No more heroes? Don't tell that to Cryptic Studios, the renowned massively multiplayer online game developer that created City of Heroes. Next up for Cryptic is Champions Online, a new superhero MMOG based on the classic pen-and-paper role-playing game from Hero Games. We stopped by Cryptic's office to get a first look at Champions, which also happens to be a cross-platform MMOG. That's right--Xbox 360 players will be able to jump on Xbox Live and play with (or against) PC players. Be sure to update your Super Friends list.
In Champions, you will create and customize your own superheroes and delve into a rich comic-book-inspired universe. For those not familiar with the pen-and-paper RPG, it was created in 1981 and was an instant hit, allowing players to craft their own superheroes using a unique point-based system. Cryptic, with its obvious interest in comic-book-themed games after making City of Heroes and the City of Villains expansion, bought the Champions IP outright and now licenses it back to Hero Games. Fear not, tabletop fans; Cryptic promises not to meddle with the successful Champions formula, and the next edition, slated for release next year, will feature rules for transferring your Champions Online hero to the tabletop game. Having this kind of creative freedom must be refreshing for Cryptic after Microsoft unceremoniously canceled the Marvel-licensed MMOG that Cryptic had been developing.
While the Champions universe is nowhere near as well known as that of Marvel or DC Comics, it's equally as rich. Superheroes and villains have existed throughout history, from Hercules and Achilles to Medusa. But in the 1940s, a Nazi mystic accidentally flooded the world with magic, and now the superhero population has grown exponentially. The story of Champions Online takes place after the Battle of Detroit in 1992. The evil Dr. Destroyer, in his will to dominate, called down an asteroid that destroyed nearly the entire city and killed more than 60,000 people and dozens of superheroes. Dr. Destroyer disappeared and was believed dead. From the ashes of Detroit rose Millennium City, a city of gleaming skyscrapers that is known as the City of the Future and is also home of the superteam, the Champions. Leading the Champions is Defender, also known as James Harmon IV. A computer and engineering expert, he created the ultimate suit of powered armor, armed to the teeth with artillery and heavy weapons, in his quest to protect the innocent and punish injustice. But now, a mysterious figure claiming to be the original Dr. Destroyer has appeared and is threatening Millennium City and its peaceful way of life. That's where you come in.
We didn't get to see the hero creator tool in action, but rest assured that it's more fully fleshed out than that of City of Heroes. A hero can range from three feet to eight feet in height, and almost every body part can be customized, from eyebrows to a bosom that will raise your eyebrows. Aside from the assortment of costume options, you can choose your hero's stance and animation style, such as a traditional, barrel-chested hero or a knuckle-dragging beast. Even your attitude plays a part; facial expressions will easily distinguish stoic heroes from wisecracking sidekicks. But what's a hero without superpowers? There are 13 power sets, including powered armor, beast, darkness, and the ability to summon dark energy and drain your enemy's life force. Each set has its own list of individual powers, such as force fields, electric bolts, energy swords, or ice beams. You can mix and match powers as you like so you're not restricted to one power set. Want ice beams and fire balls? Make it happen. You can also write your hero's backstory, choose his or her own personal kryptonite, and even create a personalized archenemy that will pop up occasionally in the game to foil your plans. There are even rumors of being able to create your own secret identity.
In our demo, we watched Cryptic play through Monster Island, the project of the grandson of Dr. Moreau. His experiments have predictably run amok, and Cryptic's power-armored character created for the demo made quick work of the enemies using a combination of melee attacks and laser beams. The controls were designed with the Xbox 360 controller in mind--even developers play the PC version with a USB gamepad--and powers are mapped to the face button. The main attack is a simple power that causes minor damage but builds up your super power meter. The meter acts as currency for your three other powers that cause major damage. All of the combat is in real time and plays out more like a traditional action RPG than an MMOG, which is sure to please console gamers who aren't keen on queuing attacks.
The Monster Island demo lasted only a few minutes, but we did learn about some of the other locations in the game. Heroes will receive missions and quests from the Champions and other characters in the universe and then duke it out in deserts, tundra, jungle, alternate dimensions, outer space, and, of course, Canada. Thankfully the Canucks will have Justiciar, the cybernetically enhanced hero and leader of the Toronto-based superteam Star Force, watching over them. Cryptic wants every area to stand out visually, so each will feature a "point of interest," something that's visible from any location on the map. Similar to the Citadel in Half-Life 2, giant mountains, telescopes, or huge fortresses will loom over their respective areas.
Secret societies abound, such as Viper, which is a group of English noblemen that worship a serpent god and aspire to dominate the globe. Aliens and undead monsters seek to enslave humanity, while the robot Mechanon hopes to destroy all organic life on Earth. To combat such treachery, you can team up with four other heroes for player-versus-environment action, form a guild of superfriends, or even invent your own items with the crafting system. Cryptic didn't say much about player-versus-player except to say that you'll have plenty of opportunity to beat down other heroes.
As is the case in comic books, the art style sets the mood of the universe. Champions Online is vibrant and clean, with bright colors and flat textures--a moving comic. You won't find any normal mapping here or any attempt to look more "real." When you approach an important battle, the skies will darken, the music will intensify, and you'll immediately know that you are about to engage in an epic struggle.
Our own epic struggle is waiting to create our own superhero and play Champions Online for ourselves. In the meantime, check out the exclusive new gameplay footage of Champions in action.