In days of old, when knights were bold, you created characters for ye olde massively multiplayer games, taking these characters to repeatedly fight the same rats and skeletons until they gained ye olde experience level, at which point they became strong enough to tackle ye olde slightly larger rats and skeletons. But these games have grown and changed, offering new experiences in new settings, like the gigantic, modern-day city found in the superhero-populated City of Heroes developed by Cryptic Studios. Cryptic is now giving superhero online games another shot with Champions Online, a cross-platform massively multiplayer game for both the PC and the Xbox 360, and we couldn't resist the chance to give the PC version of the game a try.
Champions is being developed concurrently for the PC and the Xbox 360. It's planned for a simultaneous worldwide launch and is being worked on by a team of more than 170 people at Cryptic's home office in California, where the hot Silicon Valley sun provides the perfect excuse to...stay indoors and hang out in the Cryptic break room, which appears to be fully stocked with every single board game and tabletop game in the history of the universe. Many members of the team love their tabletop games--not surprising, considering that Champions Online is based on a tabletop game--and they apparently play games like these all the time...when they're not developing online games, of course.
Champions Online is Cryptic's current primary project, and the team is in full production mode, adding and tweaking content and balancing play with the in-house testing team. For those who aren't familiar with Cryptic's previous work with City of Heroes, that game was all about serious character customization--there were thousands upon thousands of combinations and permutations you could choose for your character's appearance and a decent-sized selection of superpowers you could choose as well. The idea behind Champions Online is to offer even more appearance customization options while completely opening up the hero powers with just as many options, from the origins of your powers to "talents" to character-based advantages that should all hopefully make your character a dynamo when push comes to shove. Champions will feature what design director Bill Roper refers to as "four-color combat"--that is, battles that take place with four general classes of powers: "might, mind, machines, and magic."
To figure out what this meant, we sat down at a PC terminal with a pre-generated character, the appropriately named "Jitterbug," a somewhat fragile female character wearing a gray costume with purely ornamental wings. As it turns out, this character was set at a very high character level to give us a chance to try out some of the higher-level powers, including "travel powers"--after a certain character level, all characters may choose a single travel power to help them get to where they're going a bit faster. These include flight, teleportation, and superspeed.
Our character was equipped with superspeed, which was still in an early testing state and wasn't working perfectly. But we were able to figure out the basics of this, and our other powers, which involved "small lightning bolt," "medium lightning bolt," "self-enhancing power that makes lightning bolts more powerful," and "big huge giant lightning bolt," though several of these abilities had secondary effects, such as briefly stunning our opponents. All things considered, this was a pretty straightforward character loadout that worked best when blasting enemies from a distance while other, tougher teammates made their way to the front lines to soak up the damage, but Champions will apparently have a hugely open-ended character creation system that will grant you tremendous control over customizing your characters' power sets.
We'll get to how that worked out for us in a bit, but for starters, we first set about diving into our first mission, which took place in an instanced area generated for our party. The area was in the subtly titled Monster Island region (which may or may not actually be a mislabeled peninsula), where we took our powered-up heroes. Monster Island will be one of many different environments woven into the game's overarching story, which will involve key allied superheroes and key supervillains.
But more interestingly, your heros' paths will be crossed constantly by their very own archvillains, whom you can create using the game's powerful editing tools, from their hair to their power sets to even the appearance and powers of their henchmen. Our own archvillain was born of an extremely clever combination of carefully choosing different, matching color schemes and textures (such as chain mail, vinyl, and leather) and different body parts and body accessories (such as robot arms, deer antlers, wings, and bug eyes) and then giving up and clicking the "random" button a bunch of times, which you can do for pretty much any individual body part.
Cryptic hasn't revealed exactly how your archvillain will interact with your character, but the studio assures us that you'll have several run-ins against your sworn enemy over the course of your career--enough to provide even more variety to your superhero's regular rounds of performing standard and story-driven missions, as well as going out for some no-strings-attached monster bashing in hostile territory and getting involved in player-versus-player battles (and more info about that will be revealed later, as well).
After creating our own supervillain, we set out to conquer the jailbreak on Monster Island by entering an instanced dungeon-like area in which we fought our way through a prison that was more or less being run by the inmates--who were actually the henchmen of one of our teammate's archvillains (cowboy robots, in this case). While this mission had a lot of straightforward combat in the form of beating down any enemies that dared to face our superpowered team, it also had several interesting twists and turns and scripted events that seem like they'll make dungeon crawling in Champions a much more interesting experience than just moving from room to room in search of new victims to pummel.
