Champions Online: An In-Depth Preview

ZAM takes a critical look at the Champions Online in this first-glance preview. We create a few superheroes of our own and find out what makes the upcoming MMO so unique.

Developed by Cryptic Studios, Champions Online is the world's next superhero-themed MMO, launching on September 1. It's been in the works for a couple years now, originally slated to be a Marvel Comics superhero MMO, until the licensing rights fell through and Cryptic designed it around the Champions pen-and-paper RPG.

A series of closed and open beta testing periods were played out over the summer, with fans finally having the chance to give Champions Online a try. The early-subscriber head start begins on August 28, allowing early-adopters the chance to start leveling their characters a few days sooner than everyone else. On Tuesday, everyone who purchases the game will have the opportunity to take part in the game's launch, which should kick off without a hitch, according to the latest reports.

Earlier this month, ZAM had the chance to take Champions Online out for a spin, creating a few characters and playing through the game's first few levels and missions. In the interest of providing a critical preview of the game to our readers, we took a first-hand look at what makes this superhero MMO different than the few we've seen so far, judging it on its gameplay merit, character creation and customization and accessibility. While Champions Online isn't without its faults, it does prove to be one of the most ambitious superhero games to date—regardless of platform—and should provide a lot of enjoyment to comic book fans, most of all.

Within the first few hours of gameplay, one of Cryptic's paramount goals in Champions Online becomes strikingly obvious; giving players the ability to live out their comic book/superhero fantasy, whatever that might be. Since the early days of beta testing—even before the NDA had been lifted—players spoke of how Champions Online was all about customization and character diversity. While the game was in development, we heard promises from Cryptic of layer after layer of character customization; both visually and functionally.

In execution, this proves to be both a blessing and a curse. It turns out that Cryptic delivered on its promise to provide more visual and functional character customization than many of us have ever seen in an MMO. But in doing so, the tried-and-true mechanic of reward-based progression is cheapened somewhat. Did Cryptic give us too much, too early? We won't know until after the launch next week, when players are given enough time to stick with a character for a month or more.

If you've heard people joke about the character creation process being a game within itself, it's true; the sheer number of options you have in customizing your character is almost overwhelming. You can literally spend two or three hours tweaking your superhero's visual appearance, choosing from an array of costumes, color schemes, physical accessories and more.

The process begins deceptively simply; choose between a male and female body template. The "starter" model is a brightly-schemed, spandex-clad, masked superhero with a humanoid appearance. From there, you're given the opportunity to choose from other "templates" that simplify the character creation process considerably, if you don't already have a specific idea in mind of what you'd like your superhero to be, visually and in function.

The character creation process is two-fold; it allows you to shape your hero's appearance, as well as its "class" (e.g., its abilities and powers). Champions Online doesn't employ a strict class design like many other MMOs. Eventually, players might find themselves falling into the classic MMO archetypes like tanks, healers and damage-dealing classes. But technically, you're not forced into choosing a specific class, with specific abilities, as you are in most MMOs.

Before we get too far into class mechanics and gameplay, though, let's get back to the character creation process. If you're not feeling too creative and you'd rather jump straight into the game than spend time tweaking your character's looks and abilities, you can simply choose from a pre-defined set of superhero archetypes, which encompass both your appearance and starting abilities. For example, you can skip through most of the appearance options to create a humanoid-looking superhero, and then select one of the pre-made"power" templates like flame or ice, telekinetic powers, acrobatic, single or dual-bladed, arms-based (guns), physical strength and a lot more.

Or, if you like the ability to tweak to your heart's content, you'll love the creative control that Champions Online offers. To some extent, if you can imagine it, you can create it. Whether you've had a cool superhero idea locked away in your head or you've been sketching your own superhero "persona" since you were a kid, Champions Online gives you the tools to bring your idea to life. Under the hood, the character creation engine does have its limits, although you're given a massive array of physical and costume-oriented options to choose from.

The beauty of the character creation engine is that many of its options are similar to an "analog" system; one with sliders and gradual ways in which to alter your appearance, instead of just picking between sets to create a combination. If you're ambitious enough to put in the time and effort, you can create almost anything you want. The system also lets you save your progress at any point, so you can save your creations as"costumes" that can be retrieved or changed later.

