He glided over the desolation of Morheim, trading bolts of ice and fire with the pursuing Asmodian, now joined by two, no three, wingmen. Two of the pursuers fell as the Sorcerer burned their wings to the root, but the big one came on, overtaking the Sorcerer and knocking him out of the sky. The ground rushed to meet him, followed by an Asmodian's battle axe, and he awoke a short time later in Eltnen Fortress, the sympathetic face of the Soul Healer swimming before his eyes. He settled himself, threw back his head, and let loose a great booming laugh.
Stranger in a Strange Land
So went my first rifting encounter in NCSoft's Aion and, before we go any further, let's get this out of the way up front: I'm a carebear. Dyed in the wool, card-carrying, and damn proud of it. Before we delve into the whys, hows, and what-the-hells of someone like me playing (and, gasp, enjoying) a PVP-centric game like Aion, it is important to both be honest and to define the term. Oxford defines carebear as... well who am I kidding, no self-respecting academic publication stoops to the level of internet slang, so instead we'll turn to the Urban Dictionary:
"Lightly derogatory term for an MMO player who avoids PVP combat, heavily preferring cooperative or solo PVE combat, chatting, or developing tradeskills/running quests."
Yep, that is pretty much my MMO play style in a nutshell. Why Aion, then? Surely I knew ahead of time that the endgame was heavily PVP-based, that the free-for-all zone known as the Abyss offers greater experience rewards for both player killing and PVE mobs, and that the rifting mechanic invites consent-optional PVP in large sections of the game world. The answer is, yes, I knew all that, and still the game appealed to me in a way that I can't quite put my finger on, even to this day several months later.
Game play in Aion starts out innocently enough, and smacks of the tired PVE roots that the vast majority of MMORPGs seem to share. After customizing your character and selecting from one of four archetypal base classes, you're dumped into the wilds of newbville (in my case, Poeta on the Elyos side) and tasked with picking flowers, killing rats (here called Kerubs, and resembling vertically challenged demonic teddy bears), and chasing various and sundry carrots that we've all chased thousands of times before.
It sounds quite bland, and under the fresh coat of paint it probably is, but in all fairness to NCSoft, the world design and the avatars are quite beautiful, and the eye candy manages to stave off the feelings of repetitiveness that might otherwise manifest themselves almost immediately. The starter zones are smallish and somewhat linear in terms of quest progression, but once you've ascended and become a proper Daeva at level ten, the game begins to open up and you're free to explore your race's capital city as well as the zones of Verteron, Theobomos, and Eltnen (on the Elyos side, we'll delve into the Asmodian half of Atreia in a future column).
Can't we all just get along?
It's in this last zone that Aion begins to show its true colors. Eltnen is an expansive play field featuring multiple terrain types: swamps, forests, deserts, canyons, and geyser-riddled lava flows, all of them lovingly rendered and offering a thousand places for those annoying Asmodian assassins to slip into Hide and sit steathily in wait. Yes, Eltnen showcases Aion's PvPvE gameplay in the form of rifts, one-way portals that allow soloists as well as roving bands of enemy players to infiltrate your homeland and spice up your questing with PVP that is, at best, unscripted and exciting and, at worst, off-putting and time consuming.
PvPvE is a double-edged sword, and one of the mechanics that currently make Aion a frustratingly fun title. Other MMORPGs are quick to segregate PVP-minded players not only from the general populace but also by level range, whereas in the world of Atreia, level 40 players can and will rift into Eltnen and gank your level 20 to their black heart's content. Even rifters closer to your own level will sometimes dominate you so thoroughly that you'd swear they must be doing something under the table. A quick check of their character page on the official site will likely reveal a tricked-out alt in full blue Daeva armor, gold weapons, and the best stigmas their main character's money could buy.
Aion PVP, while requiring a certain amount of research and know-how, is heavily gear based. Veteran players might bemoan the lack of 'skill' required of those who take the time to grind out blue gear, but it does give rookies very tangible goals and also allows people that don't PVP all day every day (like your humble columnist) a fighting chance in battle. Even with above average gear, combat in Atreia can be very tactical depending on the terrain, your aerial prowess, and a number of other factors that we'll explore in a forthcoming column.
You've taken your first step into a larger world.
So, what to do when you're two-shotted by that evil Asmo Spiritmaster as you're going about your business in Eltnen? Well, you can rage about it, or you can call in the cavalry via the global chat channels and in short order you'll have some high-level Elyos opening up cans of whoop-ass on said Spiritmaster, blasting him back toward his spawn point. Aion PVP really shines when done with a group, and most folks are more than willing to join forces and drive off a band of invaders. Whether you're chasing after a couple of rifters and protecting your fellow questers, or teaming up to take down an artifact or a fortress in the Abyss, you'll likely have more fun with friends. Solo PVP is definitely possible, but some classes are inherently better at it, and you'll want some good gear and a bit of practical experience before you go rifting into enemy territory sans a couple of squad mates.
The key to enjoying Aion is, just like your mother told you, moderation. Too much PVE (or PVP) makes your Daeva a dull boy, and the game allows you to progress using either method, or both. Leveling and experience gain are much faster in the free-for-all Abyss zone, but you'll also kill and be killed by players more often. Quests are more plentiful in the PVE and rift-enabled zones, but you won't accrue any AP (abyss points, basically PVP currency), which is ultimately used to purchase the best gear.
At the end of the day, Aion is a wolf in sheep's clothing. The game's early levels are all about PVE, and, given the fact that progression takes a bit longer than many contemporary games, newer players may be lulled into a false sense of security if they haven't read up on what to expect when they approach level 20 and expose themselves to the rifting zones. I suspect many folks are turned off by this, but I submit that it is very possible for traditional PVE-types to enjoy themselves and even seek out PVP after they've gotten over their obligatory omg!Haxzors! nerd-raging impulses.
If I, king of the carebears, managed to down several Asmodians and lead a level 50 on a lengthy, merry chase during my very first rifting excursion, then Aion's brand of PvPvE can certainly appeal to those who might otherwise shun a player-versus-player environment. Maybe there's something to this whole PVP thing after all. Is it possible that a carebear can learn the ways of the gank and become a PVPer like his father? Join us next week to find out.
Look! Up in the air! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a snarky Daeva! Join Jef Reahard every Monday for news and views from the world of Aion. Whether he's soaring over the battlefield or hunkered down in the trenches, Jef is your combat correspondent in the world of Atreia.