t's rare that I alter my schedule to game. Actually, that's a lie; it's rare that I alter my schedule to play an MMO. The last MMO I played was The Matrix Online, and that ended not long after it began. But like The Matrix Online (which is a setting perfect for MMO gameplay), I was instantly drawn to a game with a present-day setting and the capacity to create characters with incredible super powers.
[The first half of this review was published October 1, 2009. Click here to skip to the second half.]
I really liked the idea of City of Heroes, just not the execution, so I decided to give Champions Online a try. So far, I haven't been able to put it down. In the first of two articles, I'll talk a little about the basics of Champions as well as discuss the initial stages of the game.
Champions Online is based on the Champions paper-and-pencil roleplaying game of the Eighties, which is known for the Hero System of combat, character creation, and gameplay. The Hero System is well-known for its depth and choice in character creation and design, which makes a great translation for an MMO. One of the real treats of actually being in the world of Champions is the variety of player-created characters you see around the zone.
Your spandex-clad wonder is thrust into action in the middle of a Qularr invasion.The powers framework, which is how you configure your character's abilities and traits, seems pretty straightforward. Powers are grouped into categories called frameworks, which include things like Electricity, Power Armor, Martial Arts, and Telepathy. These frameworks select the base set of powers that your character will begin with. For instance, starting with the Electricity Framework gives you the energy building power Electric Bolt and the basic power Chain Lightning. You may also choose to customize your framework, which allows you to select an energy-builder and basic power from different frameworks. One character I created uses Electric Bolt to build energy and Two-Gun Mojo to deal damage, which is a neat effect for a seemingly inconspicuous guy in a black suit and tie.
Stats (called innate characteristics) such as Dexterity, Strength, Ego, and Presence determine your critical hit chance, damage, critical hit severity, and the amount of threat generated, respectively. Stats are increased as you level, and are also enhanced by equipped items.
Character creation is a lot of fun, but I can easily imagine players becoming frustrated on their first run. I was pretty satisfied with the look of my first character, the Good Doctor, but I've created several since; and each time I manage to find new combinations of clothing, patterns, and body styles which allow for pretty diverse creations. Of course, I have a specific idea of what a superhero looks like, so while it may be unimaginative, my characters tend to have a similar build.
One real treat is the variety of player-created characters. On the other hand, I've seen some very creative character designs hanging out in-game, including a Joker clone that was buff like Bane, a really good Flash ripoff, and some pretty cool team-themed characters like the Star Fox crew. From capes and cloven hooves to spandex and cybernetic implants, there are a lot of options here to keep you busy. When you couple the variety of character design and powers frameworks, you have some really unique combinations that create a superhero whose most powerful ability is seeming really original.
After creating and naming your spandex-clad wonder, you're thrust into action in the middle of a Qularr invasion. The starting zone is staged during the alien invasion, and is used to orient you and familiarize you with Champions' basic controls. You begin by talking to Socrates: a network of computer terminals throughout the game that provide you with quests. The initial quests take you through the game's baby steps and instruct you in selecting and attacking targets, building energy for your attacks, and blocking.
Energy is how all attacks are carried out, and is represented by a blue bar underneath your health in the top right-hand corner. Energy-building attacks cost no energy, but aren't generally powerful. Your basic and more advanced attacks are tapped or charged to unleash powerful attacks against your enemies, and can take on a variety of different forms. You can also block in Champions, which is a little weird, but definitely comes in handy during fights with villains. An indicator appears above an enemy's head, which is your signal to begin the block. If successful, the attack does minimal or no damage.
Powers are grouped into categories like Electricity, Power Armor, Martial Arts, and Telepathy.Eventually, you learn the ropes enough to earn the trust of the city's mayor, who asks you to retrieve some disaster recovery documents from a nearby building. Of course, the building is crawling with Qularr, but if you use your powers properly, they go down pretty quickly. I had a little trouble spotting the quest objectives to begin with. Quest items and key interactive items have a sort of glare to them — but sometimes you have to look closely to find objects, which can be annoying at times. Return the missing disaster recovery items and the mayor will reward you with experience and your choice of an item.
Talking to major characters as you progress through the burning, rubble-covered streets of Millennium City will get you most of the quests, but there are other quests spread around the city that can be a little more difficult to locate. Quest-givers have the familiar golden question icon over their head, and also show up on your minimap as a golden question mark. Sometimes, however, quests may be off the beaten path, so you need to be nearby in order to see the quest-giver on your minimap. The main progressive quests involve rescuing citizens who are trapped under rubble or cornered by Qularr, defeating progressively more difficult Qularr enemies and destroying communications terminals.
