Welcome back to another edition of The Tourist, this time with more spandex! For our second go 'round, I dipped my toes into the lusciously colorful waters of Champions Online. Before we go much further, I need to get something off my chest: I’m not much of a superhero guy. My love of comic books lies squarely between Batman and The Walking Dead, so if it's not dark and gritty, I'm probably not reading it. I walked into this week with some trepidation, but fear not! If The Tourist isn’t about trying new things, then nothing is. And as luck would have it, I had a pretty good time.
Let me introduce you to my character. Reader, Vulpix; Vulpix, Reader. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because I stole it from Pokemon. See, character creators as robust as Champions’ tend to overwhelm me, so taking my cues from The Inferno archetype, I made my hero a fiery beacon of death with a cutesy-wutesty fox tail. My roleplay goes like this: Vulpix is an inter-dimensional time traveler from the Pokemon universe sent over by Team Rocket to show MMO players that cute foxes can actually be cool. Cue the meta sunglasses.
Character creation is one of Champions’ biggest assets. Free players are given dozens and dozens of choices, from costume pieces to materials to special patterns, really allowing you to define the kind of hero you would like to be. It’s obvious that the best set pieces are gated by microtransactions, but what’s available is nothing short of empowering. You too can be a giant metallic ape in a wizard’s cape.
Getting started in the game was a breeze. The tutorial is standard kill-collect fare but ends with a nice instance inside Champion's headquarters. The game also features full controller support, which is how I played the bulk of my time. Combat is more active than most MMOs and kicking some insectoid backside was a snap (and ooze), but since mobs often come in packs, it's wise to assess the situation before running in. While there is no roll dodge, moving out of the way of melee attacks causes them to miss and blocking is great way of mitigating damage. Mobs also drop colored orbs which replenish HP, Mana, and Defense, and occasionally other stat boosts. When I played the On Alert content, these bobbles were annoyingly well-hoarded.
So here’s the deal: Champions isn’t a pretty game. It grows on you, sure, but stepping in is a lot like rewinding PC gaming to 2004. People tend to defend it as having comic sensibilities, but getting close to most things reveals a startling lack of detail and weird plastic sheen. The comic argument does hold some water but it took me a little bit to get over just how poorly detailed the game really is. And dear lord, whoever designed the NPC models must have a thing for action figures because they all look like deformed G.I. Joes.
There is also a weird lack of polish. Chat is displayed in speech bubbles but the text often runs into the outline. Enemy pathing is passable at best and often sees bad guys appearing on top of terrain objects. And what's with the use of Comic Sans font on the first loading screen. Worst of all, even on a powerful machine, the game stutters, which is inexcusable with the graphics as they stand.
Once you get past that, the game has a lot to offer. One of the neater aspects is that you receive your travel ability right after exiting the tutorial. I tried jetpack, because hey, actual flight is a bit unrealistic for a dimension-traveling fox, but Cryptic never got around to adding an actual jetpack into the game, so the illusion was lost. Instead I went with Super Jump. My little fire-fox loved bouncing through gentle grass, so the hero version was going to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Missions were also a highlight. They’re cutscene-ridden, so even though they’re kill-collect, the developers are able to spin some pulpy fun yarns. One of the early quests has you tracking down information on The New Purple Gang which eventually leads you to a summit of supervillains. It was a lot like playing through a Saturday morning cartoon and in more ways than one. Sadly, the developers used some of the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game – not all of it, but enough to be cringe-worthy. Still, it's a shame they abandoned the weekly quest updates, because they remain a welcome addition to the game.
The On Alert content is also great. Any player can join up for on demand action as soon as they’re out of the introduction. Low level players are boosted to the cap to foil terrible plots, flush with cutscene-driven story. It’s a great way to encourage group play, but like tools in other games, chat was dead on arrival. Surviving was sometimes difficult since boosting-up still leaves you with your real-level skills and limited defenses. Theoretically, you should be able to overcome any one of these challenges, but my groups failed more than once.
Let’s get into the weird stuff, like when Defender admits he just can't quit you. Or perhaps that the game feels like one big imitator. I know that Champions traces its origins to the pen and paper classic, but damned if it didn’t feel like watching ManBat instead of Batman. In a day and age where DCUO is available, it begs the question of why bother if the “real thing” is right around the corner. I’ve never played DCUO, for the record. That’ll be one for another tour.
There’s also the issue of the cash shop. Cryptic has done a good job of meeting players in the middle by making the in-game currency, Questionite, exchangeable for the real-money-based, Zen, but they counter that by making sure you have exactly none of it when most new players would come and go. The whole setup only gets introduced with the briefest of update panels. You do have 100 Zen, though. Want to design your own character without a set archetype? Zen. Want to unlock those many, many lockboxes? Zen. Want a hideout or vehicle or special costume piece? Zen. It’s great that the exchange system is in place, but Cryptic makes it very clear that early purchases are meant to be made out of pocket.
For a guy who doesn't like superheroes, I find myself somewhat awed at how much fun I had. Champions has its quirks but is also light-hearted and fun when other games would rather wallop you with the direness of impending doom. In fact, I plan to keep it on my hard drive for just that reason.
That's it for this edition, folks! As we say goodbye to Millenium City, we cast our eyes to post-apocalyptic U.S. with GamersFirst's Fallen Earth. If you have suggestions for what game you’d like to see me visit next, leave them in the comments below! See you in the wasteland!
Christopher Coke / Christopher Coke is a columnist at MMORPG.com, and a regular reviewer/staff writer at Hooked Gamers and Vagary.TV and a blogger at Game By Night. He began his MMO career with MUDs back in 1999 and has never looked back. Follow him on Twitter at @gamebynight.