Review: Champions Online

on September 29, 2011 3:00 PM

Superheroes have always been present through human history, but only when the Nazi regime opened a dimensional rift that caused enormous amounts of magic to flow into our world, superpowered humans become commonplace. Since then a constant battle raged across Earth between heroes and villains, those that decided to use their powers for good, and those that gave in to the temptations of evil.

That seemingly never-ending war culminated with the Battle of Detroit, during which the arch-villain Doctor Destroyer tried to bring the United States to their knees, failing thanks to the valiant efforts of the Heroes, but still reducing the city to a smoking pile of rubble. Citizens and heroes pulled up their sleeves, and with the support of the government they rebuilt the city into something more grandiose, a City of the future named Millennium City, emblem of freedom and justice.

Since then, many threats risked to jeopardize the balance of the world, from alien invasions to villainous plots, passing by the ambitions of ruthless organizations like Viper. Even Doctor Destroyer returned, while many don’t believe that he is who he claims to be. Only one thing is for sure: Millennium City won’t be subjugated as long as the Champions defend it.

Champions Online has just passed the two years mark and, as for my previous re-reviews of veteran MMORPGs, I’m going to give it  a through second look. Many things have changed and all the reviews published at launch are now completely obsolete.

The backstory of Champions Online is extremely rich and varied, which isn’t surprising considering that it’s based on a pen and paper RPG that sports thirty years of rulebooks and sourcebooks. The world in which the heroes move is colorful and varied, full of aliens, beastmen, mutants, evil organizations, sorcerers, demons and basically every kind of evil threat that comic book authors have invented since when they started drawing people in spandex and capes.

Some would say that this extremely wide variety makes the world of Champions feel a little generic, and it’s arguably true, but Champions Online is a game that thrives on variation and customization, allowing every player to be exactly the superhero that he wants to be, whatever the background, powers and looks, which means that a setting that welcomes every kind of creature and supernatural manifestation is rather necessary.

Review: Champions Online

This also means that the designers of Champions Online could take a lot of liberties in creating additional storylines and side plots, allowing for a narrative variation that’s rarely seen in the MMORPG market. While Cryptic’s writers have favored a little too much mystical/demonic enemies and plots lately, it’s hard to get bored with the narrative side of the game, just because there’s really every kind of situation one could imagine. The fact that the writing shows great quality and even more an enormous amount of love for superhero comic books  doesn’t hurt as well.

Visually Champions Online doesn’t disappoint. Models and textures are stylized and outlined in a way that looks almost cel-shaded and the bright, colorful palette improves the comic book feel. If you love dark, realistic, gloomy worlds, Champions Online isn’t for you. On the other hand if you like the idea of your screen looking like the pages of a classic superhero comic, you’ll love Champions Online‘s visuals.

Art direction follows the same philosophy, with addition of the influence of a group of artists that could easily work for Marvel or DC. Cryptic publishes preliminary sketches of the game’s upcoming environments and costumes quite liberally, and the level of inspiration and detail is always amazing. This reflects visibly in the art style of the game itself, that besides the cartoonish look mentioned above, shows a great level of coherence despite the immense variation in themes. Designs very rarely prove banal, especially when applied to the more alien and demonic scenarios.

Review: Champions Online

The design of superheroes and their costumes has visibly taken a big slice of the development resources of this game. Not only the level of variation is so large that it’s honestly difficult to quantify precisely, but each costume piece shows an overwhelming love for science fiction, fantasy and comics.

Environmental design shows the same level of inspiration and detail, even if the level of quality isn’t always the same. while organic environments look absolutely great, the more urban focused ones can sometimes prove a little bland. Unfortunately a cartoonish style tends to bring forth that effect on concrete buildings, and I’m not sure what Cryptic could have done, considering that the setting does have cities, and quite prominent ones at that.

Effects is another bright point of Champions Online‘s visuals, and their bright, colorful look blends well with the cartoonish environments and characters. Beams, explosions of light, auras, they are literally the “stuff of heroes”, and Champions doesn’t skimp on them. Comic-like onomatopoeia effects are also present in spades to underline incoming special attacks from enemies, fitting the overall style well without proving overdone.

While there’s a great variety of animations and emotes, they sometimes prove a bit of a weak area of the game’s graphics, mostly because a sizable number of glitches (for instance occasional situations in which characters running in one direction have their upper body turned towards a completely different ones) and because some look quite robotic. In a game portraying dynamic and powerful beings like superheroes, a wider use of motion capture would have done wonders. Unfortunately this might be the price to pay for the wealth of customization available. The more bodies are customizable, the simpler the animations need to be in order to fit every possible option.

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Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.