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.
Flight comes into play a lot more after you reach level 25 and complete the quests necessary to enter the Abyss. This no-man's land situated in the middle of the Elyos and Asmodian territories is where the bulk of player-versus-player combat takes place. There, factions (and specifically, large player legions and alliances) battle for control of fortresses that become vulnerable to attacks on a seemingly random schedule. Interestingly, a third non-player faction known as the Balaur is also vying for control of the Abyss, which keeps things interesting even if you find yourself on a server where one of the player factions is dominant. Fortress sieges involve destroying and repairing gates, deactivating an Aetheric field (force field) that needs to allow your allies can attack from the skies, and capturing nearby artifacts that bestow significant bonuses on the faction that controls them. Nevertheless, these battles are still more about overpowering the enemy with sheer numbers than they are about tactics. Once inside the fortress, the attacking faction must defeat a large defending boss known as a guardian deity general, and the legion that does the most damage to it is the one that is credited with the kill, control of the fortress, and the spoils of war. Fortress sieges can be fun if the factions are evenly matched, but all too often that's simply not the case, and as an increasing number of enemies gain entry to the Abyss and try to join in, the servers struggle to keep up. Outright disconnections are almost never a problem, but the frame rate drops so dramatically and often enough that large-scale PVP borders on unplayable.
The other problem with PVP in Aion--both in the Abyss and in the respective quest zones of the factions, which enemy players can reach by jumping through portals that frequently appear in their own zones--is that players who are several levels apart are often thrown together. You're never able to actually see the level of enemy players in-game, which is good in so much as it encourages a cautious approach to combat, but when high-level players find their way into the other faction's low-level areas, you can bet that only players from one faction are having fun for a time. Similarly, when players of one faction spot a temporary rift that enemy players can come through to invade their territory, they like to set up camp right next to it and pounce on players as they emerge. You might argue that all's fair in love and war, but there are several quests that require you to complete objectives behind enemy lines, and these rifts are the only way to get there. You can skip those quests, of course, but there aren't so many quests available that you can afford to do that very often--at least not if you want to avoid spending much time grinding with the quests that are repeatable 100 or more times.
When you're not questing, battling in the Abyss, or in a group working your way through one of Aion's numerous instances, you can spend your time working on as many of Aion's six crafting professions as you like--all of which can only be undertaken at your faction's capital city. Professions that have you work as a cook, weaponsmith, armorsmith, tailor, and alchemist should all be self-explanatory, but the remaining job warrants some explanation. A handicrafter primarily manufactures accessories, such as rings, earrings, and headgear, but because it's the only profession that uses a lot of wood, it can also be used to make staffs, bows, and siege weapons. In addition to the crafting professions, you can learn to morph items into other items, which can be a useful though not particularly cost-effective way to create materials necessary for other professions. Regardless of which professions you choose, you shouldn't expect them to make you any kinah (the in-game currency) for a long time.
That's because every element of crafting--whether it is picking fruit from a bush or combining a number of valuable materials to make a new sword--involves an element of luck. Every time you try to gather or craft an item, your progress is indicated by two bars--one for success, one for failure--that fill up sporadically until one of them reaches the finish. It's an occasionally time-consuming and unpredictable race that might have you succeeding in a second one moment and taking 15 to 20 seconds to fail the next. In fairness, failures are far from common, but that doesn't make them any less frustrating if you're working with expensive materials that you can ill afford to waste. Luck also comes into play where the quality of your crafted item is concerned because the vast majority of recipes have two possible outcomes. For example, if you're cooking a curry that grants anyone eating it a significant stats buff for 30 minutes, you'll occasionally make an especially tasty version of it that lasts for 45 minutes instead. The differences between regular crafts and proc (programmed random occurrence) crafts are far more pronounced when you're making weapons and armor, even going so far as to let you craft rare (valuable) items in place of common (more or less worthless) ones.
This element of luck serves to add value to superior items when you sell them, but it's unfortunate that there's no way to influence the outcome at all. Furthermore, you don't earn a skill point every time you gather or craft a qualifying item, but rather every 6 to 10 times. So, if you need just 10 more skill points as a weaponsmith before you can make a dagger that you want, you might need to craft dozens of other weapons in preparation. Alternatively, you can undertake "work order" crafting quests to speed the process up a bit--you still have to craft 6 to 10 items (that you don't get to keep) for every skill point, but rather than spend hours gathering materials beforehand, you can purchase them from a nearby NPC. No matter how you approach crafting, it's a time-consuming grind, and if you're not lucky enough to be in a legion that's helping you out with materials, it can be very expensive as well. It's also an activity that--if you plan on doing it for any length of time--will almost certainly cause you to mute your speakers.
Aion's sound design isn't uniformly bad, but it's rarely good. Standing at a crafting station, your ears will be assaulted by a never-ending loop of hammers on anvils, frying pans that sizzle, knives on chopping boards, and the like. If you step outside the artisan hall, things aren't much better. Critical hits in combat sound more like someone beating a drum than striking an enemy; carnivorous creatures could be confused with cute critters; and when your flight time runs low, you're alerted by what may well be the world's worst alarm clock's buzzer. Yes, it's important to know that you should land soon. But, no, the noise doesn't need to sound like something from a world very different to the one in which you're playing. The soundtrack is occasionally a highlight, but the quality and style of the background music is inconsistent to say the least. The same can be said of the visuals, which are quite beautiful initially, but become less imaginative as you progress. The impressively detailed characters are always well animated, but as you level up and their weapons and armor become more extravagant-looking, so the environments they're fighting in become more drab.
It's a shame that Aion's early engaging gameplay so quickly devolves into a mind-numbing grind. This is a great-looking game with an interesting premise, and its combat system--while flawed--could certainly teach other MMOGs a thing or two about accessibility. If the zones you spend your time in from levels 10 to 50 were half as well put together as the starter zones, then this would be an easy game to recommend, but that's currently not the case.