Last post, I promised a mini-review of Champions Online, so here it is. Keep in mind, I am no expert. I have played a whopping two sessions and have 4 characters ranging between levels 6-10, so I have little experience beyond the tutorials and the first zones. Still, I think I have enough time in to have formed a reasoned opinion.
Note: I have no screenshots because my main gaming machine is toast. The machine I am using to play is pretty rough and I have to run on the barest of settings. When I get my new, improved, smokin' box, I will post screenshots if anyone is interested.
Obviously, the first thing you will do upon starting Champions Online is create a hero. Actually, the very first thing you will do is stare at a seemingly interminable loading screen... The first time I started Champs Online (and after each patch), it seemed to load very slowly. There are two main parts to creating a hero, creating your costume and choosing your stats and powers. Let's look at each of these separately.
Because CO was developed by the team that made the City Of games, I expected good things from the costume creator and overall, it is a great tool. At a basic level, it is the same as the costume creator in CoX. You choose various parts of your costume (head, body, legs) and get a set of dropdowns that let you put various costume pieces on your character. However, the CO team has made a few improvements to the concept.
First is that before even getting to your costume, you are presented with two sets of sliders, one for your hero's face and another for his body. You can adjust the size and position of your nose, eyes, mouth, the height and fullness of your cheeks, your chin... Same with the proportions of your body. There is lots to play with here.
Second is that once you are onto creating your costume, you will notice there are more dropdowns on each body part. CO "layers" costume pieces, giving more possible mix and match looks. So, you might pick a basic chest piece and then layer a jacket over that, or various arm pieces that go over your bicep, or shoulder.
Third, you have more color choices for each item. A few items have two colors like in CoX, but most items have 3 or 4 colors. This allows for more varied color schemes and cooler designs for emblems.
Overall, the costume designer is an improvement, but there are a few issues. First off, there is the simple fact that with more options and choices, more skill is required to get the ideal look. In CoX, you could always choose a couple of non-clashing colors, pick the same pattern for top and bottom and pretty much go. CO's designer will reward the skilled and the patient, and for those who aren't ... well, get ready for Millenium City's version of What Not To Wear.
Another issue with the costume creator is the fact that they seem to have missed some of the basic patterns. If I choose the default, two-color pattern for my chest (which is two stripes under the arms and down the sides of the hero), there is no matching pattern for a skirt. Instead you have to choose a more complex, four-color pattern and tweak the colors to that it matches the top.
In any case, the costume designer is nice, and will only get better over time as more options are added.
Though you will likely spend the lion's share of your character creation time creating your costume, you also have to choose your hero's power and stats before you begin. CO makes this easy by providing 18 power frameworks from which to pick. Each framework comes with two powers, your "energy builder" and your (for lack of a better term) "starter attack".
In addition, the framework determines your starting stats. CO has eight basic stats: strength, dexterity, constitution, endurance, recovery, intelligence, ego and presence. Each of these stats affects your combat abilities like your crit chance, your energy, hit points, and your ability to resist damage. In addition, each stat modifies the effectiveness of your powers. For example, your force field's power (if you pick that power from the force framework) is modified by your ego. Melee damage powers are increased by your strength.
Picking a framework ensures you get starter powers and stats to match. However, you are free to go it alone and create a "custom framework". In a custom framework, you can pick your energy builder and starter attack from any of the 18 frameworks. In addition, with a custom framework, you are able to pick how your stats are distributed from a long list of possible loadouts.
Having run 4 characters through the turorials and starter missions, I am fairly happy with how character creation plays out. Characters aren't that much different from each other to begin with, since you get the same to types of powers -- the energy builder and the starter attack. Everyone starts as a mini-blaster. However, each framework's beginning powers are slightly different. My gadgeteer would charge her experimental blaster to full to open a combat because that would give a chance to confuse, or knock the opponent up. However, she would then have to use her energy builder. My archer (at low levels, mind you) never has to fire her energy builder because her starter attack is amazingly energy efficient. The electric control set's energy builder can apply a debuff to an opponent which allows subsequent attacks to arc to other enemys. The darkness starter applies a fear effect.
Ahh... the much discussed combat system. Lots of people like it; lots of people hate it. Before I get into my opinion, let's take an objective look at the system, keeping in mind my relatively low-level experiences.
Much like CoX's combat is based on endurance, CO's combat has a central concept of Energy. Your max energy is based on your Endurance stat and is used to power most of your interesting attacks (i.e. almost anything BUT the builder attack). You also have an "equilibrium point", based on your Recovery that determines your starting energy when you are at rest. So, I might have 100 max energy (based on my Endurance) and start a combat having 55/100 (because of my Recovery).
From levels 1-6, combat pretty much plays out like this: You approach your target, fire off your starter attack (which costs energy) once or twice. Then, you are probably low on energy, so you toggle on your energy builder which fires quickly, does a little damage, and rebuilds your reserve in a few seconds. Once you have enough energy to blast away again, you fire your starter attack once or twice. Most powers don't have cooldowns and it is simply a question of having sufficient energy.
Now, this certainly isn't the height of strategy, but against henchmen, it plays very quickly and you will likely take on two or three at once without trouble. Taking on harder enemies such as villains, super-villains and master villains will require you to use the active block mechanic.
