Champions Online – Review
We all toyed around at some point in our childhood with the idea of being a super-hero, a super-villain or maybe in general with the thought of wearing a cape while running around in our underpants and not looking completely retarded. Since some of us never completely got over it, Cryptic Studios came to the rescue, first with City of Heroes and since September 2009 with Champions Online, a brand new Superhero MMORPG Game.
A superhero’s place is in the spotlight and one must dress accordingly when sprinting across tall rooftops, rescuing your regular hot secretary from the last floor of a burning building or simply kicking some uber-villain fanny. Champions Online emphasizes on this crucial aspect of the life of any decent superhero, rises up to the fashion-challenge like no other MMO before it and provides the best character creation tool the MMORPG player base has ever seen. The level of customization one can apply to a character is simply dazzling and with enough patience the results of such a character creation session can be spectacular. You can adjust the size and shape of every part of your body, apply different textures for both skin and clothing or fool around with hairdos and make up. And this is just the beginning. Tails, feathers, tights, caps, masks, capes, shoes, tattoos, jewelry, weapons, etc. – you name it, they have it and they are all subject to multiple color adjustments. It’s a non-discriminatory character creation tool that can meet all tastes provided that enough time and patience is invested into it.
But no matter how much time you are willing to spend to make your character the best looking hotshot on the server, after hours of gameplay you will eventually grow tired and utterly bored of how it looks. It is then when you will notice the downside to the huge amount of customization the game allows you to sink into your character in such early stages: the gear you will equip will influence your stats and abilities, but will never be displayed for others to see, admire and envy. Showing off that special piece of armor or that really cool weapon everybody is dying to have is no longer an option. The only thing left to do is change your costume, but even that will fill dull after a couple of times as you are only painting over an outer layer that never fully reflects your character’s actual equipment and game experience. It’s like having the engine of a Ferrari forever trapped under the rusted hood of an old Fiat.
Apart from the cosmetic customization, the character creation tool also gives you the chance to pick up and combine your character’s base abilities and also choose a stats build to go with them. As you will progress through your adventures other powers from various disciplines will become available through training, so even though there are some limitations, you can eventually build the superhero you have always dreamed of and filled with pride present it to your online friends. This whole plasticity the game is based on sounds great in theory, but practice reveals it as a flawed system – a small early warning here. As certain skills rely on certain stats for optimum performance and as you will struggle to max out a larger range of stats, some combinations of powers will leave your character forever deprived of that edge in combat that it would have had with a default skill set. Yes, you can build a Jack of all trades, but as you are sacrificing effectiveness it will truly be the Master of none and this will heavily and negatively influence your gameplay experience.
The visual awe of Champions Online is not limited to the character creation system. Once you manage to drag yourself away from the lengthy process piecing your superhero together and step out onto the streets of Millennium City, you will greeted by amazing cel-shaded graphics that literally bring the comic book to life. Wrapped in a thick black outline and lively colored, characters, environment elements and animations beautifully come together to create a unique Action MMO visual experience. You would expect that a graphic system such as this one would not demand too much from your system and so I was surprised to find my PC staggering a bit under the weight of “full detail”. However some minor adjustments gave me the opportunity to enjoy a smooth running game while sacrificing only a small amount of eye-candies.
Millennium City is the cradle of each and every new character, the place where any new comer learns the ropes, the ins and outs, the way of the Superhero. And what better setting to trigger a wannabe legend into action than a city under siege, with streets animated by invading troops, disorganized defenders and panicked civilians. Here, with the help of a comprehensive tutorial system, the new player will learn about many of the game’s features, from moving around and using basic abilities to interacting with other players, completing quests or taking part in public events highly similar the public quests successfully introduced by Warhammer Online. By constantly throwing his way challenges that keep him interested and entertained, the tutorial system manages to transform the whole learning process into a seamless experience that even game veterans will not feel reluctant to repeat.
Not the same thing can be said about the rest of the game though. Once the siege on Millennium City is lifted and you are free to leave and scour the world in search of new challenges to face and new evil to eradicate, you will be constantly followed by a feeling of insufficiency. There are barely enough quests out there to get you from level to level and those available lack the grandeur you would expect from a Superhero story. Following the same old pattern of Online MMO Games quest design (kill x amount of y, gather x amount of y, etc.), you will eventually find yourself repeating previously completed tasks simply because the quests descriptions changed and your targets are in another area. Not saying that quests are worse than the MMO standard, it’s just that we did expected more from a game supported by such a rich fictional background.
There are elements the break the dreary déjà-vu and the monotonous questing, and the most interesting and innovating one was the Nemesis. This is introduced at level 25, so keeping in mind that the level cap is 40 this tiny spark of ingenuity comes pretty late into the game. At this level you will create your own personal archnemesis, a SuperVillain whose life mission from that point on will be to hunt you down and kill you. This Machiavellic character – oh, I wish! – will regularly challenge you where ever your travels may take you, so this provides a certain element of surprise. Unfortunately not enough and fighting the Nemesis off your back will eventually become a routine as everything else.
As you can imagine with the enormous range of abilities available to the player, the combat in Champions Online is spectacular up to the point where in PVP you will feel the need to adjust some video settings in order to keep up with what happens in front of you. Balance is not its strong point and certain skill synergies will prove superior to others in any given situation, as you will quickly see for yourself. The Hero Games, PVP battlegrounds with traditional rule sets such as free-for-all or team-deathmatch, provide a quick solution for those that need to quench a blood thirst, but become less and less appealing in the long run as they lack variety and a more strategic approach. For a game so heavily focused on combat, it’s disturbing to find that Champions Online makes apparently no effort to polish and show off its crown jewel.
No efforts are placed in creating a powerful social experience either. The game uses a system of instances with a player cap limit similar to the one that made us run away from Age of Conan like it was deadly virus. So although there is no server selection window, the pool of players is still split around, randomly this time and towards a result that begs the question: why is it called a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game when it behaves like a Regular Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game with a hub? I think a little crowbar separation is in order here and a new name needs to be invented, because last time I checked WoW, WAR and EVE were called MMOs and when compared to them Champions Online doesn’t even come close. On top of this cloud of instances sits a shy guild system, non-challenging dungeons and too few group quests. As a result most of the time you will have the impression that you are enjoying a single player game with some really smart bots running around you.
Champions Online lacks honesty, depth and substance, and tries to make up for them through presentation and customization. It’s a game which in a flamboyant way promises a lot and in the end offers little. Any experienced MMO player will be able to see through the smoke and mirrors in less than a week and will probably leave the game by the time the free month runs out. However that month will not be a waste since the game has just enough content and game-appeal to keep you entertained for thirty days. So if you are looking to step away from your regular MMO Game for a while and cleanse your thoughts with something a bit out of the ordinary, then Champions Online is a good choice. Just don’t hope for a long term relationship with this one because it will disappoint.
by Seth Lex