Review / Champions Online (PC)

If any theme could work well with the mainstream massively multiplayer online game model, it’s the heroes genre. When it seems everyone in the world needs something to be done, why ask the person with the healing capabilities to singlehandedly defeat crazed monsters that are outside the city? Being an individual with amazing powers on the other hand gives everyone a reason to call you for help. Be it saving the city from invading aliens or simply returning a lost animal to its owner, it only makes sense that citizens go to the person who is capable of pulling a piece of earth from his feet and using that as platform for flight.

Made by City of Heroes developer Cryptic Studios, Champions Online is an MMORPG based on the pen and paper role-playing game, Champions. Sporting a great art style, almost everything about Champions Online comes off as exaggerated and near stereotypical of comic books to the point that even the player who has had the slightest of interaction with graphic novels will find comfort in this world of heroes. Customization is probably the biggest selling point of the title and it is undoubtedly the most impressive offering of the game but does the rest of the game keep it fresh?

When players get introduced to Champions Online, the first thing to do in all MMOs is to create a character with the initial choice being to choose the character’s framework. Will you start out with fire powers? Telepathic powers? Will they exceed in power armor? The option to customize frameworks will allow players to choose an energy-building power and a basic power as well as an assortment of stats they will start with. When framing the look of a character in Champions, the tools given really allow the player to make a unique character. Unless one tried to mimic the look of a well known or copyrighted character, you probably won’t find any other player in the world of Champions that looks like you. From the body mass, to arm and leg accessories, to whether or not the character should have gloves on its right hand and a claw on the other, one could spend countless moments customizing their character. If you do get tired of the look or want to roleplay, you can always go to a tailor in-game and create additional costumes or modify existing slots. Champions has one of the best character creators of any MMO, if not the best. To add to that, thanks to the account system of Champions, when players create the look of their characters, any name can be chosen for them because it is tied to the player’s account and it is the account name itself which acts as the unique name in the database, not the character name.

Champions starts with an impressive tutorial, introducing players to the vibrant and illustrious hub of Millennium City. The outlining of objects and models give Champions a great look (and if you’re not one for outlines, there is the option to turn it off). From the illuminating and colorful streets of Millennium City, to the torn neighborhoods of Westside, to the tropical Monster Island and into the underwater environment of Lemuria, Cryptic has done an outstanding job with the area designs. Though it succeeds fairly well in portraying an animated look, it’s really in the more dark dungeons where the game goes beyond in its aesthetics, looking like that of a gritty graphic novel.

The tutorial does a substantial job of teaching the basic mechanics and offerings of the game as it leads players through the first couple of levels. At the end of the tutorial, players will be high enough to get more powers. As players progress, they gain the opportunity to learn new powers. Futhermore, through a tiered system, as players get more abilities, more abilities open up to them. For example, five powers from the force framework may be needed to be access more powers from that framework as well as other frameworks. The system emphasizes once more Champions level of customization as one could make a hero that is capable of firing rockets from his shoulders, wielding dual swords and still have more than enough room to utilize frost power abilities that will leave villains chilled as they attempt to catch up to him. Add to that the array of travel powers that players can use and you’ve got Dan, the sword wielding combat robot with rockets coming out of its shoulders and ice coming from its hands while it is in the air in its fire flight.

Questing in Champions can be done in a few ways: missions, open missions and PvP. Missions represent your typical quests, while open missions represent scripted events in the world that all players can engage in together and the experience received is associated with how much you contribute. Granted you have the appropriate build, players can really feel like a hero.

One area that needs improvement is the amount of content. Playing through to the max level, which is 40, on two characters, there were some content gaps at the higher levels. Even when playing through again and doing missions in areas that the character wasn’t told to go in the first playthrough, there were still moments that required grinding an open mission and PvP matches. What perpetuates the problem is that playing Champions is all about momentum. More often than not you will get a load of missions to do and you get them at such a consistent stream that when you do hit the content gap, it really hits you hard in a way that will really leave you sitting there for a few minutes wondering what you should now. It also doesn’t help that there are a handful of bugged missions that drastically hinder any momentum you had as well. It doesn’t do a good job of giving you a good indication of where to go. Don’t be surprised if you’re doing missions 2-3 levels above you in one area only to go to another and the missions there are at your level. Not that these missions are difficult, but it does indicate that when you get close to the max level, you may have to find another method of gaining experience.

While shaky on the missions, Champions is incredibly solo-friendly. Most of the time missions will take you to instances that you can complete by yourself or with a team, though not necessary. Missions that recommend you bring 2 or 3 people along can often be done by yourself. If it recommends 5 though, then you should probably have a group of 3 minimum, depending on the lair. Add to that, roles in Champion aren’t defined. There’s no need to ask before hand who will be the tank and who will be the healer. While leveling, the majority of instances require that the group is ready to dish out damage and know how to block. A feature allows players to customize their builds, choosing from four roles that adjust your stats to accommodate for tanking, healing and damage. In one instance, when a group was having trouble with a boss, all that was required was that someone switch to a tank build that increased their amount of hit points and allowed them to receive more damage, even though their character wasn’t at all made for tanking, it made the boss fight much easier. Champions is really the game for people who don’t have all the time to give to a game or are online at random points in the day. That’s not to say that teaming with other people isn’t useful, it just begs the question, why team up to do an instance if I’m able to solo it?

