Champions Online shatters the tyranny of the class system with the comprehensive customization system of any MMO.
A new champion, or another pretender to the throne?
We want to tell you that Champions Online is a vast improvement over the version that frustrated so many at last year’s Leipzig GDC. It would be wonderful to say that this is one MMO that delivers on every promise to reinvent the genre, open it up to the world, and present a compelling alternative to World Of War craft. As critics, we wait patiently for games with the capacity to truly shake things up. But while our hands-on demonstration with Champions Online certainly had its moments, we didn’t leave feeling like we’d witnessed a new dawn.
With our nagging sense of doubt firmly out in the open, it’s useful to point out that Cryptic has loaded the first moments of Champions Online with its most Interesting feature:
character customization. There are many factors that keep the majority of garners from giving heart and soul to an MMO, but rigid class-systems are a major offender. When the majority of player avatars look exactly the same, it really deflates the sense of having labored to create a unique character. City Of Heroes went some way towards addressing this; Champions Online takes it to another level entirely.
Relentlessly tapping the ‘Randomize’ button in the character creator gives a useful impression of just what can be accomplished with the right amount of care, and the wealth of options we were presented with was staggering. When every game, from Fight Night to Saints Row 2, is offering microscopic control over the avatar it seems logical that MMOs should follow suit, but even so, the degree of customization at your fingertips is hugely impressive.
You can choose your origins from a list that includes Batman-style Intense Training, Extra-Dimensional Energies or Psionic Awakening. The framework of your abilities could be Darkness, Fire, Force or Gadgeteering, with each option granting a base set of powers, and a list of those you’ll be able to access as you make progress in the world. In both cases, we’ve cherry-picked from far grander lists, and that abundant choice is reflected throughout the creation tools.
Do you want to stand like a hero or a beast? How long should your arms be? Should your neck be wider than your head? Do you prefer hot pants and massive shoulder pads, or is a full-body tattoo enough of a costume for your own brand of vigilante justice? No matter what question we asked, Champions Online offered enough depth to provide a satisfying answer. We also saw an impressive array of movement techniques, from swinging to rocket-powered shoes, and from burrowing beneath the ground to streaking through the sky as a ball of pure energy. It’s entirely feasible that you could play for hundreds of hours without meeting anyone who looks or behaves remotely like you – it’s an area in which Champions Online genuinely excels. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the entire experience.
Our freshly minted superhero, Dr Gonzo, entered the city only to find it in the grip of an invasion by the Quarr, an insecticide alien race. The fact that Champions Online will be released on Xbox 360 has become a selling point, implying that experience will be better suited to console owners’ tastes. But while the interface has been significantly altered since we last saw it, the actual structure of play felt neither original nor especially satisfying.
Indeed, apart from the use of collecting orbs to gather bonuses from kills, there’s little to distinguish Champions Online from existing MMOs on a gameplay level. The fact that we were playing with a mouse and keyboard, rather than a pad, might have contributed, and our character’s inexperience prevented us from seeing anything but the most rudimentary abilities, but we can only assess what we saw.
The game has promise, but important questions must be asked about its achievement outside the creation toots. It might be counterintuitive, but in the contemporary MMO market ‘good enough’ is no longer good enough, and Champions Online needs to be as super as the heroes that walk its streets.