Released back in 2009, Aion is a high-fantasy massively multiplayer online role-playing game with an eye for details. Since its release, the game has received numerous content updates that have either altered or added to the existing game. The latest one of these updates is 2.5, subtitled Empyrean Calling, and it aims to expand upon the game's character-customization options, introduce two new instance areas, and upgrade the game's graphical presentation. We recently paid a visit to developer NCsoft and got the chance to go hands-on with some of these upcoming additions.
For our demonstration, we chose to play as Syrie, a level-55 archer who was immaculately detailed from head to toe. Aion has always featured an extensive suite of character-customization options. With the impending release of the 2.5 update, the developers are taking it a step further by allowing players such freedoms as reskinning a suit of armor to look like another (yet still retain its original stats) or even change their character's animations. Instead of simply running or walking like a mere peasant, you can tweak your character to glide gracefully through the air or sprint along with his arms trailing behind him like a certain orange-jumpsuit-wearing ninja.
Before we set out on our journey to Esoterrace, a new instance for the 2.5 release, we were first introduced to Sprigg. This little guy (or gal, we're not totally sure) was Syrie's pet and looked not unlike a miniaturized Wicked Witch of the West. In addition to being adorable, the little creature could be assigned to automatically reapply status-boosting items to our character from our inventory. Other pets could be assigned to collect loot for us or provide other helpful services, but we opted to stick with Sprigg.
After arriving in the lush woodlands of the Esoterrace instance, we took a moment to drink in the amount of detail poured into the world of Aion. The forest itself was a lush mixture of natural greens and browns, mixed with unnatural reds and purples, courtesy of the local monster population. Enhancing the game's visuals was another goal for the 2.5 update, and it's one the developers are excited to roll out. They also realize that not everyone is going to have the best of the best in terms of hardware; therefore, you will be able to scale back these upgrades or completely ignore them, if you so choose.
Our journey through the woods was accented by the constant twang of Syrie's bow as we felled one monster after the next. Controlling her didn't feel far removed from the other ranged classes we'd played in previous MMORPGs; all we had to do was stay off the front line and dispense hurt from afar. From the (highly) extensive skill set of our class, we chose to focus just a handful of stat-boosting abilities and high-powered, single-shot attacks. The boosts could be used to increase our accuracy or physical attacks ratings, while the attack skills could stun, snare, or slow our target, depending on which we used. Some attack skills could even combo with themselves or into other skills. For instance, our swift shot could combo into itself up to three times, or a poison arrow or another type of shot could be mixed after the initial hit.
We ultimately didn't make it very far into Esoterrace; in fact, we only made it to the first boss encounter against Dalia Charlands. With a name like that, you might be expecting an aging sorceress--and you would be wrong. Dalia was a giant, talking tree. From our vantage point in the back row, the fight was pretty simple. The tree monster would lash out at the numerous melee fighters who surrounded it and would periodically spray them all with a powerful lighting spell that would knock off a large chunk of health. Luckily, that same spell couldn't quite reach us. As we whittled the beast down, it started to summon what appeared to be giant fairies carved out of wood that would periodically heal Dalia. Because the melee team seemed to have the situation under control, we opted to help out by knocking these pests out of the sky with our arrows.
After sticking it to Mother Nature, the developers jumped our party ahead to the Empyrean Crucible area. This massive, multistage instance is a gauntlet that pits players against a rogue's gallery of the game's hardest monsters. The instance itself is broken down into stages, with each stage lasting a certain number of rounds. Each round brings with it a new wave of enemies to defeat, which leads up to the final-round boss fight that ends the stage. The area you fight in also changes as you clear each stage. What starts out as a simple area carved from stone will morph into a fiery, underground dungeon; a high-flying platform suspended by dragons; and even a full-on cosmic battleground. We played through a few rounds and thought it would serve as a great way to pass the time with a group of friends if you want some instant action.
As our demonstration came to a close, we took a moment to chat with the developers about the changes made to Aion since its release. One thing they were ready admit was the fact that the game's pace has slowed down significantly in the higher-level areas. To help remedy this, the developers have since implemented more quests and increased the rate of experience gained across the board to help speed up character progression. Another interesting problem they've been facing is meeting the expectations of both Eastern and Western gaming markets. One example they pointed to was rifting or the ability for players of one faction to warp into areas controlled by another faction and, basically, kill every player in sight. The North American audience loved this, but the Korean audience hated it. To help strike a balance, NCsoft has since implemented restrictions on when rifting can and cannot occur to help mediate this feature without removing it entirely.
Aion is available now on the PC, and you can check out all the new features in the 2.5 update on May 25.