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GDC09: Hands-on with Aion [part 2]

Combat in the game is predictable, with a couple of interesting twists on the usual button-mashing. As you might expect, you have a hotbar full of skills with which to wreck havok on your foes. Click your enemy, hit your hotkey, and start dishing out the pain! However, you'll notice a few oddities in Aion's combat system:
  • Movement is taken into account when fighting. If you move forward, towards your enemy, your attack power increases. If you move side to side, strafing around your enemy, your chance to dodge increases. While these are not tremendous, game-winning bonuses, the small buff movement provides you will give you an edge in any situation. (We didn't play long enough for this to stop feeling novel and interesting, though we wonder if it eventually might.) As you move around (you must move for more than a second -- jerky movements don't count), arrows will show up near your character's feet, indicating that you're receiving a movement buff.
  • Skills chain together. Though we didn't see much of this at lower levels, high level characters have a number of skills that can only be cast after another or after certain conditions are met (a certain skill may only be usable when your opponent is knocked down, perhaps). When these skills are available, they appear prominently in the center of the screen, so you know to use them.
Combat skills (at least in the low levels we played) seemed to have cooldowns, which prevented a random button-mashing style, but also made combat feel a bit more interactive. Instead of mashing buttons and hoping for the best, you really have to keep an eye on your cooldowns, be aware of how your spells can chain together, and keep moving, even when in combat, always strafing or rushing your target. We do wonder how chaotic this would become with 24 players -- the game's current maximum raid size -- all strafing rapid circles around a single enemy, but in our own experience, combat was fast and fun.

As you gain experience by killing monsters and turning in quests, your skills level with you. Instead of needing to visit a trainer every time you level to get new skill ranks, you will automatically gain them when you hit the appropriate level. For brand new skills, however, you will first need to learn it by buying a skill book at a trainer.

Of course, the starting experience is not the end-all experience of an MMO -- and as so many others do, Aion's gameplay changes somewhat after you hit level 10. Not only do you get to choose your secondary, specialist class, but you also gain the power of flight. That's right -- everyone in Aion can fly. To keep this balanced, however, there's a timer that controls how long you can fly before tiring yourself out and falling to the ground. (This timer can be extended with buffs or by simply being in the Abyss.) Also, while in flight your defenses are lowered, making you more vulnerable to attack. Instead of being an all the time thing, flight is a gameplay choice you need to make.

Once you get close to level 20, you'll start getting caught up in PvP activity. Throughout the world (but never in zones under level 20), portals will randomly spawn allowing players to move from one side of Atreia to the other where the opposing faction can stream through and mount an attack. However, if you aren't fond of PvP, you could always flee to the safety of a friendly town and wait it out. Portals are not open indefinitely, and whenever a player is killed, they respond at their "home" location (unless they are resurrected by a friendly healer).

If PvP isn't your thing, we're told you can level from 1 to 50 (the game's maximum level) doing nothing but questing. However, if at least occasional PvP isn't for you, this may not be your game -- because as you advance further, your options for interesting PvP combat increase. (And in Aion's PvPvE system, sometimes PvP and PvE go hand in hand, as you fight off enemy players and NPC monsters at the same time.) In the Abyss, where Asmodian, Elyos, and Baluar roam freely, Legions (essentially guilds) battle to gain control of fortresses, ownership of which gives their faction friendly NPCs and vendors inside the fortress walls and friendly hunting grounds outside. The Legion that controls a fortress can also raise funds by taxing the area under their control. Whomever controls the Core Fortress at the heart of the Abyss controls the entire Abyss. There's only one way in and one way out of the Core Fortress -- a narrow tunnel you fly through -- and you may find hundreds of players may be battling there at any time.

Though in our hour or so with the game, we obviously didn't get to see everything, the experience in Aion felt quite polished. Aside for, perhaps, some lack in guidance on the very basics of how to play the game (things which are likely to be obvious to anyone who has played an MMO before), the game we played didn't feel like an early beta release. And though we've played a lot of MMOs that originally launched in Asia, Aion feels the least foreign of them.

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