The starting zone culminates in an "open" group mission that all players participate in, followed by a single-player final showdown against an unnamed villain. The open missions follow a kind of plot-driven mission that everyone in the local area participates in; and which you don't need to join a group or team to complete. If you work harder than the others, you have the potential to receive a better reward once the open quest has been completed. From what I've seen, later open missions are optional, but you'll have to finish this one in order to progress. Together, you and the other heroes in your area will have to fight off the Qularr invaders while getting the city's defensive cannon into working order.
Once the mission is complete, your character — with more powers and traits gained by leveling, and a travel power, too — will be free to move into a new area and beyond.
One Month Later
Since my first look, I've had a lot more time to put my hands on the game, and although I haven't gained too many levels, I've spent a lot of time creating new characters. As I've pointed out, character creation is one of my favorite features.
It's sometimes difficult to figure out how swapping out one item for another might affect your character.I've also had a lot of time to play around with items and character buildouts; testing different combinations of abilities. Travel abilities are one of the coolest ways to personally express yourself in your character. After all, who hasn't wanted to soar through the sky in free flight? I prefer the rocket boots method of travel, but I've also experimented with teleportation and super-speed. Once leaving the newbie area, you're allowed to choose one. Some allow you to travel more safely than others, and others have slightly increased speed. I haven't found a huge difference in any of the abilities, per se, but they add a certain flair to your character. Ultimately it boils down to preference: would you rather burrow underground like a radioactive mole-man, or float around on a hovering disc?
Early on, there were some obnoxious glitches and issues with the interface, but I'm happy to report that the Champions team has made consistent improvements in this area. Updates come out frequently, and are good at addressing annoying issues with item descriptions, chat interfaces and other minor-but-noticeable features. Unfortunately, there is still some ambiguity associated with items and equipment.
Just from reading an item's stats, it's sometimes difficult to figure out how swapping out one item for another might affect your character. Numerous paragraphs of descriptions make understanding a new item with special properties pretty ridiculous, so I've taken to pulling up the Powers screen and swapping weapons to see how it affects my critical stats. Still, it would be nice to be able to see comparisons by hovering over an item as well as displaying a more simplified version of the properties window. Even with the continued improvements, significant progress needs to be made in the item and inventory area in order to ever compete with more polished MMOs.
For that matter, crafting seems to serve almost no purpose; the items that I create are generally useless to me since my level always seems to surpass my crafting ability. About the only useful things I can make are healing items and slotted bags. Maybe I am completely missing some key component that would make crafting more worthwhile; but as far as I can tell there is little or no economy, making crafting about as useful as another hole in the head.
Another issue that I've been running into is that the only missions worth any experience are three to four levels above my head. They are often just within reach of soloing, but I die frequently, resulting in the loss of my experience bonuses. Somehow, early on, I was able to solo well above my level, and now I'm a bit trapped where I am. I'm not sure if this is an issue with the game's balancing, or if it's something I did, but it's annoying all the same.
The standard Champions Online player seems to be more intelligent than your typical MMO player.I do have to say that the standard Champions Online player seems to be more intelligent than your typical MMO player. Now, I know what you're thinking: Surely that can't be true! But I've had mostly good experiences with other players. I run into more courteous and generous players than I do obnoxious ones, and I've even managed to run into a few players who don't mind roleplaying a little bit, and the geek inside me really likes that.
Overall, Champions has a lot of potential. The look and feel of the game will really appeal to the kid in you, and fans of comic books and superheroes will enjoy being able to customize their players. Unfortunately, this game may not have broad appeal, and the small but annoying issues with the interface and economy, coupled with a significant lack of documentation and other resources to assist you in understanding equipment selection and items, are more than a little frustrating. On the other hand, the Champions team is continually making improvements to the game, as well as releasing new powers and content.
On a final and personal note, I'd really like to see a more edgy and gritty superhero-themed game in the MMO genre. Unfortunately, MMOs need to at least try for mass appeal, and an M-rating probably won't achieve that. Champions can be good fun, and it's a great improvement over previous super-powered MMOs, but I'm not sure I will be truly content until I have something more adult-oriented. Either way, Champions might be worth a shot if you have some free time, about $15 bucks a month and have always wanted to stalk the night in spandex.