In late August we took a look at what Champions Online has to offer players, and now with the game's release behind it we're checking in for our first impressions of the game in order to give you a taste of how things are actually stacking up so far. The idea of a "first impressions" would have been a bit of a challenge, seeing as how we've spent a ton of time with the game prior to its launch, but something that occurred on launch day made a first impressions article much easier. You see, for those of you who previewed the game in beta, or were even part of the head start, Champions Online launched almost a completely different game.
Before we get into all of that, let's talk a bit about the basics of an MMOG launch. Champions Online faired pretty well in this regard, many of the launcher and account issues present in the beta were thankfully absent at launch, with things going fairly smoothly on the technical side of things. Now, where were we? Ah, that's right, Champions Online launching as a different game, whatever do you mean? Well, in a boneheaded move, Cryptic Studios thought it would be a good idea to dump major, far-reaching changes onto the game in a launch day patch with absolutely no feedback from players. In these first impressions, we're going to take a look at this 'new' Champions Online and some of the effect the recent changes have had on early gameplay.
Champions' launch day patch was not put out to 'screw' the player, but was put out in response to player feedback that the game was in fact, way too easy. This assessment definitely held true in beta, with many players wondering where the group content was. After all, there were players soloing five man lairs with ease. Of course grouping was non-existent. Outside of specifically designated group content, there wasn't much reason to need an extra body for well, anything, and this was a legitimate issue. In any other game, the sorts of changes to difficulty that followed would be a bit more acceptable. Where Champions is different is that we're playing a superhero game, and well, players want to feel super. In traditional fantasy MMOGs, it's pretty common place to expect to single pull mobs, maybe even two or three mobs, and maybe a few more if you are an AoE focused character.
In superhero games like City of Heroes or Champions Online, bottom tier enemies generally represent cannon fodder to warpath through and create a sense of feeling super. On launch day, this sense of feeling super was decidedly absent. Defensive passive abilities took major hits, reducing the sorts of things players could survive on their own by quite a bit. To illustrate this, let's take Invulnerability, which was capable of reducing something like 80%+ of damage, now, it reduces about 30-35%. This, on its own, may have been necessary, and there may have been some expected crying over it, but it would have subsided. It was these sorts of changes, combined with the changes to mobs that really made the game 24 hours earlier unrecognizable when compared to the new one.
Today, enemies that were once cannon fodder can now shred players up pretty easily. This change has seriously impacted my opinion on the level of fun Champions Online provides. In fact, playing another game recently really highlighted the impact these changes have made on the game's fun factor.
Champions Online really gave players the sense of feeling super prior to the game's full launch, if a bit too super. Now, the game kind of feels like, well, everything else out there, at times. Depending on the type of character you choose to create, the impact of the launch day patch's changes will vary greatly. For some characters, mowing henchmen down is still a relatively easy to accomplish task. However, for many others, especially those that choose to focus on an offensive character concept dependent on killing before being killed, this task can be nigh impossible. Simply navigating Millenium City's West Side while using Acrobatics can result in death due to taking too many pot shots from random enemy henchmen. That is simply not fun.
The other game I played recently wasn't City of Heroes, though that would be a good example to refer to regarding the challenge and place of henchmen, but it was in fact Batman: Arkham Asylum. I've been balancing both games recently and switching from literally brutalizing hordes of enemies to hopping on Champions Online and feeling deflated at how easily one can be defeated really got under my skin.
So how does this affect the new player experience? Well, due to some recent changes , the difficulty at least at the lower levels isn't as pronounced, which is both a positive and a negative. Mob hitpoints at lower levels were adjusted downward in a recent patch, and generally speaking the enemies present in the tutorial, and both the Desert and Canadian Crisis zones won't pose much of a challenge. This is a good thing. The problem then is that this misleads players.
Yesterday, I ran into a player who was level 18 and had just purchased the game the day before. He was faced with the problem of being taken out too easily; an experience he let me know was not consistent with his experience up to this point. This change in survivability wasn't entirely the game's fault. The change in difficulty that becomes apparent in the later teens simply served to highlight the players' poor and uninformed power, talent, and gear choices thus far, which brings us to another problem new players will face: confusion.
Confusing would be the best description for the new player experience in Champions Online, and this is an extremely serious issue. There are no classes, so it is fairly easy to gimp your character by choosing the wrong powers, talents, statistical focuses, and gear. This problem is compounded further by the steep cost of the Retcon system. While players are now able to retcon (respec) all the way back to the beginning (changed from a ten step limit), the fact that the cost to respec even a single step back can really break the bank renders this improvement moot. The aforementioned player was left with no recourse but to simply reroll his character. Screwing up one's character and having no choice but to reroll isn't really an acceptable option. It's only fortunate that leveling in Champions Online doesn't take very long, which is certainly a plus.
What really gets under my skin is the fact the developers admitted to erring on the side of caution with the current flow of resources available to the player as he progresses through the game. This was explained as being done in order to limit the effect of any possible dupes, exploits, or gold farming on the game's economy early on, but the respec costs weren't adjusted in order to reflect this. Instead, for the last two weeks, players have been faced with a largely dysfunctional respec system whose costs will apparently make more sense only once they readjust the flow of resources to be a bit more generous than what is currently the case.
The above problem has been alleviated slightly due to a recent free full respec issued to all characters. The respec was issued to address the problem head start players faced after the launch day patch when many players' characters were suddenly unplayable due to the massive changes to the game. Initially, this respec was to be issued only to characters created during the head start program, but was instead expanded to all characters created before September 10th, 2009. As a result of this, players have a second chance with characters they may have messed up either due to the affect of the massive launch day changes, or due to their own poor or misinformed choices, it's only unfortunate that it took a solid week to happen. A week doesn't sound like a lot of time, but when you're talking about MMOGs, where the first month is critical as players are deciding whether they want to actually subscribe, having one of the four weeks in the month essentially be unplayable for many characters is pretty significant.
All in all, while there are many issues to be addressed, Champions Online is still a pretty fun game; and we do get the sense that Cryptic Studios has been attentive and generally pretty quick to respond and solve a number of issues with the game thus far. Later this month, we'll spare you the controversies and break down both the good and bad of the game as a whole in our full review. Stay tuned!