More Spandex Than You Can Handle – Champions Online Review

Written by Ian Yuan, October 15, 2009, 1 Comment
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There is something pervasive about heroes. Every culture has their own and this universality suggests that they reflect something basic about the human condition. There’s a reason why children run about with capes made of bed sheeting playing superhero. A hero’s life promises fame, a sense of empowerment and the satisfaction of helping your fellow man. As ridiculous as it is we’ve all thought about it, at least in passing. But now thanks to Champions Online, you can unleash your inner hero! Well… kind of.

Champions Online, developed by Cryptic Studios and published by Atari, is the latest in superhero MMOs. Some of you may remember Cryptic’s last superhero MMO, City of Heroes and its expansion City of Villains. Considering their pedigree in the sub-genre, expectations were high for this release and they did not disappoint.

In terms of visual presentation, the game carries the comic book theme throughout its overall style without being overwhelming. Characters in game generally have big eyes, fit physiques and often-comical facial expressions. Nice touches like comic book frames accompanying character bios during loading screens add to the feel. The interface is functional, unobtrusive and sports a vibrant palate. On the technical side, it ranks about par with other MMOs. The environments are large, detailed and quite varied. But by far the best graphics were reserved for player created character models and superpower effects. Metallic costumes glimmer in the light while attacks crackle with energy or ooze miasma.

The audio fares about as well as the graphics. The music is adequate at its worst with a few outstanding orchestral pieces and the sound effects get the job done. The worst audio experience the game provides is the overly stiff and cheesy voice acting that accompanies some cut scenes.

Gameplay-wise Champions deviates slightly from the traditional MMO formula, opting for a slightly more interactive and action oriented feel. Skills are fueled by energy, which is generated by certain low damage attacks. Activating skills sometimes require more than a click of the mouse. Holding down the button can sometimes charge up the attack or maintain its effects over time. Rapid button mashing is also required to break free of immobilization or stun effects. These features combined with short cool-down times for most abilities, ensures most fights are fast and frenetic.

The game also replaces the usual grinding, that MMOs are so notorious for, with the slightly less tedious mission grinding. Experience gained for generic bad guys is negligible but there are just enough missions to get you from level 1 to level 40. Generally, the game does a good job of keeping you set with a comfortable number of quest to do at all times. If you happen to run out, there’s an in-game utility that suggests new NPC mission contacts appropriate for your level. Most quests are your standard kill “x” number of bad guys or fetch and delivery. The experience curve is rather steep at first, leveling from 1-15 is a breeze, but flattens out rapidly after level 20. Leveling up nets you ability points that can be spent on new powers, advantages that augment existing powers or small statistic increases.

The character statistic system is unconventional. Each stat has a clearly indicated influence on certain specific sub-stats. Endurance, for example determines the maximum energy your character can store. But none directly affect the strength of your attacks, until they are chosen as “innate charactertics”. They’re obtained very early on, each character gets two and they boost damage by a percentage depending on the number of points in each. This system is highly unorthodox and not explained very well in any of the in-game help or tutorials. But fortunately it provides a lot of flexibility in terms of character development. Regardless of how you skew your stats, you’ll potentially be as powerful as anyone else.

Flexibility seems to be the developers’ reigning mantra. All of the powers in the game are arranged by themes like ice or telekinesis and further divided into tiers according to their requirements. These requirements are broad, usually x number of skills in the same theme or slightly more then x number of any skills from any theme. Those that choose to focus their ability points on the same theme will gain its most powerful skills first but the potential is there for any character to have any power in the game, making for some strange match ups.

As funny as it may seem to allow fire flinging, sword waving telepaths to roam about, it’s all in line with the core selling point behind the game: allowing you to make whatever kind of hero you choose. To further this goal the game comes with arguable one of the most detailed character creating systems yet. After choosing their sex, starting stats and powers, you can set their body and facial features using sliding scales. Then you create their costume using hundreds of pieces of clothing, armour, hats and footwear. Many have different overlay and pattern options and come from themes as varied as robotics to the Wild West. Once you’re finished design your hero’s appearance it can be saved and later reloaded, so all they time spent on costume design is not lost if you restart a character. The last step is to name your character and, if you wish, write a short back-story.

Now, games in this genre are often loaded with small peripheral features and Champions is no different. There are a lot of small in-game utilities to make life easier like, a bank to store items, an email system to send messages and items to friends, an item auction, a crafting system and clan (supergroup in this case) support. There’s also the ability to create your own nemesis. At level 25 you’ll be asked to create an evil rival much in the same way you’ve created your hero. You’ll even be asked what style of minions he’ll have. It’s a fairly important choice because after creating your nemesis, his minions will randomly ambush you in the field. There is even an entire set of missions and unlockables associated with it. There is also a fairly good PvP system that allows duels at anytime as well as quick access to four different kinds of PvP matches.

So what I’m trying to say is…
Champions Online is a great fast paced MMO, with solid comic book influenced visuals. The real attraction is the game’s customizability. From top to bottom you have total control over your hero’s look and feel. The character creator is one of the most detailed around with costume pieces from just about every conceivable comic book theme. The skill and character statistic system is very open, allowing for you to take your character on any development trajectory without feeling punished. There’s the potential to have access to every skill in the game allowing you to create power sets to optimize your strategy or to best suit your hero’s theme. There’s a lot of content here and a lot of in-game utilities to help you along the way. This game is a great pick for any fans of the City of franchise or even just comics in general. The fast pace and relatively easy to grasp mechanic should be attractive to gamers new to the MMO genre as well.

Champions Online is developed by Cryptic Studios and published by Atari. It is currently available for PC for $59.99 CND. For monthly subscription fees see http://www.champions-online.com. Game provided courtesy of Atari.

Want to adventure with Sad Robot Girl (level 26)? Drop me an in-game mail at Sad Robot Girl@Rice Noodles!

About Ian Yuan

Ian has been playing games for as long as he can remember and pretending to write about them for some significantly shorter amount of time. Words often mistakenly used to describe him include: sophisticated, gentlemanly, scholarly and Korean. His favourite time-wasters beside videogames include reading pulp detective novels, making hand sewn sock animals and adding to his skinny tie collection. He does not talk about his day job and neither should you.

  1. MattattckDecember 18, 2009, 4:47 pm

    Dear Sad Robot Girl:

    Why so Sad?