Giant Skeletons as Art

bonesentinel

You might think to look at this screenshot that you were looking at a simple, everyday, giant skeleton of the sort you might find anywhere in a MMO.

Here it stands in its natural habitat, on eternal watch, waiting for an adventurer to come past and pull it to its inevitable death animation.

But there is something different about this particular type of mob in WoW. It’s a new breed.

Placed in Icecrown, one of the end zones in Wrath where it is assumed that the player will have a flying mount, this mob is designed to be flown over rather than killed.

It’s true. There is no quest in the game that requires anyone to kill one of these giant skeletons, yet they are common mobs in Icecrown. They patrol battlements. They stand on guard at strategic locations. They look tough and they are (relatively) tough, being elites. Not only is there no quest for them, but the drop tables don’t attract people, they aren’t part of anyone’s optimal xp gathering schemes, they don’t give rep. There isn’t even any xp for them (that’s quite damning in a MMO!)

The very first comment in the Bone Sentinel entry in wowhead says, forlornly:

I killed one and it didn’t drop anything and it also did not provide any experience.

Ladies and Gentlement, I present to you … the decorative mob. Be nice to it, it may be the herald of a new (aka old) immersive era of zone design, in which mobs are placed because they look right or they should logically be there, and not just to drive quests.

Joking aside, that’s quite an old school approach. Older MMOs often placed mobs without any intention that players would kill them. But it’s uncommon in WoW.

How things are shaping up for Aion

It was back into the world of Atreia last weekend for a second bite at the Aion beta cherry. This time we had the chance to play Asmodeans — the evil faction of winged humanoids — up to level 10. The game now has a release date (September) and it’s looking better than ever.

A few baseline observations first. As an MMO Aion has clearly learned many many lessons from the current generation of games. Questing is smooth and takes you neatly on a tour of the newbie zones. The writing (and localisation) is great, although they still need to translate the help system. Controls are smooth and easy to pick up, using a lot of the standard UI features that players will be used to.

Character classes will be familiar also. There are two heavy armour classes (one tank, one dps), two casters (one nuker, one pet based), two healers (one ranged, one melee), and two non-caster dps (one dual wielding melee, one bow user).

They have also taken some design aspects from Asian MMOs which are less familiar to western players. Casters have to rest to regain mana (i.e. you use the rest command which makes you sit down). There’s no auction house, instead players can populate their own private vendor and set it out for other players to look at. This means that in any populated area, you’ll have to push your way past hordes of players in vendor mode. And if you want to buy, you’ll need to browse all the vendors individually.

(Edited to add: OK, I’m wrong and there is an Auction House in the capital city. Sorry for misinformation. But we were just playing from levels 1-10 in a weekend beta, and all the populated areas were heavy with player vendors so I’m just saying what I saw.)

You can also kill-steal – if two people who aren’t grouped attack the same mob then the xp/loot goes to whoever did the most damage.

It’s beautiful. I’ll keep coming back to this (and so will everyone else who writes about the game) because the game is absolutely stunning. This is partly because they’ve thrown out the ‘green and brown for more realism’ rulebook that EQ2 and LOTRO designers are so attached to and used the whole paintbox. It’s a colourful game. It also runs very well on my mid-range system. No glitches, no crashes, no slomo frame rates, no falling down holes in the map.

It isn’t just the backdrops and character designs either. The animations are fantastic; your character looks around, fidgets, licks her lips, and acts as if she’s a part of the world around her. Animals are brilliantly animated also.

If you like pretty games and want to be blown away, it’ll be worth a month of anyone’s money just to see it in action.

Storytelling Innovations

It’s very easy to sweep Aion away under the category of ‘been there, seen that’, but that would miss some of the innovations. One of them is the neat insertion of cut scenes into quest dialogue. Not every quest or discovery comes with a cut scene but occasionally you’ll get a few seconds of camera work which does give a more cinematic experience.

