Imagine, if you will, a planet. The core of this planet is where all the action is, as large monsters wage war against two races similar, but equally apart. One race is from slightly left of the planet's core, another slightly right and both are distinguished by the color of their skin/wings. The original Aion took place completely in the center of this planet, and did fairly well. It was still met with a lot of criticism though and for a lot of good reasons. But it was also a game that the developers responded pretty quickly too, and since then it has moved in a very different direction from the initial launch. Aion: Assault on Balaurea takes place on the outside of this planet, where all the monsters in the center of the planet come from. If you're still following, that's pretty excellent, because there's still a lot to discuss when it comes to this expansion and how well it plays.
To address the elephant in the room: the fundamental principles of Aion have not changed in this expansion. This is a game meant for Player vs Player (PvP), with Player vs Environment (PvE) as a fun supplement. The endgame goal is to work as a team, kill the enemy in droves, and brag about it later on by killing their deities and looting their corpses. Players can still select from a pretty decent range of classes, each with a nice selection of unique abilities, and solo play in-game is still viable up until max level. Some community-fueled changes to this expansion include better questing overall, more realistic itemization (better loot), and some new abilities, as well as a few ability overhauls.
This is an expansion for endgame however, so discussing how levelling goes is kind of pointless. Players need to go from levels 1 through 50 to even appreciate this stage of the game, and everything it has to offer. The level expansion areas (split into three major zones) are absolutely gorgeous, and a testament to what multi-level game design has to offer us. It's really the only solid example of what Aion does right, as every single zone has been designed with some extremely smooth options for PvE and PvP gameplay. The landscapes are extremely fluid and realistic and the new fast travel system is a brilliant alternative to players just mindlessly teleporting to a new zone. Now, there are 'air currents' that players can dip in and out of as they see fit.
Accompanying the new level design is a series of new instances. Some of these are tailored more for basic gearing up, while others have the complex end-game bosses. Boss battles in Aion have never been too straightforward, which is good because it means that players will have to use their brain (even if it's just a tiny bit) to overcome some challenges. It means that PvE is definitely there, and the developers have done a pretty great job in balancing things out. However, the game does fall prey to a few classic MMO pitfalls.Aion, to be blunt, is not a game that can be picked up and truly enjoyed by anyone who has any other commitments outside of a job or full time school. It just doesn't really seem possible, there's too much happening.
Levelling still takes a pretty significant time and the whole point of the game (PvP) really doesn't begin to flesh out until the new level cap is hit (55); at which point everyone will just be grouping up for the large scale PvP events. Part of this is simply necessity; the level of prestige that killing a player brings in this game must come at a high price. Unfortunately, that overwhelming amount of dedication also means that Aion is a ruthless mistress of an MMO, presenting an entire tier of play that's almost unreachable for the common gamer. To some, there is an allure in this sort of exclusivity. To others, it is a disappointment.
This doesn't mean that there are not good points to this expansion. Assault on Balaurea does address a lot of problems that the original game was plagued with. However, the core game design is still intact, which is something to admire and admonish in many ways. It would be nice if Aion took a step back, and took itself a little less seriously, but on the same page would it really be the same game if it did so? Most definitely not, though whether or not that's for the better is really up to individual tastes.
Graphically Aion: Assault on Balaurea is quite impressive, and while some PCs may struggle to really bring to light the depth of how amazing the world design is, everyone should be able to appreciate the detailed character models and weapons. The character animations also stand out quite nicely; they're all very fluid and well done, from weapon special attacks to magical spells. It's a game that will certainly make purchasing an expensive video card well worth it, just to see what some decent world/character design looks like.
Aion: Assault on Balaurea feels specifically designed to meet the expectations of the already established playerbase. It fixes many of the mistakes that made the initial launch so rough and it's certainly a good way of enticing old max-level players back to the game. But it's probably going to do very little to bring new players. If you stayed away from Aion before, it probably isn't worth coming back. The old game is still here, mechanics are just as apparent as before and there are almost no changes to signify that the developers are going to alter the course. To some, this is a good thing - a Lineage that Western gamers can better appreciate. To the rest if us, we won't know what we're missing anyway.