For starters, these areas will have ongoing lists of objectives that update automatically as you complete them; in several of the early areas, for instance, we were tasked with rescuing besieged prison guards who, when they came to, would unlock the doors to the next part of the dungeon. We continued our advance through the corridors in the prison in search of our foe, but we also found another imprisoned supervillain, locked away in a centrally located cell, who taunted us constantly. Fighting this fiend wasn't central to our story mission (we didn't bother fighting him, actually), but if we had freed him from his cell, we could have gotten into an extra battle with incidental awards. As it was, we preferred to let him rot, and he continued to let us have it...verbally, as he followed our progress through the prison and taunted us mercilessly. After finally locating and pummeling the prison's boss, we then moved on to a larger challenge--one of the game's story dungeons.
The next challenge we faced was the realm of Dr. Destroyer, one of the game's most powerful archvillains, a dastardly fiend whose incredible skill at creating killer robots makes him an inherent part of the game's overall story and one of the main obstacles to your progress as you move along Champions' main story arc. Dr. Destroyer, as it turns out, lives in a multilevel, modern-day forge that goes deep down into the ground. This forge is also populated by killer robots with machine guns that are very good at tearing up fragile heroes who like to stand in the back and throw lightning bolts. Fortunately, we had backup from other players who helped us beat down these foes, and we gradually made our way onward and downward through the multiple levels of the dungeon, which were filled with plenty of killer robots, and even some deathtraps, like a try-not-to-get-squashed-while-riding-a-conveyor-belt section.
The lower levels of the dungeon showed some of Champions' puzzle-like gameplay, which will work best with groups of good teammates. One puzzle requires you to manipulate a four-sided magnetic crane to pick up robot parts from various bins lying around the room. To complete the puzzle, we used various switches in the center of the room to get the crane to move just far enough to drop the right parts in the right places--we needed a couple of tries to get this right but figured it out quickly enough, and thankfully, the PC version of the game will allow for real-time voice chat, while the Xbox 360 version of the game will let you use your headset to talk to your teammates. Another, even more-challenging puzzle awaited us on the bottom level--an enclosed control room with a raised platform in the center of the room.
Solving this puzzle required us to clear out enough space to trip the switches on two different panels, which would then make another panel on the raised platform active long enough for us to trip it as well. Unfortunately, this room was chock-full of respawning killer machine-gun robots, so fighting our way to the end took some real effort and teamwork on our part (and more than a few rash charges at the nearest panel). We did a lot of fighting and more than a little dying, but we simply respawned a short time later--Champions Online's death penalties haven't been finalized, but it's likely that they won't be too severe.
Champions' combat resembles the combat in other massively multiplayer games--just much faster. Like City of Heroes, Champions doesn't have a default "autoattack" that makes your character repeatedly take a swing at your target. Instead, you need to actively choose which skills and powers you wish to activate, taking care to manage your character's energy reserves, since all powers cost a certain amount of energy. You call forth your powers using hotkeys, which will be bound to your PC keyboard's number keys, as you might expect from a massively multiplayer game, and will be mapped smartly to your controller's buttons in the Xbox 360 version.
Champions isn't so much about having a zillion different powers to choose from, but rather about having a handful of powers with multiple effects and choosing from them strategically. Because many powers will have limited ranges, and melee powers will work only at close quarters, you may also find yourself doing what we did--dancing around back and forth, in and out of our enemies' ranges while trying to make sure we timed our dodging to get our enemies back in range once our powers recovered from their cooldown times. Fortunately, defeated enemies often drop pickup items that replenish your character's health or energy to keep you in the fight. Unfortunately, killer robots with machine guns in Champions Online appear to have very good machine guns with very good range, so we weren't always successful in trying to zone our foes to the proper distance.
Once we set off the proper control panels, we enabled the scripted final battle with Dr. Destroyer, who took control of the gigantic sitting robot at the far end of the room that was so huge, we originally figured it was just an impressive decoration. The thing towered over us so much that once it stood up and began attacking us, we had trouble seeing the head and shoulders of the mechanical beast, though to be honest, we spent most of that time periodically zapping, then running like mad.
After exchanging many blows with Dr. Destroyer's giant robot, we finally brought the brute down, ending our play session on a satisfying note. From the sound of things, though Champions will definitely have a good amount of high-end "raid" content (content that requires large groups of players to work together), it will also be very solo-friendly--you should be able to experience most of the game's content on your own, though you'll have a much easier time of it in a group. Oh, and yes, Champions will have "sidekicking," the clever City of Heroes feature that lets you temporarily adjust your characters' levels to match those of your friends' characters--so if your buddies are all 20 levels higher than you, you can have them temporarily depower themselves so that you can all adventure together consistently.
Champions Online seems like it will be doing a lot of different things--and a lot of things that are different from what you'd expect from a traditional massively multiplayer game. The in-depth character appearance design, archvillain gameplay, and ongoing story quests should give comic-book fans plenty of stuff to enjoy, while the highly customizable character power system, customizable archvillains and henchmen, raiding, and PVP content should appeal to hardcore massively multiplayer fans. And the fast-paced, accessible combat should hopefully make the game appealing for just about anyone else. Champions Online should have plenty of colorful comic-book superhero action to offer when it launches later this year for the PC and the Xbox 360.