Friday, June 12, 2009

Champions Online: Beta Impressions

Champions Online is an upcoming superhero MMO developed by Cryptic, the same company that originally designed City of Heroes, and has since split off from the CoH team (now part of the game's publisher, NCSoft). So it's no surprise that the game looks and feels like a sequel to City of Heroes. Essentially, it is. But it also used to be a Marvel MMO before the House of Ideas pulled out and left Cryptic with a half-finished game and no license. They picked up the rights to the Champions tabletop RPG universe to replace Spidey and friends.

I was granted access to the beta by pure luck, so I have no special treatment as press. They didn't give me a free account so I could write about their game. In fact, if not for this implied consent (still no further response as of 6/12/09), I'd be bound by an NDA to not even reveal I am in the beta, let alone provide my impressions. As it stands, I am only allowed to talk about what the press has seen: the character creator, the tutorial levels, and bit of content beyond. I'm not allowed to talk about the promised features from the later levels, such as the Millenium City zone or the Nemesis system (which lets you design a personalized nemesis NPC for your hero to fight throughout your career).

As you'd expect from a CoH sequel, the character creator is a cut above the rest. It's not even yet fully implemented, and still it blows everything else currently available out of the water. You can choose from an overwhelming number of sliders to change the size of everything on your character's body, from hand-width to brow-depth. There are an unbelievable number of options for every body part. It builds on the CoH creator by adding even more options, including the highly-requested capes, trench coats, and wings (right from the start!) and convenience by allowing you to choose "key" colors at the start and remembering which colors you have previously chosen, making the entire process of color-coordinating more user friendly.

The coolest addition to the character creator is the use of "stances", which change your hero's posture and demeanor, and each come with their own full suite of separate animation sets. For example, you can choose "heroic" to have your character walk around with his chest puffed out, legs spread, and hands in fists. Or you can go for a more casual look, or choose "bestial" to have your hero run around on all fours.

Once your look is to your liking, you get to move on and choose powers. These are also unfinished at time of writing, with the promised "custom" templates not yet available, and the power descriptions confusing and incomplete. What is there looks very promising, however. There are nearly 2 dozen power sets, ranging from Telepathy to Dual Blades to an Iron-man style Power Suit.

There are no classes in CO. Instead, you select whichever powers you think fit your character. The power sets are arranged into tiers, with the more powerful abilities at the top. You can stay in one tree and climb the tiers faster, but you can also climb the tiers, albeit more slowly, by taking powers from other trees. It's entirely possible to make a force-fielded character who breaths fire and swings a giant sword, if that's the kind of thing you want. You are left with the choice of either specializing to reach that tier faster, or picking from a broad range of powers to be versatile, but get your uber-moves more slowly. This could turn out to be a beauty or a disaster, depending on the balance, but it looks like a great idea on the surface.

Every hero starts out as a simple damage-dealer, which at first glance seems like a poor recipe for MMO teamwork. This is where another nice innovation comes in: dual spec (well, multi-spec) is essentially built-in. As you level, you naturally gain the ability to change your role amongst offensive, defensive, balanced, and support with the click of a button. So if you join a group that needs a tank, you just pop into defensive mode and tank it. There are no simple "healers", and no power set that focuses on healing or defense the way CoH's Empathy tree did. Instead, each power set has a few support abilities, such as group buffs, minor heals, or force-fields. Any player can pick up a few of these while leveling up, and play a support role in any group that needs it. It remains to be seen how this will hold up in the long run, as I didn't really get to test it.

The other thing you do before creating a character is pick a type for your character, such as "the professor" or "the intimidator". These allow you to select which stats your character is strong in, and thus which you should focus on. To make a simplified analogy: in WoW, a rogue wants Agility and Attack Power, while a DK wants Strength and Critical Strike Rating. The stats you want in WoWare determined by your class/spec. In CO, you can choose to focus on Dexterity and Constitution if you want, or Ego and Strength, or any combination, regardless of what type of character you play. You can use the brute-force "Might" powerset but choose to focus on the Intelligence stat, if you want. This is very confusing at first blush, though I suspect that they simply haven't yet integrated the final explanation into the game yet. CO also does a neat twist on each stat in that they all provide some secondary benefit, like making you harder to put in CC or increasing your potential knockback. This adds a nice extra dimension to picking which stats to focus on, and keeps non-focused stats from being useless.

As you level, you'll alternate between stat boosts, new powers, and Advantages. Advantage Points can be invested in any powers to augment them in much the same way a glyph in WoW or an enhancement in CoH would. For instance, you can use 2 Advantage Points to increase your main nuke by a rank, upping its damage and effects. Or you could spend one point to give it a 10% chance to return endurance on use, and the other point to slightly increase your flight speed. This ends up working a lot like talent points, as a way to customize your character toward your playstyle. You can sink your Advantage points into offensive, defensive, or support powers to make yourself better at your preferred role, or take a more balanced approach.

After finally completing your character (honestly, my beta sessions tended to involve more time in the character creator than out, and I never even noticed the time passing), you're dropped into a tutorial zone. Insectoid aliens have invaded a small section of Millenium City, and there has been a forcefield conveniently erected around the area to contain them (another concept taken directly from CoH).

Visually, the game uses a cell-shaded comic book style (which you can turn off in the options menu if you don't like it). It can be a little blocky or plain at times, but overall it's up to par with what you would expect in this day and age. The animations are where the game really shines. They all look great and have a ton of personality. I was especially impressed with the martial arts and sword animations, which are far from the boring swings you see in WoW. Instead, each strike is lightning-fast and dynamic, with your character leaping, twisting, and spinning. The powers are visually exciting and look quite cool. Though the art style itself is plain, the animations have so much personality that they help the game stand out, just as Blizzard's unique art style helped make WoW a success. And in a praiseworthy move, you can customize the color of every single ability, as well as it's emanation point. For instance, I can shoot a laser beam from my eyes, chest, palms, or fists, and that beam can be any color of the rainbow.

