Many massively multiplayer games start you out in a high-fantasy world as some kind of penniless elf who must go out and beat on goblin after goblin after goblin in the hopes of finally earning enough copper coins to buy a rusty dagger. From there, you work your way up to a less-rusty dagger, then maybe a sword, all while gaining experience levels, going on quests, and possibly adventuring with other players in a persistent world. Aion: Tower of Eternity will take a decidedly different route. Yes, the game will have elements of high fantasy, but it will take place on a completely different planet inhabited by two factions of exotic-looking humanoids that carry bows, arrows, swords, shields, and magic spells, but can also sprout wings and fly through the air at will, or at least until your character tires and must rest briefly. Apparently, the world has been shattered into two parts and is separated by a monster-ridden rift. Each half of the world is inhabited by one of these two factions, and it'll be your job to conquer the other half for your nation.
Even though Aion was developed in East Asia, the game is, according to NCsoft, "being developed for a global audience," which hopefully means that it will be less punishing and require less repetitious "grinding" away (killing the same monsters repeatedly to complete quests or eventually gain experience). The game is said to be a "PvPvE," which means "player-versus-player-versus-environment." Traveling in and around the hostile rift (which can't be done simply by flying all the way, given that the rift is too big to cover) may lead to encounters with the "Balaur" monsters, and also against players from the rival faction. The game's two factions, the Elyos and the Asmodians, may choose the same character classes, but they have striking differences in appearance. The Elyos inhabit the half of the world that receives sunlight and have a brighter, more angelic appearance, whereas the dark-skinned Asmodians have hands that end in clawed fingers and a more demonic look (though neither faction is considered "good" or "evil").
The game will have four basic character archetypes, warrior, scout, mage, and priest, though you'll be able to branch out into one of two advanced professions for each archetype once your character reaches level 10. In addition, at level 10, your character ascends to godlike "deva" status, which is a fancy way of saying that you'll get your wings. You can sprout wings at just about any time and take to the air when you please, though you'll have an onscreen fatigue meter that will gradually run out over time (and replenish after you land). Running out of flight power while high up in the air could mean an ugly fall from a great height, though your characters will later gain access to many different means to prolong his or her ability to fly, including skill increases, magic potions, and magic formulas that can be used to imbue your characters' weapons and armor.
Flying will be crucial in high-level play--both in an assault role and in a scouting role--which will involve raids, fortress attacks, and missions to recover precious artifacts. Interestingly, though it will be impossible to fly to the enemy nation's half of the world, random portals will occasionally appear on either side, allowing entry into enemy territory for raiding. However, this sort of raid will be best left to high-level players, as will fighting in the abyss, which will apparently incorporate full 3D combat on all sides.
Like in other, similar games, combat will require you to attack your opponents with various special abilities that you can link to hotkeys on your keyboard. These will include "positional" skills that function best when you're flanking or attacking an enemy from behind. Apparently, the game will calculate your abilities to hit and deal damage if you're on the move, so you'll need to take positions wisely. You'll also be able to launch your enemies up in the air in the middle of a fight in spectacular fashion.
In our hands-on time with the game, we tried out several character classes and found a good mix of different abilities. The ranger class, an advanced version of the scout, can either attack from afar with his bow or fight up close with his dual daggers from a stealth position, dealing extra damage with rear attacks. Other classes can hurl extremely damaging magic spells from a distance, heal their teammates, or pound their enemies into the dirt with their melee weapons. Though just about all characters seem to be able to adventure well on their own at lower experience levels, we imagine that the higher-level content will be best conquered by groups of players. Fortunately, it's not likely that you'll be seeing groups of identical-looking characters, given that Aion's character-creation system will offer a huge variety of different heights, builds, hair, hairstyles, facial features, and decals such as tattoos.
In addition to getting trained up for higher-level player-versus-player skirmishes, Aion will have a sizable chunk of player-versus-environment play in the form of many, many quests that will be stored in your quest journal and can be quickly consulted and mapped using the game's easy-to-use minimap screen. Furthermore, your quest journal uses a hyperlinking system for any characters or monsters of note that also links directly to your minimap, so you can efficiently accomplish quests to hunt monsters or seek out specific characters with a single click. With the addition of flying, completing these quests is even more convenient; rather than wandering around walls or hills, you can simply take to the air and fly over them.
Aion's exotic art style and its unique flying mechanic, which is a standard part of its gameplay, should help distinguish the game from many other high-fantasy-themed online games on the market. The game's official launch date hasn't been confirmed, though the original version has already launched in Asia, so a localized version for North America shouldn't be too long in coming.