Thursday, August 20, 2009

Champions Online Beta Review: Should You Buy It?

Let me get this out of the way first:

I love Champions Online.

So now my job is no longer to tell you whether or not I like the game. My job is to tell you why I like it, and what it is about me that makes me the type of person who would love this game. Then you can compare yourself to me, and see if you might love it too.

Another thing to get out of the way first: I've spent a lot of time playing the game, but I have not proceeded past Millenium City, which is the level 12-20ish zone. I can't tell you anything first hand about the endgame or even the later leveling zones, the Nemesis system, or how heroes play once they've built up a lot of powers. Instead, between the closed and open beta, I rerolled a dozen different characters over the past few months, trying different powersets and both early zones, getting a strong feel for the character creator and the early levels.

What CO gets right:

Aesthetics: Sure, not everyone is going to love the the cel-shaded graphics with the thick black outlines, but there is an easily-located check-box in the video options that turns all that off. Then it just looks like a next-gen CoH. Not the visual revelation Aion is, but a leap ahead of WoW, and still pleasantly stylized.

But the real victory of the visuals is in the animations, the costumes, and the power effects. I can't tell you what you will think of them, but I can tell you to me, as a long-time comic-book and video game fan, they just feel right. The animations are dynamic, varied, and exciting. You really get the feel of being a powerful superhero. Superpowered punches distort the air around them with visible impact, while a sword-wielding ninja spins and flips while cutting down her enemies, and a sorcerer deployes magical circles and runes across the landscape to assist the gadgeteer's mechanical gun turret. The travel powers are really standout here, especially the spot-on rocket boots, ice-surfing, and fire flight. The costume options not only dwarf even CoX, but they show appropriate variety and even a sense of humor. You can make a hero with a cartoonish nuclear rocket strapped to his back and a "1/2" emblazoned on his chest, with tentacles for a mouth, furred cybernetic hands, mandibles emerging from his waist and boots that would be more at home in Gundam than Gotham.

The powers look good, and get bigger and flashier the more you level them up and acquire complementary powers. For instance, at level 1 your psi-blade looks a bit small and weak. Rank it up and it gets big and fiery. Pick up Ego Form and suddenly you're dual-wielding big, pulsing id- blades in a flurry of destruction.

And that's not even mentioning "power replacers" that you can pick up throughout the game to selectively modify your powers visually. The clearest example is one that changes the look of your hero's sword.

I'm someone who cares about aesthetics. Unlike a lot of other bloggers, I care what my mount or vanity pet or armor looks like, and what my character's animations are. One of the deciding factors originally for me to pick WoW over EQ was the more appealing (to me) visual style. If you are like me, and care a lot about how a game looks and feels, you won't be disappointed with CO.

Customizability: Not a lot can be said here that hasn't already been said. Character creation puts other games to shame. Powers can be recolored and have different emanation points. Powers, including weapons, can be visually replaced. The power system lets you pick and choose from any powerset at any time, with a loose tier system being the only thing keeping you from going completely nuts. There are tons of different powers to choose from. You can use any name you want, even if someone else already thought of it. You can even heavily customize the controls (even choosing between gamepad and mouse/keyboard!) and the graphics quite heavily.

Accessibility: You'd think, with all these options, the game would be hard to get into. It's not. There's all kinds of optional presets when creating a hero to help you jump in quickly, while still giving you access to the full power of the system. If you don't care to delve too far into the creator, you can be ready in a minute or two. The power set structures are easy to understand, and there to guide you, while still offering the "custom" option for advanced players who want to delve further. The game plays like others you are familiar with. It has the most lenient death penalty I have ever seen in any game. It marks your quest objectives on the map, simplifies your inventory, keeps your gear decisions limited and relatively simple, and slowly ramps up your powers and abilities. Yes, there are some partially-obscured game mechanics, but it comes nowhere close to most other MMOs, where you have to keep a guide open in another window just to figure out what your stats mean or where to go next. You get your travel power right after the tutorial and early leveling moves at a brisk pace.

CO is going to be very good for whatever chunk of time you have available, whether that be 20 minutes while the baby naps or 4 hours on a sunday afternoon alone. It's easy to pick up and play.

The thing that brings all these positives together into one package is a trick stolen from Blizzard (no surprise, given that one of the head designers is one of the early Blizzard guys): combining the best elements from other games. You're going to level up through a series of quests you get from people with yellow exclamation points over their heads. You're going to encounter WAR elements like public quests and having quest objectives labeled on your map. You're going to see statistics, and gear, and instanced group missions. In short, you are getting every feature you'd expect from a modern MMO. So really, the only questions you have to ask yourself are:

1) Do I like the way the game looks and feels?

2) Is the combat and character advancement system deep enough for me? Do I want something this accessible, or will I get bored when I'm not balancing 5 stats with my 40-talent-point build while skilling up my wand skill and juggling 15 pieces of gear?

