The weekend before last Cryptic opened the doors of their Champions Online beta to the gentlemen of the press, and let them have a crack. And lo! a crack was had. Well, John and I did, anyway, and then John gave up after the interface annoyed him. He intended to come back later in the week, not realising that it was only open for a few days. I, on the other hand, persisted manfully, and managed to play the tutorial section and get to level five before I had to go and hammer together some shelves or something. This proves that time limited previews for journalists are a little rubbish for time-limited journalists. But I did bring back some opinions which I present herein...
Firstly, the character generator is a marvel. Admittedly, it's an expected marvel. The City of Heroes one remains a wonder of the world, and this is a continuation of everything we've previously seen. So while elements we've previously talked to the team about, like the ability to choose the physical stance of your character, are new, they're logical extensions of what's come before, rather than a fresh start. Less total reinvention of the concept, more renovation. Which is, I suspect, fine. The key attribute of the system is how it allows you to meaningfully personalise the mood of your adventures, rather than playing another identical orc. Knowing that I could blow hours on this alone, and also knowing that we weren't meant to take screenshots so I couldn't amuse our readers by making a gallery of grabs mocking my team-mates, I made a thinly veiled version of Marvel's top-godly psycho Ares - because you can't copyright greek gods, right? - and set forth into the world to fight crime and similar.
Okay - I said "less total reinvention". That's a fair thing for the opening of the game. When Walker quit, he commented that it appeared to be the same street as City of Heroes' introduction. I don't think that's entirely fair. There's a lot more life here than the street scene of City of Heroes, with this taking place during an alien invasion of the city. Drop ships fly in down the road, to be engaged by friendly troops. The string of missions introduce the game's key-concepts. The one which immediately is somewhat different is towards the climax, with a Warhammer Online-esque group mission. The Champions' base is under attack by waves of enemies, with you having to defend, collect parts to repair a cannon and then defend it as it sets up. Since the server was quiet, the task came down to myself and an ape-gentleman, plus a mass of NPC helpers. The actual final step is a CoH-esque instanced area, stepping inside base to fire the gun which repels the invasion by firing a demigod - not me, alas - as an enormous cannonshell into the opposition. It's far from the traditional repetative instances, however, putting you with an NPC hero who leads you along the way, fights with you and actually talks to you to help forward the narrative. The section ends with a celebration as you leave the base, everyone cheering you. Which is only right, because I am awesome.
The big change happens then too. As I climbed the first five levels, I found myself somewhat annoyed I hadn't seen a trainer yet. While the opening section was a quick 30 minutes or so of play, not feeling any real progress seemed odd. Except the game was saving itself up for a big reward. Choosing a new power and a stat boost is one thing - but the real bonus is the choice of a travel power. Yes - rather than City of Heroes approach of slogging it out into the teens before you get an ability to let you speed up, here you get given one from the off. I'm somewhat overwhelmed by the selection. After some chewing it over, I go for swinging and proceed to discover it's not exactly an ability which works well indoors. That said, looking at the latest video, I kinda wish I went for the tunneling ability which caught my eye.
That's proper mental.
I didn't really get a chance to examine character builds. Your first choice isn't actually your powers, but rather your statistics, with a selection of choices which lead to a set approach. You then toddle off into initial powers - but it's telling that your character class doesn't actually start with a role. My dual-blade slasher's said that its role was basically still a general one. When getting the choice of a second power, I was presented with a number of options rather than just something which you have to take. I'm interested in the flexibility of the system, which has the tricky problem of trying to include the freedom of the mother-pen-and-paper system in the game proper.
The biggest change in terms of an MMO convention being inserted into Cryptic's design is that of equipment. While you have relatively few slots compared to something like World of Warcraft, you do find and put on equipment which gives you a statistic boost, and help define how you conceive the characters. The statistic boosts you desire seem to be more varied than just hammering up the strength if you're a fighter. Some of the mental statistics seemed to do things like boost chance of critical hits, which implies there's going to be some subtleties there. The other big change is multiple uses for the same power, so as well as doing a basic attack, you can often hold down for a more devastating one. At least on my slashing lunatic, there was also chain attacks, meaning that I got a different animation - and presumably a damage bonus - if I timed the re-activation of the power correctly. With the opening section with you having two basic powers - the basic one which builds up your endurance bar and the fancier one which uses up the previously gathered endurance - this increase in complexity was welcome. Until I realised it, I was thinking it had started its complexity a little low.
(Which is an interesting thing about MMOs, I think. With us all having hundreds of hours beneath our belt, starting any other MMO and playing the opening levels is increasingly grating. Of course, you suspect a developer is screwed. They have to introduce the game to new players, but they risk boring the veterans. I suspect people will be including a SKIP FIRST 10 HOURS OF TRAINING sooner rather than later...)
But I wander off topic. Champions seems to be coming along nicely. It hasn't presented anything which we weren't expecting in its opening moments, but pushes on from Cryptic's previous game in a determined fashion. There's still their ability to add atmosphere to an MMO. For example, I especially liked their use of superstrength. Yes, you can pick up heavy objects and throw them at people - or even less heavy objects if you're normally strong. But they also include civilians trapped beneath concrete who you can free by hefting that slab. It's a standard MMO-esque mission - rescue people - but integrated in a way which doesn't break its fiction. Hopefully Champions will continue that fine-eye for dramatizing its genre.