So… wanna talk about Champions Online? The tape’s come off my mouth, and I have a big bottle of water to help talk for some time. I hope you won’t mind. Seeing as how this is my #1 most anticipated MMO of 2009, I was excited to get into the beta and even more so when it came to wanting to share my thoughts on this here bloggy thing.
Cryptic’s given me permission to chat a bit about Champions Online — very nice on their part — but it comes with a few restrictions that I should get out of the way up front. I can talk about character creation, powers, the tutorial zone and the desert/Canada crisis zones, but nothing past that. That’s fine, seeing as how I haven’t played any content past that anyway, but I just wanted to be up front with you.
Also keep in mind that I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who’s only created four characters and clocked in perhaps 10-12 hours of gameplay — extremely limited in time and scope. This is partially because I haven’t had enough time to do so (including handling a baby on some of the nights the beta was open), and partially because I’m not looking to get hugely in depth with the game right now. I wanted to sample it, test drive a few systems, formulate first impressions — let’s highlight “FIRST” here, ladies and gents, as this will not be a definitive review — see if anything was obviously broken, and figure out if it was, indeed, worth my while. The final caveat is that what we’re playing in beta now is completely subject to change, addition, deletion and modification up to release. If you’ve played a beta, you know how these things go, especially in the final few weeks leading up to launch.
I’m going to break these first impressions into different sections, including some questions that readers submitted for me to bungle spectacularly.
I’ll begin, not end, with the verdict, because that’s what you’ve come for, I suppose. Is Champions Online all that it’s hyped up to be — gorgeous looks, endless superhero customization, action RPG feel? Yes and no — and I’m not saying that to be cagey. Listen, you experience enough new MMORPGs and you eventually learn the lesson that nothing, absolutely nothing is what it’s hyped up to be. No game is fully polished on release, and from what I see, Champions won’t be breaking that streak. It needs polish and a lot more testing. It’s not rough, exactly, just… gritty.
But, all in all, it’s shaping up to be a great game. I never thought City of Heroes’ combat was slow until I played Champions, but I don’t think I could go back now. It is an absolutely spectacular-looking game in the visuals department, and in many ways it earns the moniker of CoH 2.0 in the best of ways. The character creator, for example, tops whatever you may have seen in CoH. I feel like I have a wider field of possibilities in what kind of superhero I make, and the colorful, action-packed world of Champions is pretty fun to run around in and beat up on all sorts of baddies. I don’t know if they’re going to drop the ball with it or not, but it’s interested me enough that I’ll definitely be picking it up come July.
Champions’ cel-shaded look is something to get used to, but it has a lot of great things going for it unless you’re the type of person who just can’t stand that kind of visual. You have the option to play with or without darker outlines surrounding your character (which supposedly make it look more like a graphic novel), and the entire world is sculpted to look like something that came out of a comic book’s pages. I got a few great laughs out of the electronic billboards around the tutorial zone, and just ended up appreciating how warm and exciting the color scheme made me feel. Very colorful, vibrant and engaging.
This is one of the big selling points of Champions, and rightfully so. It’s an absolute beast of a system — in between picking your origin (for inital character stats) and powers, you can spend hours tweaking the look of practically any superhero you could dream up (or, let’s be honest, blatantly copy). You have male and female characters which can be shaped, molded and accessorized to your heart’s content.
The creator is, however, sometimes a little too obtuse. There’s so many options that it’s very easy to get bogged down in the minutia and lose sight of the overall look you’re going for. I missed the option from City of Heroes that let you start with one of many costume templates which you could then modify, since each character is built from scratch here. My main character, Ghostfire, ended up with a silver-blue bodysuit, blue mohawk, and silver coils around her arms to signify the conductive powers that she wielded.
I was very pleased to see many wacky, interesting and far-out options for creation, including bizarre backpacks, insect heads, tentacle hands, and tails that actually moved (vs. City of Heroes’ static tails, which always bugged me). You can also begin your character’s existence with a cape, if so desired. I saw many other players’ creations, and was entertained to no end by the creativity that this system unleashes.
