Way back in the far recesses of time (also known as last summer), we learned about a major change heading to Aion with the 3.1 patch: the Fast Track server. Although I could certainly see the benefits of a PvP-free leveling zone that heaped XP upon players even more than before, I also questioned whether such a move would herald the untimely death of the corresponding areas on the main servers.
Fast forward to the pre-spring of 2013, by which time Deavas have had time to acclimate to the new feature, stretching their level-55-or-under wings on the Fast track server if they were so inclined. So what's the consensus? Is it all that and a bag of dado chips, or has the game lost a part of that special something that made Aion, Aion? In my opinion, there's enough of the latter to call the Fast Track server a mixed blessing.
First a disclaimer: As I don't have enough character slots (*hint hint NCsoft!*) or accounts to roam through every faction on every server, my observations are largely confined to the two servers I play, one as Asmodian and one as Elyos. And even between the two servers, I see a disparity in the effects of the Fast Track server, so your server may have a slightly different experience than noted here.
Looking on the bright side
Trumpeted as a way for folks to get things done without the threat of being hounded and killed by enemy forces, the Fast Track really did meet this goal; nary an enemy interrupts your questing while over in these protected lands. But what about another hopeful result -- has it been a boon to the population, enticing and keeping new players as they navigate the wilds of Atreia?
I definitely can't give any hard numbers here, but just last week I grouped with someone who indicated that the particular dungeon we were starting was the very first he'd ever been to in Aion. I still run across players who are obviously less familiar with the game, so I know new players exist and are utilizing the Fast Track server. If group offerings are any indication, I might even venture to say that the Asmodian side is bustling with new folks, but that could also just be a flood of alts using the server as a springboard to reach max-level as fast as possible.
There were definitely plenty of groups to be had on the Fast Track server, at least for Asmos. The Elyos side? Not so much. When searching for a group in Asmodae, I actually had to scroll to see all the available offerings! One of the greatest benefits of this server is the fact that everyone from all the different servers congregates in one, expanding the pool of available groupmates. If you can't find enough people to run Fire Temple or Nochsana Training Camp with you on your home server, just pop on over to Fast Track and chances are you will find yourself a posse. (Point of note: Even though the NTC is in the Abyss, which is not a part of the combined server, you can access this dungeon via an NPC standing in the fortress in Morheim or Eltnen)
Sadly, my experience has been that the Elyos have had much fewer offerings on the Fast Track each time I have checked. Then again, I did find groups on my regular server, so maybe the combined server is just used less frequently by the light-winged of some servers.
So while I'll be the first to admit that the introduction of the new server has not been all bad, it hasn't been without consequences. As much as this feature has brought to Aion, it's also taken some things away, things that we can't get back now. It also heralded, in my opinion, a bit of a philosophical change for the game.
What's been lost? On at least one server, groups simply cannot be found to do any content; those NTC and FT groups that abounded on Fast Track were glaringly absent on the regular server. While searching for some folks to party with, I was advised to just switch over to the Fast Track. But the point was I didn't want to switch; I wanted to play on the regular servers. Sadly, the lower-level zones on home servers have become a bit like ghost towns.
Why would I prefer the regular servers? Because part of what I loved about Aion -- and what I feel made it special -- was that sense of danger I experienced while playing. You had to be looking over your shoulder lest an enemy sneak up on you! It's not that those pesky red dots always swarmed and crashed your hunting party, but just the chance that it could happen at any time was one of the key elements of the game. You had to pay attention or suffer the consequences. On the Fast Track, there is no such feeling.
The sense of accomplishment for completing tasks despite the danger and difficulties is also missing. The chance of happening upon an enemy and engaging in a good fight is stripped away, as is the chance to bump into enemies and engage in amusing pseudo-conversations. The memories of conquering despite the odds, escaping by the skin of your teeth, or even losing spectacularly are not possible. Sure, those can be had at endgame, but who the heck wants to wait until then to enjoy an integral aspect of the game? Frankly, I find the combined server dull and use it as little as possible. Unfortunately, I am forced to if I want to find groups to complete certain tasks or dungeons.
While I agree that easing a harsh level grind is certainly not a bad thing, I hate that the game seems to be ever-spiraling toward satisfying the whims of the instant gratification crowd. When will the influx of easy buttons stop? What's wrong with enjoying the game as you go; why does it have to be about getting to the end now now now before you can really start "playing"? The Fast Track server sends the message, whether intended or not, that any content below the max levels is basically just something that must be temporarily endured until you make it to the "real" game. When introducing the Fast Track server (and even before that when offering double XP before other major expansions), NCsoft noted that it wanted folks to be able to get to the new content faster so they don't miss out. Who says playing below max level is missing out?!
Personally, I totally disagree with this philosophy. The world of Atreia is beautiful, and the stories and quips throughout the questlines are worth experiencing. So why rush through and lose such a huge part of the game? Daevas who barrel through really cheat themselves out of the full experience. They also have fewer ties to the game, especially those bonds forged through sharing experiences. Heck, they curtail their chances of even having experiences, period! And let's not forget that fewer ties make it easier to walk away.
At least this aspect could have been avoided had the Fast Track server just focused on its role of bringing people together for groups and left off the XP bonus. I am all for having more folks to do things with, but it didn't have to be at the expense of content. What do you think? Has the Fast Track server been a boon or bane to the game? Or has it not made a difference one way or the other? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Soaring through the Aionosphere, MJ Guthrie touches down biweekly to bring you Wings Over Atreia. Featuring tips, guides, and general snippets of life in Aion, the column is better than Tutty-on-a-stick, ackackackackackack! Have a suggestion to share? No need to bribe a Shugo -- just send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.