Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Champions Online: Impressions

This past Halloween weekend Cryptic decided to offer Champions Online for free for a couple days. Promotional weekends are increasingly common in MMOs, but generally they're structured as a "welcome back" for old subscribers, and they're offered for older games. But Champions Online is a brand new title, so having the opportunity to try out a fresh new game for free was quite a treat.

In my lapse of blogging I completely skipped over the time period where I transferred off of Tabula Rasa and on to City of Heroes. I'll need to recap my feelings about that game at some point, but fundamentally all you need to know is that Champions Online is the successor to City of Heroes. Same dev team, save concept, better tech. As a developer this is an odd move, since common wisdom says that you should be looking to acquire subscribers and hold on to them. Starting over with a new title means you're going to be competing with your own product. This is why Ultima Online's sequel got preemptively canned back in the day. It's the same reason there's still people playing both Counter Strike and Counter Strike: Source. But I guess the MMO publishers are finding that players maybe aren't as faithful to one title as early behavior indicated.

As a player I like this quite a bit. The MMO genre has to evolve, and it's really hard to do that with an existing product with an already invested player base. Any major change will piss them off. The easiest way to innovate is with a fresh new title. Of course these games represent a huge development investment, so it's not sustainable for this to be the only source of progress. But I think a clean slate is necessary from time to time.

In the case of Champions Online, I definitely got the impression that this was a clear upgrade from City of Heroes. It's unmistakably the same feel, but care has been taken to smooth out a lot of the rough edges. That's not to say there aren't some issues with it, but in general I like what they've done. So to recap my impressions I'm going to list off my likes, dislikes, and "meh"s from the weekend. Keep in mind that I only had a day or two to fool around with the game, so these are truly initial impressions and may contain blatant inaccuracies.

Like: Character customization
Given the lineage this is no surprise, but it's even better here thanks to more abnormal combinations. Plus this time around you can make minor modifications to how your powers look. Want a half-robot half-wolfman wreathed in green flames? You got it. The buildings blocks are there to make a spectacular variety of heroes, and due to that I enjoy checking out other players at least as much as actually playing the game. It's fascinating to see what people come up with the tools they're given. You can see my creations here.

Like: Name uniqueness
With every MMO I run into a brick wall at the end of character creation when I have to come up with a unique name. With Champions they've skirted the whole issue by saying it's not the end of the world if there are two characters with the same name. Instead you have a handle to resolve name collisions, but that handle doesn't display over your character and spoil your design.

Like: One versus many
Most MMOs balance you as being more powerful than one opponent, but generally stressed to your limits with too many more than that. In Champions you are a superhero, and as a result you are able to take down multiple foes at the same time. In no way will you be bested by a cluster of boars, unless those boars happen to be super villains (I haven't personally seen any boars in the game, but knowing MMO tradition I can only assume they'll pop up somewhere). Having combat that isn't just one on one all the time really keeps things more interesting, with more potential focus on area of effect attacks and crowd control.

Like: Difficulty scales to party size
Both Tabula Rasa and City of Heroes also had this feature. There is a downside in that instances can never be as finely tuned as your general WoW 5-man affairs. But there's a distinct upside in that you don't have to actually get together an exact number of people in order to play in a group.

Like: Integrated mission tracking
LotRO recently added this feature as well, and there's rumblings of WoW doing it in the future (yielding to the extreme popularity of QuestHelper). Thankfully it looks like the entire MMO genre will evolve beyond reading obscure quest text and trying to figure out how that relates to your map. I certainly don't miss the days of either cheating with thottbot or wasting time aimlessly wandering.

Like: Light death penalty
If you die, you immediately revive at the closest spawn point. You get penalized one Hero Point, which will temporarily reduce your effectiveness. But your Hero Point comes back through combat, so you're not stuck with a fixed period debuff. In no time you're back in the action, with the only real damage being done to your pride.

Like: Travel powers
Getting around in Champions is fast, fun, and thematic. You can fly, you can jump, you can tunnel - whatever fits your character theme. And best of all, you get your travel power immediately after completing the (skippable) tutorial.

Like: Charge/sustain attack powers
Some of the powers in Champions can do more damage depending on how long you hold the button. The mechanics are simple, but they give a little more depth to what is otherwise mundane MMO combat.

Like: Not as heavily instanced as City of Heroes
This isn't really something to like the game for; it's more something to not dislike it for. In City of Heroes every mission involved going into an instanced area. Every. Single. One. Champions ditches this for a more standard split of partially open world and partially private instanced content.

Like: Achievements
I didn't get to dig into it, but I did notice that the game offers achievement-like rewards. As I've already mentioned, I'm a fan.

Like: Separate world resolution from UI resolution
Want really crisp UI but your video card can't quite handle that resolution for the whole game world? Normally you're screwed. But in Champions they let you have your UI at a higher resolution than the game world, giving you readable text but with reasonable performance.

Meh: Open missions
This is my first time trying out the feature that Warhammer Online made famous, and I wasn't very impressed. The idea of informally sharing a quest with other people seems cool, but I never encountered one that had clear goals and rewards. Maybe there are better ones deeper into the game.

Meh: Itemization
Mission rewards give you a large selection of reward choices that have dizzyingly similar starts on them. I realize that part of the problem is that I don't yet understand the meaning of all those stats, but I think it really stems from having too many attributes. It's good that these items don't actually change the look of your costume (which you carefully crafted), but that does mean that the only thing to get excited about with an item drop is a miniscule increase in effectiveness. I think I prefer City of Heroes' system of power modifications, where you choose what individual attributes to improve for each power like damage or casting time.

Meh: Theme
Don't get me wrong, I like superheroes and supervillains. But the whole defending Metropolis thing doesn't really do it for me. Helping out the local police force, freeing civilians from fallen rubble… yawn. These don't carry enough escapism for my video game criteria. Champions doesn't seem to have it as bad as City of Heroes, where you're fighting petty crooks the whole time. Once I was out of the tutorial area they at least started to mix it up with irradiated mutants and ice demons, but I still didn't really feel connected to the modern semi-realistic theme. I don't know why I can endlessly smash orc skulls in some fantasy based MMO, yet I have to talk to one policeman in Champions and it's a total turn off. For games with this level of time commitment, you really want the world to draw you in.

Dislike: Funky use/talk targeting
There's a "use" button in the game, which is overloaded to cover both talking to people and picking stuff up with super strength. The end result is that when you're trying to talk to some NPC you instead might end up ripping up a light post. You can instead click to talk to a NPC, but it requires more fiddling than you'd expect.

Dislike: Weak feeling melee
I tried out a couple different power sets, and universally I liked my ranged characters more than my melee ones. The animations looked flashy enough, but it just didn't match up with the damage I was seeing. It's pretty standard for MMO combat to feel disconnected, so you think I'd be used to it. But it's really disappointing to carefully craft an awesome blade swirling character to then try them out in game and have it feel totally weak.

Dislike: Where's the Xbox version?
When I first tried Champions it was the PAX after last, and I played it with an Xbox controller. It's clear playing the game now that some things were done a certain way to be more console friendly (like the funky talk targeting). But where's the news of the Xbox port? So many games have claimed they were going to bring the MMO to the living room, but no one's delivered yet. What gives? When will I be able to waste away my life from the comfort of my couch?

I enjoyed my weekend of Champions. Am I going to pick up a subscription? Probably, but not yet. I've got too many things in my queue right now. But I do definitely want to come back and spend more time with this one a bit down the road. Feeling ownership over a character is key to enjoying this class of game, and Champions really excels at that.

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