Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Champions Online: Free For All – Review

I'm a fan of a lot of things that are associated with Champions Online, developed by Cryptic Studios and published by Atari. It is a superhero MMORPG, it is on Steam with a TON of achievements, it is based on a tabletop roleplaying system, and it uses the Free-to-play model. This isn't my first superhero MMO, as I played City of Villains when it launched as a companion game to City of Heroes. There are a lot of places an MMO, particularly a Free-to-play one, can stumble and falter, ruining the experience. Any MMO can suffer from tepid character creation options, unsatisfying or sparse content, server/lag issues, overly harsh penalties for death and/or forced interaction with a community that may consist mainly of unpleasant people. “Free” MMOs have additional potential pitfalls. Every Free-to-Play game has content available for purchase with real money, that's the business model. Entice, and have players willingly pay through microtransactions for additional content. Having too many features locked away behind a “paywall” can easily create a situation where a player feels like they were promised a game and given a demo. So, how does Champions Online Hold up under these critera?

Can Champions succeed where City of Heroes (arguably) failed?

Character creation in Champions is, in a word, amazing. Free, or Silver members start by choosing one of several “Archetypes,” which behave like character classes. Additional Archetypes are available for a small fee, and Gold Members (the monthly subscription option) can create a completely custom hero archetype. The sheer amount of cosmetic options for character customization at creation is mind-boggling, even without purchasing additional costume pieces with Atari Tokens. Head/face and body can be tweaked with custom sliders for control over precisely how the person in the costume looks, and when creating a character's costume, I've never seen another MMORPG with as many different custom bits. Tights, capes, insignias, horns and helmets, weapons and accessories, jetpacks and mystical artifacts can be added, re-colored and moved around. Some costume parts are unlockable through gameplay, others are free for Gold members or a small fee for Silver.

The content available in the game has the advantage of almost three years of updates and refinement based on subscriber feedback. Normal missions are fun, usually tied to a larger plot involving supervillains who will be encountered at the end of a quest chain, and suitable for either solo or group play. Combat is dynamic and representative of the genre after one or two powers past the starting basics are earned, with a single hero taking on groups of minions with a whole lot of flash. With only a few levels under your utility belt, the combat makes you feel like a hero. In addition to basic missions, there are daily instanced missions, public missions tied to specific areas of the world (like a prison breakout that needs to be stopped) and PvP Arenas in the “Hero Games.” Of particular note is the “Zombie Apocalypse” PvP match where heroes fight waves of zombies until killed, and then return as zombie versions of themselves and join the other side, gaining points on each side for survival time and kills. Some of those matches are as good or better than any PvP experience I've had in an MMO.

Android, Samurai, Wizard, Beast, Soldier... If you can imagine it, you can probably make it.
The usual MMORPG features of Auction House, Bank and Crafting Systems are present, with the ability to store, sell or disassemble the different power enhancement objects dropped by villains based on need. Power sets are tied to origin, chosen at the beginning of the game based on your preference for Mystical (gods/spirits, spells and magic items,) Science (cybernetics, altered/mutated DNA and radiation or chemicals,) or Arms (Training, weapons and gadgets.) None of these features is particularly revolutionary, and some of them seem included just to sastify the expectations of the genre, but they perform their role adequately. Guilds are present as well, predictably as Superhero Groups/Teams.

On the technical/mechanical side, characters are randomly assigned to an instanced version of the city, mission location or zone each time they change from area to area. This controls lag and server load without the need for multiple servers, and you can always tell which instance you are in if you need to meet up with friends to form a group. Game mechanics allow for increasing or decreasing combat difficulty and the corresponding rewards from defeated foes. This difficulty adjustment can be important, as there is a penalty for being defeated in combat, though it is not overly harsh. A hero respawns without need to run back to a corpse, but as a penalty, a “hero point” is lost, which reduces damage and healing done for each of the 5 points, represented by stars that can be lost though “death.” Hero points are regained by completing missions, defeating foes, or donating resources (currency) to charity.

My hero, The Arcane Eye, bringing his Sorcerous might to the Gangs of WestSide.

In terms of how much “game” there is for someone who chooses to spend nothing at all to play, it is a LOT. Aside from three purchasable adventure packs, all of the content is playable by free players, and the level cap can be reached without paying a dime. Most of the features that can optionally be purchased with Atari credits (bought with real money) are things like additional character slots (you get two free,) more inventory space, costume change slots and specific costume pieces. The features that are locked away to free players are tempting, but there is a full game there without any of them. I really prefer and respect the riskier choice to provide most of the game for free, and hope that the players like it enough to support the company with a few piecemeal features here and there.

The world of Champions has a nicely diverse cast of foes from gang members and thugs to supervillains, many NPCs and missions paying respect to pop culture references. I've encountered missions paying homage to A Clockwork Orange, Big Trouble in Little China and even Anchorman. The NPC cast of other heroes as allies to your character is handled in such a way that even though they are famous and powerful, your character isn't overshadowed, as you hear citizens talking about you and your exploits. The single greatest feature in making you feel like your character's personal story is part of the world is the Nemesis system. At level 25, you can create your character's own personal Arch-enemy. You design your villain's look, theme and even the appearance of their henchmen, and start getting missions to oppose your own archenemy. In true comic-book style, your personal foe may take advantage of moments of weakness, sending agents to attack while you are busy fighting other villains on a mission. I've never seen anything quite like this, and am looking forward to fighting an archenemy of my own design, the Joker to my Batman.

The villain creation system is unique, and more in-depth than the character creation system in any other MMO.

By nearly every test I can come up with for “Is this good?” Champions Online passes with flying colors (no pun intended.) If I was forced to find a complaint, despite the PvP options presented being good, there aren't many of them, the community in general, as it is with many free games is often hostile and juvenile, but there is no forced interaction with them if you don't want to wade through the trolls, scammers and elitists to find other decent strangers to game with. I also haven't tried grouping much yet, but have heard that traditional tank/heal/dps strategy works, but not as well as say, in WoW. With the exception of single-target boss encounters, tank type characters can't expect to hold aggro on everything the way you can in fantasy MMOs and most of the best healing powers are only available at higher levels except to the dedicated support archetypes. Overall, these complaints are exceedingly minor as compared to all the good things found in this game. Definitely worth your time if you like superheroes or MMORPGs, and you can't beat the price.  
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Alpha said...

Time for some Kamen Rider!

Jay said...

how come i've never heard of this game? i've got to check it out, thanks. :)

The Happy Whisk said...

Thanks for stopping by today. I use and love organic cinnamon. I never had it in coffee, just tea. Thanks for the idea.

Have a yummy day :-)

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