Aion 2.5 Hands-On Preview - The Empyrean Crucible and Esoterrace

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I wasn't alone when shortly after Aion's launch in September of 2009 I found myself getting a little bored. The game was nice looking, and had some decent mechanics but overall the solo grind through the levels left me begging for some group content. By the time I had reached a level where the first group dungeon was open to us many of my friends had quit and I found myself back at square one. Alone in an MMORPG.

There's some good content in Aion, don't get me wrong. It just took way too long to get there for my tastes. After I left I often wondered how the community in that game was doing, and what NCsoft had been doing to bring some more fun to the group game.

My questions were answered last week when I sat down with Sean Orlikowski, Game Guide Writer, Adam Christensen, Associate Producer and Scott Hannus, Game Guide Lead to play through some of Aion's latest content in the upcoming Update 2.5.

Aion's Crucible

Just one of the environments in the Empyrean Crucible

First we played through the Empyrean Crucible. Let me preclude this by saying this instance is one of the more fun designs I've seen in an MMOG in some time. The premise is simple. 10 Rounds of 5 stages each. You enter into an arena and when you're ready to begin combat you initiate the script by speaking to the NPC in the middle of the room.

The first round starts off easy enough but as you progress through the stages the fights become more complex. Once the first round is complete you can take a break, afk, grab a sandwich, whatever you need to do. The second round won't start until you speak with the NPC again.

The rounds get much more complex the further you go. Now, some of you may point out that these sorts of events have been around for years in MMOGs and you wouldn't be wrong. However, what makes the Crucible stand out are its environments. As you progress through the rounds the environment changes around you. From dingy dungeons to an ethereal plane of air, there's always something new right around the corner.

Not to mention some of the encounters are just clever design. One of the bosses in one of the rounds we fought through was lovingly nicknamed "the pooping root." The name seemed appropriate as the more damage the root-shaped baddy took, the more little roots it would spawn behind him. Killing the little roots gave loot before claiming the big prize at the end.

What happens when you die in the Crucible? Well, if you've defeated at least one round you'll get to loot some chests at the end. In the chests you'll find some tokens. When you get defeated in battle you can give one of these tokens to the NPC standing on the perimeter of the arena to get back into battle. How you distribute tokens is up to you. If you think someone is apt to die more often, give them more tokens. Or, spread them out evenly. It's all part of the strategy.

Next up we were treated to the Esoterrace Instance, one of the new instances coming in 2.5. It's a level 50 dungeon so we were provided appropriate level characters.

Aion's never had any issues making their instances look good and the Esoterrace is no exception. The landscape and design of the instance is nothing short of beautiful--lush forests, deep ravines, and thrilling windstreams you can spread your wings and soar through. In fact right from the start you will jump into a windstream and get a wonderful aerial view of part of the instance.

As the dungeon is on a 22 hour cooldown, if you've defeated some of the bosses previously within that window the windstream will change directions depending which bosses have been defeated. This ensures quick travel to where you need to go.

Aion's Esoterrace Entrance

The Entrance windstream in the Esoterrace

After our flight through the stream we came to a path winding up a hill that was populated by moonflowers and dog-like Kirrin. After dispatching those we came across some Contaminated Vines which we could harvest from.  We were told if we found a key to hang onto it as it would be useful later. One of our members did indeed find a key so he pocketed it until later in the instance.

Winding further along the trail we came to a choice in paths. Had the Aion team not been there I may have missed our next destination. There was a giant vine covering a cave. Harvesting the vine allowed us entry into the cave and out the other side we came across the Dalia Garden. This kind of interactivity in an instance is most welcome. The more choices and interaction players can have with the content, the more engaging the experience becomes, and this was certainly engaging.

Through the garden we met up with our final encounter of the day - Dalia Charlands. Dalia is a giant old tree and spawns additional enemies as you wail on him. Overall the encounter wasn't extraordinarily difficult, but I have my suspicions that having the Aion team walking us through may have helped out in the luck department.

At this point a Huge Entwined Chest appeared which could be unlocked by the key that was looted earlier. As far as the loot contained within - it looked pretty swank, but I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not it's an upgrade for you.

The instance continued on from there but unfortunately our time did not.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed our run through both the Crucible and the Esoterrace instances. They were both rich, fulfilling instances that focused on group play and cooperation - the very thing I found lacking at launch. Clearly a lot of thought went into the design of these two new additions to the game and I'm sure they'll be welcome by any Aion player. I found myself captivated enough by the experience that I may just have to resub to Aion myself to give it a go once the update goes live next week.
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