I took the relatively easy path and only spent an hour or so creating each of my two characters; a zombie-looking rabbit called "Shadow Hare" with dark and supernatural powers, and a muscle-bound brawler with wings called "Heaven's Wrath." But throughout my gameplay, especially after I left the starting zones, I saw players who must have spent hours designing their characters. I saw a Succubus straight from World of Warcraft, a sword-wielding, spitting-image of Deadpool and a couple familiar-looking heroes like Superman and The Flash. I saw original creations that took a lot of work; an alien cowboy with laser guns, robot hybrids with intricate mecha-styled suits and just about every cape-and-spandex variety superhero you could imagine.

Amazingly, the character customization doesn't end there. The powers and abilities system allows you more freedom in class design than I've seen in any other MMO, at least during the early stages. The lines that divide archetypal classes are blurred in Champions Online. Every new character begins with two basic abilities; an "energy-building" attack and one that uses that energy. Think of energy like mana; it' s your primary resource across the board. Your first energy-building attack is something simple, like a melee auto-attack or shooting energy from your hands. Your second ability drains that energy each time you use it, so you have to juggle back-and-forth between the two.

You can choose a superhero template that will automatically pair two starter abilities for you, or you can choose your own from the entire library. It's up to you; either use one of the templates and follow that "school" of power, or create a hybrid superhero that uses a variety of abilities. For example, you could create a character that uses both physical and elemental attacks, or one that relies on a mixture of telepathy and guns. The problem is that you can wind up picking abilities that don't mesh well, causing you to spend unnecessary resources on respecs down the line. If you haven't researched the powers and abilities system in advance, just stick to one power school to play it safe.

Once you've created and named your character, you'll begin your superhero career in Millennium City, during an alien invasion. The insectoid-looking Qularr have descended on the city; it's a classic comic-themed event that serves as both a tutorial and your first starting zone. NPCs will guide you around through a series of small missions, basically teaching all the obligatory stuff like movement and UI interaction. After your first few missions, the instanced tutorial zone begins teaching you the specifics of Champions Online; how the gear works, your ability to pick up and throw debris and other basics.

It's actually a great little starting zone for any player, both in form and function. It's an exciting event that throws you into the action with a sense of urgency. You share the zone with about two dozen other players, allowing you to chat and interact with them if you want. The invasion event will span about four levels, culminating in a large "Open Mission"—think public quest. Once you've completed the Open Mission, you'll be sent to a final, "closed instance" solo mission, similar to a dungeon or boss event.

After the Qularr invasion, you'll have the chance to choose your next zone, which serves as your main gameplay training zone. You can choose between a frozen Canadian plane crash in "Crisis in Canada" or a barren, desert wasteland with mutants and monsters in "Desert Disaster." It doesn't really matter which one you pick; both offer the same leveling experience. If anything, it just comes down to personal preference, and which environment you'd rather play in for the next five or six levels. Both zones are instanced, just like the tutorial invasion event. The secondary zones allow 50 or so players in each instance, and later zones will allow about two hundred.

In these zones, you'll be able to choose a crafting profession and purchase new abilities for the first time. Champions Online has three crafting schools: Mysticism, Arms and Science. You can choose one of them by visiting the applicable trainer and requesting to learn it, which also allows you to gather that profession's materials. You'll want to choose your profession based on the stats you use; the trainers will explain the differences. Crafting allows you to create basic items like additional bags and gear, as well as one-use enhancement items.

You'll also be able to visit the "Power House" for the first time, which allows you to upgrade your character with new and stronger powers (abilities). Around level 5, you'll receive your first "power points;" one to spend on a brand-new power, and another to choose your first "travel power." The travel power is Champion Online's equivalent to a mount system; most of them allow you to move much faster than normal. You can choose among a flight-based power, acrobatics or super-speed, teleportation, tunneling underground and more.

At level 7 you begin earning "advantage points," which can be used to enhance the powers you already have. These points can be used to rank up your powers, increasing their effectiveness, or to add special traits to them, like procs or secondary functions. All of your power-related upgrading takes place in the Power House, with a trainer, and you can try out your newly-purchased powers as long as you remain inside. You'll even find little side-rooms with different kinds of "dummies" that you can attack to test your powers. You can change your powers for free until you leave the power house; after that, you'll have to pay resource points to respec.

