Champions Online Review

I was twelve when I first walked on water. And I was just a bit taller than a chair when my Master discovered me in the city and promised me that my powers will help me see the world with different eyes. I spent fifteen years of my life in a cellar, trying to accustom myself with the sticky latex, learning to levitate with my eyes closed and to melt metal with my stare. I talked to myself in the mirror for fifteen years, pulling threatening or serious faces and making promises to the whole of mankind.Then one day, I told myself I am ready to show the universe what I’m capable of. Master let me go with a content smile and the same content death. It’s okay, I said to myself, I will soon be the idol of the weak and the air will fill with cries for help. I will be irreplaceable and less alone. Unfortunately, from that cursed moment on, when I stepped in the light of day, I realized that the world is a super-hero funfair.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Champions Online, the dimension of reality in which uniqueness is no longer superlative, but rather has a degree of comparison. Invented by the experienced scientists at Cryptic Studios, the same who have formerly entertained us with experiments like City of Heroes/City of Villains, Champions Online is a veritable dream machine. Your only limit is your own imagination: leave behind the cyborg or tormented demon clichés and dare to dream armed Playboy bunnies, mechanized apes, electric sharks and, why not, mini-Vin Diesels (mini-Riddicks). We even have a solution for those whose imagination is a big black hole. Thus, using our random super-hero generator, you can easily find you idol in life, or you can at least have a straight-forward start. And, as a bonus, you’ll get to explore a dozen of archetypal powers which can be combined to create infinite super-power sets, specially destined to “the most-unique” of heroes. Maybe you want a socialist engineer to spawn zombie continuously, or  a housewife who can light the cooker fire with her own fingers. Everything is possible now. And, because personal examples are always the most convincing, I myself found the sense of existence in a reptilian Succubus who uses the power of darkness and sexy thighs to make her enemies tremble.

Massive Singleplayer Online Role Playing Game (MSO-RPG)

But literature teaches us (here’s a first example: Thomas Mann – Death in Venice) that behind the colorful glamour of life, a putrid kernel is always well hidden. In vain did I take my virtual Absynthe to save the world, because you simply don’t have who to save the world with. Socializing is dead. For the first five levels, I thought that everything is due to the fact that I’m in the beginner’s zone, which is full with tutorials and which reflects, at a micro-cosmic level, everything you can do in Champions Online. I blamed it all on the instances, which are rather smaller than usual in these introductive zones and then I waited patiently to be welcomed in the REAL world.
In order to understand Champions Online though, we have to remember that if you want to create a super-hero multiplayer game, he has a huge problem from start: the heroic condition (the hero alone is enough to handle supreme evil). You can’t throw 100 super-things into a room and expect the 100 full of themselves identities to willingly collaborate. So, a game like Champions Online needs a confidence boost. In other words, it needs missions of cataclysmic level in order to encourage all the heroic figures to look around. Unfortunately, the game offers a lot of Worl of Warcraft like objectives, and silly small quests, like saving a kitty from a tree. It’s not just that the difficulty is targeted for a three-year-old, but the enemies too, after several gameplay balancing patches, fall instantly, just because the developers want you to feel like the super-hero that you are. Death doesn’t bring any penalty in this game, it just limits your attack power and regeneration rate for a short amount of time. It’s a pity that not even technically speaking, the game doesn’t manage to support group-fights: the Looking for Group channel is limited to the instance you are playing in, although there might be just as many players in other instances that are looking for partners for the same quest. And the loot system still isn’t popular, after all those patches. Thus, any Champions Online reunion seems random and filled with boredom.
Of course, we can always hope that “if you can’t join them, beat ‘em”. So, if we can’t socialize, we should always be able to turn towards PvP, the last chance of humanity for fun. The same unwritten rules of the super-hero mess up the duels too. Not to mention that there is no duality in Champions Online. I’m not necessarily talking about player-controlled villains, but rather about certain “political views” to allow the mix and match of all the players out there. At one point, it becomes rather funny to see the sheer amount of scary demons trying to help a mean old lady cross the street, or how they follow puny couriers all around the city. The Champions universe suffers a general lobotomy: everyone is trying to somehow shake off the amnesia, running or flying around like ants. So, when it comes to versus parties, the average player is at the mercy of developers and at the mercy of the several deathmatch maps offered, one by one, at every ten levels or so. These matches are a true quantum physics demonstration, with heroes clashing chaotically like small particles. There are some heroes that don’t even survive the confrontation, especially the support heroes. The most favored in battle are those configurations that combine regeneration with martial arts or brute force. As for me, life-leech helped me endure a frontal attack for more than five seconds, but I didn’t manage to kill anyone. There’s a lot else to mention about these matches, but I’ll limit myself to talking about the arena design a bit. The maps are too crowded, if we bear in mind the fact that each hero has several options when it comes to moving around. Some of them can teleport, others are Spiderman clones. And most of them prefer to fly. Now imagine ten such heroes in a pee-wee room and tell me if this image raises your compassion. Once again, the huge differences between heroes ruin the gameplay experience, even when it comes to multiplayer.

A little more conversation, a little less action please

I was saying that, in Champions Online, you don’t have who to save the world with. It seems that you don’t even have WHAT to save it with. The game defines itself as an action-MMO, trying to make the impact of every player decision real-time. Thus, the abilities of each character, determined by the archetypal combinations, can be part of one of three categories: abilities which block the attack, abilities that build up your energy and channeling abilities (which eat that energy up). So, most fights will consist in accumulating energy in order to wreak havoc upon the enemy with specialized channeling spells. But the “action” in the game is not really there. The enemies rarely respect a block and even maintaining an ability proves to be impossible.