“Ah,” you interject, “but what about powers, my good fellow?” Yup, powersets are back, baby. Here’s a tricky thing: despite what you may or may not have read/assumed, you do not have the full ability to pick and choose any power you like at the start and on leveling up. You do have a huge amount of variety and choice, and ultimately can build pretty much any hero you’d like, but you’re going to have to deal with a “tier” system that has prerequisites for accessing higher tiered powers. So at level 1, you won’t be picking some massive AOE nuke. You can choose between powersets or remain firmly within one as you like — the more powers you’ve purchased in a powerset gives you access to the higher powers in that powerset more quickly, but eventually you should be able to access them all.
For instance, Syp (a shark-man), started with the dual blades powerset and the initial two powers from it. At level 5 I had a choice of another power — if I chose from the dual blades powerset, I could jump up to better powers faster (in the tier 2 range), but I decided to branch out and chose a shoulder-mounted gatling gun (a tier 1 power) from the power armor framework. Because a sharkman with a gatling gun? That’s pure win. Eat your heart out, Austin Powers.
Champions wields quite a lot of powersets and powers to pick from. Some are familiar to those who’ve played City of Heroes (Archery, Electricity, Martial Artist: Claws) and some different (Gadgeteering, Power Armor, Sorcery). Although you have to contend with the tier system to get to whatever skills you feel your character should have, it’s quite possible to create cross-breeds (a fire-wielding dual bladist, for instance). I’ve looked over the list of powersets (aka “frameworks”) and although some of the more unique comic book superpowers can’t/aren’t listed (you can’t be Multiple Man), they cover the basic staples and then some. Want to make Iron Man? Power Armor, Gadgeteering and Jet Boots will do the trick. Superman? Might, flight and a host of defensive powers. Nightcrawler? Teleportation, unarmed martial artist. It’s amazing just how many superheroes could be recreated somewhat faithfully in Champions.
It’s very easy to select “hues” (color effects) for powers, which can be adjusted at any time, but I never fiddled with emanation points. You can also equip your guy with up to nine pieces of gear (three primary pieces, six secondary) to bump up stats, defense, offense, etc.
I’m not sure if this’ll be how the game works or not, but right now I can only pick a framework at the start (custom frameworks weren’t enabled), which gives me a cheap endurance-building power and a heavier, charged power (1 and 2 keys, eat your heart out). I tried electricity, because it usually isn’t my favorite thing, but was pleasantly surprised with how great it looked and how varied the 4 or 5 powers were that I played with. I also — oh so briefly — touched on munitions (pistol and assault rifle for starting powers) and another one I can’t quite think of at the moment.
The UI is pretty clean and comic-booky, with everything more or less standard as you might expect in a MMO (map, hotbar, chat box, etc.). The inventory UI (lower-right) is different than the typical inventory slots — this incorporates your character doll (sort of, right now it’s just a series of boxes stacked on top of each other) which you can slot gear/improvements into.
A big limitation is that your hotbar is limited to a mere seven powers, and no, there are no multiple hotbars in the game as of now. This means that you end up having to pick and choose which powers you want to have equipped at any one time, versus access to them all at once. The icons are servicable, although some powersets are less clear when you look at them than others as to what they do.
Seeing as how I didn’t look up any documentation, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out the UI through trial and error, although a few of the finer details eluded me for some time (it took a while to figure out how to buy new powers, for instance — that’d be the letter “P”). I’m also less-than-thrilled with the chat interface, which just doesn’t “feel” right as of now. It doesn’t call attention to itself, and is hard to communicate to a wide region when you’re trapped inside instances of the same zone.
Gameplay and Combat
One of my biggest reservations about the game at this point is the control scheme and the framerate. This is a very fast-paced game and it needs to have tight, smooth graphics and control — and yet I’m not feeling it. They have three preset control schemes at the moment, but no way to tweak them to the way I like. I really disliked how the camera didn’t swivel as fast as your character did when you turned; there’s this weird “I’ll catch up with you later” lag as you turn, and then the camera starts swiveling a few seconds later.
I had a lot of problems with the framerate, although this being beta, I have no idea how much of this is the game, my computer, or builds that are yet to come. I tinkered with a lot of the graphic options and finally got something approaching smooth gameplay, but it’s disheartening to have to scale graphics down so much on a game that looks this good (I’m running with a very good graphics card right now and a pretty decent machine with 3 gigs RAM). This is very noticable while using travel powers, during which the framerate would drop and I’d lose the ability to navigate without killing myself.
