Upon entering Aion's world for the first time, you can't help but notice how beautiful it is, and for the first few hours it seems that as much attention has been lavished on the engaging quests and interesting characters as has on the CryEngine-powered visuals. Play past the first dozen or so character levels though, and Aion's grind-happy design becomes increasingly apparent. Non-player characters with stories to tell make way for others who might as well be notice boards, and quests that are at least somewhat imaginative early on are replaced with a mind-numbing mix of deliver, fetch, kill, and collect objectives. Aion does a lot of things right, and it looks great doing them, but ultimately, you're too busy grinding while playing it to care or, perhaps, even notice.
Even before you enter the postcataclysm world of Atreia, Aion impresses with its incredibly robust character creation system. The extensive customization options are more reminiscent of those in sports games than in other massively multiplayer online offerings, and after choosing one of the two factions and one of the four starting classes to play as, you could easily spend an hour or two perfecting your character's look. In the wrong hands, though, tools likes these can be too powerful as players go out of their way to create the most ridiculous and improbable avatars imaginable. Thankfully, heads and arms that are far too big for the bodies they're attached to aren't a common sight, but characters at both ends of the size scale definitely are. That wouldn't be a problem, except that the extremes are so far apart--diminutive characters are dwarfed by even the insects and other small enemies that you fight early on and are barely waist high to players who opt for the Aion equivalent of Andre the Giant. Jarringly, animations of the small characters are sped up significantly so that they can move around at the same speed as everyone else while large characters run in slow motion. The end result is that you're constantly being reminded that you're playing a game and that not everyone you're playing with has the same goals.
When deciding which faction to play as, you’ll notice few distinguishing characteristics separating the Elyos and Asmodian races; they're functionally identical and even their appearances aren't dramatically different. The most obvious distinction is that the Elyos have white wings while the Asmodians' are black. The latter also have talons on their hands and feet and dull gray skin, while the former look more or less human. Classes are the same for both races, and although there are ultimately eight, you initially get to choose from only four. That might sound restrictive, but it's actually a great system because rather than forcing you to choose your class right away, it affords you 10 levels to decide which of the more specialized classes you want to pursue. For example, after playing for 10 levels as a damage-dealing scout, you can opt to specialize in either ranged combat as a ranger or melee combat as an assassin. You won't necessarily have had a lot of experience with both options when the time comes to make your choice, but some is better than none.
Combat in Aion isn't radically different from that in other MMO games, but it does place a greater emphasis on skills and abilities that chain together to form combos. Many moves can only be performed during a short window immediately after another move is performed, and conveniently these moves are automatically mapped to the same key. For example, your first attack might have a 100 percent chance of making a second attack available to you that, in turn, has a 25 percent chance of triggering a third. Rather than having to assign these three different moves to three different keys, they're automatically mapped to just one key so that you can press 1-1-1 rather than 1-2-3. Furthermore, the cooldown indicators for these moves are superimposed alongside your character during combat, so you know exactly when they become available to you without having to take your eyes off the action. It's a great system because it not only makes the occasionally spectacular-looking combos easy to perform, but it also dramatically cuts down on the number of buttons that you need to arrange on your screen. The only downside is that--particularly when fighting against the various creatures and humanoid enemies that inhabit Atreia--combat can feel like an extended quick-time event in which you do little more than respond to onscreen prompts.
That's because once you've devised an efficient attack rotation, very few of the enemies you encounter force you to deviate it from it. They might prevent you from finishing a chain or incapacitate you temporarily, but the moment you regain control you can generally just pick up where you left off. That's not to say that enemies in Aion are pushovers, because they're not. Enemies around your level will often manage to take a chunk of your health before you finish them off, and--depending on which class you're playing as--enemies that are two or more levels higher than you can pose a real threat if you don't have any health and/or mana potions in your inventory. When you're not rolling with a well-rounded group that has both a tank and a healer, you should expect there to be plenty of downtime between your fights. You can sit down in order to speed up your health and mana regeneration, but it's still not quick, and you're vulnerable to attack the whole time you're on the ground. But, you're not necessarily any safer up in the air.
Surprisingly, whether you're on foot or flying, combat isn't that different. You have to be aware of enemies at different altitudes, of course, and there are certain moves that are more useful in the air than on the ground, but the hardest (or most frustrating, at least) thing to get used to is the idea that you can only fly or glide for a limited amount of time before you become exhausted and fall out of the sky. Prior to gaining access to gear and wing augmentations that increase your flight time, you have only about a minute before you have to return to the ground and spend another minute regaining your strength to be able to fly for that amount of time again. This makes flying, which should be one of Aion's most unique and exciting features, something of a chore at times and downright infuriating at others. Frequently, when flying in quest areas, you hit invisible walls and are told that you're entering an area where flight is impossible. There's no attempt to justify this grounding, but it's clear that the majority of quest zones were not designed with flight-capable players in mind. Even those zones where flight is permitted very rarely put their verticality to good use. Rather, quest objectives are still found almost exclusively on the ground while materials that can be collected and used for crafting float above.