Posted on September 14th, 2009 in Axel Night, Video Games by Axel Night

Axel isn’t exactly a massive fan of the massively multi-player online role playing games.  The Mummorpaguh was not designed with me in mind.  I play Guild Wars, though less than any actual person who claims to play Guild Wars ought.  I’ve given World of Warcraft a few ounces of my time, but I haven’t sacrificed enough of my soul to reach 80 (or even 60).  So, the game frequently reminds me that I’m not actually playing it yet, instead rather working through some painful hazing ritual.  And the list goes on, and on, and I’ve made my many cookie cutters, and worked really hard to make my little avatars unique by trying to be like everyone else.  And then I actually meet other people online, and any charm there might have been is lost, and I go off to play Final Fantasy 6 again.

And with all of this in the back of my mind, I bought Champions Online.

Champions Online is a super hero themed addition to the MMO market by Cryptic Studios.  You may remember Cryptic from such games as City of Heroes and City of Villains from about five years ago, which were super hero themed additions to the MMO market.  City of X was best known for its extremely in-depth character creation system, which took the ideas applied to "Create a Wrestler" modes, in place in wrestling console games for over a decade, and applying them to an MMO scene.  This way, you could make a character who looked entirely like you want, then pick a class role, and see him act like everyone else.  It was at least a step in the right direction.

CO is, for all core purposes, CoX (hehe, cocks).  A lot of design ideas stayed the same, and I blame this on the fact that the game was originally intended to be "Marvel Online", which just screams "copy what we’ve already done and slap a licensed label on it".  But Marvel and Microsoft got sand in their collective vagina and bailed on Cryptic.  Left without a franchise to stand on, they scooped up the Champions license.  Champions isn’t new to gaming.  It’s actually a table-top RPG.  The kind you play with dice and paper, you know.  RPG roots, yo.  Represent!

In typical Cryptic flare, character creation is, far and away, the creme atop this heroic crop.  Lots of sliders, buttons, colors, costume bits and accessories let your imagination go wild.  Even if you can’t quite nail down your exact dream hero, there’s plenty available to get pretty close.  It’s equally entertaining just to roam the game, looking at everyone else’s creations.  Heroes range from recreations of existing fiction stars (one more Agent Smith and I will scream), to the vivid and imaginative, to visual ulcers.  Some are just plain awesome.  (I’m looking at you, Mecha-Messiah.)

But despite how amazing the look customization is compared to most online titles, it has been done before, and so we move on to the flesh and blood of any hero… powers.  At character creation, you start with two of them, one from each of 18 different "frameworks".  Frameworks are clusters of powers that all go together.  You too can get your degree in:

Iron Beard, the killer robot pirate captain, faces off with a mutated soldier. His dual-blade attacks quickly strike multiple foes in front of him, while his energy shield and invulnerable endoskeleton make him extremely durable.

Or get your bachelors in Business Management or Accounting.

While you’ll often focus in at least one Framework, you don’t have to.  New powers become available at newer levels, and your selection is based loosely on your existing powers.  But not all tree-like.  For example, the Gadgeteer framework has a power that summons a robot killer teddy bear.  It becomes available when you have 3 other Gadgeteering powers, or lacking that, 5 of any power.  You’d have to wait a few more levels for it, but you can get killer teddy bears without ever picking up a gadget.

Your first power will be what’s called an "Energy Builder".  It’s your weak, basic attack.  Hitting with it builds up your energy meter, where as most everything else depletes it.  Every Framework has one.  Munitions characters fire off a pair of pistols.  Sorcery characters launch arcane bolts.  Martial Artists punch and kick.  Power Armor comes with a pair of wrist-mounted blasters.  Your second power can also be from any framework, and will be your starting damage attack.  So, from the start, you could create a character who shoots gouts of fire at his foes while chopping them down with his sword, or a martial artist psychic, or an arcane archer.  And the potential variety only grows from there.

Powers can also be further customized.  Some powers let you choose to fire from your hands, face, or chest, and most will let you change their colors.  Red ice blasts from the face?  It’s silly looking, but doable.  Characters who use more weapon-oriented attacks can customize the look of their weapons for a minor fee at a costume tailor NPC, though their is no preview function for it yet, making trying them out a bit of trial and error.  But swords can be made into axes and maces and such, so the option is still useful.

