Big Game Wednesday – Champions Online

So I mentioned that I used to play City of Heroes and City of Villains. Well, not long after I started playing, the studio that developed the game, Cryptic Studios, sold off City of Heroes to NC Soft, the publisher. Not long afterward, they produced this awesome teaser video featuring their next big game, Marvel Universe Online.

It was supposed to be produced in conjunction with Microsoft for the X-Box 360, but Microsoft and Marvel apparently couldn’t come to terms, so the game was shelved. But a couple of years later, I found out that Cryptic was working on an MMO featuring Champions instead, and was thrilled. I even applied for a job with them, but never interviewed.

And then, last year, Champions Online debuted, and I was simultaneously thrilled and upset, because I had entered my present broke-ass phase of life and couldn’t play. But now comes Champions Online: Free For All, a free-to-play version of the game, so I can play the newest version of my favorite pen-and-paper RPG (back in the day, at any rate–I’m having a hell of a time playing Sargon’s home-brew Chaosium variant right now).

So yes, one reason updates have been a little slow in coming is that I’ve been playing a lot (so much that I’ve developed a little Repetitive Motion Injury in my mouse hand). But the chapter week before last would have been delayed in any case. So how does Champions Online compare to my previous gaming experiences?

Strangely, almost exactly like City of Heroes. The one biggest change from Cryptic’s previous game was Champions allowing you the same sort of freeform character development that the pen-and-paper game did. But in the free version, they constrain you to archetypes with prescribed and limited power progressions, just like City of Heroes, only with fewer choices.

Mission structures and zone layouts feel a lot like City of Heroes, too, as does the gameplay. This is enhanced by the fact that you can map the keys to match either a popular fantasy game (obviously WOW) or City of Heroes, so you don’t have to learn a whole new game from scratch.

There are some improvements. Power recycle times aren’t as long, so combat is fast and furious. And there is no arbitrary wait for either a cape or proper movement powers (in City of Heroes, you couldn’t get your real movement power until level 14, and you couldn’t get a cape until you had reached level 20 and completed a special cape-unlocking mission).

Also, the enemies feel a LOT like City of Heroes enemies. For instance, in City of Heroes, part of the backstory was an alien invasion that had left parts of the city devastated. The Champions Online training missions involve an alien invasion which leaves parts of the city devastated. In Westside, you fight a martial arts society called the Cult of the Red Banner that is very reminiscent of City of Heroes‘ Tsoo, down to the teleporting, helmeted sorcerers.

There don’t seem to be as many zones as City of Heroes, but the zones are big and very detailed, with lots on interesting locations that you will probably visit eventually in the line of some mission or other. And just like City of Heroes, flying is an absolute joy, and you can find special awards for exploring out-of-the-way places. I didn’t get an award for visiting this rooftop, but I enjoyed the view.

One thing you do more of in Champions Online is fight signature villains. Most of them are drawn right out of the Champions sourcebooks, so when you visit the desert, you might encounter Grond (who has been awesomed up from a goofy four-armed mutant to a gigantic Hulk-stand-in).

Go up in level and you visit Monster Island, where you can help a giant gorilla fight a dinosaur.

One other neat innovation in Champions Online is the Nemesis System. Basically, you can design your own archenemy at level 25, and the system will send you on customized missions against that nemesis. Here, my hero Double Sol squares off against archenemy Antigen (the evil babe on the left) and her henchman Gargoyle.

I don’t really notice a real difference in graphics quality between the two games, but that’s more a reflection on the fact that I’m still playing on the same old computer that couldn’t wring full performance out of the older game, let alone the new one. So don’t judge the game’s graphics on my obsolete system’s screencaps. My biggest frustration with the game is the poor camera controls; I’ve died a lot of times because I couldn’t get the camera rotated around in time to target an enemy.

In some ways, I miss City of Heroes and City of Villains. It was a mature game with tons of content and lots of neat features like your own customized headquarters, multiple costume slots so that your characters could change uniforms (Metatronic had both a Super-Saiyan style variant and an armored angel variant, as well as civvies for when I wanted him to assume his secret identity), and multiple character slots. Champions Online has at least some of these features as well, but not for the freeloaders like me.

But I’m enjoying the hell out of Champions Online: Free For All.  My big regret right now is that there is one more Wednesday in March, but I don’t have a fifth game to slot in there. One of the ways I spend my fantasy lottery winnings on is to buy a big-screen high-def TV with a PS3 and DC Universe Online, but obviously, even if a miracle happened between now and Wednesday, I wouldn’t have enough time to get the money, get the system set up, and play enough to write a proper review. So next Wednesday must stay undecided for now.

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