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Wot I Think: Champions Online

The Maker Of Supermen Returns! Cryptic have had their Champions Online out in the wild for a couple of weeks now. It's time to pull on the Spandex and see Wot I Think...

I actually like Champions. It's a lot like City of Heroes.

Yeah, I'm damning with faint praise already, because I want you to be used to the tone. Yes, it feels like a totally justified sequel to Cryptic's previous game... but it also very much feels like City of Heroes. Its strengths are primarily CoH's strengths. Its weaknesses... well, some are CoH's too, and others are entirely its own.

Like City of Heroes, this is a superhero Persistent World Online RPG. You design your own hero, and head forth to pummel bad guys and earn experience points until your character makes a DING! noise. At which point you've “leveled” and people will say “gratz” to you. No, really. Like City of Heroes, there's more of a heavy leaning towards instanced missions, where you disappear into a dungeon to biff someone on the kisser for being mean to Mrs Justice. The instancing has also spread wider. Like Guild Wars, rather than individual servers each of the game's maps has many shards you can bounce between. At the cost of the sense of a world of regularly re-appearing strangers – which was never exactly City of Heroes' strongest point anyway – you gain the ability to go play with any of your friends in the world.

This sort of friendliness was always key to the design, and it generally remains here. Take side-kicking, always one of City of Heroes' best features, which returns. In short, when two people of wildly differing levels play together they raise the effective fighting ability of the lower to the higher. Between side-kicking and the server system, this makes playing with your friends easier than ever. Which, is a good thing, assuming you've got friends you like.

I wish I had friends I liked. Sadface.

The Westworld-esque robot wild-west town is actually pretty cute.

The odd thing is how its accessibility has disappeared in other ways. The character creation, inspired by the original pen & paper system, is powerful and really quite novel, but can trip up a player in various ways which are difficult to recover from. Rather than having set classes,the system works by getting you to fundamentally /build your own/ class. Frameworks exist, but really you get to choose whatever powers you wish, with some higher-level abilities requiring earlier ones. So my character Warwych only opened up her heftier energy-area-effect blasts by having multiple abilities in the track. This part of the system is actually pretty intuitive – if you stay within a power set you'll end up with a reasonably effective hero, and if you wander beyond it you're aware you're walking off the tracks.

The problem comes more with the other ways you can tweak your character. Advantages which allow you to customize individual abilities – for example having Warwych's force-field turning some of the incoming energy into power to fire right back at her FOUL PERSECUTORS – are reasonable, but something as simple as a stat-boost can trip you up enormously. You see, you get to choose two super-stats as you progress. These two abilities will give you a damage bonus, proportional to how high they are. It's their way to make sure your damage-output is linked to stats which are useful to your profession, rather than primarily linking them to a stat your – say – empathy wouldn't have boosted (e.g. Strength). Which is all very well, but the game's not very good at explaining how fundamentally important this choice is. Other elements – your ability to swap builds, giving a bonus – is equally mysterious. There's screens of text at every point, but there's bits where you wish they'd just boil it down to a simple message to make sure even the idiots (i.e. most of us) don't mess up something as fundamental as a 30%+ damage boost. That's the difference between walking missions and missions walking you.

From the opening weekend event. Aliens invaded. They were punched. Poor aliens.

And we link back to accessibility. This wouldn't be as big a problem in City of Heroes where you gained regular respecs (the ability to reassign your powers), but respecing has been dialed back enormously. (Respecing is described as “retcon” in one of Champions' many cute nods – as an aside, this is one of the most impressively wordplay-based games I can remember playing). Presumably, since the ability to completely redefine yourself from scratch means a different thing in a system where you can pick pretty much any powers, they wanted to keep a firmer hand on it. However, the costs are prohibitive. If you've realised you've made a mistake even a few levels later, you're looking at losing hefty chunks your accumulated wealth to fix it. Cryptic have backed away from the full strength of this policy – they gave a free full retcon with the last patch – but for a game which is all about a degree of experimentation, making bad experiments such a punitive experience strikes me as ill-advised.

Generally speaking, in terms of the amount of systems available, it's a more complicated game than City of Heroes was, at least at launch. There's a small crafting system, for example. The complications do cause a few problems – the tutorial section suffers worst. It's a small-area invasion, leading through what's meant to be an exciting semi-scripted mission of alien conflict. Which is fine. However, it also, at every step, introduces you screenfuls of text, some entirely minor details which don't really matter and others absolutely key mechanics you have to grasp or you'll get hammered. It's pulling both ways at once, and while I breezed through it, it was enough to turn comrade John Walker off the game entirely.

