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Brainwaves From Beta: Champions Online 

The Champions Online beta has been in full swing for a while now, and the current phase is a beta for pre-order folks and Fileplanet subscribers. Here are a few thoughts on the game as it stands in the weeks before release.

They stole the soul out of the rocket boots.

It doesn't make sense. They were the one travel power I was having fun with, where there was actually an element of interaction beyond just activating the bloody things, and they just took out what made them fun and put them back on the shelf, lobotomised and drooling, to be the same as the rest. Thing is, this is a Superhero MMO. Some superheroes fly, some run really fast, some just use a really beefed up car; some are better than others. So when you make everything the same, you lose a little bit of what makes superheroes fun and unique.

Before, you'd turn the boots on, getting a low hover state. Juice them a bit more and the orange flames would become hotter, the colour slipping through orange to white to blue. You'd go from sliding around to rocketing, arms tucked at your sides as you became a living comet, complete with smoking trail. Power them a bit more and you'd eke out the last few drops of speed, bursting through the sound barrier, blistering heat on the soles of your shoes. A little more and they'd smoke. Nature's warning sign, white and billowing from your feet. A few seconds more and they short, all propulsion lost as you plummet to the ground. It was the thrill-seekers transport of choice; treading that fine line between super speed and, well, death.

Now you just turn them on and that's that; we have lift off. Just not, you know, any way but literal.

I tell you this to create full disclosure; Champions is fun. It's fun in a 'oh, that's quite cool' way, that moves along being just enough above mediocre, introducing just enough cool new ideas that enough people are probably going to sit up and notice for it to keep going. It's not fun in a way where I come away knowing this is the next big step forward, innovation leaking out of its pores. It's full of clever little ideas that make it a little more fun, make your character feel a little more like you own it. The problem is that they're safe ideas. You can customise your character aesthetically to your heart's content, creating anything from freaky vulture-clown to armoured psychic warrior. It's City of Heroes character creator gone wild, dosed up on steroids so it can do things normal character creators can't; there's so much choice, and room for customisation, that only the things APB is doing look set to approach it.

Customising powers is mostly visual, too. You can set origin point (from four options; fist, palm, chest and head), and colour, but the idea of inventing powers seems to have remained in Cryptic's imagination. The most you can alter your powers is in the ranks and advantages, where you can give them special qualities, like adding bleed damage to a slash attack, or turning your shadow form into a Terrifying Visage, forcing anyone in range to empty their bladders. It's likely that the fact that all of this is an unprecedented amount of creative freedom in the MMO space, and RPG space in general, might slip under the radar because it's not quite what we were expecting; a few levels lower than what we were promised tends to blind us from what's really there.

It seems Champions is a set of compromises to keep the game focused and entertaining. The near limitless customisability has been reigned in, and while it still presents a startling amount of options, the promises we were given a year ago still ring in the ears. It's a Molyneuxesque nightmare, where the product is of a high quality, just not to quite the high quality it was promised all that time ago. Similar concessions have been made; the nemesis system, previously intended to be something you created at the same time as your hero at level 1, now comes in at level 25. It's something that makes sense, giving you time to sort yourself out before taking on, essentially, a whole other character to create and flesh out, even if it's not you playing him, but it's not exactly what we were told we were going to get.

While this is making it seem as though I'm both disappointed and unsatisfied with the game, there's a lot to like, and the fact I'm still playing it after six months of beta is testament to that. The customisability that is there is excellent, leagues beyond any current MMO, and the combat has actually taken a step forward in interaction, making it play much more like an action/rpg hybrid than the usual button tapping found in MMOs. You block, and move about, and manage the constant ebb and flow of energy (read: mana/rage/endurance/etc), and it sucks you in enough that it removes some of the grind. And the relatively slow nature you pick up powers really gives you a chance to fully understand the application of the one's you've already received, while at the same time allowing for a much more thought to be placed in which power you're going to get next, to compliment what you're already fighting with.

The other huge step, that almost goes unnoticed, is how quick the game is to reward and congratulate you. Where, in CoH, you had to do a set of quests to unlock the cloak, it's presented (sensibly) with the rest of the options at creation. After you play through the first 5 levels of the tutorial you're given a pat on the back and then, suddenly, miraculously, you've got a new power, a new superstat, a new rank, and most of all, a travel power; the thing that was the death of a good many of my CoH characters. I'd level them up to 14, pick a travel power to mess around and try it out, then start a new character to try out a different one.

That, too, has disappeared, with the advent of the Power House, an instanced zone that allows you to pick new powers and abilities, and then, wonderfully, /try them out/ before coming to a final decision. This allows you to give each travel power a try, and every time you get a power, you can give it a whirl to see if you like the effects and look of it. It makes so much sense it's a wonder it's not been done before.

The comparisons with City of Heroes are inevitable, but while the similarities are many, they're only skin deep, with the tonal shift in Champions the biggest indicator that this isn't quite the same game. Where City of Heroes was seeping fun and sillyness from its pores, Champions dials up the melodrama, making everything seem epic and larger-than-life, while keeping a tongue firmly in cheek. With quests like 'World of Witchcraft', and huge, roaming monsters shouting 'Grond smash you like rival MMO!', you can't help but enjoy the humour, however obvious. It also seems to make a little more sense that you're around; superheroes have been unionised, essentially given their own business, and their own place within military forces. You get sent around by the bigger superheroes, and the soldiers appreciate the help. Sure, there are hundreds of superheroes around, but the lore seems to support that idea, so it's not quite the shock of CoH, where walking through Atlas Plaza was more than a little odd.

Being in the Beta since March, I've seen a lot of things. Perhaps the most impressive is how quickly Cryptic have responded to player requests and suggestions. A good deal of the more impressive changes have originated in the forums; when there's been enough of a backlash against a new implementation, Cryptic have removed it from the game. Too much of a plea for something new, and they've done their best to put it in. While it's helped bring the game to release, it bodes even better for continued support in the future, where all concerns may be met.

Playing the open beta of Champions is bitter-sweet. So much is done right, and while there are a few bugs present, this is a beta after all, and the constant development of an MMO is bound to smooth them out. It's taken the best ideas from the recent games, like public quests and roaming missions, and implemented them in a fun way. It's given you an unprecedented amount of customisation in your character, and it's given you bloody travel powers at level 5, after only 30 minutes of play.

I can't help but be slightly peeved though, because they did take all the fun out of the rocket boots.

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Champions Online

Xbox 360, PC

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Phill Cameron