You'll spend the next five-to-seven levels in the secondary zone, until you reach level 10 or 12. These zones are considerably larger; featuring several mission hubs and a variety of NPCs and mobs. It's here that you'll truly start to learn the game and how to play your character. You'll have the option of teaming up with other players, although Champions Online doesn't require or reward much group play. Most of the missions can be soloed, and those that can't are usually completed collectively, without actually teaming up with someone else. Many times, I was able to obtain a quest item or defeat a boss by simply joining in the fight, regardless of whether or not I was actually in a group.

Many players might begin to "feel the grind" as they approach level 10; even though Champions Online isn't overtly a "grind MMO," the missions aren't much different than your typical "Kill 10 Rats" or "Find This Guy" fare. Also, you're given such cool abilities so early on—both visually and functionally—that once the initial appeal wears off, incentive becomes a nagging problem. There are still many more powers and abilities to get, but the fact that you're able to basically start the game with your first travel power and kick-ass costume doesn't leave a whole lot to strive for.

We won't know how big a problem this really is until the game goes live, allowing more players to progress over a longer period of time. The Nemesis system, beginning at level 25, sounds pretty interesting; it's these elements, if anything, that will probably end up defeating the monotony of mission-grinding. They're dynamic mission arcs and stories that help move the game forward, as you level up.

The PvP element of Champions Online wasn't too prominent in the beta unless you were able to level a character into the teens or 20s; it's another aspect of the game that will become easier to size up after launch. But according to interviews and reports, PvP is definitely something that Cryptic felt was an important part of the game. In early levels, you only have the ability to enter an arena-type game; later on, after level 10, you'll gain access to the "Hero Games" in Millennium City to fight for rewards. Later games open up at level 20 and 30.

The first PvP game that anyone can play is the team arena match, which pits two teams of superheroes against each other in a free-for-all battle. Each time a hero defeats another, one point is added to his or her team. You can queue up for these matches from anywhere in the world; you'll automatically be whisked away and back. My experience with PvP was both fun and frustrating, at times. The character abilities in Champions Online mesh really well with PvP; the epic powers, travel forms and even the environment around you offer a refreshing break from"traditional" MMO PvP.

The largest complaint I've heard from players about PvP is that class balance needs some major tuning. While that's usually an issue with every MMO on the market, players have reported an almost game-breaking weight on the "defense" end of the scale. Cryptic will eventually iron out the most severe imbalances; but in the mean time, players are getting frustrated. I think that's to be expected though, especially with such an action-oriented and involved PvP system.

As far as the overall gameplay in Champions Online, I could definitely relate to players who said it "felt" more like a console game than an MMO. It's not really the controls themselves; you can alter the controls any way you'd like. More so, it's how the gameplay action "feels;" I found myself constantly mashing my keyboard, even though the abilities are technically on auto-attack. It's the whole energy-building mechanic; it lends itself to real-time, rapid changes in abilities. You also have to rely on your "block" ability quite a bit; action and fighting game control elements like these are something most MMOers aren't used to. I didn't have the chance to try playing the game with a USB controller—like many people suggested—before the beta ended, but it's something I'm definitely going to try.

Graphically speaking, Champions Online is an intense game. The special effects and textures produce a realistic "comic book world," especially when the "line edges" option is enabled. However, it's not optimized very well. Reducing the game's resolution didn't yield as substantial of an increase in FPS as many other games, nor did the other slider settings. The most viable option I found was a unique setting that allows you to reduce the gameplay resolution while keeping the UI resolution the same, but it's not executed that well; the gameplay resolution often looked worse than the true resolution it was supposed to be.

From the perspective of playing the beta for a preview, I found Champions Online to offer a boatload of promise, especially to fans of the genre. Comic book and superhero fans will have a much easier time acclimating themselves to the game than, say, fantasy MMO fans. In fact, I think it's one of the few MMOs that could be picked up and played by console fans with less effort than your average WoW player.

Despite its flaws though, which Cryptic has been nailing down quickly, it's an appealing and fun-to-play MMO. The character creation system is an innovation in and of itself and the gameplay offers a high-octane dose of comic-styled, third-person action. In fact, I think it succeeds on its own merits already, as a multiplayer superhero video game. Whether or not it succeeds as an MMO remains to be seen, and is a different thing entirely.


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