After adventuring through a few high fantasy RPGs for MMO Reroll, I felt like it was time to take a break from dwarves and trolls and try something different. I wasn’t really feeling a space vibe, so Star Wars The Old Republic and Eve Online were off the table, at least for this month. I just watched Avengers: End Game again over the holidays and that put me into a superhero mood. I’ve never played DC Universe Online and I still don’t feel like playing that, so the easy choice was gone.
My two favorite superhero MMOs have already fought their last villain, so another run through City of Heroes or Marvel Heroes wasn’t possible. That leaves, um...well, I guess Champions Online? I couldn’t think of any others at the time, so what the hell, why not jump back into a game I barely made it through the first few levels my first go around?
Developed by Cryptic Studios and released on September 1, 2009, Champions Online is currently the longest running superhero MMO. Somewhere along the line it went free to play and dropped all of its subscriptions except the $249 Lifetime sub. Although I was interested in CO when it launched, I was busy with other games at the time. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I finally gave it a try. I don’t recall much about the week or two I spent with CO. About all I remember is that even though it was okay, it didn’t really do much to hold my attention.
Creating My Very Own Superhero
A superhero’s costume is almost as important as their powers. On that front, Champions Online’s character creator provides an almost overwhelming number of choices. Each costume is broken down into head, torso, arm, and legs. Among these main categories are 31 individual pieces to customize, with everything from animals to cybernetics to alien designs to mix and match as you see fit.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Once your base design is complete, each piece can be tailored to suit your character’s theme. Depending on the costume piece, primary and secondary colors, material type, pattern, and/or details can be adjusted. Then finish it all up by tweaking your physical appearance with a plethora of face and body sliders.
So many options, so little time
Just going through all the choices available took me over an hour. At that point I quickly slapped something together so I could get into the game. If I had spent the time needed to make all the minute adjustments available I would have been in the character creator for hours. And that’s using just the free costume pieces. For someone really into creating a unique (or copycat) costume for their character, there are costume packs for sale that could easily double the number of choices available.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Before you make your costume you have to choose your class, called archetypes in Champion Online speak. CO has 41 pre-built archetypes spread through its five roles (tank, melee, ranged, hybrid, and support). These archetypes cover the gamut of superhero powers, so if you’ve seen it in a comic book you’ll likely find an equivalent in Champions Online. Unfortunately, only 2 or 3 archetypes per role, for 12 in total, are available for free. The rest - the really good ones - must be purchased. For example, the Marksman is free while the Automaton has to be unlocked. I mean, who would pick playing Hawkeye over Iron Man? No one.
It’s not just that only 12 of the 41 archetypes are available for free. In any other game I’d be happy to choose from 12 classes. It’s that the quality, or at least the popularity, of the free archetypes doesn’t excite me. I really didn’t feel super about any of the choices and, with this being the first choice I had to make in Champions Online, I made it feeling disappointed.
Yes, I could have spent money immediately to unlock any of the archetypes that do appeal to me. No, I personally won’t do that in a free to play game. I would bet that many others aren't willing to do so either. You have to pull me in before you can have my money. I don’t want to get into the cash shop just yet, so let’s just leave it at that for now.
My First Steps
Now, after making my ho-hum choice of The Soldier, the aforementioned costume design process did raise my spirits back up a bit. Even the limited time - if you can call almost two hours limited - I spent creating my character helped build a connection to him. So I went into the tutorial mission feeling okay about what was to come.
Champions Online does a decent job of introducing you to your abilities. The tutorial was revamped a few years ago, and this version was much quicker and easier to follow. As a new recruit, you are asked to test a battle simulation of one of the city’s defining moments. So off you go into a shortened battle to fend off the Qularr invasion, followed by a mission to save Socrates, the Jarvis style AI aiding superheroes in MC, from a virus. While any veteran MMOer could skip this and do just fine, it is a good, quick refresher on all the controls you have in CO. It did remind me about the block mechanic, something that you will rely on heavily during combat, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.
