Champions Online is Cryptic Studios' latest entry into the Superhero MMORPG genre, representing several years of advancement in game design both for Cryptic and for MMOs as a whole. It's no longer a new field, and there are now certain expectations about what an MMO should contain, and how it should play. Two major factors to a new game's success or failure are the standards they embrace and do well, and the ones they reject and do differently. Champions Online succeeds at adapting many established concepts, while still setting themselves apart from the typical swords & sorcery backdrop. Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
- Title: Champions Online
- Developer: Cryptic Studios
- Publisher: Atari
- System: PC
- Reviewer: Soulskill
- Score: 8/10
First, a disclaimer — MMOs are unlike ordinary games because active development never really stops. Bugs and gameplay issues, once identified, are almost always fixed — indeed, one of the traits that distinguishes a good MMO from a bad one is how well and how quickly the development team solves such problems. Thus, this review will not focus on the minor, easily fixable problems other than to identify them and perhaps point out what Cryptic has said about fixing them, where applicable. On to the game itself.
Champions gets off on the right foot with an excellent character creator. The depth and level of detail for all of the customization options exceeds any game I've played, and it's pretty simple to find and select the look that you want. If you're the type who enjoys making your character picture-perfect, you'll love it; matching a costume to whatever vision you have for a character is surprisingly easy. There are enough options that I really don't see any player characters who look alike — or few enough that I don't notice. It also allows the irrepressible creation of characters from other intellectual properties. It's something I've seen less and less as time passes, so I assume Cryptic is clamping down on it (as they should; Marvel already sued them for the same thing in City of Heroes), but it's occasionally hilarious to see Duke Nukem, Dr. McCoy, or a WoW Paladin out killing bad guys.
The customization continues beyond the character creator, too. Throughout the game, you accumulate various powers — these are your skills/spells/abilities, everything from laser beams to giant fiery swords to huge explosions. There are a ton of powers to choose from, and each has its own graphical effect. The nice thing is that you can modify the colors of the effect and the location from which they originate. My character's first ability had him shooting red laser pulses from his fists, which I changed to be blue lasers shooting from his eyes. It's a nice touch that allows even characters with the exact same powers to look different. Beyond that, as you go through the game you can get items that unlock more costume options.
There's a tremendous variety to the powers you can use, to the point where it's almost better to figure out what you want your character to do — drop bombs, sling ice shards, Force-choke — than to look at the abilities and figure out which are the "best." They're divided up amongst 18 different "frameworks," which are collections of similarly-themed powers. For example, the Munitions framework contains powers that involve shooting various guns, dropping mines, throwing grenades, and shooting rockets. The "Unarmed" framework holds different punch and kick attacks, and the "Fire" framework has — you guessed it — fire spells. You're not restricted to a particular framework, which is nice. You can grab all your powers from a single one, or go into a different framework for each power.
It's fun to have so many options, but almost overwhelming if you're trying to min/max your character. My recommendation would be to not worry overmuch about picking the absolute best power. With a few exceptions, they're pretty well balanced — as well as can be expected for a new MMO — and Cryptic is already making refinements. More important is to select powers that have different effects. They're divided up and labeled such that you know which are for close/ranged attacks, area effect attacks, crowd control, healing, summoning, or buffs. In many cases, it's pointless to get two of a particular effect, so you want to diversify. You get a new power every few levels, and they really add to the depth of the combat.
Your character gets stronger in other ways, as well. You get "advantages," which increase the effectiveness of your powers, but you're limited into how much you can strengthen any one ability. It's another level of customization and utility, and they make interesting changes to your powers. You're also heavily dependent on stats. They're somewhat arcane and unintuitive (Strength is obvious enough, but what would you think "Presence" does?), but you'll do fine with the understanding that you should pick two and focus on them almost exclusively, as they'll determine your damage output.
The fighting is done against individual enemies or, more often, small groups. The non-player opponents you typically fight are classified as one of the following, from easiest to hardest: Henchman, Villain, Master Villain, and Super Villain. There are also Cosmic and Legendary Villains, but those are rare, and usually require a team to defeat. A more typical group will have a cluster of Henchmen, or a couple Henchmen and a Villain. The Henchmen die in a matter of seconds, but the Villains take a bit more work. As they get more powerful, you'll have to put some thought into how you want to handle them; there's a lot of content you can solo with some strategy and perseverance. Many of the powers you use complement each other in fun and interesting ways. A lot of them have short recharge periods (cooldowns), which you can fill by using a hold (crowd control) or knocking your opponent back, which delays them for several seconds.
