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.
Your battle effectiveness is further enhanced by upgrades and devices that you loot from fallen foes or purchase at auction. Devices usually have a very straightforward use: summon an icy blizzard, or call a gang of thugs to join you for a short time, for example. They're like additional powers, though they generally have a long recharge time so are used more sparingly. Upgrades are much harder to get a handle on, because the way stat bonuses affect your powers isn't always clear, and with some exceptions, they don't have immediately noticeable effects. Nevertheless, you'll grasp the stat subtleties in time, though there's something a tad unsatisfying about loot sorting, because you can never show off your super-rare, super-cool, and totally invisible artifact. That missing visual element also makes crafting feel workable but joyless. You choose one of three crafting branches, but while there are differences between them (items forged by mystics don't enhance the constitution stat, for example), crafting is what you'd expect from an MMO game: buy blueprints and combine components to make a given item. You can disassemble items into raw materials, but beware of a rather unintuitive feature: while the game lets you disassemble many objects at once, you seem to gain as many skill points for dismantling five items at once as you do for one. If you disassemble multiple items at once, you're holding back your own progression.
Quests will send you through the streets of Millennium City, through the desert, and across the Canadian wilderness--and once you approach level 30, you can add Monster Island and the underwater kingdom of Lemuria to the list. All of these places are fun to visit the first time, and they're filled with cool details and clever references that will make you chuckle. In an amusement park seemingly inspired by the cult sci-fi film Westworld, cowboy robots proclaim "howdy pardner" and dance on the stage at the local saloon. One small quest chain bears more than a coincidental resemblance to Minority Report, though in this case, a future-crime solver announces to you that your favorite TV show is about to be canceled. And it doesn't take much guessing to figure out the references made in an instanced group mission called Fight Club.
These pockets of creativity are delectable, as are other small-but-simple touches, from words of encouragement from passersby to droll and surprising asides uttered by nearby henchmen. These details are fun, but they don't make for inspired questing. That's not to say there aren't surprises--you might be called to stop a robbery in progress as you pass by a bank, for example. But Champions Online's missions are as standard as they come in MMO games, sending you to kill this many enemies, collect this many things, or activate this many objects. And there are simply not enough of them to encourage you to play again once you hit the maximum level of 40--and you could reach that point in around 60 hours, which isn't very long by MMO standards. Every player goes through the exact same quests, in all of the same five medium-sized regions. In its current form, Champions Online doesn't offer enough variety or breadth to make it your virtual home, though it certainly delivers plenty of fun for the subscription-free month included with your initial purchase.
Obviously, you can spice things up by teaming up with others, and you'll need to from time to time. However, grouping is not a huge focus in Champions Online; quests, even the scattered team-focused ones, are generally short, so most such missions are tackled by perfunctory ad hoc teams that spend the 10 minutes needed to finish things up and then part ways. Some higher-level instances called lairs take longer and require more players to complete--but they're not as epic or as protracted as the larger dungeons in similar games. You can join a supergroup, the game's equivalent of a guild, but the built-in guild searching options found in recent RPGs like Age of Conan would have been a welcome addition. A supergroup headquarters, like those you can build and customize in City of Villains, would have been nice as well.
If you crave more player interaction, you'll find it in player-versus-player battles and in public quests ripped straight from Warhammer Online. The PVP Hero Games are solid, and when the excess of visual effects aren't messing with your frame rate, they can be a lot of frantic, clicky fun as long as you're playing a hero that can hold his or her own. If you aren't prepared with a superhero designed to take advantage of the game's various imbalances (spamming mini mines is a popular way to give an unprepared team a headache), it may be best to stay away. There are five maps, including some enjoyable, objective-based levels later in the game; it's just too bad it takes so long to get to them. Offering up cool new battle maps and game types as a reward isn't necessarily a bad idea. But when your early options in a game this light on content are the same team deathmatches and free-for-alls, the later additions don't feel like rewards, but rather like features that should have been offered from the get-go. The public quests are enjoyable as well, if not as grand as those of its inspiration, and the bugs that plagued many of them at launch have been mostly cleared up.
Champions Online is home to one feature that is wholly its own domain, however: the nemesis. Once you hit level 25, you get to create an archenemy from scratch, and from then on, he and his henchmen will dog you during your travels. Any chance to revisit the terrific character creator is a welcome one, and the instanced mission that introduces your henchman--a museum under siege--is good hectic fun. Your nemesis isn't the only source of occasional surprises, however; you might be fighting alongside a fellow hero only to have his archenemy appear, which lends Champions Online a small touch of unpredictability. This feature isn't a game changer, but it's a bright spark of creativity in a game that tends toward the predictable and familiar.
If you've experienced other online RPGs at launch, you will wonder about Champions Online's technical stability. And rightfully so: there were plenty of initial hitches, such as broken missions, missing sorcery powers (an issue that forced us to abandon a mid-tutorial character and create another), resetting control schemes, and bouts of lag. Some of these issues have been ironed out, while others remain, and some patches have created their own bugs that themselves have had to be fixed. The game client also needs tweaking, suffering from fits of slowdown and control unresponsiveness when the action gets heavy. These are typical launch-time growing pains, and they don't exceed the tolerable limit for such issues in the genre; they simply stand out more because the core game structure doesn't seem deep or broad enough to compensate for them. Still, insurmountable issues are rare, so while Champions doesn't exhibit the level of refinement that City of Heroes did at launch, it's perfectly playable. Expect to spend lots of time battling master villains and only sporadically battling technical oddities.
The imperfections are obvious, though the usual launch-day mantras regarding future potential apply just as strongly to Champions Online as they do to other MMO games. Before you take the plunge, ask yourself whether you're looking for a new virtual world to call your second home or whether you just need to cleanse your palate with a bit of streamlined superhero action. If you're in the former group, Champions Online isn't broad or deep enough yet to make it your game of choice. If you're in the latter, you'll get more than your money's worth for the initial retail price, and the month or so that it takes to fully explore its vibrant nooks and crannies.