Champions Online PC Review
Picture the scene: you’re running across the rooftops of a bustling super metropolis, wind in your hair, your perfectly-toned muscles pulsing in unison as you skim the city heights, your cape flowing in the breeze; you’re confident, you’re cocky, you’re capable, you’re a super-hero. Then, the sounds of an endangered citizen bellowing out from an alley way below – someone is in trouble, and only you can help. Before anyone even knows what has happened, you’ve landed in the fray, disposed of the villains, saved a shocked citizen and disappeared off into the night, without a thought for your own safety or the need for a simple ‘thank you’.
This is Champions Online… and it’s nothing like that.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Champions Online is a game made by the developers at Cryptic Studios, the people who brought us City of Heroes/Villains, two games still very much thriving, and populated. Champions itself is a by-product of Marvel wanting to compete with the upcoming DC Universe Online, believing that a team who has already made successful superhero-themed MMOs would be the most capable of doing justice (look, a pun!) to the Marvel universe. Long story short, Marvel pulled out for whatever reason, and Cryptic were left with an engine and a partially-made superhero game with no specific focus. Thus they jumped on the Champions pen-and-paper RPG universe for the drive they needed. That may have seemed a tad self-indulgent, spewing out all that information that doesn’t really explain much about the game itself, but it will be important for you to understand why Cryptic aren’t the money-grabbing market monopolisers they seem to be, and why they’re actually just making the best of an awkward situation. And it will also go a long way to explaining why various MMO cop-outs were probably thrown in to please the previous Marvel executives – “make it like World of Warcraft or we won’t make money!”
With that out of the way, let’s begin the review. Cryptic are known for their character customisation being way above the norm of every other MMO, proof being provided in City of Heroes. And yet they have rather surprisingly bested themselves right off the bat with Champions – the amount of control you’re given over your character’s look is downright obscene. Facial expression, arm length, height, stance… no longer are you relegated to broad generalisations of your character’s shape and style – it’s all up to you, leading to you coming across some bizarre player-made characters (imagine Juggernaut’s torso with tiny, stick-thin legs and arms). Costumes have been retrofitted from Cryptic’s past endeavour, all the things you wished were in the City of games are now here – jetpacks, frog heads, ninja turtle hands, gun holsters, all controlled and applied to your hero by a more robust and detailed character creator.
Once you’re happy with your character’s look, its time to choose their powers. During an argument between the closed-beta players and the developers when the latter tried to enforce rigid character classes, the community at the time kicked up a fuss, and stated “that’s not what we wanted, and that’s not what we were promised”. Not being people to shun their community for.. well, common sense, Cryptic opted for a completely free-reign power selection system, basically meaning you’re free to create the character you want with any powers you want, but generally just assuring that every character is a damage-dealer.
This is definitely a ballsy move, no doubt about it – giving that much control over your character development assures one of two things. One, there are going to be people who make relatively useless characters, and two, there’ll be people who’re going to combine abilities to make the most obscenely overpowered characters imaginable. Of course, measures have been taken to minimalise this, and future updates will no doubt go a long way to balancing the whole system. I’ll admit to myself that when I was creating a character and realised that I wasn’t restricted to progression up one skill tree, that I just about forgot about how completely linear and boring the combat can be.
The combat itself is driven by your character’s endurance (your energy bar, basically). One of the first powers you’re given is an endurance-building power – relatively weak, it’s the job of this power to give you a constant supply of energy, enough to then focus into larger attacks. This system itself works quite nicely, of course you can spew endurance-guzzling attacks if you’ve saved up enough energy from a previous fight, but generally every battle consists of you activating your endurance-building power, and waiting until you can execute your other more devastating attacks, giving each battle a nice feeling of pace, flow and anticipation before you let loose one of your big attacks (which are, visually, very impressive). One of the most impressive and forgiving systems in the game is the powerhouse. Essentially a skill training area, it allows you to actually try out your new skills on test dummies and see if they work as well as you’d like, before leaving the powerhouse and locking the skills in place – they can still be un-learned once you’ve left, but it’ll cost you money. Aside from skills/powers, there are also perks and talents to further your character’s advancement. Gained by increasing your character’s level, they either grant specific bonuses or upgrades to your powers, or a permanent base stat increase, depending on your preference.