Combat is fairly fast-paced, and it can involve a lot of movement. It feels like a hybrid between an MMO and an action RPG. Most powers can be used while on the move, giving you the opportunity to close with your attacker or maintain range, or perhaps duck out of line-of-sight just after your ability fires. You can also Block attacks. In fact, it's crucial to block some of them. Enemies will sometimes charge up big attacks, advertised by a growing symbol over their heads. When you see this happening, stop what you're doing and block it, or expect to take some serious damage. Blocking adds more depth to the combat, but is slightly hampered by the controls.
Cryptic clearly put a lot of effort into building a good system for game controls and the UI. There are a ton of different options for movement, targeting, and camera styles; you can play it like a typical MMO, or a first-person shooter, or Cryptic's own superhero MMO concoction, and it's well implemented. Unfortunately, there's a fair bit of UI lag. Server lag has been almost non-existent — amazing as that is to say during the launch period of an MMO — but the responsiveness of the controls is probably the game's biggest technical fault right now. It can be frustrating at times to have your abilities not work as you expect because of this. There's enough of a delay after hitting the button that you won't be sure if it actually triggered the ability. Many abilities require a button to be held down, so if you press it again and then the original trigger goes through, you've wasted a cooldown. Pressing Block right after charging up a power will also sometimes clip the end of it, and cause it not to fire. I would attribute the majority of my deaths so far to the UI lag. That said, it's not game-breaking.
Quests in Champions Online are called missions. A lot of it is typical MMO fare, but not all, and the mission system is streamlined and unobtrusive. The game world has several large zones, with quest hubs scattered about them. You'll get your standard "Kill N of X" and "Collect Y of Z" missions. You'll also get quest lines that tell cool stories, if you care to read them. Cryptic has stepped up the convenience factor in a few ways. First, your map is always marked with the area you need to visit to finish the missions. In other words, no more "Head past the Valley of Ambivalence and to the northeast corner of the Forest of Mild Discomfort to slay Ted the Impaler." It's simply displayed on your map (and minimap). Finding new missions is easier, too. You can open the "Crime Computer," which will tell you where various emergencies (i.e. missions) are located, and mark those for you on the map as well.
City of Heroes veterans can rest easy; the missions are a lot better in Champions. Most of them are out in the world. Some are instanced, but there are varying objectives, and I've never been sent into the same building twice, except when it makes sense for the story. Another nice feature is that you'll occasionally stumble across a civilian being accosted by villains out in the street. If you save them, they sometimes give you a mission. You can also find missions just by moving around — as you pass by a bank that's being robbed, you'll be given a quest to stop it, without having to even talk to an NPC. There are several Open Missions in each zone, too. These are missions everybody nearby can participate in, and you get rewarded based on your level of contribution. Cryptic is still working the bugs out in a few of these, but they're fun, and they have an epic feel. You'll see even more impressive missions in dungeons and "crisis zones" — one multi-part mission has you join a team of prison guards attempting to lock down a jailbreak led by a boss with paranormal powers. You fight through levels of the dungeon, struggling to reach him, and it almost feels like playing through a section of F.E.A.R.
The open world zones are few, but large, and they contain content for multiple ranges of levels. They're divided loosely into neighborhoods, which you'll typically explore until you've exhausted all the missions (gaining a couple levels in the process), and move on to a neighborhood in a different zone. The neighborhoods all tend to tell a story, or a few related stories, which tie in to the overarching plot of the game. There are a couple smallish content gaps — early into level 31, I exhausted all available quests and had to grind out the rest of the level — but Cryptic has already acknowledged that they're pinpointing those gaps and working to fill them. My advice would be to take any mission given to you by a random citizen or object; the experience from these adds up quickly, and I probably wouldn't have been stuck if I'd spent a bit more time doing those.