3) Can I enjoy a "care bear" game with no world PvP or major consequences for death?

What CO gets wrong:
  • The powers system is mostly good, but it builds far too slowly. You spend the first 45 minutes or so with only 2 abilities, and then only 3 for another half-hour. At level 12 you still only have 4-5 combat abilities. In most MMOs, you'll have that many by level 4.
  • Lack of innovation in questing: this is a WoW-alike.
  • Controls are a little wonky, especially targeting. I often find myself accidentally mistargeting, and having to retrain myself for the fact that I have to either use an attack or hit tab, but if I do both I won't be on my desired target. It's also a hassle to ensure that your auto-attack stays active when you want it to. Interacting with objects requires a keypress (though sometimes I can right-click a quest giver, but I can't figure out why it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't), and if you are close to multiple interactive objects, you'll get a hard-to-navigate list of them to choose from. I can't count the number of times I meant to pick up a quest item and accidentally hefted a nearby truck instead. I think this will improve as I adjust, but it feels more detached and less responsive than, say, WoW.
  • Super Stats are poorly explained. They are actually very interesting, because the two super stats you select become the only stats that raise your damage. Essentially, you have complete freedom to choose which stats you want to chase, rather than, for instance, being a WoW warrior who has to gather strength and ignore intellect.
  • The stats system has another flaw: powers often scale with specific stats, and it's easy to put yourself in a situation where you favor, say, ego and strength, and find that one of your powers scales off of endurance, and thus will always be gimp.
  • PvE Balance: In closed beta, I would get decimated by groups with even two enemies in them. Every fight was a dangerous struggle, seemingly no matter what power combination I picked. Defensive powers helped, but the game didn't do enough to encourage me to pick them up even though I'd consider then almost mandatory (hint: the first power you get upon leaving the tutorial should be a defensive passive!). But even with them, the game was on the hard side. This is completely changed in open beta. I have to ass-pull three packs to even be in danger of dying, and have just mowed through even group quests as long as I have a defensive power active. The sweet spot is somewhere in between.

So far, replay value is mixed. The downside is that there is only one tutorial zone, so you are going to get sick of those first four levels very quickly. There are two early leveling zones, then Millenium City. The two zones are quite different from each other, but don't really offer any alternate branches for replaying, so it's a lot like the choice between the Barrens and Silverpine for the Horde. For most power combinations I tried, the first 10 levels were nearly identical. You start with 2 abilities: an weak auto-attack that builds Endurance, and a bigger attack that spends it. There is some token variation among these (some end-builders are ranged, some of the attacks can be charged up, or need to be held, etc), but the differences are minor. Upon completing the tutorial at level 5, you are gifted an orgasm of upgrades (you get no new powers during the tutorial, even though you "level up"), including a new fighting power, a travel power (what a blessing to get it this early!), a Super Stat, and a "talent" (stat boost, such as +8 Strength).

The upside on replayability is the flexibility of the character creator and the power system. Cryptic nailed the character creator. Prepare to hear raves about it in every review about the game. You can spend an hour in there, per character, and not even notice the time passing. There are enough options to make almost any humanoid you can imagine. I've seen everything from busty supergirls to robots to hulking Cthulu-lookalikes 5 times wider than the average man, to tiny people who only reach your knee, to hunched, slavering demons, to comically stretched-out beanpoles.

Combat is another mixed bag. It's a bit more action-oriented than other MMOs, and sports a much smaller pool of available abilities compared to competitors, though the block system and "roles" (similar to warrior stances) offer some extra depth. The low ability count is both a blessing and a curse: while easy to learn and pleasingly streamlined, it also has a tendency to get even more repetitive than WoW.

One thing I want to bring to the forefront concerning the beta is how quickly Cryptic makes changes and improvements to every aspect of the game. The open beta so many see today is almost unrecognizable as the closed beta I first launched 2 months ago - and even the closed beta I played 2 weeks ago - especially when it comes to interface and useability. So I'd recommend against being dismissive of the game because of minor issues. So many things I had been prepared to complain about were fixed in the open beta - and not only fixed, but brought up to exceed my expectations and surprise me. The early closed beta was a mess, but the open beta fixes almost every issue I had, and more. The costume creator makes more sense, the controls are easier to set up (the game gives you full control setup packages at the start, including one modeled almost exactly after WoW), the power tooltips are now actually informative. They must have been working hard over at Cryptic HQ to polish the game.