Cryptic has said that they aim for a more action-oriented approach to MMOs with CO. The entire game can be played on a control pad, and an eventual Xbox 360 port is expected.

The game controls much like CoH or WoW before it. I found the transition between my daily WoW playing and this new environment to be very smooth.

Combat is simultaneous simpler and more interesting than CoH or WoW. Since the game is meant to be played on a control pad, your action bar and hotkeys are limited to just 9 abilities. CO's heroes don't have mana bars. Instead, they all have an "endurance" bar that starts out empty. Every powerset starts with a low-damage auto attack called an "endurance builder". Using this ability fills up your end bar, which you can then spend on other, more powerful abilities. It reminded me a lot of playing a Death Knight, where you use abilities to build up runic power for other moves.

Many of moves that use end are chargeable, meaning you can decide, by holding down the button, how much damage you want it to do and how much end you want to spend. For instance, my energy character could fire off a quick force blast for 20 damage and 10 end, or he could charge it up for 3 seconds and deal 55 damage for 20 end and have a better chance at a knockback. This system also works for holds, as I found I could encase my foes in a force field for a longer time if I held down the button first. This adds a fun little tactical element to what would otherwise be button-mashing.

A system like this has some nice balancing mechanisms baked-in. You prevent the Paladin alpha-strike syndrome that plagues WoW pvp at the moment (just like rogues must build combo points, or DKs RP and set up their diseases, before unleashing their strongest attacks). It also helps reduce downtime, since you don't need to drink to refill mana. Health regeneration is also streamlined, requiring only that you stand still out of combat for a few seconds to wait for your health bar to refill. Don't even need to purchase or click on food.

Combat is further enlivened by a natural "block" ability bound to the Shift key. You can use it to strategically reduce damage of incoming attacks. It adds a nice action-gamey element to the combat, and raises the skill cap considerably. It's especially helpful when you see a stronger foe have a Batman-style bubble appear over their head with the word "POW" or some such in it, signifying that they are about to unleash a big attack (another aspect that adds depth and tactical interest to the combat).

I can't help but think the combat system took a few pages from the excellent Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (if you haven't played it, download both episodes NOW!), which made extensive use of blocking and mini-game-based attacks to liven up the tired old Final Fantasy-style JRPG turn-based combat.

I've only just started, and I already can say that I think I prefer this combat style to that of WoW. Cryptic has obviously taken as many lessons as they can from WoW and built upon them.

And though that's a great strength of what I've seen so far, it's also where the game gets derivative.

From the very start, you are taking "missions" from NPCs with yellow "!" over their heads. The questing is fun enough, but still mostly of the "defeat 10 aliens" or "collect 5 first aid kits" variety. You pick up gear from quests and from random drops that you can equip for stats. Enemies still stand off in small groups waiting for you to come beat them up. It plays like a super-streamlined version of WoW with superheroes.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. CO's greatest leap may be the level to which they've borrowed ideas from other MMOs and combined and streamlined them. Beyond quests and gear from WoW, you'll see public quests in the WAR style, and your quest objectives will automatically be marked on your minimap with big orange circles signifying the area you need to be in to do the quest (I think this came from WAR as well?). All of this is done automatically, and much of the complication is taken out. You have only a few gear slots (3 primary, 6 secondary), and each piece of gear only has few stats. You have relatively few powers. You get your travel power as soon as you complete the tutorial, at level 6 (HURRAH!!!!). The death penalty is as minor as WoW's (begone, XP debt from CoH!). And yet, those parts of the game are still no less fun, and in fact you can get to the fun more easily because there are fewer impediments in your way.

Welcome to the enlightened next generation of MMOs, where the failed Everquest "vision" of tedious, unrewarding grinding in an unforgiving environment is thrown away, and only the fun kernel in the center is left. I, for one, am a fan so far.


Champions Online is both a sequel to City of Heroes, and a complete reinvention. It's not yoked to the name or the expectations of the CoH fanbase, and thus is free to make choices and take the game in a new direction, while also finally providing many of the fan-favorite improvements that CoH still hasn't seen.

If we were to sketch a rough history of MMOs, starting from MuDs, we'd see a few generations. To oversimplify, Gen 1 was Ultima Online, Gen 2 was Everquest and its ilk (I'd include CoH in this generation, and possibly one of the last of its generation), Gen 3 was WoW, WAR, and others, and CO (as well as KOTOR, Free Realms, and others) constitute the new Gen 4. Each generation took the lessons from the previous ones, integrated their best ideas as a base, and then shed things that weren't working and built something new.

But it's difficult to call CO "something new". In my limited experience with the beta, I encountered countless game mechanics and features that were clearly ripped wholesale from other games. But this may actually be a good thing, because they were all good ideas. Isn't it better to combine them all in one place, instead of leaving some out because they aren't "original"?

The thing that really heartens me about the CO beta is seeing that even though many of the ideas are borrowed, they are all well-executed and pleasantly streamlined. And isn't that a lot of what WoW did? Just steal EQ while making it more fun, and doing everything well and with a big coat of polish?

The beta is making me even more excited for the game, and I can't wait to see what it looks like when it releases in September. Hopefully the new release date gives the team plenty of time to up the presentation and make the systems more understandable. It has the potential to be a great MMO, but there are still a lot of places where things could go wrong.

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