So, I'm playing Aion at the moment. I was going to give a little synopsis and then proceeed into a piece-by-piece breakdown of the game, but I realised that for Aion (and perhaps for most MMOs) this is not appropriate. Aion is a game of fantastical highs but also drudgerous lows; you will either grind and bear it because you think the highs are worth it, or you will leave it by the wayside after being exposed to the horror of the grind. An overview would be of little use...
... Although "like WoW but with wings" would be a fairly good one.
I shall break things up into the most relevant areas that I think any MMO should be critiqued on. I'll start with the ones that Aion does well:
1) Wonder 5/5
This is what the Bartle "explorer" feeling is all about - that general sense of wonder when you experience new facets of a game. Aion is literally a wonderous experience. The zones are incredibly laid out and pretty to look at. Here is the 6th screenshot from my screenshots folder (in keeping with a recent meme):
As you can see, I'm flying, there are some giant elephant/dinosaur/kind of messed up animals, the water is quite lovely looking, etc. I'm really not a graphics whore by any means but this aspect of the game is very impressive. Note that the graphics themselves are not always great - some of the textures, and especially the flowing water effects in the game, can look quite low-tech. But the vistas themselves are always something to behold.
The flying adds to that feeling a lot. You may have heard that you can not fly in all the zones - this is true. However, you can always "glide", which basically means that if you find even a slightly raised hill, you can coast your way along for quite some amount of time. There is some level of skill involved (I dare say, more than in the actual combat system; more on this below) and this actually makes it quite fun traveling to various locations. The wings are obtained at level 10 which felt like it took a couple of hours to get to (i.e. not too long).
2) Polish 5/5
People always talk about the famous Blizzard polish, which I'm sure we're all quite sick of hearing about. Aion is really, really well polished, so get ready to hear more of that term. Performance is great even for me connecting all the way from Australia. The translation from the original Korean is in flawless, flawless English - even the jokes are well localized. There are a couple of typos here and there but it's actually better than any other Western game I've played. There are voice-overed tutorials for key game aspects. There's hyper-linking of items and map locations and quests into the chat. You can even save map locations from other people - for example I've downloaded a location text file from the forums containing the locations of all the PvP rifts that open from time to time (joining the two separate worlds). There is a "locate" function for finding the next mob you're looking for or difficult to find NPC's.
The list goes on - the game is just smooth.
3) Character appearance customization 4.5/5
The character generator does not have the same flexibility of City of Heroes, but this is purely because Aion is not a superhero game. In terms of non-over-the-top customization, Aion knocks the competition into the water. In other words, yes, you can make a ridiculously hot female character to ogle if you're a man (I'm not so sure about the sexual attractiveness of the male characters; sorry ladies).
4) Achievements 4/5
I class Achievement features as pretty much anything that goes "ding". Between leveling up your character, your items, your crafting skill, your PvP rank, getting rich, completing quests and obtaining titles, there seems to be a lot to do to keep all the achievers occupied. There is really nothing new over what WoW brought to the table hence why it can't be given a 5 (disclaimer; I'm not really the biggest "achiever" type, so I'm basing this somewhat on what others say in-game and how similar to WoW it is).
5) Travel 4/5
As said above, you can fly, which gives automatic bonus points in my book. A flying mount is just not as cool. There are also fast flight and/or teleportation NPC's in most places that you need to go to. Some places don't have these, but are conveniently often located a long way away down gently descending land, meaning that you can glide there to your heart's content.
6) Zoning 4/5
The game is not instanced for the most part and there are no loading screens except on teleportation, so I know that will appeal to the "open world" fans out there. Again the game definitely plays up to the explorers.
However the game actually features multiple channels in the more crowded areas, which can be freely switched between every 3 minutes. This is actually a similar approach to what I've heard Age of Conan does, but where AoC was ridiculed Aion seems to be being praised. I think the difference is that it's quite out of the way so as not to break immersion (I didn't even realise about it until digging around in the settings), yet it still offers the massive convenience of getting around queuing up for spawns and general overcrowding.
So, that was the good, and there's been a decent enough amount of it to keep me playing. But you didn't think I'd go on extolling the virtues of a WoW clone for the entire review did you? Here is where Aion is really quite dismal:
1) Gameplay 1/5
Gameplay in Aion is non-existent. In this sense it really is WoW with wings. You have a bunch of skills that you mash in order, on cool-down. Changing the order is rarely if ever indicated as it will have little impact on the fight. There is a little more skill required in groups to prevent aggroing too much etc, just as in WoW. This is not a "gamey" game in other words.
One thing that really bugs me about games like this is the "one monster at a time" rule. The monsters are just too tough for you to be able to take on very many of them at once. Sure, if you want to provide me with no challenge then go ahead and do it - but could you at least make me feel powerful by letting me slaughter a horde of enemies at once instead of one at a time? Give me Diablo 2 any day of the week.
There are hardly even any AoE skills in the game, so it's not even possible to get a good group together and AoE a bunch of mobs down. Stuff like that could make the grind (discussed next) quite a bit more tolerable.
2) Grinding 2/5
There are some racist people who claim that Koreans love their grind games. At least, that's what I thought until I played Aion. The game is a massively soul sucking grind fest (hmmm MMOSG??). I felt this way about WoW, but Aion is noticeably worse. I am only rating it a 2/5 because I have heard that Everquest was worse again.
