First Exams
Cassandra Prime
Champions Online: An MMO Tourist’s Perspective

Earlier this month Cryptic Studios launched their new super hero MMORPG, Champions Online. In the days prior to its retail release, Cryptic granted gamers a sneak peak in the form of an open beta. The beta event was open to all and let players craft their own “Champion” in a world that pays parodist homage to our favorite super heroes. Champions Online models itself closely after its predecessor, City of Heroes, but is hardly a rehash. Cryptic has updated their model to include many modern features, some happily borrowed from the competition. These impressions are being written by a gamer who is has yet to fall head over heals in love with the genre – so what sort of impression did Champions leave on this self proclaimed tourist?

Cassandra Prime

As with most online role playing games, Champions begins with the creation of an avatar (toon). Cryptic has upped the ante once again, and offers players an unheard of number of options. If you have played an average MMORPG, you’ve seen how simple most character creation is. Most games give you a very limited set of options in your appearance, relying mostly on equipment (loot) to diversify the population. Champions, like City of Heroes before it, doesn’t really have armor or clothing drops – Instead you’re given vast control over your avatars appearance. Through various sliders you can change nearly every detail of your physique. Combining this freedom with a plethora of costume pieces that you can mix, match, and color, you can create practically any hero you want.

The freedom granted by the astronomical tailoring options are only half of the creation process. You have to design your heroes abilities as well, or at least the path on which you’re going to build upon those abilities. The first job on your journey to Champion status is chose or create your own framework; the basis of your hero’s abilities. Basic frameworks include descriptions such as power armor, electricity, and telekinesis. The framework you chose mostly seems to dictate your initial statistics (strength, dexterity, etc), since you’re not limited to powers from one specific framework. The lack of any real class distinction adds a great deal of depth to the games progression and character building.

It’s easy to imagine that there will be an abounding variety of heroes in the Champions world; from knockoffs of old favorites, to entirely new and unique creations. The tailors you’ll find scattered throughout the game’s world allow for even more options. For a fee (in “gold”) you can visit an NPC who will allow you to create and save new costumes. You can even send your saved costumes to friends, who can then load them into their own game. For the purposes of the beta, my main toon (Cassandra Prime) was a mechanized female, who followed the basics of the power armor framework. Perhaps the most amusing creation I encountered was Jesus, complete with a white robe and halo; I didn’t bother to inquire about his superpowers or crime fighting prowess.

Not every creation has a human appearance.

After you’ve finished creating your Champion, you’re thrust into an entirely typical tutorial area. This “newbie zone” is a segregated instance where you will complete a series of quests designed to familiarize you with the game. It’s probably a necessity to have such a tutorial in your game, but it’s also a little unfortunate that you can’t skip it with your subsequent characters. In this area you’re given quests that will teach you the basics. You’ll learn how to dispense enemies; how your powers work; about different types of quests; and a bit of the back story. As tutorials go – it’s functional – a necessary evil.

Power Armor is all the rage!

One interesting aspect of the tutorial zone is the inclusion of one “Area Quest,” a feature shamelessly borrowed from Mythic’s Warhammer Online. In these “Area Quests,” players will participate in large groups. These players don’t have to be in your party; they just have to be in the area of the quest (in its duration) to participate. At the end of the area quest player’s participation is ranked and awards are given out accordingly.

Upon completing the tutorial zone, you may think that you’re ready for the real thing, but Cryptic disagrees. You are immediately given the option to move into one of two other instances, the Crisis In Canadian Wilderness, or the dryly named Desert Disaster. It’s in one of these instances that you will learn about crafting classes and progressing your character. This is the first area in which you’ll find a “Power House,” where you can upgrade your toon’s abilities. By visiting one of the power house trainers, you can spend your acquired points on new powers (or upgrade your old ones). Chose carefully, but know that you can adjust your choices freely until you leave, as well as “respec” your previous ten levels for an in game fee. Once you’ve finished the available quests in this zone, you’re finally ready!

