2009's Aion was one of many massively multiplayer games to make the jump from its original home in Asia to North America. While the game had beautiful, colorful artwork, detailed character models, and faction-based player-versus-player competition--all things you'd expect from a game that traces its origins back to Asia--it also gave all players the ability to fly, a crucial skill for navigating the game's topsy-turvy world. Since then, NCsoft's Asia and North American studios have continued to add new content to the game, including the substantial Assault on Balaurea update that launched last September, which extended the character level cap from 50 to 55 and added new items and new areas to explore, such as Abyssal Splinter, a challenging new instanced area full of huge treasures and even huger bosses intended for players between levels 50 and 55. At a recent press visit to NCsoft headquarters, we played through some of Abyssal Splinter, tried out a player-versus-player-versus-environment (PVPVE) match, and then got a glimpse of future features planned for the long-awaited version 2.5 update.
Our first order of business was the jump into the shiny, chainmail shoes of a level 55 "chanter" character--one of four characters being emphasized at the press event (the others being the spell-flinging sorcerer, the bow-and-arrow-wielding ranger, and the frontline-fighting knight). Chanters are Aion's hybrid wizardly warriors--the best characters at self-sufficient, solo play when no other, like-minded players are around to form an adventuring party. However, with the correct specializations using certain "stigmas" (special items in Aion that boost certain abilities or statistics), these powerful characters can either be dangerous combatants or solid secondary healers in an adventuring party. Our chanter was prebuilt and specialized for equal parts close combat and combat support, the latter in the form of minor healing spells and advantageous "buffs" that strengthened our party's damage output and speed.
We took our robed chanter into the Abyssal Splinter instance with nine other players to hack our way through the frozen crystal palace, kill the bosses, and walk off with their loot. As part of our guided tour, we encountered two of these epic beasts, the first being a giant spider boss, which, in addition to beating on our party members, would periodically immobilize one of our allies with a thick layer of webbing (which we had to chop away with our own weapons), leap across the cavern to another location, or scuttle to one of its nearby nests to activate an egg sac, which would hatch smaller beasties to nip at our heels. Fortunately, we were playing a session side-by-side with skilled NCsoft developers who helpfully used the game's group tools to flag key targets with floating icons. Tagging the boss with a skull-shaped icon, the egg sacs with a bomb-shaped icon (to indicate that they were secondary targets), and the party healer with a "1" icon to point out the character most likely to be targeted by the raging monster made a definite difference in the battle, as did our entire team's use of Ventrilo with headsets. While some of the game's tougher boss fights definitely seem challenging, having an entire team hooked up over audio and deployed by a skillful leader seems to make boss fights much more manageable.
We then advanced to the very bottom of the dungeon where the main boss, a hulking giant made entirely of blue crystal, awaited us. This fight required a great deal of preparation beforehand since this boss had a tendency to open multiple portals at varying altitudes in his chamber, and each of these portals would spit out more monsters that would eventually leap down on the heads of any party members who remained on the ground floor to go toe-to-toe with the boss. Fortunately, the chamber had two different portals to each of the upper-level parapets, so we split our party into different groups that would alternately pound on the boss or hop through portals to the upper levels to dispatch the "adds" (the additional monsters that would swarm in to attack us while we were still on our first opponent).
After felling this mighty giant, we then switched our focus to a team-based PVPVE zone, which took place in the bowels of a gigantic ship controlled by hulking Balaurean monsters--the race of monsters that controls the rift spanning the two halves of Aion's shattered world. We played as a sorcerer from the Asmodian faction and did our best to follow behind (far behind) our comrades as we hacked our way past the computer-controlled monsters, using our basic damage spells while saving our character's powerful elemental damage spells for the enemy team. Which we encountered in numerous skirmishes, though we scored precious few kills thanks to the opposing team's skillful healing. High-level sorcerers in Aion have devastatingly damaging spells with long casting times that cost huge amounts of endurance to cast, but in high-level PVP, they have to be timed correctly as finishing blows, or a skillful healer will erase all that damage instantly. Our sorcerer character also had a few "crowd-control" spell abilities--a stun spell, a sleep spell that put its target to sleep, and a tree spell that temporarily (and literally) turned its target into an immobile tree. We got the most mileage in our battle stunning or "tree-ing" our enemies' frontline fighters to keep them out of play while dumping as much damage as possible on the enemy sorcerer and healer. Among skillful players, Aion's PVP can be highly challenging but a really tactical experience.
We capped off our play session by watching a brief video trailer that highlighted several of the changes and additions that NCsoft plans for the version 2.5 update, which continues to have no specified release date. These changes include a graphical face-lift that will exist in the game as an optional setting for players with the computer hardware to use it, along with new zones, instances, and gear.