In particular, we loved the little cut scene that showed you exactly what happened to some poor mage’s beloved pet when we were playing the good angels last time around. It was unexpected, short enough not to be annoying, and very funny.

But the most stunning thing about the initial storylines is the great use they make of flashbacks and flash forwards. All characters start as human, and after level 9 you are able to do a quest to ascend (ie. get your wings, be transformed into an immortal angel being). Your character starts with a bad case of memory loss, but during the first ten levels, you meet people who are able to share visions of yourself in the past.

And what you see is downright amazing. You see your own character, wings and all, in awesome high level armour, in some amazing looking PvP zone. NPCs address you as Lord. You are able to play through some of the flashback sequence. It’s an amazing way to show the player what lies in store for the character if they keep playing. I’d defy anyone not to think ‘Oo, that looks cool. I’d like to do that.’

Another tweak that I loved was that the Asmodeans start as part of a gang of raiders. Your character in particular is quite an incompetent/ inexperienced raider at the beginning. And one of the NPCs lectures you when you accept a quest, saying that a true raider shouldn’t say wimpy things like ‘As you will’ when they accept a quest. They should say ‘THE TASK IS MINE’ and storm off to do it. Well, your character evidently takes this to heart because for every quest after that, the phrase you click to accept is ‘the task is mine’. It amused me, anyway.

So far, everything I have seen has also been soloable, but don’t expect that to last. There are definitely higher level quests which you’ll need to group up for. Classes do also vary at which levels they get various useful survivability skills (I struggled on my caster until she picked up a self-shield and knockback, at which point it became very easy.)

How about the PvP?

As far as I can tell, the endgame is all about PvP. There’s an open zone (or several) where you can fight other players and mobs, and capture keeps, Warhammer style. Because of the wings, PvP will have a 3D aspect. I suspect this means that casters will be more effective than melee because it’s much easier to manoeuvre in 3D when you have more range to play with. However, you can’t fly indefinitely. Your wings will get tired and you will need to come down to earth to rest them.

But I haven’t tried the PvP myself yet so I could be talking out of my hat.

When two tribes go to war

Because of the PvP side, I have to wonder how well the two factions will be balanced. They have access to identical classes, but that won’t mean much if players have a strong bias to one or the other.

Based on what I have seen in beta, I suspect most people will pick Asmodean. They seem that bit cooler, that bit more beautiful, that bit more exotic, and that bit better written. They also aren’t eeeeevil in the same way that we’re used to seeing, they’ve just had a rough deal and are more pragmatic in their drive to survive.

I will be amazed if this is not an issue.

How to get the wings

I don’t normally do this but I picked up a search term this week on the blog for ‘How do I get wings in Aion?’. So just for the record (and to prove I did it), the Ascension quest will appear in your quest log when you reach level 9. Just do that quest. You’ll get the wings, and you’ll also get to visit your local gorgeous angelic city of choice.

It’s a small world?

Summing up, it’s a beautiful game. It will blow you away if you let it. The actual gameplay feels very similar to current generation MMOs so it will be very easy to pick up for new players. Wings are great, flying is too. If you’re bored of your current game and want to try something similar (with wings) but a bit different, it’s got to be worth a shot.

I do think I get a bit worn out on the tourguide model of quest based levelling. They do it well in Aion, but a tour is still a tour. The world doesn’t feel large to me yet, and I’m not sure how many things there are to do or see if you choose to run off the rails. Also the Asmodean quests and starting areas have a bit too much in common with the Elyos – they’re good but it doesn’t really feel like a completely different experience. Similar mobs, similar terrain layout, and so on.

I know that for me, there is something missing. A sense of the world around me, perhaps. When everything is on rails there just isn’t any room for things to be there just because it would be a better simulation of a world if they were there. I’m also not thrilled with the player merchants or kill stealing. But if the quality of storytelling remains this good, it’s tempting to at least run through it once, to see how things end.

The next beta weekend phase starts on July 2nd. So scramble around for a beta key before then (or you can get one if you pre-order).