(Note: I wrote the above two paragraphs before testing the latest build, which was a substantial framerate improvement, as well as giving me a chance to try out the “action” controls vs. “MMO” controls. Still a little laggy, but tons better.)
On a brighter note, combat is intuitive, quick and fun. The way combat works is a simple trade-off of endurance-building powers and -draining ones; you do a lot of little endurance-building shots to charge your meter for a few seconds of powerful glory, rinse and repeat. I’d like to see a more solid tab-targeting system, but it’s pretty easy to get into a fight and have some fun right away. Combat looks good, sounds okay, and you feel pretty powerful during it all. All enemies have health bars above their head when targeted, which makes it easy to spot the more powerful villains, who have layered health bars (sometimes three or four “layers” you have to burn off before they die). I didn’t see much of a penalty for death other than a little bit of time loss and rez sickness, so I got fearless quickly. It’s also great that when many bad guys die, they leave behind blue and green orbs to power up endurance and health if needed.
Hm… the tutorial is a lot of “on the other hand” statements. On one hand, it’s expansive and linear — on the other hand, it’s cumbersome and tedious the fourth or fifth time you do it. One one hand, it covers a lot of the basics of the game that are important to learn — on the other hand, they often do so with text blurbs that are lacking detailed information and are easy to ignore as you want to get out there and do some damage. One one hand, it’s great to start out alongside a lot of other players so you don’t feel alone in the world — on the other hand, why am I competing for mobs in a tutorial zone? On one hand, there’s a great final mission that has some fun scripting — on the other hand, I lost track of what story there was in the zone by the time I got there.
What’s very nice is that by the time you finish you’re usually level 5, which means you’ve gained a travel power (thank goodness) and have a choice of “crisis zones” to attend next: Canadian wilderness or southwestern desert.
I really wanted to try out more powers and travel powers, but the length of time that it takes to complete the tutorial stemmed my experimental side somewhat.
As we predicted in Warhammer, their Public Quest system was too good for other games to pass up, and I’m terribly glad that Champions has adopted it into their game. I only played the tutorial PQ (or whatever they call it instead of PQ), but it functioned almost identically to a typical Warhammer PQ — three stages, with stages one and two being mostly solo, and stage three requiring teamwork. There was some fun voice acting by the NPC superhero there (something I hope to hear a lot more of in the rest of the game). Upon finishing the PQ, I got rated on contribution, but I didn’t see any rewards from it… guess that’s something to examine further.
Gone are the days of City of Heroes’ four travel powers; Champions currently boasts nine: super speed, super jump, jet boots, acrobatics, flight, teleportation, swinging, burrowing and ice slide. The interesting thing is that each of the powers has its own mechanic that often functions differently than other powers. I was excited to see “swinging” as an option, and Ghostfire took it without a second thought (Spider-Man fans, eat your heart out).
Again, I really wish I could report that I tried all nine powers, but there isn’t a handy respec button that I know of, and besides… swinging (the TRAVEL POWER) is just too much fun. It’s completely bizarre to handle, but when you get a grip on how it works, you can have a lot of fun continuously shooting your grappling gun-thing and swinging around the landscape (or up to high places) without pause. I’m still trying to master how you can fall to the ground without killing yourself, and sometimes it’s a struggle between my wishes and the wishes of the computer when it comes to where we’re headed, but them’s the breaks.
That said, jet boots are my next pitstop. I’ll predict that flight will be an overwhelming favorite, just because of its popularity in CoH and ability to be straightforward and universally usable.
(Note: I also tried out teleportation — see below.)
One little bright note I’d like to share is that there are lots of goodies to pick up in your travels, including many items that you can use right away for effects, either in one-short or limited charges variety. For example, I nabbed a few alien mines early on (5 charges) which I could use right away (if you have an open spot on your item bar, it automatically is placed on it) to throw out a limited AOE bind on enemies. Another item made me grow huge for a set amount of time with some statistical bonuses.
Past the tutorial are two “crisis zones”, which I guess are the intermediate stepping stones to the larger Champions world. At least you have a choice, and both the desert (with radioactive mutants!) and snowy wilderness (with ice zombies!) are interesting to putz around in. I didn’t do any of the quests yet — just a lot of swinging and blasting critters with my newfound electrical currents.