The zones would take a long time to traverse on foot, but early on you're given your choice of travel powers, which make getting from one place to another much faster. The travel powers are actually a lot of fun, in and of themselves. You can get your standard flying power, or ride a sheet of ice, or use rocket boots, but there are more entertaining options as well. You can get Superjump, which lets you literally leap tall buildings in a single bound, or Swing, which lets you shoot a grapple upwards and swing as if from vine to vine. Oftentimes you're just shooting it into the open air, so it doesn't make much sense, but that's more than made up by how fun it is.
One of the really good innovations in Champions is what they call the Powerhouse. This is where you go to buy new powers, increase your stats, and upgrade existing powers — the equivalent of a class trainer in other games. However, the Powerhouse is instanced, and it has a large testing area at the back. You can pick up your new powers, test them, and get rid of them if you don't like them. Changes aren't finalized until you leave the Powerhouse. It's great for trying out new things without worrying that they'll work poorly with your character. The game does have a re-specialization system, appropriately called "retcon," but at current it's ridiculously expensive. Recent power purchases aren't bad to change, but if you want to fix a mistake from early on (when you weren't that familiar with the game), it will likely cost you several times the wealth you've managed to accumulate.
Now, that's definitely a poor decision on Cryptic's part, but it's not as bad as it sounds. First, they've already held a post-launch dev chat, in which they said they're going to revise upward the amount of money you receive from monsters and quests. They also indicated that retcon costs would probably be lowered. What's more, they've already issued one free retcon to all characters, and said they'll likely do that whenever they make significant changes to powers in a patch. One phrase they used was "targeted retcon," which would let players freely change a power that has been modified. While I was initially displeased that I couldn't fix mistakes I made when I didn't know how the game worked, it's good to see that Cryptic is already addressing it, and on multiple fronts. That speaks well toward the long-term health of the game.
An important aspect of the game starts at level 25 when you get to create your Nemesis. This is a super villain whose plans you constantly try to thwart, and who routinely sends his minions to destroy you. It's basically an epic series of missions that happens gradually as you level up. After you tangle with him for the first time, you'll occasionally be ambushed by his henchmen when you're off doing normal missions. Sometimes when you kill the henchmen, they'll drop notes that contain information about your Nemesis' plans, which you go on a mission to disrupt. Other times, the police or NPC superheroes will call on you to stop his latest scheme. It's nicely done, and it really adds to the feel that you're doing heroic deeds and fighting complex battles.
There is less focus on gear in Champions than in most other MMOs. You have nine gear slots, and your typical item will increase your stats and and your defenses. You generally want to focus on the two "Super Stats" you select early in the leveling process, since raising those increases your damage output. There are also items with other effects; some will replace or modify your powers, adding an ancillary effect and perhaps a new graphic. Equip-able items are categorized as Arms, Mysticism, and Science — these are the three professions. Each of them has crafting and gathering aspects. Unlike most MMOs, your profession skill doesn't increase much by making things or harvesting nodes out in the wilderness. Instead, you take items you find and "research" them, breaking them down into their components. This is cool because it gives you a ton of materials to work with, and makes it easy to catch up to where your skill level is supposed to be. You don't have to make two dozen Shoulderpads of the Useless that you immediately vendor. There is virtually no "grind" to the process, which is quite nice, and you can build yourself some basic gear and useful consumables.
There's still work to be done on the game, as with any MMO launch. Pet AI isn't working right, so summoned creatures will frequently run off and attack whatever the heck they want. Several buggy missions have already been fixed, but others are still broken. PvP is dominated by a few annoying abilities; nothing you can't work around with a semi-coordinated team, but a lot of people can't rely on that. There are a few places in the game that look like they're just waiting to be populated with villains and quests; hopefully that'll happen soon to fill out the leveling process. The downside right now is that you'll frequently end up doing quests a couple levels higher than you, which give you rewards you can't use yet. Endgame doesn't have a ton of variety; that's something they'll have to address fairly soon, once a significant number of players reach the level cap.
As it stands, I think Champions Online's success will be determined by where Cryptic takes it from here. The launch is solid, there's a reasonable amount of content, and the combat is a fun break from typical MMOs. When Cryptic actively developed for City of Heroes, they released 10 expansions and City of Villains in a three-and-a-half year period. If they can roll out content on a similar scale for Champions, while staying on top of balance issues and bug fixes, it will certainly find success. As it is, it's piqued my interest. It's no WoW-killer, but it's a fun, distinct game that will carve out a niche for itself.