Gear is handled in the form of upgrades. Upgrades are primarily used for increasing stats and while some may improve powers and give you added bonuses, like a chance to apply Chill on an opponent, they don’t change your overall look. There are some upgrades however, that do unlock costumes. While questing, players may also receive devices that act as consumables, weapons and tools for summoning pets to assist you. If there one thing Cryptic did very well aside from customization, it’s crafting. Progressing through the crafting system is done through finding materials in the world and finding upgrades that correspond to your craft. For example, if you find an Arms upgrade and you are currently crafting in Arms, you can break that item down into ingredients needed to make your Arms items, increasing your overall Arms level.

Combat is interesting to say the least. While the concept of picking up objects, like a box or a bench, are introduced, you could get by without ever needing to throw these objects at villains but instead just resorting to your own powers. Combat can sometimes be frustrating as the interface sometimes lags and is unresponsive especially if you want to activate abilities on the fly. Using an ability and then immediately utilizing your blocking capabilities will sometimes register the inputs as just the block.

The powers look great, some more than others. Throwing an Ice Blast into someone’s face will cause shards of ice to explode, leaving the cold mist to form in a ball and rise into the air. Depending on what you want, you could modify the colors of individual abilities, as well as travel forms. Emitting red sparks of electricity then blasting foes away with a blue stream of force is completely possible adding that much needed depth and emphasis on your characters being your own. Seeing what combinations other players have used and watching all of it work together in groups is just part of the fun. You may even find yourself verbally taunting your on-screen foes while you defeat group after group of henchmen.

With such an opportunity to customize powers however, comes responsibility. Choosing powers for your character can be fun but it can also hinder the experience if it’s done wrong. If you really get attached to your character to the point that you have a determined concept and story behind it then constructing your powers may put you at a disadvantage. Cryptic has taken this somewhat into account by utilizing the powerhouse, an instance where players go to get abilities and test them out on dummies and damage dealing objects. If you’re unsure about a power, buy it at the powerhouse, try it out on some test objects and if you don’t like the numbers, you can remove the ability and try another with no limit or cost. However once you leave the powerhouse, that power is locked in and can only be removed by the Retcon system.

Retcon is the concept of removing abilities from players, allowing them to buy alternate abilities. You can only remove abilities based on the order you bought them, from the most recent to the oldest. The problem with the system is that the costs rise dramatically the further you go down the list of abilities you want to remove. It’s too expensive considering that as you remove abilities, the resources (the game’s currency) needed to remove more abilities get astronomically higher, which whatever point you’re at in the game, would probably lead you to reroll instead of farming for the funds. Fact of the matter is, you will want to do some good outside research on a build if you really want to get it right.

Messing up the concept of your character or purchasing abilities that just don’t work will frustrate players looking to take their heroes into PvP. PvP at the moment only has three modes. Two of those modes are essentially arenas where in one arena, players are engaged in a free for all while the other features a team arena-style of play, both requiring that a number of opposing players be defeated to declare victory. The last PvP mode is a hybrid of PvP and PvE where players alongside minions and boss NPCs are placed on either the heroes and villains team, where the villains try to escape from prison. The overall objective is to defeat the opposing team’s bosses. The most fun probably comes from this mode as it’s interesting to witness the synergy between players and their NPC comrades who do much more damage. The other modes however really reveal the level work Cryptic will need to do in order to balance this game.

At the moment, it’s fairly clear what abilities are needed to increase survivability in PvP. It would come as no surprise if Champions were to become a completely different game in the coming months as Cyptic attempt to balance it. Aside from gaining experience based on performance, players also gain Acclaim which is a currency used to purchase consumables and upgrades that also serve as costume unlocks. If you’re an avid PvPer looking for an MMO, Champions is a hard recommendation as it’s just the three PvP instances and simply speaking, could benefit from more PvP game modes that have more team-based objectives.

As for life at the max level, that’s where the charm of Champions Online slips as once you hit the highest level, you are given an array of solo quests you could do in exchange for currency that can be used to buy gear or attunement keys for five man instances. Players who enjoy taking on solo instances will find plenty of content here but the draw of Champions was that one could be a low level hero but still feel like he could take on anyone. At level 40, the power feels like a given and when reaching that level there was more of an urge to reroll and try a new assortment of moves and abilities rather than jumping from area to area doing instances that offer little in new designs both aesthetically and mechanically. It all just feels like more of the same.

Overall, Champions Online is a fun MMO to play. It’s by far a game that warrants a purchase if you want something to occupy yourself with for a month. It’s also a great title for those who want to play on their own time without being pressured by the barrage of quests in their log that require five people. Those looking for a heavily group oriented MMO will have to look elsewhere as there’s nothing exceedingly mandatory about grouping here. If you’re looking at it for a possible investment that you plan to keep for more than the free month, then you may want to wait two or three months for Cryptic to resolve the issues and bugs. With so much potential and only just a month in the market, Champions Online can only improve from here and it’s sure to be a great game as it progresses.

+ High level of customization for character and abilities
+ True sense of power during the leveling process
+ Streamlined crafting system

– Sluggish interface
– Content gaps while leveling
– Expensive Retcon system