Champions Online Review
This hero-themed online game is light on content, but at least it has enough superpowered hijinks to last you the free month.
- Extremely flexible hero customization
- Fun, action-packed combat keeps you busy
- Attractive, vibrant art style
- The nemesis system is a great idea.
- Not enough missions and only five regions
- Flexibility can lead to imbalanced characters that aren't much fun to play
- A number of underdeveloped features.
Champions Online isn't the first online role-playing game to let you dress up in tights and leap tall buildings in a single bound; that honor belongs to City of Heroes, developer Cryptic Studio's first foray into the genre. As you'd expect, Champions Online has more than a little in common with its forebear (and COH's stand-alone follow-up, City of Villains), so if you enjoyed those previous games, Champions Online may be a logical next step for you. In some ways, Cryptic's newer game delivers on a few features never realized in its earlier efforts. For example, you can now pick up objects like street lamps, trash cans, and filing cabinets and pummel villainous henchmen with them, actions you couldn't do in the other games. Even better, you can design your own nemesis, who will hound you in the latter portion of your heroic triumphs. At times, Champions Online makes you feel like a hero, and its intensely robust superhero creation tool ensures that you can stand out in a sea of other online prima donnas clad in skintight spandex and hardy power armor.
But the immediate thrills of showing off your angel-winged, shark-headed creation eventually wear off, and while the fun combat and little details will keep you grinning, Champions Online doesn't mine the possibilities as deeply as it could. Massively multiplayer online games typically deliver expansive and diverse experiences that thrive on their enormous scope and replayability. Champions feels thin by comparison. You and your fellow players may all look different and use unique combinations of powers, but you'll all be taking the same quests in the same five areas--two of which you won't even see until you get close to level 30 (the level cap is 40). There seem to be just enough quests to see you through, rather than the shower of missions that rain down upon you in other online RPGs. You'll get your free month's worth, but even compared to other MMO games during their launch periods, Champions Online feels a bit skeletal--a tasty bone to chew on for a few weeks, but not filling enough to keep you satisfied beyond them.
Yet while Champions lacks depth, it's flexible enough to make even Plastic Man giddy. This is obvious from the moment you start the game and face the daunting task of creating a superhero. Whether you have a flare for the dramatic (a winged, whip-tailed demon), the subtle (a petite geisha with chopsticks gracing her hair), or the insane (a lizard sporting a halo, a trench coat, and tentacled feet), the creation element is almost unmatched. It may not be in "if you dream it, you can build it" territory, but it comes closer than any MMO game before it. If you suffer from a mental block, you can always randomize costumes, color schemes, and even entire hero designs; some of the arbitrary combinations are absolutely delightful and may provide a model to work from. Of course, once you're in the game, you may come down with a case of costume envy, but fear not: for a price, you'll eventually be able to create alternate costumes, and you'll earn additional costume slots as you level. After all, no matter how sexy your hero's behind is, variety is still the spice of life.
Champions' flexibility isn't limited to your hero's appearance. You'll also face the daunting option of using a preset power template or creating an original one by choosing from a list of beginning powers. The templates help you get a good sense of how far you can take your concept, and they include most of the archetypes you'd expect: fire, ice, telekinesis, sorcery, martial arts, and so forth. But this introductory choice is simply a starting block, and unlike in most MMO games, you aren't locking yourself into a branching but mostly predetermined path. As you level up and visit trainers at aptly named powerhouses, you can pick and choose powers from various disciplines. There is still a progression system here, so you need to meet certain requirements before powers become available, but if you think your dual-clawed wolfman should be able to summon the undead, then so he shall. You won't be able to fly faster than a speeding bullet at first, but as soon as you escape the initial area, you can choose from a number of travel powers, like teleportation, webswinging, and, of course, flying.
All this plasticity is exciting, but as you might reasonably expect, it comes at the expense of balance and effectiveness. Your hero may be wholly original, but the more out-there your concept is, the less fun he or she will be to play. This seems practically inevitable given the slow pace at which wholly new powers are handed out. Because you get to choose a new skill only every three levels or so, you're constantly torn between cool possibilities and effective ones. Spending your available points on a chain-whipping power is incredibly tempting, though the far-less-exciting passive regeneration boost may be your better choice, which makes the next three-level wait feel even longer. Unfortunately, an interesting hero isn't necessarily a strong hero. A launch-day rebalancing weakened a broad range of powers, making mix-and-match characters more likely to frequently die and therefore less fun to play as than during the early-access playtime. The nature of the genre dictates that skills are balanced and rebalanced over time, but for now, certain combinations are heavily favored. Champions Online offers some relief from the usual MMO business of rushing to a Web site to research effective builds in advance--but it doesn't break free of these trappings, which eventually dampens the early "Look what I made!" glee.
Champions Online's positive first impressions extend from the character creation into your initial glimpse of Millennium City and the strong art that brings it to life. The tutorial area will get you accustomed not only to gameplay basics such as talking to contacts and using your powers, but also to its vibrant, cel-shaded visual style. Characters and environmental features alike are surrounded by a rather heavy black outline, an effect that comes across as somewhat over the top in the first few hours (fortunately, you can turn the outline off if you think it makes things look too muddy). Once you leave the starting area and expand your horizons, that effect becomes less garish, and you'll grow to appreciate the bold strokes used to create this comic book universe. True to its graphic novel inspirations, Champions uses a vivid color palette and keeps textural details to a minimum, though that isn't to say there aren't plenty of visual pleasures. Billboards towering overhead (or underneath you, if you are flying about), cragged desert cliffs, and warehouses teeming with fiery demons give you plenty to gawk at.
Your powers--and those of others--further brighten the crisp visuals. Most power effects are cool and colorful, which makes them a blast to perform. That's a very good thing, because Champions Online is all about combat, constantly pitting you against large numbers of villains and goons as it ushers you from one objective to the next. You have one basic power that does minimal damage but increases your energy reserves, while your main abilities draw from this energy pool and, in many cases, can be charged for greater effectiveness. You can also tap hotkeys attached to certain powers for different effects, and you actively block by holding the shift key and tap a key to break free from holds. As a result of all this power charging and energy balancing, you'll be more active during battles than in most similar games, switching quickly between targets and grabbing temporary power-ups when enemies drop them, all while firing off shards of ice or summoning minions to your side.