Aion: Tower of Eternity (by NCsoft) is yet another entry into the "swords & sorcery" style of MMORPG. Already released (and apparently quite popular) in Korea and China... I've had a chance to dive into the last two 'closed beta weekends' that preceed the US/EU translated version, slated for Sept 22, 2009
Without a doubt, Aion is the most photogenic game I have ever seen. Stunningly beautiful avatars, outstanding use of lighting, delicous water effects, tasty magical combat, and fluid animations. While some corners were cut on some effects and (at times) the world's detailing relies more heavily on images instead of modelling, but the overall effect, especially the artistry in the architecture makes me salivate like a kid in a candy store, and runs quite well even with the graphics settings maxed out on my "no-longer a spring chicken" desktop system
Music: Sadly, I'm not as wild about it as others seem to be. It blatantly proclaims it's 'anime' roots which isn't a bad thing at all, but it loops rather obviously and, at times ramps up into these pompously/over-dramatics swells in otherwise very mundane situations, calling unnecessary attention to itself. It's like having a charming child nearby that disrupts conversation every few moments because they want attention, tolerable up to a point, annoying thereafter. (I admit, as far as sound transitions and relevance go, I was spoiled long ago by the game "Sacrifice" released by Shiny). I know from experience that music plays a strong role in how often and how much I play a game... we'll see if that becomes a problem for me with Aion or not.
The Aion back-story in a nutshell: A planet where the sun/god (Aion) is at the center, and the people live on the inside of the 'shell' around it. The world was split in half by war and treachery. One side, the Eloys, live in eternal light, they are beautiful and little changed by time. The other side, the Asmodians, live in shadow and have evolved claws, talons and spinal manes, and darker skin. Both sides fight a more ruthless outside force (The Balur, a draconian/serpentine race) and each other.
Reconciliation between the human factions is certainly impossible, the Eloys attempted peace talks with the Balur, which resulted in the cataclysm that split their world. They blame the failure on Asmodian treachery. The Asmodians blame the cataclysm on the overly trusting Eloys for lowering their world's defenses and inviting in the destructive Balur. Neither Eloys or Asmodian are clearly 'good' nor 'evil', and they display traits of both. There are hints that the Eloys are vaguely more 'lawful' and the Asmodian's embrace 'chaos/anarchy' more, but even that is clearly present in both factions. Artistic styles aside, both factions proceed through the first 10-15 levels doing relatively similar things though in stylistically different environments.
Asmodian for me... I'll definitely be on the dark side. Claws, talons, manes, glowing red eyes, black wings and life in the shadows appeals strongly to my style of play, more so than the Eloys which inhabit a world where you'd expect to find unicorns and butterflies around every corner. When the game releases, my Asmodian characters will live on the USA server that starts with "T" (which rhymes with T which stands for TROUBLE). My Eloys characters will be on the USA server that starts with "V" (for virtue?). Can't have characters of different factions on the same account on the same server. Spies and double agents must get second accounts for that. ;)
Scope, Scale & Levelling: The world feels much smaller than other MMO's (like:WoW, EQ, V:SoH) and there's definitely a sense that one could, in a reasonable amount of time, actually see all of it. Levelling seems is relatively quick, there's still a bit of grinding, (it is an MMORPG after all) but play seems to evolve in nice cohesive and interesting 'chapters' with very clearly optional side-quests/activities rather than scads of contrived unrelated errand quests. The lower levels are very obviously training for the PvP heavy upper levels.
Voice work is nice, though there's definitely a palpable 'hostile/condescension' received from non-player contacts until they warm up to you. (and sometimes not even then).
Richness: backstory seems packed into everything it seems, random books in homes, libraries, quest-drops and such sometimes evoke cut-scenes and insights into past events. Normally, I tend to blast past that kind of stuff as just 'fluff' in most games... but in Aion I find they really draw me in more than usual. The story/theme/setting/culture/history is very well integrated, internally consistent, and seens well thought out, unlike the random bland/banal/inconsequential/formulaic fluff I typically find stuffed after-the-fact into other MMO's.
Character creation is definitely a delight... some of the toons I haven't included here actually resemble various familiar celebrities. Avatars range from sublime to comical, ageless to ancient, petite to ogreish, with subtle nuances that will definitely seperate those with an artistic eye from those with a bit more distorted perspective.
Sadly, my cute mage characters are now headed towards the bitwise equivalent of a black hole... I'll particularly miss Jopsan (the white/gray haired Asmodian sorcerer pictured above), JopsAndon (the dark-haired Eloys spiritmaster pictured above).