Through the tutorial and a visit to the Powerhouse afterwards, I was introduced to my first couple of powers, chose a couple of upgrade abilities for those powers, and picked out my first travel ability. As you start gaining levels you are going to get the option to pick up more abilities. Once a new ability is chosen out in the field, it’s locked in. If it ends up being something you don’t like, you can always pay some in-game gold to respec your character. You might want to wait until you are back at the Powerhouse to do this though. You are free to try out any potential skills in the training rooms, and nothing is locked in until you exit the Powerhouse. It’s a great way to try out some new abilities without having to pay the cost if you end up not liking the powers later.
Taking The Fight To The Bad Guys
Overall, combat in Champions Online is fairly straightforward. Like every other tab target style game of the era, I moved from group to group, using my basic attack to build up energy to release a heavy single target shot or pray and spray with my submachine gun for a maintained area of effect attack. By the time I depleted my energy on my aoe attack, any grunts in range were downed, with a strong enemy or two left hurting.
Join up with a group for a superhero bash party
Stronger enemies come at you with their own power attacks. Unlike newer games, CO enemies don’t telegraph these attacks with a red zone to jump out of. Instead, they go all comic book on you and a POW starburst by their info bar and a powerup animation are all you get to prep for the attack. Without the red splotch on the ground to guide you, the block I mentioned earlier is often the only way to survive their blast with minimal damage.
The basic level up missions are rather boring and gave little experience for the time I spent doing them. You can set the difficulty level for more of a challenge. That just made them harder, not more fun. I found the Alert missions to be a better way to spend my time, and there are plenty of other activities to keep you occupied as you level up as well. All of the old content packs are now available for free and offer much better content than the vanilla quests in Millenium City.
As I progressed through the levels I was once again disappointed by my archetype choice. CO follows the tried and true recipe of handing out more abilities as you level, along with some points to use to choose from a list of upgrades. Although Champions Online puts all of these into a single menu, with available perks listed below the appropriate ability, it works just like any other MMOs skill tree.
This lack of choice is my problem. Each time I went to pick an ability or upgrade I was reminded that I was choosing skills for an archetype I didn’t really care about. Over and over again I was reminded of how little input I had into my superhero and how much I was playing through the game as someone else's creation.
My Eyes Hurt
The graphics of Champions Online haven’t held up to the test of time. Even with all graphics settings at maximum you are still bombarded with low polygon objects. The streets are fairly empty, and while flying around up high (or using whatever movement power you choose) I couldn’t get over how bland Millenium City looks. If you keep it closer to the ground things are a little better though.
Color palette - Brown on brown
As you start to engage in missions outside of Millenium City, things aren’t great but they are much better. The environments aren’t as blocky and there’s even a touch of color. I still had the same draw distance issue with a lot of textures popping in and out, so I still had to keep closer to the ground to stop my eyes from bleeding.
The classic comic book styling does minimize the polygon effect to some extent. I can’t say I expected better, though. Any game from a decade ago would share the same graphical aging that Champions Online has endured.
That bland feeling carries over into superpowers as well. They may not be as dull as the POW and BANG starbursts from the Batman and Robin TV series but the visual effects of my abilities aren’t anything to write home about. Lasers, electrical arcs, and other power types come off as lackluster and uninspired. And that’s assuming the attack visuals trigger at all. Many times the only visual acknowledgment from triggering one of my character’s powers were the damage numbers floating off his target.
Looking better on the down low
The same thing could be said for the audio. Sounds frequently don’t trigger when they should, and noises like footsteps will cut out and then restart several seconds later. And maybe I’ve been spoiled by the background music of modern superhero games and movies, but the music accompanying fights in Champions Online is so flat and repetitive I turned it off after only an hour or so of play time.
Building A Justice League
I could overlook pretty much every complaint that I have about this aging superhero game as long as Champions Online is still active. While I wouldn’t say that Millenium City is swarming with superheroes, there always seemed to be a healthy population out fighting crime. As soon as I hit level 10 and opened up Alerts - short, mini dungeon style missions that require a group to enter - I found that queue times were short. I was able to get into the action quickly, and everyone I came across doing so seemed friendly enough. Quiet, but friendly.
