Rousing up a mighty monster from its sleep.
Momentum is a curious thing. There are days when I suspect that my age-old dismissal of WoW is fueled more by habit and a narrow perspective than by honest evaluation of the current-day product; it has, after all, had three years of improvement, expansions, and patches to change the game completely from the last time I really sat down and dug into it. Based purely upon my own momentum, I would have operated much the same way with regard to Aion; I didn't like the base product, so I would have naturally assumed that any expansion would not make a difference. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found that the expansion, Assault on Balaurea, has improved the entire experience considerably. I find the game quite palatable this time around. Fancy that.
[image1]Yes, I'm a curmudgeon; that's something of a default state for me. The dwarven perspective in most RPGs appeals to my sensibilities. My default assumption on most things that are just expansions or sequels is that you can assume that having liked or disliked the original still sticks for the new product. More and more, though, it's becoming apparent that this perspective doesn't really work in the MMO space; these games are living, evolving products, much more so than any RTS, shooter, or single=player RPG out in the marketplace.
Aion's come a long way, simply put. The game's been fleshed out considerably. Since I haven't been following patch by patch, I don't strictly know how much of the improvement I'm seeing is directly because of the expansion. There's a much larger assortment of quests and options now, for all levels, pushing the grind behind the veil of story. This is the way I like it; if I'm gonna go out and just grind mobs for levels, I only accept it when it was my idea to do in the first place.
Usually I prefer to complete quests for my progress, as advancing a storyline is always more interesting than advancing a line across a bar. Some of the work has gone to updating the instances, including a pair of solo instances for the lower levels - plenty of new gameplay to be had there, as well as some insight into the lore of the world.
[image2]The game is still graphically impressive, and the soundtrack has been fleshed out more too. It was an enjoyable orchestral set before, but some of the new additions with the expansion express a sense of wonder and heroism. Unfortunately, the voice acting is, ah, well, bad - awkward pauses, poor syllabic emphasis, some actual mumbling at some points, and a general lack of production values makes the voice acting just plain awful.
With the introduction of pets, crafting is also a smoother experience. I didn't notice the 'you fail and now all your stuff is gone, go harvest twenty more goose livers, and five more speckled gorgon hearts' issue I was having in the vanilla game. That's a massive relief. Plus, crafting on the go is actually viable with the pets now, and that's a big plus as well. Pets can serve a couple other functions too, including being an early warning signal of folks from the other faction – handy in PvP zones – and providing additional inventory space. So, basically, you can drag a pack donkey around with you. It may not sound romantic, but it sure is handy! There are also 'purebred' pets that can do two of these capabilities.
Pets represent a very different attitude to the gameplay and balance than was originally offered in the vanilla game; Aion's shifting itself to live in a space that's more open to the casual strain of MMO player, rather than being a hardcore-only affair. Since I'm not a hardcore MMO player, this naturally appeals to me, but I suspect that the numerous ways the gameplay has been smoothed out and access has been distributed, will make the game much easier to get into for new players.
[image3]And it's happening on more levels than just the pets; quests can now be seen across the whole zone, making it easier to get to the next chunk of story-driven gameplay and reducing the need to have a Wiki open in the background.
Some of my original complaints about Aion still hold true – for example, I still don't care for the animoo art style for the characters. Whatever happened to women in games wearing clothing that covers more than a third of their skin, and men with facial hair? Did the noble moustache fall out of style so far that everyone and their cousin has to look like a teenage girl cross-dressing? Not that the concept of cross-dressing has much real meaning for women anymore either, but that's a conversation for a different review.
On the whole, though, Assault on Balaurea represents a considerable step forward for Aion; it's a competitive MMO now, and one worth a trial. I don't know if it stacks up against the juggernaut of WoW – hilariously, Assault on Balaurea is what's made me realize that I'm inadequate to that comparison – but there's enough merit there to give it a play on its terms. It's not the wildly different MMO we all claim we want, but it's a gorgeous example of how the old style can be brought up to date on modern hardware and gameplay expectations. Pick it up and play, folks.