Once you’re in the world you’re greeted to another all-too-familiar World of Warcraft mission system – hurray! – but maybe I should just get my head out of my own arse and realise that it’s a decent design and it’s here to stay. The missions themselves can be pretty varied and relatively fun, dipping into the usual MMO themes of capture, defeat, acquire and craft, but some story arcs do culminate into some genuinely interesting finales and set pieces. Along with your personal missions there are public missions to complete, which you will experience before the end of the tutorial – it’s basically a mission that runs on repeat forever, and players can jump in and help where they are needed at any point, or just avoid them altogether. Sadly, this seems to be one of the main ways that groups are formed, as with the WoW-esque mission system comes a lot of selfish player activity, people adding you to their team in silence until they’ve achieved their objective, then leaving instantly in an equally muted manner. Hours spent running around in your own missions, on a game populated by thousands of people only to have the same text message on your screen from 50 minutes ago when you talked to an NPC for a laugh – “Nice jugs granny, lol” – knowing that if you were to join another player it would feel so awkward trying to complete both your missions at the same time until one of you makes an excuse and leaves, and realising that my own selfish need to level up is part of the problem. Yet when I commented on this to the game’s current population, they greeted me with hostility, and/or told me to “go and make some friends, everything’s boring on your own”. Sorry, but I’m not a teenager who has time to waste the next 9 months of their life becoming a PvP legend, as they build a guild of like-minded plebs who talk to any character who looks like a girl, asking them “are you a girl in real life?” I want to turn on the game and have fun, with fun people, and without seeing the words ‘EpicLuL’, or ‘PwNed’. In a genre that lives or dies on its community, and is populated with thousands of people at any one time, I refuse to believe that I have to seek them out to have fun, like some attention-seeking puppy. But I guess that’s too much to expect from MMORPGs nowadays – bring on Borderlands and Old Republic, thanks.
Other mainstays of the MMORPG genre are here too: a generally competent crafting system, PvP arenas, and landscapes get to be pretty expansive and varied at later levels, leading to some genuinely visually impressive and exotic locations, which are easily traversed by the game’s dozen or so travel powers. Colour manipulation of your powers adds to the customisation, later finished off by the creation of your very own nemesis, who is defeated much like every enemy in the game by spamming the attack powers while running around in circles (because, for some reason, I think it helps).
Champions Online is by no means a bad game. It’s all there, and it’s all working to a competitive standard. You will create your first character all the while only seeing about 5% of what the character creator has to offer. You will take part in some pretty epic encounters by MMORPG standards, and will combat enemies and explore places not seen in any other game of the same genre. It’s polished, it’s impressive, and it works. But I think we’re long past the justification of why MMORPGs are worth playing anymore. Is it for the large environments? No, they would be equally as possible in any single player game. Is it the selection of missions? No, they’re generally all pretty repetitive. Is it the stories and the progression? No, I have never felt less immersed in any other game type (roleplay servers not included). Is it the communities and what they make of the game? No, most of them would rather PvP you than loan you 1 gold so you can pay for your orc daughter to go to a different school where she doesn’t get bullied by fat-eared elves.
There is no justification anymore. Games like Planetside, Second Life, EVE Online, and other MMO games have pushed beyond what we thought was possible, stepped away from what everyone else was doing, and they rewarded the players’ time and dedication with memories and stories to tell of their adventures or defeats. Games where players shape the world they’re in, for better or worse. Not World of Warcraft with more flashy lights.
Incidentally, if they bring this game out for the Xbox 360 like they keep saying they want to, it’ll probably be amazing. So I’ll see you on there… in two years. Good-day!