You should probably be aware that these areas are instanced and separated from the rest of the world (in other words, more like Guild Wars, less like World of Warcraft in terms of world connectedness), and often I saw multiple instances of the same zone to lessen server loads.
Questions From Readers
Misanthrope asks, “As a guy in the beta, I’d like to know how long you’ve been in it. Additionally, I’d like to know if your opinion has changed the longer you have been in it, and if you are happy about the way a character ‘grows’, IE, picking powers and state packages. Get into the numbers part of the game as best you can.”
I’ve been in beta for about a month. I’m supposed to only comment on the game as if I was experiencing it as a press editor might, so I can’t comment on the beta process itself. Am I happy with the growth system? To be honest, I have to play around with it a lot more to tell. And I’m definitely not a numbers guy.
Hiryu asks, “I really want you to get in-depth regarding the travel powers, as those are going to be very important to me when making my character.”
I told you what I know up in the travel powers section. All will be viable, from what I can tell, but some will naturally be more favored and/or easier to use. I’d love to try them all out and let you know later on.
Llokki asks, “Since I enjoy my pet classes, I’m wondering if there is any equivalent to CoV’s mastermind archtype in CO?”
Not that I’ve seen. I know that there are pets in the game (such as some sorcery powers), but no frameworks are built around the concept of being a multiple pet-controlling hero.
Bill asks, “Want to talk briefly about the ‘Canada Crisis Zone’? I didn’t know the game expanded beyond the make believe America-esque universe most super hero genres sit in.”
From the interviews I’ve read, the Champions world is not limited to the USA — it definitely expands beyond the country (Canada and the undersea zone, for example), and they’ve talked about other planes, dimensions or planets as possible playable zones. The Canadian wilderness crisis zone is snowy, set in the far north, populated by zombies and an airline flight that went down that you’re trying to handle.
G30ff asks, “Ok, hows the combat feel? It seems like it’s more fast pace and engaging like an action/adventure game rather than the standard mmo 1, 1, 3, 2, etc. (WoW/WAR/CoX).”
It’s definitely faster-paced, although you will be mashing number buttons just like any other MMO. The only difference is you’re not going into an auto-attack mode where you fire off special abilities once in a while — if you don’t press a key, nothing happens. The faster pace of combat makes it more exciting, but it has a drawback as well: you have a lot less time to incorporate strategy and response as you might with a slower combat system. Sometimes you end up mashing a key too often and the game would build that attack up in an unseen queue, resulting in you using an endurance-draining attack more than you would’ve liked. Also, I never found blocking to be that useful, but what do I know?
Dont asks, “I would love to hear about teleporting and/or sword mastery in case any of these are actually in the game.”
Oh, are they ever. I made a new character tonight just to test those out — a sharkman who wielded twin katana blades (from the Martial Artist: Dual Blades framework). He chewed through mobs like crazy, as both beginning attacks would strike multiple targets if close enough. At level 5 I chose teleportation, which I think you might actually enjoy — you hit the button for it, and the graphics change to signify that you’re in that mode. At that point you can move very, very fast in all three dimensions (up, down, forwards, backwards, etc.), but it only lasts for a couple seconds before you pop out of teleportation mode, and have to wait through a five-second cooldown before using it again.
Ben asks, “Dude, sorcery, Please! I just cannot understand by virtue of the word sorcery alone, what powers come from sorcery.”
I didn’t have time to playtest the sorcery powerset, but I took a look over the list of powers tonight to help you out. It looks as though sorcery is big on summoning (think pets) and other magical-type powers.
Werit asks, “Is it everything you hoped?”
Nope. But it never is, is it? However, it’s close. I can say with certainty that this WILL be the game I’ll be playing in July.
There are a lot of unknown factors here, and not just because I haven’t peeked past the newbie content. Will this be a worthy successor to City of Heroes, or will players be frustrated by similarities to Cryptic’s past work and the fact that this game — as all MMOs are wont to be — will most likely be less-than-polished on release? Supergroups, gear, story, depth, repeatable missions… these are as much a blank to me as they are to you. Will it be ready in a little over two months, or should it stay in beta a while more? Gut tells me “a while more”, but if they line up everything just right, they could have a hit on their hands. I’m terribly excited, and it’s great to get a lot of this out in the open.