A great spiritual sequel to an amazing character creator
City of Heroes no doubt left a solid footprint on the massively multiplayer genre, introducing a level of customizability that, despite the game having been released well over five years ago, has yet to be replicated by anyone else in the industry. The aforementioned premiere online superhero experience fell short, however, due to its slow combat mechanics, blatant environmental repetition, and lack of end game content. Still, City of Heroes has hung in there these long five years, appealing to a certain core player base and a host of on-again-off-again subscribers. Now, however, Cryptic has stepped up their game plan with yet another online world filled with cape-donning bolt-flingers and ice-riding martial artists. Champions Online is here, and it's certainly bound to leave a bigger mark on the MMO genre than its predecessor.
The premise behind Champions Online is as simple as just about every comic book out there, though at the same time managing to be just as convoluted. There are bad guys doing bad things, and to counterbalance such devious acts, good guys need to do good things. More specifically, the entire story is based around a group of elite superheroes known as The Champions, all of which inevitably need your character's assistance (most likely failing) preventing the return of the super villain known as Dr. Destroyer. Yeah, I know. I'd be pretty embarrassed to explain this game to anyone in public also.
Really though, the story is about as important and fleshed out as in every other primarily multiplayer game out there. All things told, you're really just going to want to throw together your custom superhero with whatever sense of expedience you prefer and solve the world's crime problem via some semi-traditional MMO combat.
The character creator is by far the most robust and interesting thing about Champions Online. When any sort of advertising on the game's retail packaging claims that there unlimited options for constructing your personal heroic avatar, they're really not kidding around. Practically everything about your character can be altered, from the placement of their ears, to the breadth of their mouths, to the goofy little arcane symbol occupying their spandex-laden chests. Almost every visible aspect of your character's design can be re-colored or resized with very, very few exceptions. You can craft a pint-sized, hunched-over wolf man, or an elongated woman with the innate ability to fire unlimited rounds of ammunition at her adversaries. Truly, the amount of time spent with the character creator alone could be enough to warrant the cost of the game's monthly subscription fee to one adamant and passionate enough for the process.
The first -- and one of the only -- glaring issues with this title is something that's bound to be raised during the review process for just about every game of the sort post- World of Warcraft, and that's the method through which characters advance in levels. You'll bound down the street toward a police officer, or costumed vigilante, or strange-looking reporter with an exclamation above their head, click "Accept," and go about your merry way cutting down villains and accepting experience rewards. It's a tried-and-true formula that, though a little tired, does an acceptable job of alleviating the pains experienced by the decidedly lacking leveling methodology presented in City of Heroes.
The way Champions Online attempts to set itself apart from all of those other games utilizing a similar feature set is through the novelty of controlling a superhero, something that Cryptic has done quite well at pulling off. Most characters, while not necessarily overpowered, are capable of swatting down a large group of foes with relative ease. The truth is that the AI-controlled adversaries found in this game are individually weaker than is normal for the genre, ultimately making a group of enemies mechanically equivalent to a single foe found in other games. This implementation works exceptionally well for the game's theme, giving combat a slightly whimsical heroic style and overall feel, a department in which City of Heroes felt considerably lacking.
The journey through the game's 40 levels of character advancement are marked with various statistical upgrades and sporadically with new powers and abilities. You'll determine your characters focused attributes and starting powers from character creation, either via the game's pre-determined power frameworks or by custom creating your own. As there are no archetypical classes in Champions Online, everything you can do will be determined by how you build your character. The vast variety of powers featured within the game are available to every character, limited in their accessibility only by your hero's level. How you empower -- or inadvertently belittle -- your character is entirely up to you.
That particular aspect gameplay does severely cripple a specific portion of the experience, that being player versus player content. Because it's possible to customize your hero with whatever powers and abilities you desire, it can be difficult to judge how to approach opponents in one-on-one and group combat. The Hero Games -- Champions' version of Battlegrounds -- are quite often filled with players attacking only a single player-controlled target, said target barely losing any significant amount of his health bar. This isn't to say that PvP can't be fun, because it certainly has its moments, but it's there are simply too many issues to make for any sort of long-term enjoyment. obviously feel a bit critical of the system, but at the same time I feel like anyone playing a game as player-crafted as this should probably be aware that balancing something like this would be nearly impossible. Still, if PvP is your personal draw toward the genre, this is probably one game you should be avoiding like the plague.
I wasn't at all expectant that the novelty of controlling a uniquely designed superhero would actually last any length of time, which leaves me even further surprised that I'm even still entranced with the execution. City of Heroes underpowered the player, more often than not forcing them into groups to make any sort of real progress through the game and ultimately shattering the concept of having super powers at all. Champions Online is a vast improvement in this regard, going for almost the opposite polar effect. At the game's maximum level -- a towering plateau that I honestly haven't reached as of this writing -- is supposed to be consumed by the Lairs (instances) of evil villains, a feature that's kept millions of player glued to other games in the genre, and it should be no different here. Hopefully, players will be tearing through the streets of Millennium City to save the day for years to come.
I say hopefully because while Champions Online does deliver with action-packed gameplay in ways that its predecessor never could, there does seem to be a dramatic lack of content. Though the few zones present in the game will obviously last you through the somewhat steep leveling process, beyond that the there's really not much to offer it seems. Presently the game boasts only five distinct zones, which at times makes the world feel compact. At the same time, however, Cryptic has done a great job fleshing out those environments and their individual plights. In the end, it really just boils down to a matter of preference. If you prefer quality over quantity, there's a level of polish here that you're likely to enjoy. If the reverse is true, or if you possess a stubborn inability to enjoy anything less than a gargantuan, pristine world, then you might have some trouble accepting the lack of overall space.
Champions Online boasts a large set of appealing features, from its awe-inspiring character editor, to the empowerment of controlling a fully customized superhero, to its unique and stylized visual appearance. Those predominantly against spending hours of their lives in a multiplayer online world probably won't find much reason to get involved with this title, but MMO vets and those open to the concept and geek enough to tool around in a world filled with hundreds of individual caped crusaders will find more than enough here to settle their craving for high-powered action and a multiplayer atmosphere.