Spandex is a privilege, not a right.
To date, the only MMO I’ve had much stomach for has been City of Heroes. I’ve had some temporary appreciation for others in the genre – Warhammer Online springs to mind – but the appeal of even those wears after a few months, whereas City of Heroes managed to maintain my interest since its release. I bring this up because Champions Online is made by the same company that put City of Heroes together - at least originally - and because Champions is plainly a competitor with City of Heroes, whether it wants to be or not.
[image1]Champions Online is a superhero-themed MMO that eschews pre-defined class roles for a more open power selection system. It puts a lot of power into the player’s hands where character creation and advancement are concerned. The freedom to mesh several different types of superpowers together is pretty cool and it’s a major advantage to Champions. You can create a gun-slinging, sword-swinging merc chick, or a punch-throwing, ice-wreathed Goliath, or a robot who erects forcefields and wields a dozen bizarre gadgets.
Amusingly, my very first hour of gameplay time was crippled by choice – there was actually so much there that it was somewhat overwhelming. Tweaking power and costume options just right – not to mention all the minute details of model adjustment – froze me in indecision for a time. Unfortunately, this was going to be the only fun hour I’d have with Champions for a little while.
Put simply, Champions has a terrible tutorial. In its desperation to seem fun and dynamic, it ends up coming across as even more obviously scripted and, well, lame. Millenium City is being attacked by the Qularr! They’re aliens! Buildings are getting wrecked! Oh, but if you stand in the corner over there, you’re fine. And here’s an AI to instruct you on how to be a superhero. And here’s all these dudes just standing around, 50 feet away, waiting to test their weapons on the first superhero that wanders through. And if you go too far down that alleyway, there’s no more Qularr, just empty streets. Don’t mind the fact that the mayor is in a tent twenty feet from the frontlines – that’s totally normal!
I acknowledge that comic books usually craft a ridiculous version of events, which Champions Online is doing its best to emulate, but it’s hard to take it seriously. With writing aimed at the slow kids in the class, a collection of mindless NPCs standing about while the world explodes, and a general impression that you’re not in any danger whatsoever, the tutorial fails on pretty much every available aspect. It’s so mind-numbingly easy that it doesn’t gear you up for the main game properly at all; you will run into actual challenges later, get your ass torched, and then feel chagrined for thinking you're a bad-ass after that laughable tutorial.
[image2]That’s actually a fair point about the gameplay – you don’t ever feel like a superhero, actually. Either you’re beating up guys totally beneath you, or you’re getting worked over by four henchmen who are at your level. The game’s balance teeters on a razor’s edge, and if you bite off even slightly more than you intended to chew, you fold fast. The game does have some temp powers and tools available to keep you going, so this problem will rear its head less and less as you progress, but it takes until level 20 to feel like you’re actually a superhero.
You’ll spend a lot of this not-so-heroic-feeling time out in the radioactive New Mexico deserts or the frozen wastes of Canada. These areas of play, frankly, aren’t a vast improvement over the tutorial. They come across fairly stilted, with a lot of the conflict so clearly artificial that you can’t really take it seriously. When you get to Millenium City, however, things begin to really pick up. The main focus of the game, clearly, is the superheroic goings-on there, as well as the efforts of the numerous villains.
Which brings up nemeses. You can make your own when you hit level 25, and it’s pretty damned cool. A tailor-made villain just for you, who’ll send henchmen to muck about with you and even have a climactic showdown with you. This personal flair really brings the game home, and is the final piece that takes Champions from ‘ho-hum’ to ‘hot damn!’. Of course, handing players the ability to craft their own nemeses will undoubtedly have some frightening results – I didn’t have an opportunity to check out too many other players’ nemeses, but one guy made what can only be described as a bikini model gone rogue. I imagine that’s just the start of the misuse.
Champions has borrowed some of the innovations of other MMOs, including public quests from Warhammer Online (a good thing to grab) and a WoW-like array of crafting and PVP. In this regard, it feels like it’s trying to be the same game as all the other MMOs – and it’s these areas that make it feel the most dull and uninspired.
[image3]Graphically, the game puts a lot of effort into looking like a comic book. Cel-shading, bold lines for geometric edges, and a somewhat washed-out color scheme keep things looking like a 1950s and '60s mass-print DC or Marvel publication. It’s an interesting style – doesn’t really appeal to my tastes, but I must acknowledge that a lot of good work was done to make it happen. They get pretty close to that target most of the time – on target on occasion – and the game only rarely drifts away from that aesthetic.
There are some very distinct graphical flaws, though, including some obvious low-res textures, some bugs with animation blending, and a somewhat mechanical feel in places. Many of the showcase areas and characters look great, but there’s a certain lack of love for a lot of the more general territory out there. Not a major issue – we’re talking about the occasional flaw in the corners of the world – but they’re there.
The music, as tends to be the case with most MMOs, isn’t particularly good in Champions. I turned it off pretty quick, and replaced it with my own tracklist. I don’t have a recommended playlist for Champions, really – I could see a variety of songs fitting the gameplay just fine, especially given the breadth of character options available. I think it’d be fun to try and play a classic '50s era hero with a soundtrack of French horn pieces going, but then, I can have curious fascinations.
Overall, Champions is actually pretty good – I don’t think I’ll be abandoning City of Heroes for it, but it has some qualities worth mentioning. It shines most when you’re dealing with your nemesis or when you’re in the exemplary character creator; but outside of those shining moments, the overall game is very much just another MMO.