Champions Online is Cryptic Studios' sophomore effort on the MMOG scene, and is the first AAA superhero MMOG to appear since the company birthed City of Heroes over five years ago. Times were different then, Cryptic Studios was a small company, and World of Warcraft hadn't even made its splash on the genre yet. With that said, have all the years and experience behind the company paid off in the form of a true next-generation superhero MMOG? Or do we have something truly villainous on our hands?
To start, Champions Online offers a robust character creator filled to the brim with options. Like City of Heroes before it, the creator could be considered a game in and of itself. I can't tell you how many times I've stopped what I was doing on one character and gone back to the creator to test out a new idea, or to try and see if the creator would let me create a pre-existing character I was thinking of. Just about every time, the game allowed for it, which is a testament to how excellent the character creator truly is. Of course, this flexibility is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you just never know what crazy creative creation you'll see next. On the other, I can't count how many Iron Man, Superman, or even Battletoad clones I've seen.
Customization doesn't end at the character creator in Champions Online, either. Champions Online uses an almost entirely free-form system of picking one's powers and developing their character. I say almost because the progression still retains a small bit of structure with the way powers are tiered. Generally speaking, you'll be able to access higher tier powers within a power framework faster the more power points you've invested in it early on. Once you've chosen about eight powers in total, however, the system kind of goes completely open and you can choose anything from any framework. This occurs at around the mid twenties, which is a good thing because many frameworks don't really offer enough powers to solely specialize in for a full 1-40 progression. Well, outside of Sorcery. Advantage points further improve customization by increasing damage or adding additional effects to powers.
Unfortunately, like the character creator, the flexibility this system provides is also a double edged sword. Anyone who was in the earlier stages of the City of Heroes beta will recall that game functioned this way originally, allowing players to choose powers from wherever they wanted. But as Cryptic Studios realized even then, this allowed players to both easily gimp themselves or for the min-maxers out there, easily create tankmages. That problem is still present here, but unlike City of Heroes, Champions Online is far less forgiving. There is no Respec Trial to do; instead, you have to spend increasing amounts of resources (money) to respec each choice one by one, which up to this point has not been a practical endeavor. Recently patched changes to the economy may well serve to alleviate this issue, but the jury is still out on those changes.
On the flip side, if your character is up to snuff, combat in Champions Online is truly a blast, and this may be one of the most redeeming aspects of the game. All issues aside, the moment to moment gameplay in Champions Online can really be quite fun, at least when the developers aren't tweaking wildly with the balance of the game. As I examined in my first impressions, the launch day patch, and some subsequent balance changes have impacted the level of fun the gameplay provides, but the beauty of it all still manages to shine through for me.
The combat is also far more active than most MMOGs, as, for example, players can fight on the move. Another aspect of combat that requires a bit more attention is the "shtick" system and blocking. Many enemies will perform a kind of "tell" when they're preparing for a heavy hitting attack. When an enemy performs a tell, it's a good time to block. Blocking reduces the damage of incoming attacks and also restores energy based on the amount of damage blocked. There are even numerous special block powers that have their own little nuances, such as Ebon Void which when customized with the appropriate advantage, will absorb increasing amounts of damage the longer you receive damage while blocking with it. You can also weaponize the environment in Champs, with the ability to lift anything from toilets to F-16s to clobber your enemy with, or even throw. A power called Telekinesis also allows you to lift and throw objects with your mind. This aspect of the game is easily worth mentioning as it can be a real treat fighting entirely with weaponized objects. When you see a guy merrily flying through the sky carrying a semi truck, you'll know this isn't your grandma's MMOG.
Balance, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. The game's balance is simply a mess. Many powers are vastly overpowered, and many are entirely underpowered, all with balance changes happening at a feverish pace. The game definitely has a "still in beta" feel when it comes to the power balance and the rapid changes that have been made and continue to be made on that front in the few weeks since the game's launch. This problem is as pronounced in both PvE and PvP, just in different ways.