You block by pressing the Shift key and while blocking, you cannot attack and can only move slowly, but you take reduced damage from attacks. Most tough enemies have some kind of uber-attack that they charge up and if it hits, you will take around half your health. You will want to block in these cases. It isn't hard to do, but you will be tempted to time it properly to maximize your damage potential.
Is it boring? Look, it certainly isn't the height of strategy, but it plays out fast enough and has just enough challenging moments to NOT be boring, even at low levels it feels fast. At levels 1-6, it is certainly no more boring that playing a newbie WoW or CoX character.
Now, as you level up, you get a few more options and you start to see that there might be more to the game than you first thought...
Character Development (and more Combat)
As you level in CO, you gain points to spend on powers, power advantages, stat focuses (super-stats) and talents (which as far as I can tell, also increase stats). Let's start with powers. Powers in each framework are tiered, in that to buy a power from tier 2, you need 3 same-framework powers from tier 1, or 5 tier 1 powers from any framework. However, beyond that limitation, you are free to pick any power you like from any framework.
You also get access to power advantages points as you level. Advantage points can be used to level up a power, increasing its damage, or hold duration, or to buy "Advantages" for a power. Each power has certain advantages that can be applied to it and each advantage changes the way the power works in some significant way. For instance, you could make your starter attack an AoE instead of a single-target attack, or you might add a vampiric component to a hold power.
In addition to powers and advantages, you can also create two different builds and choose gear, and a role for each. A role applies a set of character-wide modifiers to your hit points, energy generation, and the efficiency of the various types of powers you have. So, you can pick an offensive role, which lowers your hit points and defenses, but ups your attacks and energy generation. You can pick a defensive role, which cuts your attacks, but increases the power of all your defensive powers. This allows a character to have a viable solo build, and a second team build where he tanks... or you could have two different loadouts for PvP and PvE.
The freedom to pick the exact powers you want, and then significantly customize those powers is huge. I loved the variety of characters in CoX, but I never felt I was building a character as much as I was just choosing him. Once you picked archetype, primary and secondary powersets, the rest was just leveling up to gain access to the powers you knew you were going to pick. So far, CO feels like I am experimenting and building the character level by level.
As an example, one of my characters has the Gadgeteer framework. This set starts with a couple of blasts. As I leveled, I took an advantage to my energy builder that made it a short-range cone. I also took the Gauntlet Chainsaw, which is a melee cone and chose and offensive role, so now the Gadgeteer is a short range, AoE-based killer, able to cut down hordes of henchmen in seconds. However, there are trade-offs. My hit points are crappy and I have spent lots of picks on increasing my Endurance and Recovery so that I can run the hungry chainsaw longer. This means my Intelligence is lower than it should be and my robot pets are underperforming a little.
Another character is my Archery toon. The archer starts with a pretty good, energy efficient attack (I mentioned earlier that she didn't fire her builder until level 6-7). Well, I tried out a couple of the rest of the archery attacks and was underwhelmed, so I leveled up the attack I had and spent my advantage points to make it an AoE attack. Then, I went instead with a defensive power that allows me to backflip away from an opponent, increasing my dodge chance, and I dipped into the martial arts framework and took a passive dodge bonus that increases with my Dexterity. The archer likes Dexterity and it increases her crit chance... now it increases her defense as well. She is now an awesome, if somewhat straightforward combatant.
There is even more to get into with gear, crafting and perks, but let's leave that for later. For now, with the little I have seen, I am very happy with how many options I have with the character builder. This system lends itself to endless tweaking, experimenting and researching builds. Oh... and you can test new powers before you lock in your puchases and respec the last 10 choices you make at any time.
CO has its share of issues. One is the traditional WoW questing system. Generally, you come upon a quest hub, collect all the ! bearing NPCs, head out, fight stuff, collect crap and return to the now ? bearing NPCs to get your cookies. Eh... ok, I am not a fan of this system, and it seems a little out of genre for me, but it is the MMO standard, so I can understand why they went this way.
However, one thing that bugs me about this system is that it discourages teaming. To team in CO for questing, you have to make sure everyone has the same quests. You can share quests, but invariably, someone has not completed a prerequisite step, or some number of your quests are not sharable. Add to that the fact that then you have to keep the team sort of together as you search for the various bits you are supposed to collect... or worse, there is no need to stay together because you are usually questing in a zone where a team makes the enemies trivial.
Team-questing in WoW has the same issues, but at least there, no one can run as fast as a drag-racer, or zoom off into the sky. Oh yeah... people don't team for quests in WoW anyways... they team instances, but teaming for quests just slows you down.
I would say they should seriously consider adding the CoX (actually Anarchy Online was the first I think) mission door model to CO. The random instanced missions keep everyone together and focused. I am not saying get rid of open-world questing, because I like the open-world feel, but give us that option for teams and pickup groups.
Another problem is that there are still lots of buggy issues to overcome. There are missions that cannot be completed, others where you can complete them, but the instructions aren't clear. There are the occassional client crash-to-desktop errors. The game runs fairly well at this point, but there are still a few too many problems to claim a "clean release" just yet.
Overall, I am impressed with CO. It is a good game and I think there is a lot of interesting stuff to uncover in the character development system. The combat is probably not for everyone... it is a mix between Marvel Ultimate Alliance, WoW and CoX, but it is engaging enough and I am interested to see how it plays out as I progress through the game. If you like CoX, but also like games with stats and gear, or if you like lots of customization in the look and performance of your character, give CO a look.