When City of Heroes launched in 2004, it walked into a world of orcs and elves as just about the only option for players looking for something different in the MMORPG space. It quickly became known as "The Widowmaker" among its fantasy brethren, as hundreds of thousands of superhero hopefuls donned tights and took to Paragon City to fight crime.
For five years City of Heroes dominated the Superhero MMOG world, until its developer, Cryptic Studios, decided to move on and try something new. That something new was originally intended to be a new caped crusader MMOG set in the Marvel Comics Universe. But for reasons we may never know the full extent of, the title was scrapped by Microsoft. Cryptic didn't waste time in moving on. They secured the rights to the popular pen and paper role-playing game Champions and began making Champions Online to compete directly with their first child, City of Heroes.
Champions Online has been on the market for several months now, the dust has settled from launch, and City of Heroes is still going strong having recently released their 16th major content update. Both games share the motif of super-people in tights, but is that where the similarities end? Let's take a look at the core features of each game, and see just how similar or different they might be from one another. Obviously one has the advantage of time on its side, but there are some definite differences between the two all the same.
Combat is the main staple of every MMOG on the market, and this is especially true of a game featuring superheroes. Both CoH and CO share some major similarities in this regard, relying little on auto-attacks, and focusing more on the powers of each character. The edge however has to go to Champions Online. Expanding on the action-first motif set by City of Heroes, players in Champions Online must rely on manual blocking to stave off attacks from bad guys. And in place of the standard "mana-pool" mechanic, heroes use Energy Builders to fuel the use of their special powers. Add in the ability to use the Xbox 360 controller for bashing heads, and the game takes on a decidedly more action-oriented feel. A careful balance of offense and defense is needed, adding a bit more of strategy to the combat in Champions Online.
This one is a bit of a toss-up. Originally solo play was not very viable in City of Heroes, and this led to a very robust and very popular Looking for Group System. Over the years since its release, City of Heroes has become far more solo-friendly, but the community's love of grouping and the focus on team mechanics has remained, perhaps fostered by the instanced and scalable nature of the game's missions.
Champions Online on the other hand was designed from the ground up to allow players to solo or group depending on their mood. Add to this the less-instanced nature of the game, and you have an environment that's very difficult to group in, and much more akin to World of Warcraft. Keep in mind, I am not claiming that grouping or solo-ing is the better way to play, but if it's a game with an emphasis on team play you're looking for, City of Heroes is likely more up to snuff.
The big focus of gameplay in City of Heroes is its instanced mission system. They scale to party-size, the difficulty can be set by the party leader, and they offer players a private way to fight crime away from griefers. The downside is that the random nature of these missions makes them very repetitive in terms of layout and looks. If you've seen one set of underground caves, you've seen them all. Champions Online takes the majority of the missions back into the open world, and instead uses instances to focus on storylines and group-content. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up to preference.