Champions Online (PC)
It is hard to imagine that the industry once believed superhero games were somehow cursed. If curses do exist -- and they most assuredly do not -- then the curse upon superhero games is long gone, on vacation on some tropical island with its wife talking about the good old days when Superman was a mess on the Nintendo 64 and Steve Barcia was rumored to be such an uncontrollable drunk that it harpooned development of Guardians: Agents of Justice.
No, Champions Online is curse-free, though it does have its fair share of problems that can ruin the experience for players. And this is a shame, because I love a lot of what Champions Online offers: a robust character-creation tool; the Nemesis system, which lets you create your own archenemy; early access to travel powers; combat that is fun and often challenging; and boss battles that require more than just a high level and brute force.
The best thing about this massively-multiplayer online game? The character creator. The options are mind-blowing, and make City of Heroes seem shameful for the way it makes you earn things like wings and capes. Most importantly, the character creator allows you to create (or recreate) exactly the kind of hero you want.
Robots, cyborgs, wolfmen, frogmen, lawyers, cat people, knights, policemen, bug people, game journalists, managing editors -- just about anything you can imagine can be built. The default character is a white man or woman, so it might take a little more work to create an African American, Middle Eastern or Asian character, but the tools are there. You can't currently create overweight characters, for some reason, though word on the street is that the option is in the works and coming soon.
(While it's not really an issue, I wish that Cryptic would allow users to combine elements from the male and female character sets. What if I want to put a beard on my aging female sorceress, or breasts on my male Robin Hood character? I should be able to do this and more.)
In the game, you can also customize how your powers look; if you want green fire instead of orange, or if you want your gunfire to be purple, it's as simple as selecting a color in the Powers tab. It's easy to get lost in the character-creation system for hours, tweaking every single body part and costume piece in the quest to create the perfect character.
But before you can dive into those intricacies, you have to choose a framework (Fire, Ice, Force, Might, etc.) and your starting stats, which won't seem all that important until later, when you have the epiphany that everyone has had: You f***ed up. Champions Online doesn't do a very good job explaining what stats you need for the framework and powers you have selected, and you might decide to take a stat or two that don't work very well with your powers. The conundrum of stat selection is further complicated by Super Stats, which have a profound effect on your damage output. For example, if you chose Constitution and Endurance as your Super Stats, these would now be used to calculate your damage output, despite the fact that they normally have nothing to do with damage output at all.
The system is designed to give different types of characters a way to gain superior damage without focusing on Strength. Unfortunately, I didn't learn this by playing the game; I had to read about it in a forum thread. Someone needs to let new users know what they are getting into when they create a character.
Choose from one of 18 frameworks, or throw caution to the wind and mix & match with a custom framework.
Once you get into the actual game, Champions Online is a click-fest, but in a good way. You spam your various powers (attacks, buffs, debuffs, holds, etc.) to take down groups of enemies, constantly attacking or blocking to build up your energy pool. You'll be faced with a number of quest types after the tutorial: public quests that require players to cooperate to complete, regular quests that are handed out by non-player characters in each of the five regions, random quests handed out by citizens, and quests tied to objects or to places, like an old map or the bank. There are also high-level quests requiring multiple players that you won't see before level 30.
But everyone, no matter if you fly with wings or jump like the Hulk, will ultimately grind through all the same quests. This could be because the entire story arc is fashioned around the idea that you are the hot-shit superhero who has come to save the day -- oblivious to the fact that there are thousands of other caped weirdos running around town, fighting all the same fights. From their perspective, they believe they are the only hot-shit superhero in town, too. Apparently everybody is Spandex Jesus.
It may also be because there are no race- or class-specific quests, as in World of Warcraft. All characters start in the same place, Millennium City, and face the same missions. And if you do every quest at your level, you'll notice that you are forced to start grinding higher-level quests for which you might not be ready. Since fighting random mobs isn't a great way to earn experience in this game, you're stuck going through higher-level quests until you can hit a new level, which in turn makes the next set of quests easier. But this causes a bottleneck in the content, because you start to run out of quests you can do without the help of a team.
While it's possible to play much of the game by yourself, it makes more sense to play the game with additional support. With team play, you'll get through the tougher missions a lot more quickly, and usually serve in a needed role (frontline, support or ranged damage), helping to accomplish a goal that seems almost impossible.
The boss fights are particularly thrilling because they often require teamwork to win. These supervillains have dangerous powers, dozens of minions and thousands of hit points. It is in these moments, surrounded by other players, that the powers, the stats and the Super Stats you have chosen will be put to the test. If you decided Strength was more important than diversifying in Constitution and Endurance, then it will take longer to perform your attacks and to regenerate health while you're blocking; you'll probably die a lot. Or perhaps you just didn't slot some passive or defensive powers that could have buffed you or given you a damage-reducing defensive power. Time to start over, perhaps, or at least Retcon (reselect) some of your powers.
The Nemesis system is another wonderful facet of Champions Online. At level 25, players get a mission to put the name of a bad guy in a police database. This is Cryptic's way of giving you the tools you need to create your Nemesis. You get to create the way your ultimate archenemy looks, his psychological disposition (lunatic or genius?), what kinds of minions work for him (melee and ranged) and finally, what kinds of powers he uses.
For my favorite character, Old Man River, I made Pizza Delivery Dude, a maniac who uses Gadgeteering (guns, robot pets and a mishmash of dangerous technology) and is backed by an army of mobsters who are martial arts masters. Your Nemesis will dog your character's step for the rest of the game. And they will do it when you least expect it. They will show up when you are low on health, when you are fighting a big boss battle, and when you are breaking furniture like a moron. Random attacks can be an irritation, but they make for great conversation -- especially when other players witness these events.
The Nemesis system, like the character creator, is clever and breaks up the slog that some missions become in Champions Online. You can't dive headlong into the minutiae of character creation like you can with your own character, but this early interpretation of the system is solid.
While all the in-game camaraderie and combat, character creation and personal enemies make Champions Online soar, it is the myriad of bugs and technical problems that bring it back down to Earth. I often don't feel like a superhero in this game, because of bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. Bugs that put the brakes on fun. Bugs that make the game harder than it should be. Bugs that shouldn't be in a final retail product. There are so many quests that do not work properly because of some nonfunctioning part: NPC contacts that are either missing or stuck somewhere; contacts that don't talk to you when they are supposed to; doors to missions that don't function properly -- and, most egregious of all -- enemies that don't die when they clearly are supposed to.
In the age of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Infamous, I expect more from any game that dares to entice me with the promise of being a hero. Cryptic has been pretty responsive to the little problems in this first month of service, but these are also not the kinds of things new players can handle dealing with. And frankly, they shouldn't have to. We are no longer in the days of EverQuest and Ultima Online -- we should expect more from our MMOs.
There are other irritations worth mentioning, like unnamed NPCs, NPCs without descriptions, old quests reappearing in some NPCs' mission queues, and artificial intelligence that often doesn't match the personalities of NPCs that need to be escorted (why would an NPC that is a craven coward suddenly decide to attack anything in his path?). These things don't exactly break the game, but they do speak to a design that sometimes feels like it has been rushed.
Champions Online is currently somewhere between greatness and mediocrity, and I hope that in another month's time Cryptic will eliminate all the issues that early adopters have had to endure. If you are interested in the game, I encourage you to try it out for a month -- that should be just enough time for you to reach the level cap (40) and see some of the high-level content. But bring some friends along, or make new ones -- you'll have an easier time of it in the long run.
This review is based on a final build of the PC game provided by the publisher.