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Champions Online

For Cryptic Studios, men in tights are serious business. Cryptic established itself as a force for good in the MMO world with City of Heroes and its sidekick standalone expansion, City of Villains, but in hindsight, those games seem like mere proof-of-concept for Champions Online, Cryptic’s next superhero MMO opus.

“We really wanted to make playing the game feel like playing a comic book,” Cryptic Chief Creative Officer Jack Emmert shares. Champions - based on a pen-and-paper RPG circa 1981 - uses a graphical technique called “comic shading,” in which characters have dark outlines, buildings are absurdly gargantuan, and your hero’s moves are all exaggerated and momentarily held for dramatic effect upon completion. It’s a world ripped from the pages of your favorite comic.

Building on the flexible character creator from CoH, Champions’ superhero generator lets you customize every detail of your avatar down to each individual boot on his feet. This is, of course, on top of choosing your origins (magic, tech, or alien) and abilities, all presented in a laudably accurate ink-and-panel style that should prove irresistible to comic book fans. Partnering up with four other volunteers, including our caped Cryptic tour guide, we walked in the platform heels of Spark Girl, a frazzle-haired heroine with lighting-shooting powers. With the Xbox 360 controller in hand (keyboard and mouse controls are also available, of course), our Journo Justice League hiked down into the barren depths of Snake Gulch to battle robot cowboys in fast and furious combat. Champions plays more like Diablo than World of Warcraft - with no cooldown timers on your powers holding you back, you’re free to strike as fast as you can hit the attack button.

At the end of the Gulch, our super group encountered ASCII Annie, a hulking hell-bitch of a ’bot who didn’t take kindly to our presence. Quickly cycling through targets, I locked onto the boss and fired off a rapid series of small bolt attacks that built up my power meter. When the meter topped out, I unleashed a massive energy-draining lightning show that, working in tandem with my teammates and their unique skills, brought Annie down and won the day. It is Champions’ action RPG–style ease of play - in both the gameplay and control departments - that makes it unique in the MMO arena. Perhaps the parallel Xbox 360 development will actually benefit PC gamers for once. (And before you ask, Cryptic says cross-platform play is technically possible, but awaits Microsoft’s green light).


+ A City of Heros with better, simpler controls, faster action, and more impressive graphics would be victory over evil MMO grinding.

– A console-friendly design may limit Champions Online’s potential depth and, consequently, its long-term appeal.

Aug 7, 2008