He didn't even get a chance to be a terrible healer. Sad face again.

And then they do something entirely lovely, like give you your first travel power at level 5. And that's just great: you will believe a low level character can fly. It's a fine example of Cryptic following some of CoH's best directions. There's an absolute minimum of down-time between combat, while not allowing you to have a sneaky recharge while a battle's ongoing. It is one of the most atmospheric MMOs in existence. Enemies don't simply stand in the killing fields waiting to be culled for experience, but at least give the impression of being up to some wrongdoing, threatening the innocents and similar. Citizens run up to you to hail you for your majesty or even give you new tasks. They've nabbed the open mission idea from Warhammer, encouraging people to fight enemies together without teaming up. And most central, there's the character design tool itself, which turns the world into a glorious kaleidoscopic fashion-parade of the far reaches of the human imagination. Also, people dressed up as Deadpool. While you can unlock other pieces by finding bits of equipment, I'd argue the ability to play with an iconic, personally designed figure remains one of Cryptic's strongest cards. I like Warwych in a way which I like few game characters. She wasn't designed by an idiot, for one. Well, she was, but it's an idiot I generally get on with.

This is me being a total hypocrite having made - ahem - a Powerful Lady.

And it's odd playing her again after all these years. I made a few other alts, but in terms of the majority of my play – about twenty hours with her, if you were wondering, so this is a first-type MMO review - it felt a lot like coming home. Even with the cartoon filters it looks a lot like City of Heroes, with some of the mission locales looking worryingly similar. But – fundamentally - in a second by second way, it's a better game. I'm still sitting back and blasting, but rather than looping pressing 1-2-1-2-3-1-2-1-2-4 or whatever on the keyboard, I'm using a smaller set of analogue powers. In other words, I'm choosing exactly how much of a blast I want to perform by holding down the key. Elements like active blocks, allowing you to choose to go defensive and minimize an enemy's ultra-blast, give it another slight action twist.

It's more fun to be Warwych in Champions. I like that. Happy face.

The problem is, whether it's enough. I like this, but I don't love this. I was never the sort to go out with the same sort of girl twice, and there's not enough to demand months of my time here. If there's a main fault with the game, I'd question the amount of content. When Champions was announced I talked with Jack Emmert about the problems of making an MMO for consoles. It's generally accepted an MMO takes 4 years to make. He disagreed, believing if you're working off a strong tech base, you can do it two. I'm not sure Cryptic have proved him right.

There's a limited amount of actual content – a fork in the opening between going to Canada or the desert is the only division of missions, so there's nothing like World of Warcraft's unique starting areas for each race. In other words, on the way up, you'll be replaying a lot of content. My friends who've breached level 30 are filling my chat window with talk of a mission gap. Especially then you need to find and play every bit of mission-content in the game to progress without simple grinding. While they have free content expansions announced – one thing Cryptic have always been good at – the game desperately needs more stuff. Hell, one feature that the game could really do with nabbing from City of Heroes – the player generated missions, added after Cryptic sold the game to NCSoft outright – would have done a lot to help. You also question the wisdom of keeping the Nemesis system – one absolutely unique system to Champions where you create an arch-foe to harry you – until level 25. That's a long time for veterans of City of Heroes to wait for the single main stand-out new thing. I didn't even get to it.

A little team-up with Schzio. At least he's not a bad healer like John. Did I mention John's a bad healer? He is. I probably should have.

As I said, I like Champions, but it's telling that I'm the only RPSer who played even that long. We were looking forward to Champions, planning to get the band back together. City of Heroes was, after all, the only social game the four of us played together for an extended period of time. As it was, John pretty much bounced off the tutorial, Jim was always the one least interested in this sort of trad action-RPG approach and Alec felt burned out on this approach to the MMO by the early-teens, playing the game and wondering why is he meant to care about these numbers again? It happened so quickly we didn't even get a chance to have Andov, Nitefall, the Entomolygist and Warwych get together for a screenshot. Which makes me a little sad.

I think it's worth playing, especially if you haven't played City of Heroes, and especially if you approach it as a shorter-term game. For the amount of time and adventure I had, I basically treated it like a Diablo-esque action RPG. If I bought it and cancelled it after a month, I'd have probably have played it as much as I'd play a trad-RPG... and still be able to rejoin if the game blossoms into more of a MMO ongoing experience.

It's well worth playing. But, unlike City of Heroes back in 2004, I don't feel the need to say you have to.

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