Worth it or not, to me personally, pay-to-play MMOs always felt like a ridiculous proposition. Paying to play a game I already paid for is like paying $5 to bite into a delicious burger I just got at the drive-through. Still, the genre continues to spawn new titles as proven at the 2008 Penny Arcade Expo.
While many MMO titles were on display, two were the most talked-about massively multiplayer role-playing games of the show: Warhammer Online and Aion: The Tower of Eternity. Realizing my limited experience with MMOs in the past, the team at Joystiq tasked me with learning as much as I could about each title and see if they could appeal to a genre newbie willing to jump into the online fray.
From the beginning, this opinion piece is based on two key goals: play each game for a limited time and discuss the design with people close to the development. Each separate goal was decided to find out if either, or both, title has the ability to bring me into an online world for an extended period of time.
Initially the biggest difference between the two titles are the visuals. Aion, which is powered by the original Crytek engine, looked vastly superior to Warhammer Online, but when I was shown Aion running on minimal specs, it immediately took the wind out of the title's sails. While the game is built to scale well, Aion hitches on its graphical fidelity as a selling point. That isn't to say Warhammer Online is a slouch in the graphical department, Aion just pops out more if your machine will be able to run it the way it was on display.
Jumping into each title posed very different experiences. Warhammer Online feels more traditional in gameplay, reserving its grand ideas for mission and story structure to keep players coming back. Aion's gameplay shakes things up with a strong focus on chain (combo) attacks and movement -- where level 10 players sprout wings for fast movement in lieu of mounts after a few "ascension" missions.
One of the better concepts for Warhammer Online is how gameplay is structured. An idea that picks and chooses concepts from other titles, players can partake in standard missions but also in preset scenarios which players can initiate or join at any time. The example I played through saw my Greenskin Shaman jump in the second tier of a attack scenario Public Quest. A friendly giant had been terrorized by baddies and players within the scenario were tasked with defeating a preset amount of the critters.
Once 20 were killed the second tier began, telling players to revive the fallen giant by collecting kegs of brew for him to drink. Once the correct number was reached, the giant used a large bomb to destroy a castle door, sending Dwarves pouring into the area. Defeating them closes off the third and final tier. As a player who wouldn't know where and when to begin team play, public quests are an exciting idea.
Warhammer Online also tries its hand at territory grabbing that will change the possession of the world based on successful raids. Think of the way Chromehounds on the Xbox 360 tried to work online.
Aion, on the other hand, focuses more on exploration and discovery of the other species. Mission structure is based on discovering the changed world as two very different factions fight for understanding and power. The shining difference is the interesting combo-skill attack system that takes away from, what I personally felt, was boring number-hitting attack moves in other MMOs.
A very basic theory on the two different structures could be lobbied at a large, established world versus a new world that hopes to entice players. Warhammer, if you weren't aware, is timeless to fans and the MMO from Mythic Entertainment is an extension of that established universe. Aion is a brand new experience from NCsoft that hopes to draw players in with beautiful visuals and rewarding tasks (ie. the ability to fly without use of a mount).
This editorial isn't meant to recommend one over the other, nor is it meant to disclose every piece of detail for each title. As someone who hasn't sunk into the genre this idea is based on looking for features that could appeal to my twitch gaming habits. So far, both titles offer something I'm willing to put time into. The only hope is that each game can sustain its appeal over time and will make me feel better about paying $5 to bite into that burger.
Ed. Note: This article has been changed to reflect the official name of the situations outlined, known as Public Quests.