Aion Preview from E3 2007
Our first look at what may be FFXI's visual successor.
By Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
July 18th, 2007 - Art direction. To attempt a definition, it's how well a game's color, depth, texture, space, and motion tie together to support the storyline and "feel" of a title, as well as the gameplay. If all the "d20" RPG elements comprise a game's substance, art direction dictates its style. Not surprisingly, along with the soundtrack, it's among the least appreciated features of a game. But like a good bassline riff, you won't realize the value of good art direction until it's missing.
We're told that Studio 5's Lead Art Director, Hyung-jun Kim, is an incredibly well respected fantasy artist in Korea, and by the look of Aion: The Tower of Eternity, we believe it. Giving the game it's subtitle, the ever-present Tower of Eternity, shattered in the mid-section by unknown events that catapulted Aion's two playable factions into a bitter war, always hovers majestically on the horizon, and the lights and features of the opposing factions homeland twinkle through the light haze overhead. The game's environments, cloistered into traditional zones, were dreamscapes in their own right. From the enchanted forests of the starting area to the nightmarish cutscene where the character is made to remember details of a horrific battle long ago, the vivid colors and extreme settings reminded me of something from the Soul Calibur series. But those moments provided an incredible emotional contrast, since by its otherwise soothing music, pleasant landscapes, and graceful animations, Aion seemed like a game calculated to calm. If the bright, heady palette of games like World of Warcraft are the visual "coffee"of the MMOG industry, Aion might be our chamomile tea. Check out the landscapes and flight video to see what I mean.
Calling the human character models and costuming anime-inspired would be a serious disservice to the game, yet this characterization is forgivable in that the game retains a distinctly hip, Asian feel throughout. If you can envision anime distilled of cartoony kitsch and caricature, you'll have an idea of how humanity represents in Aion. NPC and mob models were likewise familiar, but with a visually pleasing twist. For example, one insectoid mob was something of a cross between a bumblebee at 10x scale with a shrimp-like shell and the lower abdomen of a firefly.
But despite its devilish (or angelic) good looks, what we saw of combat in Aion (video here) was fairly predictable fantasy MMORPG stock. The archer animations had some nice pop, but combat mechanics (pet, melee, and magic) were fairly familiar. However, we were promised that flight would add a new dimension to MMOG combat, literally. Since Studio 5 wants to keep flight special, players will have a countdown timer, at the end of which you might be rushed to an untimely appointment with the ground below. Abilities tailored to flying combat, such as reeling in an enemy from below, will be in the game as well, and we're anxious to see what combat tactics evolve from the judicious use of flight.
I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that, visually, Aion is the artistic successor to Final Fantasy XI. But how does its storyline stack up? Quite well, though the details are comfortably dim at this point. While developers are quick to point out that the two player factions are neither necessarily good nor evil, the angel-like Elyos control one half of the eaten apple-shaped world and the demonoid Asmodians the other half, with the damaged Tower of Eternity as the apple's "core." No good story limits itself to two sides, and as the foil, we have the draconic, server-controlled Balaur, who fight on whoever's side they "choose." The factions used to live together in harmony, but at some point the war began and the tower partially broke apart. The rest you'll have to discover as the game unfolds.
We'll look for more on Aion in 2008, and our thanks to the NCSoft / Studio 5 for our first look at a very promising game.
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