Now you’ll find yourself in a more open world. There were three basic areas available in the beta: The Canadian Wilderness, The Desert, and Millennium City. All three areas contain a variety of sub-instances, all with their own quests and sights to see. Most of my time in the beta was spent running around Millennium City. Once you’ve gained your travel skills, it’s hard to resist flying to the tops of skyscrapers for some improvised platforming and base jumping. Unlike some other MMO games, there’s no server designation to choose from the beginning. All players seem to exist in the same central server, but even the over world is divided into instanced zones. It’s a little disappointing that there’s no real persistent over-world in Champions, but the illusion is kept safe by mostly seamless gaps between instanced zones within the environment.

Say "Cheese!"

The basic gameplay is a little more exciting than your typical MMO flair. Although the combat will seem familiar to those who have played any MMORPG since Everquest, it has its own unique twists that inject some excitement into a rather stale set of mechanics. Your powers are generally timed abilities, and their use is dictated mostly by their effect and cool down time. This method of “timed combat” is wholly conventional (almost cliche), but additional depth is added through assorted tweaks. You typically activate a power by either clicking on its icon on the heads up display, or by pressing the assigned hot-key; what is less than typical is the ability to tap and hold certain powers, using them in alternative ways. These options, combined with the ability to block, and the health and power orbs that will drop at the feat of felled enemies add a little more action to a traditionally dull combat model.

Player Versus Enemy (PvE) gameplay is about what you would expect from this genre. You go on quests, you gain rewards, you spend them on upgrading your toon. The “Area Quest” system puts Champion’s on the same page as most other modern MMORPG’s, but it’s still a little dull. The quest story lines are a little too easy to ignore. I found myself skimming through the NPC quest-giver’s dialog, discarding the story in favor for the goals I was being tasked with. This portion of the game is merely acceptable on the surface, but it’s potentially enhanced by one of the games most unique features: The Nemesis. When your toon reaches level 25, you can craft your own nemesis, with all of the tools and options granted by the initial character building. This character becomes a key figure in your Champion’s story, which will likely add some excitement to the PvE portion of the game.

Mind.... Slayer?

The Player Versus Player (PvP) component is also a pretty standard fare. As with many games in this genre, PvP instances are a menu click away. You can browse a list of available games from any location by clicking on the “queues” button on the HUD. From here you can jump in line and get ready for a little superhero mayhem. The basic mechanics don’t differ from PvE, but it is a little more dramatic facing off against other people, instead of brain dead enemy AI. The most interesting PvP game available in the open beta was a prison escape scenario; one team played a group of captured villains trying to break free, while the opposing team tried to prevent their escape. It’s a little hard to gauge versus gameplay without further exposure, but it wasn’t hard to see the potential. I am lividly opposed to RPG gaming as serious competition (that belongs to other genres), but fun is fun.

While it’s impossible to form any lasting opinion in this genre from such a short experience, my time spent in Millennium City was simply a blast. Champion’s shares some of the genres common pitfalls, but it also manages to set itself apart from the pack. By layering a bit of action into gameplay that has been recycled since the early days of the genre, Cryptic Studios has created a world that will appeal to old and new players alike, and the campy humor peppered into the Champions world pays honor to its inspiration and solidifies it as fantastic geeky fan service.

I may not have stayed long, but my vacation in the realm of Champion’s Online has piqued my interest in one day returning to Millennium City. It may not be soon though – there are other vistas to visit first.

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3 comments
Jay
Jay

Nope.. at least.. not yet. I wouldn't be surprised if they added this functionality in an expansion later on. That's exactly what they did w/ City of Villains in their first game.

Citizen
Citizen

Can you choose between being a super villian or a hero? Because it would be awesome to play a Lex Luthor/Dr. Doom style villian with a superhero nemesis.

Name
Name

Tl:drcliffs?