Over the past couple of days, I’ve been playing about in China’s Aion open beta. I haven’t made it too far in yet but I’ve been able to form some initial impressions I thought might be worth sharing. I won’t be talking to much about grinding because the Americanized version presumably won’t have it.

First, Aion is very reminiscent of World of Warcraft. The stylized and colorful environment the Asmodian’s start off in reminds me a lot of Zangarmarsh, sans the giant fungi.

There’s a wide variety of imaginative mobs to fight. One of the problems I had with LotRO was that it felt limited because you spent so much time fighting the same wolves and wights… even when you changed zones. Like WoW, Aion doesn’t suffer from this. There are no lore limitations and you can tell that the world designers let their artistic sides loose to create some neat wildlife models.

I rolled a Mage to begin and, unsurprisingly, the class starts off almost identically to the WoW mage with a firebolt skill as the primary attack. Shortly after, you gain a frostbolt type attack. Unlike WoW, you also start off with a root on a longish cooldown.

Since I’m still virtually at the start, it’s hard to say whether or not these comparisons will pan out over time. However, the echoes of warcraft I’ve picked up on only serve to make a better game. Aion may well have taken another cue from WoW by taking what works and building upon it. WoW was a great game in a lot of ways, so I don’t really mind if Aion draws on it.

Second, unlike many bloggers, I’m not drooling over the graphics. Character models are great, they’re on par with LotRO and far surpass WoW, but that’s about it. Environmentally, the game may be a half-step ahead of World of Warcraft but that still leaves it behind a lot of its competitors.

What it lacks in textural detail, it makes up for in style. I don’t think you need ultra-high graphics to make a beautiful game. What you need is artistic design and Aion drives that point home. The environments I’ve played through have been so well realized, that I only took a glancing notice of the “flattened grass” terrain I was running on. Adding to this, if I turn AA off, I can set the graphics to their highest settings and still get 30+ FPS in most places while on my laptop. To put that in perspective, I’m running at 2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 3GB DDR2 RAM, and an nVidia 8600GTM 512MB. In short, even an older rig can play this game well and still have it look good.

I have to say too, water in this game is beautiful. It doesn’t suffer from texture quality issues. One of the early quests has you running through a small lake picking flowers. When you come to the lake for the first time, you see that a giant tree grows in the center, glowing with a blue ambiance which lights up the water below. Combined with the reflections of the local greenery and roaming wildlife, it’s like you’re running around through a neon sign.

Third, PvE doesn’t seem to be as lacking as I had worried. Now, it IS the same old thing; however, the game has enough flair to make it interesting rather than mundane. So far. Quest givers tend to talk to you a little bit and give you a good amount of context. Occassionally, you’ll even get a little cutscene that will show you the area you’re heading into or a target mob. Though I couldn’t put my finger right on it, questing in Aion reminded me a lot of playing an older Final Fantasy game. The asian character models may have had a little to do with that though 😉

Going in, Aion seems like it could be a PvE game. If you had no idea that RvR was going to be a part of it, I think a new player could certainly enter in and get the same PvE satisfaction from levelling that first handful of times that they could get with WoW.

Finally, money has a defined importance. Again, I see this as a good thing. I hated how money was virtually worthless in WAR. In Aion, you’re shelling out for a lot of stuff, even going as far as to charge a stipend to bind yourself to a local obelisk (like setting your recall location). However, money doesn’t seem hard to come by. It cost me 100K (k=kinah, their “gold”) to bind. At that point (level 4) I had done enough quests and sold enough to have 1300k already and the potential to receive another 730k from a quest I’d just received. Vendoring mob trash has thus far been a great money maker.

There is one other note I’d like to bring up, in the Chinese version, there is grinding. I know, shocking. It’s not bad though, mostly. Actually, I found it quicker to xp by killing quickly respawning mobs than to complete quests. Most likely, we won’t have such grinding in the American Aion however, so I won’t talk much more about it in the future.

It’s been fun so far. I’ve moved from “bitten and shy” to “cautiously optimistic.” I’ll be honest, there’s a lot that I’m liking so far but I know from experience that a lot can change once you get twenty or thirty levels in. I’m trying to skip the honeymoon here and see the horse for it’s big teeth.

Whatd’ya say, Mr. Ed, shall we log back in?