I’m a big fan of MMOs. I played Star Wars Galaxies almost every day until Revenge of the Sith came out, and brought with it the Trials of Obi-Wan Expansion, which totally ruined the game with dumbed down controls and even more powerful bugs than before. After that, I started playing World of Warcraft, making first a Mage, then a Paladin, and finally a Death Knight. With Star Wars: The Old Republic and the newly announced World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, looming in the distance, I took it upon myself to try out one of the smaller MMOs on the market.
Cryptic Studio’s Champions Online, based on the pen-and-paper RPG, launched an open beta last week for those of us who had either pre-ordered the game or have a FilePlanet subscription. Not exactly “open” in every sense of the word, but at least it gives people an opportunity to try out the game before they lock into a monthly subscription. (And only for the low, low price of $49.95!)
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cryptic Studios, these are the people behind City of Heroes/Villains and the forthcoming Star Trek Online. They have the pedigree of a successful MMO crafter behind them, but does Champions Online have the hooks necessary to combat Blizzard’s juggernaut?
Champions Online did not burst onto the internet ready to take on all comers. Despite being in a closed beta since November ’08, Cryptic was apparently unprepared for the amount of people who were ready to try out the open beta. An apparent error with the distribution of files in the download client caused the patching process to be all kinds of crazy. People on the official forum reported patch sizes ranging from 512kb to 3mb, with the download process stopping and starting randomly.
Fortunately, Cryptic was quick to correct their mistake and one day after the official launch, Champions was good to go! Upon booting up the game, you’re taken into the character creation screen, where you’re given an almost dizzying amount of choice for the construction of your very own hero. You pick from your standard array of super-hero powers; i.e. fire, ice, psychic, bladed weapons, guns and the like. Once you’ve got that locked in, you can begin to change you champion’s physical appearance. The sliders in the game adjust everything from foot size to your forearms, and as amusing as it is to have a Hulk-sized hero with tiny feet and a gargantuan head, most of the players in the beta seemed to skip over this. With the huge amount of customization available in the costume department as well, it’s as if Cryptic went: “You thought City of Heroes had a lot of choice? Take a look at this, suckers!”
If you’re into this sort of thing, you can spend a lot of time forging a very unique hero. I saw a lot of cool examples in the beta (including a spot-on Master Chief), but I also saw some people who skipped over the process completely. I guess it stands as a testament to the ease of this process where you can go all out or just forget it entirely.
I fashioned myself a red-and-black Iron-Man suit of armor, christened myself “Deathpond” and picked the single-blade power set. With my hero ready for some action, I dropped my avatar into the tutorial level. The tutorial is set during an alien invasion of Champion City, and is meant to ease you into the game. In this aspect, it falls short of its goal. The mechanics of Champions is a heck of a lot more confusing than the setup in World of Warcraft; you don’t pick up the game play style intuitively, you have to learn how to play on your own.
I picked the active control style for Champions Online, which promised me that I would have a “High-Octane” combat experience. You can also pick the standard MMO-dance control scheme, but I didn’t really notice much of a difference, despite that fact that I was able to block some attacks. The active control style also lets you charge moves if you have enough momentum built up by holding down the corresponding keys, but this was not functioning during my play through.
I also found the user interface to be very cluttered. The quest log opened up right over my back pack, and I was at a complete loss as how to move the interface short of changing my resolution. The back pack isn’t that easy to decipher, either. I would have preferred to have some sort of manual to understand all the different stats being affected by items, and how they contribute to your character. Stuff like Strength and Constitution are easy to understand, but stats like Ego are a little harder to place. If this is your first MMO, prepare to spend a bit of time being a little bewildered as to what goes where.
Questing is a different story, fortunately. Your mini-map projects a green circle over the area of the quest, and once you’re there, the area is stocked with the enemies you need to kill, or the items you need to collect. No waiting around here, the quick spawn times guarantee you’ll be on your way in a jiffy. I did run into some quests that were just plain bugged, and had to move on without completing them. This is an old MMO problem, and it’s kind of disappointing to see it continue to plague the genre.
The art style for the game is fairly unique as well. It boasts a very defined cell-shaded style, which lends itself to the comic book setting of the game. While the player avatars fit this style nicely, it doesn’t translate well to the environments. Champion City seemed kind of bland in comparison to the colourful characters running around in it.
Alas, Champions Online did not grab me in a meaningful way during my time in the beta. For an MMO, Cryptic didn’t place a lot of emphasis on working with other players; I happened to be playing along with a friend of mine, and even for quests that ostensibly needed upwards of four people to complete we were able to slog through by whittling the boss down as much as we could, then re-spawning at the beginning of the instance and picking up right where we left off.
Champions seems to lack the two most important aspects of a successful MMO: a compelling end-game experience and the ability to see your character become noticeably more powerful through meaningful loot. The max level cap is forty, and according to scuttlebutt on the forums, there is no end-game content planned as of yet. With the lack of image-altering loot, your character is always going to look cool, and a costume change is easily facilitated by the ridiculous amount of money you pick up through quests.
Unfortunetly for Cryptic Studios, Champions Online probably won’t make the splash in the MMO scene they were hoping for. Maybe this will change in the full product, but with the open beta coming three weeks before the full release (and the final build has gone gold), I think this is a case of the developer running out of time to deliver a polished experience.