Pre-F2P Early Aion Impressions

I had an evening with no immediate plans last week, and Aion has been on my list of things to investigate now that it's going free to play.  Since Xaxziminrax asked nicely, I decided to give the game an early look.  Obviously, I can't comment on the new (and somewhat nebulous) business model, but at least I won't be stuck in an overcrowded newbie area trying to figure out where to put my hotbuttons.

Rolling a Daeva
Blue dude on the right is the standard look for Asmodians, the green girl is what I rolled up.
Aion has precisely two races, Elyosians and Asmodians, for the two player factions. However, these races have a surprising degree of customization - height, body type, and color are all up for grabs if you want a large or small character.  The result is actually much more robust in terms of appearance options than we have in some games that offer more races but much less customization.  I also seem to recall someone mentioning back when the game launched that going small was actually an advantage in PVP because it made your character hard to see, go figure. 

The game has four basic classes that branch into a total of eight subclasses. While I concede that MMO's in general don't do the best job in helping the player make an informed class choice, this one felt especially lacking because it's not apparent what your subclass choices will do before you've even tried your main class.  The usual subclasses include a tank, a healer, two melee DPS (the non-tank warrior and the stealth rogue), two kiting DPS (a mage and the archery rogue), all of which I promptly ruled out for lack of interest.  This left me with two options - the Chanter and the Spiritmaster.

My brain suggested the Chanter - the hybrid cleric option, which offers some healing, buffs, and off-tanking.  I frequently pick this type of class because I'm willing to trade off some DPS for more versatility and variety.  My gut told me to do something different, which left the pet-based mage class.  I don't think I've ever actually used a pet class as my main in an MMO, but somehow this one felt like the right call. 

Killing Asmodian Rats

Once I zoned in, what I found was about as standard of a solo MMO experience as you can get.  The usual array of hotbars and linear quest progression push the player through their first 9 levels.  There are a few tweaks to the usual - if you click to loot an object on the ground, such as a harvesting node or quest item, and fail to pick it up, you can click it again and the loot window will pop up instantly.  Unfortunately, you need this feature frequently, as it seems very easy to accidentally interrupt spellcasts, looting, and other such activities.

As with the character models, the intro zone is generally rather pretty, and there is at least occasionally some creative creature design.  For instance, there are mobs called Snufflers, which are mini-armadillo's with elephant snouts.  The Green Armadillo approves, even if some of these had to die for one of the many standard critter kill quests.

There's also the now standard map that shows quest objectives, identifies what mobs drop items you need, etc.  It may be worth noting that some of these features were new and innovative at the time Aion launched with them.
The only other thing that stood out during my first 9 levels was the game's combo system.  As I gained levels, my main DPS spells picked up chain upgrades.  If I cast the fireball-equivalent twice in a row, the second will be an instant cast attack that also adds a magic debuff.  The frostbolt-equivalent snares on the first cast and applies a knockback if comboed.  These secondary effects have cooldowns attached to them, but I could see some interesting tactical decisions in when to apply a combo versus continuing to cast your most damaging spell.  There's also some sort of a UI talking about default combos, which suggests that I might eventually be given more choice/strategy in how to use this system. 

Ascending and beyond
Wings of a Daeva, as seen in a story quest
When you hit one exp shy of level 10, which appears carefully tuned to require all of the quests in the newbie area unless you go grinding, your progress stops until you can complete the ascension questline.  Through this process, you pick your subclass - with only one quest panel's worth of text from an NPC to explain what you're getting - earn your wings, and travel to your faction's main city.  Here are the usual amenities, including auction houses, bankers, and weird cat creatures with sunglasses who you can pay to expand your inventory. 

I'm reasonably aware that there is a lot I have yet to learn about the game, including what exactly my new fire elemental does, whether/how I can use the wings, etc.  So far, however, what I've seen is a bland and underwhelming solo quest grind that has little to recommend it over all the other options in the crowded marketplace.  I can definitely see how this game struggled under the old subscription model, and it will be interesting to see whether F2P can revive it. 
The inventory expansion fox-cat-thing.