3) Grouping 1/5
Grouping is dismal, for only one reason - there is no bonus XP when in a group. This means that DPS characters are much, much better off leveling up solo. Even the healers are better off due to down-time in between pulls etc. I'm actually playing side-by-side with my girlfriend and we decided to split up and farm mobs separately so that we could level faster. That is a massive, massive design flaw for a "massively" multiplayer game (I can't remember what WoW does there).
4) Build customization 2/5
There are 8 classes currently in Aion. You begin as one of 4 archetypes (Warrior, Scout, Mage, Priest) and then each of these has 2 classes available to it, which you select one of (permanently) at level 10. So far so good.
However, up until level 20 you will have the exact same skills and stats as every other player of your class. There is no talent tree, no opportunity cost, none of that good old sit-down-and-knuckle-out-your-own-build kind of fun. Your stats can be modified somewhat by your gear, but generally the way to go there is just "focus on stat XX" - it's not very complicated. I'm not a big fan of needlessly complicated RPG mechanics (in fact I hate it), but this is too bare bones for me.
After level 20 things get better, as you gain access to "stigma" skills. These are basically extra skills that you can equip, however there are only a limited number able to be equipped at once so there should be some sort of opportunity cost involved. I am only level 21 at the moment so I don't have much more experience than that. It will be a long time before I get to tinker because the best stigma are highly sought after and expensive, so at the moment I have to rate build customization quite low. It's possible that I'll feel differently at a higher level, but really, every other RPG gives you character build customization at level 1 (or before!). That's supposed to be a staple.
5) Crafting 2/5
Crafting in this game is an even more epic grind than the actual game itself. Just like leveling your character level, leveling your crafting is even more painful than in WoW. The saving grace that prevents this from being a 1/5 is that there are "work orders", where the crafting NPC gets you to make something useless, but he gives you most of the materials. This is designed purely to allow you to level your crafting without paying too much money. This is very considerate of them; however, it is possibly the most boring thing I could imagine doing with my time.
On the other hand, it does allow me to read the forums and what-not. I am actually writing this entire review while my character busily works away at the crafting bench, which should give you an idea of how long it takes. You actually can level from crafting, but I wouldn't reccommend it. I spoke to a fellow yesterday who went from level 24 to 25 entirely from crafting. It cost him 400 k (about twice as much money as I have managed to save by level 21), and it took him 9 hours. Yes, the correct response is "lol" - however at least he was able to queue it all up and then go to sleep.
6) Enemies 2/5
The monsters in the game are for the most part quite ridiculous looking. On the one hand it's good because it's not the same tired old elves-and-dwarves fantasy fare. On the other hand, the enemies are so round, fat and squat looking that I want to poke them with a stick in the name of science rather than slaughter them. I don't think it's too much to ask for monsters that look a little more bad-ass. I am hoping that once I get to the abyss, the Balaur (the NPC faction) will look more intimidating. I know that the enemy players will look cool, so at least that's something.
7) Quests 2.5/5
Kill 10 rats. Good, now go and kill 10 slightly different rats. Nice job. Now kill 8 of these rats and 7 of those rats (some kind of psychological trick to hide the fact that the number of rats I'm being asked to kill is increasing, I'm sure). While you're there, could you collect X of this and Y of that - cheers.
In other words, standard MMO quests. However they do tend to make pretty much everything in any given area be something that you need to do for some quest or other. Kill a mob to satisfy one quest, collect the berries sitting next to it, kill the mob on the other side for some other quest, etc. It gives you kind of a "Ok, you're here, and you're going to be grinding for quite some time, but at least you're multitasking" feeling.
The quest text is extremely well written, but there's a lot of it, and as usual I don't read it. I have to say, if the game wasn't grindy, I probably would read it (I did for the first couple of levels).
There are a few quests that stand out from the dreary fare which I'd give 5/5 for general awesomeness (being teleported "accidentally" into enemy territory and being told to find my own way back was particularly awesome), but the dreary majority of quests has to lower the score.
The one thing that has been surprisingly left out of my review so far is of course PvP. The wonderousness of the game only gets me so far - the real reason that I'm putting up with the grind is because I want to get to level 25, which is the level that you can enter the abyss, which is the free-for-all PvP area. Call me old fashoined, but mention the words "fortress siege" to me and I just get all giddy. I'm quite excited to see how the PvP pans out after reading the hectic-sounding accounts in general chat. The "hostile to all" third NPC faction may be just what large-scale MMO RvR action needs.
It's a big let-down that I haven't been able to try PvP earlier than this. I went into the arena and fought a little against my girlfriend (who schooled me quite hard by the way), but it was devoid of other people. I miss WAR in this respect, where I could PvP all the way through the game if I wanted to, even from level 1. Scenarios were a great "jump in and have fun" feature as well and I definitely miss that aspect.
In summary, I'm still playing the game. I'm enjoying the scenery, and uncovering new aspects of the game and I'm very much looking forward to the PvP, and these things are allowing me to push through the interminable grind to the light of day at the end of the tunnel. If you're not much bothered by grind and are an achiever/explorer, I'd definitely recommend trying Aion. If you are looking for an MMO with engaging combat or great social aspects (grouping) then look elsewhere.
Stay tuned for further opinions, especially on PvP, as I get a bit higher in level!