusted to look like either the dwarf or elf archetypes of fantasy tradition.
NCsoft spent plenty of time banging the questing drum, still keen to counter the lingering impression from Lineage that their Korean development studios are purveyors of pure grind. It's reassuring, of course, especially the highlighted Campaign quests that come loaded with scripted incident and story cut-scenes.
But times have moved on, and in this day and age - after the deft pacing and storytelling expertise shown by Lord of the Rings Online and Wrath of the Lich King - simply having quests in the first place isn't enough. And while NCsoft's claimed total of 1500 quests may sound like a lot, we learned from former WOW lead Jeff Kaplan today that World of Warcraft had some 2600 at launch, and now has over 7600. With a strict division in questing between the two playable races, it will have to be a fairly compact world and short levelling curve for these to fill it out.
For the loot-fixated, NCsoft showed some truly arresting high-level armour sets. These not only had the flaming, iridescent visual effects virtual fashionistas have come to expect, but even some morphing animations - and all in Aion's elaborate, curlicued style. They're not subtle, but neither is a Lamborghini, and at the end of the day raw beauty and bragging rights are all that counts. Aion's characters and kit have these in spades, and in a style that will appeal to those who still baulk at Blizzard's chunky cartooning. Also, the gear's stats can be modified with jewels called mana stones.
One detail we missed last summer was a position combat system intended to stop players standing still while fighting, simply by giving them an edge if they don't. You get a small but appreciable boost to attack power if you're moving forward, to block if you move back, and to dodge if you move from side to side. (A plan to increase critical hit chance with jumps was abandoned when it turned everyone into a Quake III-style jack-in-a-box, and just looked ridiculous.) It's an intriguing twist, more effective in PVP apparently - it should make solo play more interesting, but we wonder if it won't make some group play situations a bit awkward.
We were then taken on a tour of the Abyss, the central zone controlled by the AI Balaur faction. It can be accessed from the mid-levels, but is mostly a maximum-level zone for questing, raiding and PVP. It's designed for full flight, and the Ether fuel that is in limited supply and restricts flight elsewhere is abundant here.
It's a cavernous 3D space criss-crossed by spidery pathways and studded with fortresses. These fortresses, initially under Balaur control, will grant access to hunting grounds and specific vendors that can be taxed by the owners. They have many entrances and are difficult to defend, and also surrounded with lesser control points called artefacts that give a huge advantage. The Asmodian and Elyos will likely run into each other here on their way to wresting fortress control from the Balaur. Korean servers are seeing spectacular pitched battles of some two to three hundred players at a time around the Fortresses.
There's a ranking system in effect in the Abyss. Similarly to Warhammer Online, players will earn points for contributing to their faction's struggle in both PVP and adventuring, although the balance is most likely tipped towards PVP - and towards the individual scores of a dedicated elite. High rankings will bestow special skills, including one that actually turns the player into a raid boss.
All this is grist to the Korean players' mill, of course. By all accounts it's working well over there - but when even Warhammer Online, a game specifically engineered for massed open-world PVP, struggles to attain critical mass in such battles, we have to wonder if it can ever work in the West outside of purely player-driven games like EVE Online. This is one of the biggest areas of divergence in the cultures of eastern and Western online gaming. However, the trick up Aion's sleeve is the Balaur, who effectively turn high-end PVP and raiding into the same thing by their presence. Given a smooth introduction and stuff for smaller groups of players to do, it could still work.
Hands-on, it's clear that one area that's a problem for many MMOs at launch, even quite high-profile ones - moment-to-moment polish - isn't a worry for Aion. Strong sound cues and animations make combat feel slick and robust, although we didn't have long enough with the game to get a sense of the extent of its depth and balance, and the user interface is hard to fault. The creature designs are fantastic in every sense, and the environments are lush and colourful. This CryEngine game has a sharp, defined and detailed beauty, pushing its fabulous art ahead of effects.
Barring slight concerns about the rather random scattering of enemy placement and a lack of environmental variation, making it easy to lose your bearings, Aion's world is an inviting place to be. That's a critical hurdle for an MMO to clear - you're asking players to spend months, years in this world, after all - and not managed as often as you might think. Aion's journey to the West isn't over yet by any means. But it's given itself a decent head start.