TL;DR version: Buy Champions Online if you:
  • Want to feel like a superhero
  • Care a lot about aesthetics. The game looks and feels great, and is full of visual customizability, aesthetic novelty, and vanity items.
  • Want to play a WoW-alike with less depth but more action
  • Would enjoy a further refinement of the WoW playstyle with even greater accessibility
  • Like soloing as much as you like grouping

Do not buy Champions Online if:

  • You think games that lack open-world PvP or "real consequences for failure" are for "carebears" (go play Darkfall instead, you'll like it!)
  • You don't really like superheroes
  • Strongly prefer slower and more complicated games that are a bit more work to figure out, like EQ, and dislike how accessible or action-oriented WoW is in comparison
  • You are really sick of questing
  • You don't care at all about aesthetics, or strongly dislike those of CO
  • Are only interested in group dungeon crawls and have no interest in soloing

Champions Online is currently in "open beta" (requiring preorder or, I believe, Fileplanet membership) and will be released on Tuesday, September 1.

UPDATE (8/31/09):

The comments gave me a few good ideas of things I'd like to add.

Champions contains a mechanism for microtransactions. This is supposed to encompass things like novelty and vanity items and additional character slots. None of the purchasables are implemented yet, as far as I can tell, and little information is known about the details.

If you won't buy the game simply because it has a mechanism for microtransactions, then I encourage you to stay away from Champions so I don't have to interact with you. WoW has microtransactions too, called, for instance, paid server transfers, so you better cancel that account too, kthxbai. Learn about the prices and what is on offer before you dismiss the game. You may find you have no interest in what is for sale, and also find the game quite complete and worthwhile without the microtransactions.

There are more than enough costume options and character slots (8) available for my needs, so it doesn't bother me. If the microtransactions were blocking heavy swaths of content, then I'd be pissed. Again, consider the details of the particular system rather than dismissing something out of hand as soon as the word "microtransaction" is mentioned.


For me, the carrot luring me through the levels is being able to get more powers to play with. If that doesn't sound exciting to you, then consider what it is that excites you about a new game before you buy Champions. Champions plays a lot like WoW. It is a questing game. You will kill ten rats, you will fedex, you will collect 15 monster teeth, you will click on 5 objects, and you will escort someone defenseless through packs of enemies. If you are tired of questing and are tired of WoW's gameplay, don't buy Champions. If you enjoy WoW's gameplay and just want a change of setting, aesthetic, and a fresh, streamlined look at the character-development systems, then give Champions a chance.

One big mistake it makes is that it starts slowly, and holds your hand through the tutorial (it assumes you've never played an MMO before). A lot of the more exciting stuff doesn't happen until the later levels, such as the Nemesis system and the meatier team missions. However, leveling is fast. The game appears to be much more focused on encouraging you to level multiple characters to try out all kinds of powers and costumes, and much less focused on getting one "main" to the endgame and grinding away. This makes me suspect that replay value is going to be kind of poor if you care a lot about content, because you'll end up leveling each character through the same zones over and over. Hopefully it won't come to that, but it is something to caution you about. Hopefully patches will expand the game laterally by adding more leveling content.

I very much enjoy Champions, but I cannot recommend it to everyone. The best way to make your buying decision is to gather as much information as you can about it, and see if those things appeal to you.


Pangoria Fallstar said...

Good review, I think other reasons people might not like it is the shards, since you can be in MC 1, and I can be in MC32.

Also, microtransactions, since some people refuse to play any game that has them in it.

I think that once they are stable after release they should allow people a trial of the game, what really can help someone decide if they like the game is the way combat works and how you move around the world. Both big positives for me in this game, but other people might have different ideas.

Ixobelle said...

i played it for a few hours, and was EXTREMELY underwhelmed.

The first quest (kill three rats) was a huge turn off. Yes, WoWs first quest was slay 4 boars, but I was kinda hoping wed moved forward from 50 years ago when WoW launched.

I didnt feel any *hook* to progress, so I put the game down and havent relaunched it. I actually even uninstalled it to make room on my games partition for the Aion prerelease I just bought, but am currently resizing that partition as I type this on my wifes netbook.

Ill give it another go, but I abhor suffering thru a boring beginning to see if it gets any better. The first five minutes of play should make me crap my pants, and it did the exact opposite.

Hatch said...

Ixo: It's definitely a slow starter (and I agree that's a mistake). It is a WoW-alike, so you aren't going to find much innovation. I'd almost view it as a well-executed WoW mod. But I'd view Aion the same way, a game which also opened with a "kill 3 rats" (and in this case, they were actual rat-men) quest, and didn't let up on the non-innovation.

Weren't you the one who said you'd like to see MMOs made as modules in a shared engine/platform so you didn't have to give up all the polished gameplay just to get a new setting or other additions?

For me the carrot is getting new powers. A lot of the fun is building a superhero and trying things out. The leveling is fast, so the game is really focused more on leveling multiple characters rather than getting one to max level and then focusing on "endgame".

I should probably add some of this to the review....

Baelgae said...

I like to play Champions Online, like the vivid story, beautiful game screen