Everything becomes more frustrating when you realize you have several moments when you become immobilized and have to mash the Z button to free yourself. Honestly, I don’t know what Cryptic was thinking, because these moments are all-death no fun. In addition, you’d expect the game to shower you with further customization options, because you’re in the super-hero paradise after all. The first five levels are really overwhelming when it comes to options, but later on, you’ll only be able to add new abilities every four levels, the rest of the level-up points going into stats.

Costumes don’t stand better either. You see, once you’ve chosen your character in the character creator, you, the players, have signed a contract with the devil. From that moment on, everyone supposes that you have created the ideal character, perfect and invincible, immune to your personal dreams and new wishes. It is known that MMOs rely a lot on boasting, like owning a unique sword on a server. Well, even if Champions Online has an item economy, the effect these items have on your character will never be visible. With the exception of some objects that offer you spectacular additional abilities, you’ll spend 90% of the time discovering ADN mutators and alien artifacts to make your buttock firmer or to make the wrinkles go away. You may be longing for a concrete effect, but most of the times you won’t even understand how these items affect your stats. The mechanisms are not the same with those in a classical RPG: attributes like Strength, Constitution, etc. are used in the game, but only one archetypal category can benefit from them. And when you’ll discover new attributes like Ego, I really advise you to reach for the manual, in order to better understand the game.
Like any respectable MMO, Champions Online has a crafting system too. Players can choose between Mysticism, Arms and Science, in order to create objects just as lame as those found in the environment. The three classes differ through the two attributes they can improve. For example, a Darkness character needs a lot of Endurance and Constitution, so he has to go for the Arms crafting class. The other two exclude one of the mentioned stats. Additionally, the crafting system allows the creation of consumables, like “healing potions” (insert any other random word here) and also the creation of more inventory slots. I’ll never understand why a super-hero has a limited inventory, but it’s important that in the end, the crafting system proves somewhat useful, allowing you to really improve your base powers.

Lore-less

Slowly and painfully, we reach the conclusion that in Champions Online, you don’t even have WHAT to save. We went through the PvP, through leveling up and character customization. It’s time we talked about the Champions universe itself. The fundamental difference between this game and City of Heroes is the fact that the former is based on a well established franchise:  that of the Champions. Theoretically, this decision should have provided the game with a lot of original content. But, besides the key moments in which the well-known Champions prove to be some sort of spiritual mentors for the rest of the heroic bunch, the game doesn’t really have a story to tell. Invasions stack one upon another: Qularr, Lemurians, or even undead (see the Halloween content update). And you, like a true never-sleeping hero, walk around busting everything in your face. But you rarely get to understand why you are doing all the heroic stuff. Maybe just in some dramatic pre-boss cut-scenes.  Or in the popular public quests, which are real buggy.
What’s really startling is the way in which the content is distributed along the game. If you can believe it, the game is comprised of only five zones, out of which two are only accessible end-game. So, you’ll spend the first 40 levels between Millenium City, the Canadian Wilderness and the desert. When you run out of missions, you have to change the scenery. Problem is, if you ever decide you want a new character, you’ll have to go through the exact 300 quests all over again. Missions are far from sufficient. Most of the times you’ll have to ask friends or passers-by to help you complete quests destined to higher level characters. At some points, the natural level-up rhythm needs such kicks in the butt.
Then, the obvious question is whether anything exists to chase away the monotony. On one hand, we have the Nemesis system. Around level 25, any veritable hero will be able to create his very own anti-hero (which comes packaged with henchmen). This personal villain will pursue you throughout the rest of the game, ready to ruin your every move. The idea is really interesting, but the execution is dire. The Nemeses are always a pleasant surprise during quests, especially because they can team up with the Nemeses of other players in your own team. On the other hand, the developers really put a lot of soul in content updates, bug fixing and balancing patches. We were first struck by Blood Moon, a patch which put Millenium City under undead siege. It brought a new set of powers, the Celestial one, additional customization options, as well as a new PvP mode, similar to Left 4 Dead’s Survival mode. Recently, Nemesis Confrontation was launched, a content patch that brought even more costumes, as well as the new Nemesis Lair, which expanded the idea of Nemesis.
At a totally different level, the candy graphics of Champions Online also chases away the rigid feeling of the game. Although the comic visual style does the game good, I didn’t quite fall for those over-vivid colors. Character contours are too violent, and character abilities are a real sore for the eye. Although the graphics are not state of the art, they really kill your desktop. After testing the game on several systems, I actually got to the conclusion that Champions Online doesn’t put pressure on the video card, but rather on the processor. The game runs smoothly on anything better than a dual-core processor, but it’s otherwise unplayable. So, the game must have some pretty serious programming and process optimization flaws. That’s not really surprising, if we take into account all the faulty scripts encountered throughout the game and which can often be fixed by changing the instance.
To draw a conclusion, Champions Online is not meant for the elitist MMO player, who craves for a lot of sudden changes of situation and coherent universes, but rather for your everyday consumer, who can escape work in the gross quantity of perks (please read Achievements), in the mini-series heroes (please read Vanity Pets) and in the overall lack of sense. And that, of course, only if their personal computer can handle the situation. And only if the producers will put a lot of effort into keeping up with the growing community.

Ana Todor is a Computer Scientist with a playful and literary twist. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Studies and a Master of Science degree in Computer Science, Digital Interactive Entertainment.

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