SAN FRANCISCO--With 2009 Game Developers Conference underway, we took the opportunity to take another look at Aion: Tower of Eternity, the upcoming massively multiplayer role-playing game from NCSoft. As you may already know, the game takes place in an offbeat fantasy world where a disaster clove an entire planet in twain, and each half is home to a different race of winged adventurers who blame each other for the mess. What that means for you is that you'll be able to create a character from the healthy-looking Elyos faction or the demon-like (but not "evil") Asmodian faction. Your choice will affect which half of the planet you live on and your appearance.
However, since we last saw the game, Aion seems to have incorporated a tremendous amount of new character customization options, including 22 default faces and fully scalable character stature and girth. You can also use a series of sliders to tweak every last feature on your character's face, and another set of sliders to make your character taller, shorter, fatter, or thinner. For instance, while the game will only have the two playable races to play, you can, if you take the time and effort, create a "dwarf"-like character by giving your character a more-pronounced nose, choosing a long, bushy beard, and making your character's body shorter and stockier. Or, you can make an "elf"-like character by making a tall, thin character, choosing fine features, and making especially long ears.
Once you've created your appearance, you then choose one of four character archetypes (warrior, mage, priest, or scout), and eventually graduate to one of two specialized professions for your archetype at level 10...at which point, your character will also sprout wings and be able to fly in 3D space. Flight is a function of using "aether," the magical residue of the world-shattering cataclysm--the more aether your character has, whether developed through skill specialization, consumable potions, or armor enhancements, the longer your character can stay airborne without getting tired. NCSoft expects that high-level adventurers will spend their time in epic "PvPvE" (player-versus-player-versus-player) battles in the world's rift itself, where hidden castle keeps can be captured to grant powerful faction bonuses like unique armor and weapons, unlockable hunting grounds, and bonus merchants that sell exclusive items.
But in the deepest reaches of the abyss, you won't be able to flNy freely. However, thanks to feedback from the game's closed beta testers, in those situations, you'll at least be able to glide by pressingyour space bar so that you don't always die a humiliating death by falling. And as it turns out, flying isn't just intended for travel; it'll also serve tactical purposes within the game's "positional" combat system, where attacking while advancing does minor additional damage, retreating backwards in a fight grants you some defensive bonuses, and strafing to the side grants you limited dodge bonuses. It turns out that flying characters trade off their mobility for increased vulnerability to damage, so in high-level battles, flyers might be better suited for lightly-armored scouts. In fact, in a really nasty PvPvE battle, you may even have some of your guildmates carry tons of heavy armor, and otherwise equip themselves to not fly at all.
Our brief hands-on time with the game was spent with a level 18 Asmodian cleric character, who possessed a handful of instant healing spells as well as some "healing over time" spells, and a handful of magic spells that dealt mystical damage directly to our foes and set up "chain" attacks to follow up one spell with another. Our character also had a spell that summoned a mystical (and fragile) turret with a temporary lifespan but the ability to bombard our targets at a distance, and the extra damage helped during our quickie solo monster hunting session. Combat also seems to have been sped up since our last time with the game--monsters seemed to go down slightly quicker and without quite as much trouble. This is a sign that NCSoft's guidance in making this a "global" game (not just a game for East Asia audiences who are more accustomed to arduous "grinding" away at fighting tough monsters over and over again) is helping make the game a more immediately-rewarding experience.
Aion's colorful art style, fully 3D flightmechanics, and easy-to-use quest system (the game will include some 1,500 quests at launch) should appeal to beginners, while its high-level player-versus-player abyss battles (between both players and active computer-controlled monsters, or "mobs") should offer a challenge even to hardcore players. The game is planned to launch later this year.