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.
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.