A city under siege. Aliens stalk the streets, abducting and bewitching the terrified population. Demons rise from the pavements, burning everything they see. The people cry out, begging for a hero with the strength and courage to see them safely through this darkest of nights. And look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s... a bright pink clown with antlers and too much cleavage? Probably, and nobody would even bat an eyelid to see her casually pick up a truck, hurl it at the nearest escaped convict, then dive in to tear his mates to shreds with glimmering Wolverine claws. And then breakdance.
In any other game, an encounter like might look a bit out of place. Silly, even. In Champions Online, not only is it an everyday sight, but a perfect metaphor for one of the most unusual, fun, frustrating, often borderline schizophrenic massively multiplayer games we’ve ever played. Champions Online may look like a straight follow-up to Cryptic’s first MMO, City of Heroes, but beyond the basic concepts of creating a custom hero and heading out to fight supervillains, the two games have very little in common.
Instead of relying on randomly generated maps, Champions Online puts most of its action onto the overworld areas. Where City of Heroes offered fast-paced MMO combat, Champions serves up an all-out superhero action game built around an MMO’s stats and level progression. At heart, the two have no more in common than Champions and World of Warcraft – similar elements, very different games.
It’s unfortunate that Champions almost goes out of its way to make your first few hours a miserable experience. The interface is fiddly, and the tutorial an abomination. On paper, it sounds like fun, letting you meet several of the main characters, try out a wide range of things, and foil an alien invasion while learning the ropes. In practice, it’s a frustrating mass of NPCs and quests that technically teach you what you need to know, but only in the same way a firehose down the gullet would technically quench your thirst. True, but at the same time, not helpful.
Once you’ve picked up the basics, things improve dramatically. The combat is easily the best attempt yet at making an MMO feel like an action game. You don’t just stand around trading shots, but move around constantly – lining up enemies to get them into your shotgun’s firing cone, finding yourself outgunned as extra goons join the fray, watching out for the icons that indicate a critical attack that has to be blocked and lashing back with the full charge of power it can give you. It’s kinetic, explosive, and beautifully fast paced. Death is absolutely painless, there’s no downtime between battles and, crucially, you’re awesome right from Level One and only get cooler.
At the same time however, most likely as a holdover from the original pen and paper game, Champions Online all-too often feels compelled to over-complicate everything. Case in point, there are no character classes, so you can pick more or less whatever combination of powers you like. Hurrah!
However, you then find that your powers’ effectiveness rely on a combination of eight different stats, as boosted by in-game upgrades and inventory items. You can equip nine different items, each in their own slot, with items split between three different crafting disciplines, some of them adding bonus powers, others changing the look of powers, some doing something when you click on them, others just a bundle of stats described as being a new gun or a mace or a heartwarming story about a cat or whatever. Ye gods, make it stop! There’s no reason for it to be this fiddly!
The fact that most items (rightly) have no bearing on your custom costume or powers doesn’t help make these stat boosts feel like rewards. Nor does the fact that you get a lot of useless crap you can’t even equip at your current level. It’s a ridiculous system that cries out to be ripped right out in favour of a few simple core stats, more flexibility in customising individual abilities, and the occasional cool gizmo to play with. This isn’t the only place where it feels like the game’s pen-and-paper RPG roots are probably clashing with the more casual game Cryptic actually wanted to make, but it’s one that never stops being annoying.
The less statty elements of the world work far better. Again though, first impressions aren’t great. As of the launch, you spend the first 30 (of 40) levels restricted to just three relatively small zones: a city, the Canadian wilderness, and an irradiated desert, with only two more waiting in the final stretch.
Luckily, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Champions treats its maps more like worlds in their own right, packing them with quests for all levels. Getting around is painless thanks to getting a travel power (like flying or swinging) right at the start, and while the overall world design is a bit bland, it’s spiced by lots of great individual areas, with missions taking you to everything from a seedy villain Fight Club, to a Westworld-style theme park where cowboy robots have gone berserk, to a nightmare graveyard where zombies flood in from every corner for a taste of your sweaty spandex.
Easily the best individual quest we’ve seen so far is the introduction to Monster Island (yes, really) around the level 30 mark, featuring giant flaming ape-on-dinosaur action, huge robots, and an almost Call of Duty-style assault on a fortified beachhead held by a criminal organization that’s supposedly very scary, but which still looks disturbingly like GI Joe toys dressed by a supervillain.
The majority of missions, however, are stock ‘kill X of this,’ ‘use Y on that’ fare, albeit nicely done. Characters have unique dialogue for each section, most indoor locations are short and to the point, and most major areas have a strong theme, including an Anchorman parody in the city TV station, and the barely-disguised cast of Lost showing up in Canada. Champions also offers ‘public’ quests, a la Warhammer Online, where any heroes in the area can band together to help protect the mayor from snipers or take down a robot invasion, and the clever concept of ‘patrol’ missions, where you can run into and accept respawning bank robberies or other set-pieces while travelling round the city map. And if you really must, there are still random ‘door’ missions for City of Heroes fans.
One of the best tweaks is that kill-stealing isn’t a problem – anyone who lands a good hit on an enemy will usually get credit for its defeat. Unfortunately the same isn’t true for escort quests and collecting items, which leads to a lot of waiting around for respawns, and other players running off with your guy after you rescue them. Working in a team can also be problematic, with no easy way to see other members’ quests, objectives or waypoints.
By MMO standards, leveling is damn fast. The key words there are ‘by MMO standards,’ which means that it still takes too damn long, and rolling extra characters still means retreading too much old ground to justify having a full stable of different heroes at your disposal . Hit the endgame though, and starting again is about all there is on offer.
There’s very little high-level content, PvP mode is just boring duels and simplistic arena fighting, and there’s not much in the way of social activity. Millennium City cries out for more inspired pursuits, from competitive crimebusting or a Riddler-type character to challenge your heroes’ brains.
The Nemesis system, where you get to create your hero’s arch-enemy, may add something later, but it’s currently a damp squib. You get the design tool at Level 25, but your control over anything other than your enemy’s visual appearance and broad power-set (as in ‘Fire’ or ‘Munitions’, not ‘Fireball’ and ‘Assault Rifle’) is depressingly minimal. The opening mission introducing your Nemesis is terrific, but the goodwill is quickly burned away by then repeatedly getting mugged by packs of your foe’s generic minions while trying to go about your business. It’s cool the first time, but gets old fast.
Champions Online is an unusual game. It’s quite broken in many ways, but it quickly grows on you, and becomes surprisingly endearing. It doesn’t always make itself easy to like, and it’ll die on the vine unless it gets more areas to quest in and endgame content pretty damn soon, but it’s a fun break from the normal MMORPG template, and even with its problems, it's still worth checking out.
Sep 9, 2009