Champions Online Review (PC)

As we delve into discussion of Cryptic Studios latest superheroic creation, it's worth offering up the disclaimer that any MMO “review” can never really be complete. The following text is a set of impressions up to and including the 9th of September, but the coming months in a crucial first year will really shape Champions Online into a long-term success or failure.

Statute of limitations aside, how has Champions taken shape in its post-launch trauma period? The short answer is about as well as you'd imagine. Originating as it does from a development team well-versed in making the most out of superhero and role-playing material, there is naturally a lot of content to like here. Whilst not every aspect is as well-polished as you'd anticipate, it's a positive enough start to bode well for the future and offers up just enough entertainment to see you through to the level cap in the interim.

Ice surfing is one of the many unlockable transport.
The colourful cell shading works well on modest rigs.

As an introduction to any MMO experience—and as easy as it is to single out character creation as an incredibly important facet of any role-playing game—Champions Online hits the ground running with an incredibly diverse creation tool built on the solid foundations of City of Heroes ground-breaking editor. More to the point, it hits the ground, bursts into flames, ice-surfs to the top of the nearest building and takes off in a cloud of rocket smoke.

The wealth of choice on offer is absolutely staggering. Even by the standards of previous titles, Champions' suite of creative tools will easily swallow up hours as you roll and re-roll each design to your specific tailoring. As a knock-on effect, it's also worth noting that each of the main five questing zones are currently inhabited by an incredible variety of player-crafted monstrosities; some excellent, some plagiaristic, and some absolute genius. World of Warcraft and almost every other MMO seem a little too limited in the cozy afterglow, but unfortunately this schizophrenic spark of design may well have seeped a little too far into other areas.

Classes, skill attributes, stats and other hallmarks of character progression are notably under-explained over the crucial early levels, and although it's quite possible to alter things radically to your taste as you progress, Champions' RPG elements could really have done with a little more structure and focus. Whilst the melting pot of freely-assignable skills comes to life with experimentation (and offers the key to long-term replayability), you get the feeling that many players may well work themselves into a corner with unsustainable character builds – and with little in-game assistance available outside of the complex help files, it's down to external forum posts to provide most of the relevant answers.

Cryptic also seem intent on going against the grain in a number of other areas - perhaps with the impending Xbox 360 release partially in mind. It’s an approach that offers up both a significantly fresh viewpoint but also inevitably leads an already fairly chaotic mix further into some shaky territory.

Chapter locations show off a unique style.
The character editor can give rise to some enticing prospects.

Combat is perhaps the most approachably tweaked aspect of design, based around a welcome mix of action-rpg controls set amidst the traditional trappings of skill bars, attacks, buffs and debuffs unlocked every few levels. Offensive skills centre around the concept of power - accumulated with a bog-standard auto-activating attack - unleashed with a range of speciality strikes amassed through level grinding, character choices and questing.

In addition to this fairly pleasingly interactive mix of damage-dealing abilities, you’ll also have the opportunity to block incoming strikes, lending the action a gentle to-and-fro rhythm that sets it apart from the crowd. It isn’t the type of mechanic that’ll rewrite history for the genre—and it is still hard to see it working on a console pad—but Champions’ combat never grates or feels unnecessarily convoluted, straddling middle ground confidently and never aspiring to achieve too much.

The zoning however, is perhaps a little less successful. Based around small instances, Champions doesn’t offer up a whole lot of variety, with only five fully-fledged areas to explore once two short interactive story tutorials are worked through. Design stereotypes are present and correct, with check boxes ticked for snowy wastelands, arid deserts, futuristic cities, underwater playgrounds and dense jungle. Not that any of those settings are evil in concept, but little stands out in terms of atmosphere or architecture as you tour the lands, with the drab and almost completely uninspired snows of Canada being a particular low.

As it doesn’t offer much of a departure, the questing system is perhaps the most straight-laced and formulaic of Champions’ feature-set, with fairly predictable tasks delivered through a front-loaded storyline that trails into drip-fed action once the world fully opens. Public quests offer the potential to join up with a random group of strangers in instanced areas throughout each location, but the initial promise that these bring to the table soon ends when they prove to be vaguely-defined and prone to lag.

Speaking of which, technical performance can also be a little suspect. The fairly attractive graphical engine regularly grinds into single digits when it really shouldn’t do, with some pretty serious network issues compounding the effect in crowded areas. For clarity, tests were conducted on two different machines in two different locations on two different connections, but the results were the same. These are the sort of teething issues we’d expect to see patched out eventually, but are definitely worth being aware of during this initial run.

Energy weapons are prominent throughout.
Fiery Flight is different from regular flight in precisely the way you'd imagine.

A shaky start then. But even with these shortcomings, Cryptic has managed to dial up the charm to such an extent that they almost all pale into insignificance. The enthusiastic spirit, creative opportunity and colourful cast of characters gel fairly quickly to form a package with plenty of potential and more than enough content to last the journey.

With the customary spit and polish the engine will receive over the next year, Champions Online certainly has the potential to turn into the best superhero MMO out there. For now, that mantle still belongs to City of Heroes, but having played both games throughout beta and release, this is certainly a more daring title in the initial stages. Let’s hope the path to Millenium City prosperity is proven to be smooth.

Top game moment: Creating the world’s first cyborg-winged-zombie midget gadgeteer



By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Sep 11, 2009
Excellent review. "The fairly attractive graphical engine...", yes that got me. I thought it looked rubbish, but so far has seemed to sell well based on pre-orders. Time will tell, as with all MMO's.