We move through the instance at a brisk pace and the developer is quick to remind us that we're wearing high-end gear on pre-made characters there is far greater challenge to be had from these encounters on the live server. Mohamed 'Mo' Fadl, community manager at NCsoft, explains: "Hard mode is like raid toughness, you need six good people in great gear who know what the f**k they are doing."

In the Empyrean Crucible, players fight wave after wave of enemy combatants in an arena environment where the party's starting platform rushes from the underground up into the expansive colosseum. Battling through the waves of enemies, players slowly descend back into the depths of the instance. Survive a wave and you get to continue - fail and there's a long cooldown until the next attempt can be made.

Unusually for an MMO, solo instances were both introduced to Aion, and enthusiastically received by the players. "It was based on direct feedback from a lot of solo players," says Christensen.

"We have a new solo instance coming up in 2.6 which is the solo version of the Empyrean Crucible. Even though it's similar to the 2.5 group instance versions, it has new monsters, new items, new hidden secrets and easter eggs. With Aion, we're going to continue that."

NCsoft has also expanded on what even the most successful MMO publisher doesn't get right. Consider the inevitable endgame race which sees a story-based levelling process reduced to a mere obstacle for many. The mentoring system in Aion rewards veteran players who head to low-level zones to participate in daily quests with the newcomers, teaching them the ropes and forming friendships.

"The mentor system is a great opportunity for players," says Hannas. "We had a number of initial tests to see what kind of impact it would have. It's had a greater impact than we thought it would in terms of how fast players can level up and the benefits of having a mentor. We constantly see groups forming in chat channels for mentors/mentees. It's had a big impact and it's only been out for a week."

The pet system added variety to the game mechanics, from both a cosmetic and convenience perspective - there's the lonely mule, plodding around hoovering loot off your victims for you, or the critter whose ears prick up, chirruping excitably when an enemy faction player draws near.

Yes, we are looking forward to mounts.

The developer has also added some gentle brush-strokes to an already beautiful world. Prior to the release of 2.5, a character who ran out of flight-time would simply plummet to the ground, flailing all the while like a French mime attempting to navigate a particularly tricky pane of imaginary glass.

The game now allows for a more balletic tumble, wings tucked inward as you take a graceful dive head-first into the concrete. The wings themselves have been given a fresh coat of paint, and the peacock-tail colours now ripple in Atreia's sunlight.

Other flourishes have brought improvements to the water effects, and the cities now slowly self-illuminate as the evenings draw in. By day, the sky overhead is streaked with powder-puff cloudscapes. By night, Aion's northern lights shimmer overhead. The skies remain cold but colourful, in keeping with the game's art style.

Further refinements in the next major patch will come in the form of player mounts - long-awaited by the player-base, and a luxury long since taken as a given in the genre.

"Our players have wanted that for quite some time," explains Christensen. "Mounts are going to be a huge addition, and also player housing. We're excited to have that finally in the game and new locations to perform crafting and things like that. There's obviously going to be huge introductions of big content but those are the things we're most excited about."

'NONE SHALL P-....OK, you can, but not your mates.'

And if you were one of the unlucky players to fall victim to the army of RMT agents who descended on the game immediately after launch - hacking accounts to feed the market - the developer has since introduced a new PIN system for logging into the game which has brought about a sizeable reduction in the number of successful account hijacks.

"There was a lot of negative feedback at first, but it reduced the number of hacked accounts by around 75 per cent ," explains Christensen.

"That's something we take very seriously and the fact we have a whole department dedicated to it, constantly monitoring the game to find those people who are violating the system, is something I think speaks very well to the players."

Aion launched at an usual time. After the feverish uptake experienced by World of Warcraft, and the equally ferocious consumption of that content, players were naturally hungry for something different. Visually, the game certainly delivered, but it lacked the polish players had become greedily accustomed to.

If you still have an eye for the outlandish - but had little patience for the more egregious nature of Aion's progression - it's now perhaps time to take a second look.

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John Bedford

John Bedford

Editor in Chief, Metabomb

John is Metabomb's Editor in Chief, and is responsible for all of the Hearthstone news, features and guides content on the site.

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