It's been one year since I first saw Aion: Tower of Eternity and those wings I admired are about ready to take flight in the US.
Developer NCSoft has learned a lot since the massively multiplayer online game went live in Korea last year and they've integrated as much as they could into version 1.5, which will be the game that launches in the US this September.
First up is instancing; 1.5 adds 14 new instances to players past level 20, a scoring system to all instances to encourage replay-ability and a whole lot more story to pad it all out. NCSoft takes their storytelling very seriously – especially since they're dealing with localisation – so they've put professional writers on their adaptation team and skipped automation programs that find and replace text in favour of going through and rewriting text line-by-line.
Also new to 1.5 are character design options. Aion already had a pretty detailed character creation system to start with from what I can remember, but now they've added 14 new character presets, more westernized character appearances and the ability to create wee people and near-giants with new body types.
As far as classes and balancing goes, NCSoft has added one new spirit for each of the two playable factions in Aion that the Spiritmaster can summon (Spiritmasters can summon up to four spirits). There're also new class specific quests at levels 30 and 50 and a new tier of rarity to items (called "Eternal"). The armour sets have been tweaked, too, allowing for bonuses when you're wearing a complete set and for an ultimate badass look when you match really good armour with some of the incredibly detailed new wings they've added.
The developer showed me a trailer for version 1.5 while telling me all I've told you above. In it, I saw dramatic music, cat people and somebody being shot out of a canon. But what really impressed me was what I saw when they actually loaded up the game and played through a couple of areas to show off.
First of all, most of the quest text was voiced and it sounded good instead stilted. Second, the quest text wasn't a line-for-line brick that matched the voice over (NCSoft thinks of quest text as "notes" rather than "the script.") The third thing I noticed was the new tutorial system – it features short videos with pleasing voiceovers that instruct noobs on exactly what they're supposed to do for everything from accessing the inventory to interpreting the map. It was very pleasing to the eye and welcoming for newcomers (and of course completely skippable for the more experienced).
After the show-and-tell period ended, I got to ask Producer Brian Knox a few questions. It was a special moment because I had just worked out in my head that my anniversary with Kotaku was coming up – and it was sort of an anniversary for Aion as well.
Knox said that what he's learned in the year since I saw him last is that developers should never compromise. If they're going to do something, they want to do it right – that's the strategy he wants NCSoft to maintain in its western branch. That's why his team spent so much time and effort on the localisation so they wound up with a good story instead one riddled with translation flukes like "Immolate Ejaculation."
Knox also stressed just how much Aion relies on its community for support. The game is introducing a "power wiki" at launch where more experienced players earn rewards for helping out new players by answering questions in the frequently asked questions section. He said that the developer hopes to use tools like these to let the community know they're being heard and that they can have an impact on the game.
The one thing Knox doesn't want to hear about Aion version 1.5 is the dreaded "g" word. Grind, in his opinion, is something that's monotonous and Aion goes out of its way to never be that. It's tough, he says, because the term "grind" has been blown out of proportion over more than five years of MMO history – and that's a lot of time for his game to fight against. But he's confident that they've gone through their game enough to respond to criticism like "there's nothing to do at level xx!" and prevent mid-level lulls.
Lastly, Knox left me with the admonishment that Aion is not trying to be a World of Warcraft killer. There's room enough in the world for both it and Aion, he says – and Aion is its own game, not a clone.
Sheesh, I could have told you that after one look at the wings. It's quite different to be your own mount and be able to throw down in player-versus-player while flying.
Aion 1.5 goes live in September. Keep an eye on our Penny Arcade Expo coverage for launch party pics.