A quick search across the internet also turned up some CO activity. There was a little bit of activity on the Champions Online Reddit. That was backed up by the Steam Community page and the official Champions Online forums. To be honest, none of these were filled with a huge number of recent posts. None of them seemed completely dead either, and what they did have going on all seemed pretty positive. And like most games these days, there is an active Discord channel to stop by.
It gives me hope that if I decided to stick with Champions Online it would be worth the ride. Having people to group up with while doing boring content helps it speed by. It also helps prepare me for whatever group content is available if I hit level cap. Nothing frustrates me more than being unprepared for the end-game content than the lack of group combat as I level.
Can’t See The Forest For The Fees
I said I would get back to the cash shop, so let’s go ahead and address that now. Spending in a cash shop is a personal choice, and so far in MMO Reroll it’s been a non-issue for me. Until now. I’m not usually one to complain about cash shops. For those wanting to experience everything a free to play game has to offer putting up a little cash should be expected. Devs need to eat and all.
The biggest draw I see to play Champions Online for any length of time - other than a good community - is the flexibility to customize my character’s look and powers. If I was to get really deep into CO, I wouldn’t mind spending some cash to unlock some cool looking outfit pieces, or even an archetype or two at the right price. What really scares me is just how often and how much I would have to spend to get a character where I want it.
One purchase that caught my eye was the freeform character slot in the Zen store. 3000 Zen ($30) would unshackle me from the pre-built archetypes and open up a freeform character slot. I could up the ante and get 3 freeform slots for 6000 Zen. With just one of these slots I could create the character of my dreams, mixing abilities from all of the archetypes. This single purchase would go a long way in breaking down my biggest complaint about Champions Online.
If that was all I needed to pay, I’d be all for it. I’m just not sure I want to invest $30-$60 into a decade old game and still have so much more to buy to flesh a character out. Costume packs look to run in the $6-$10 range, and with the strong possibility I’d need several to get the look I want, things could get out of hand quickly. Then add in some bank slots, character slots, and all the other things I would want, and I’m eating bologna sandwiches for dinner every day.
I’m not saying the cash shop is bad. Most of the prices feel very reasonable. It’s just, for me personally, there’s too much to buy to make a game that’s getting ready to head into its teen years worth playing. Your mileage could vary.
My first try at Champions Online all those years ago didn’t go well. This time around I wasn’t engaged hard core in any other MMOs so it has done a little better. The cash shop just shuts it down for me though. If there were a couple of better archetypes available for free, something that I could actually sink my teeth into, I think CO could hold its own against other offerings. And I know for a fact that if one, just one, freeform character slot was available for free that I’d be willing to pump $30-$40 into the cash shop to add on the other stuff I would want to buy. As it stands, I just can’t justify the price I’d have to pay for a game that I would only casually play.
MMO Reroll Rankings
- Final Fantasy XIV - Square Enix still holds the crown out of this groups of MMOs. FFXIV is still the only game that gave me a good time as I leveled through the early areas and a strong community to keep me playing.
- Blade & Soul - The action combat of Blade & Soul gets even higher marks after the time spent in DAoC. I expected B&S to stay at the bottom of this list for a while but it only took a month to find a game that fared worse.
- Champions Online - I will admit that my time with Champions Online was better than I expected. The comic book art style helped ease the pain of the dated graphics, and the community I found in CO was only second to the giant playerbase of FFXIV. The potential for a friendly end game experience still isn’t enough for me to get past the investment in the cash shop I would have to make.
- Tera - The easy mode leveling has stripped Tera of its big ass monster identity. The fantastic action combat has been lost in the shuffle; hopefully it’s still around if you make it to the end game content. I never thought I would say this, but if i had to choose between the two, I would strongly recommend the larger player base of the console version to the extra dungeons the PC version has to offer.
- Dark Age of Camelot - Full of potential for anyone wanting the holy trinity of MMO classes, DAoC hasn’t aged well. Horribly slow and boring combat, an unrefined UI, and tedious questing could use an update. Dark Age of Camelot is better served being remembered through rose-colored glasses than being seen in motion on your computer screen. Maybe Camelot Unchained will be able to take what players back in 2001 liked about DAoC and give it the spit and polish it needs to be relevant in 2020, or whenever it finally releases.