Upon finishing the tutorial level, you’ll have access to another power, as well as a travel power.  The world around you quickly grows to a mammoth size, and you aren’t expected to trod slowly through it until you earn some mythic mount.  You’re a super hero.  Take to the air!  Most powers are some form of flight, but if taking to the air isn’t your style, it doesn’t stop there.  And all powers are usable in combat.  So, yes, you can fly over your enemies, blasting away.  The only difference is that most powers operate slower or less dramatically in and shortly after a fight.

Most powers are at least a little customizable. Nitelife, the gun-toting dark elf, has an alternate color Fire Flight ability, giving it a Fairy Fire look.

The pace is different from the average MMO.  Mobility is encouraged.  Most powers work while running (or flying or swinging or…) and something will be going on constantly.  You have a block button (with powers that can enhance your blocking ability), and enemies will telegraph attacks that will devastate you if you don’t use it.  An enemy may fire a blast at your friend that continues in a line, and you need to be on the move to get out of the way.  This makes the game almost an action/RPG hybrid, slightly closer to the Phantasy Star Online/Universe style titles.

The Good

No doubt, all of that I just rambled on about is good.  It’s fun to make and play your own unique character.  None of this "know your class" bull.  Make the character you want to play.  While group play is often the focus of MMOs, solo play is at least satisfying when I’m faced against several henchmen, holding my own, instead of the classic "pull one, fight one" tactic.  I feel like a hero.

Professor Pazuzu has numerous gadgets at his disposal, but when it comes to mobility, he simply uses his super strength to leap several stories through the air.

The new graphics engine put together for this (and their upcoming Star Trek Online) is pretty.  There’s also the option to give everything a thick-lined, cell-shaded look.  It’s a good look for a comic-inspired game, but there are those so painfully against it that the option to turn it off is equally nice.  The UI is clean and colorful.  With nice touches like flapping capes that respond well to movement, it’s obvious the visuals department put their time in on the clock.

The controls are extremely open to customization.  There’s even joystick and rumble support (probably from the intended X-Box 360 version in the wind), should you be daring enough to go that deep into things.  I play where I can toggle into a mode with a reticle in the middle of my screen and move my character FPS style.  Rather than clicking and selecting targets, it targets whoever is closest to the center of my screen.  It’s a whole new way to RPG it up.

Another simple but beautiful thing in the creativity process is that your name is never taken.  You create a handle when you make your account, which differentiates your characters from someone else’s.  For example, my lab coat sporting demon is called "Professor Pazuzu".  It says Professor Pazuzu over his head, so we know this to be true.  In chat, I’m called "Professor Pazuzu@abgaxel".  If someone else were to make a Professor Pazuzu, they would be "Professor Pazuzu@somethingthatisnotabgaxel".  And we could even be friends and get super coffee together, and wouldn’t implode for being in the same universe.  It’s a wonderful thing.

The Bad

As with any MMO at lauch, there is a lack of polish.  And lack of polish in MMO terms means "unfinished game" in real gaming terms.  I often run into items with the description "UNTRANSLATED (null)".  There’s an occasional unresponsiveness to the control that borders on flat-out ignoring me.  In the auction house, you can’t scroll if there are more than 100 items.  I often run into NPCs with broken quests or objects I’m supposed to loot but can’t.  One of the first few areas has a huge black block in the middle of its map screen, as if the colors somehow got inverted.

In a patch made just after launch, the general power-level of player characters was given a big dip, as well as the XP from quests.  The result is me dying a lot more.  Dying really has next to no impact on the game, but I don’t feel very heroic when I’m constantly getting my arse handed to me.  It gets worse as levels go on.  The reduction of quest XP means you run out of quests to take before reaching the level the next set of quests were designed for, going on and on until you’re being rewarded with items you’re not even allowed to equip for several more levels. 

Amazing potential is there, but even after the long delay, this is still a beta-quality game.

The Ugly

It’s an MMO.  It has people.  People from the Internet.  I hate those people.  There’s already a stiff line drawn between the power builders trying to eek out every optimized advantage in the system and the more character concept oriented players.  The increase in difficulty has forced a further rift in them over whether to keep it or not.  I’d really hate to see a game with such creative potential go with the "optimize or be laughed off the game" mentality.


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