Review: Champions Online

Review: Champions Online

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.

Review: Champions Online

This flaw proves quite visible during cutscenes, and there are a lot of them through the game, as strong storytelling is a must in a superhero game and Champions isn’t an exception to that rule. Luckily this is starting to get amended thanks to the recent addition dynamic comic panels. This apparently obscure definition indicates the integration of comic panels overlapping cutscene events, enriching the story and shifting the attention away from the robotic animations. The fact that those comic panels are masterfully drawn and colored helps further, creating an unique narrative style that comic book fans will definitely love.

Unfortunately cryptic already specified that most probably the dynamic comic panels feature won’t be applied to older adventure packs and quests, since it would be a massive undertaking, but having them in the latest series and in future ones is much, much better than nothing.

If you want to see more of Champions Online‘s visuals you can check my flickr gallery, or the video review embedded in the previous page.

The soundtrack of Champions online is definitely adequate, showing a good degree of variation in themes and situations, but in some instances it fails to shine due to the excessive use of electronic sounds that tend to spoil the epic superhero atmosphere. That said, most tracks are enjoyable, even if they don’t strike me as exceptional.

Review: Champions Online

Voice acting is a bit weak as well, with a large variation in quality between different characters, and a slightly annoying tendency to overacting. I’m actually not sure if this was done on purpose to enhance the comic book feel, but it doesn’t exactly fit my taste. There’s a nice variety of accents, which is definitely positive in a game that portrays heroes and characters hailing from every nation around the globe.

But let’s get to the real crux that makes or break every MMORPG, gameplay.

The first thing you’re prompted to do when you join the game is creating your character. I can already see someone ready to say that I’m stating the obvious, but that’s not so much the case in Champions Online. The game has the deepest, most complex and simply most insanely customizable character creation system I ever seen in a MMORPG. Scratch that, it’d be more precise to say that it’s the deepest I’ve ever seen in my twenty-five years of gaming.

Both your character’s face and body can be customized through a complex system of sliders that cover basically every possible element, but that’s just the beginning. The “real deal” is the costume creator. You can customize your costume with more than 3,000 different pieces (and that’s only counting the ones available to free members, because there are many more in the cash shop), generating millions upon millions of possible combinations.

Review: Champions Online

You can easily create every kind of character your imagination can give birth to, from classic golden age superheroes to aliens, demons, beastmen, mecha and whatever else comes to your mind. Add to that the fact that Cryptic continues to add multiple new sets a month (for which you’ll have to pay, though) and that more parts can be unlocked through adventuring, and you get an almost unprecedented (only Champions‘ aged predecessorCity of Heroes is comparable) freedom in creating an unique superhero.

Of course you can also customize the colors, texture and level of shine of most costume pieces, and in some you can even set different levels of glow.

One thing that I particularly appreciate is that most costume pieces are available from the very start, so you won’t have to wait until you’re high level (or to pay) to look cool. If you have imagination and creativity you’ll be able to shame your level 40 colleagues right from the outset.

Looking at it from a different point of view, though, some more casual players may find the sheer amount of options a tad disorienting, especially given the fact that the costume creation UI is designed in a slightly weird way, with costume categories hidden behind what seems simply an header bar. I discovered that there were more options hidden there when I was already level 15. That said, you can go back and re-customize your hero at any moment during your career, so not much harm comes from that.

Review: Champions Online

Some preset costume options (besides the horrible yellow and blue default jumpsuit) could have helped in making the game a tad more accessible to casual gamers. Not everyone is up to spend almost eight hours in creating his character like I did. Don’t get me wrong, you can definitely do it in much less, but if you’re a perfectionist, you can expect to spend several hours in the costume creator before even getting into the game. I realize this may actually sound bad, but I can’t help finding it awesome.

A little problem comes from the slider system, and it’s pretty common to every MMORPG that implements the same mechanic to customize faces. It’s quite hard to make your face “just right”, especially if your character is a lady. The fact that the preset facial options aren’t exactly attractive doesn’t help either. It took me a while and a lot of practice to manage to create my first good looking superheroine.

The process can be made considerably quicker by going online and downloading characters created by other players, using them as a base and evolving them into your own design. You can in fact save your hero’s features and costume and load them later, or share them with your friends.

Review: Champions Online

That said, the character customization in Champions Online is one of it’s most awesome features, and if you like having a disorienting amount of options to express your personality and to be unique, you’ll fit right in. There are so many options that not only you’ll find almost perfect clones of basically every superhero drawn by a comic artist in the whole history of comic books, but you’ll also meet Kratos, Master Chief, She-ra, and basically any other character someone wanted to reproduce.

The way your character works in battle will be determined radically by your payment option. If you’re a silver player, meaning that you don’t pay a monthly fee, you will have access to a series of archetypes, that basically correspond to the classes you find in many RPGs and to the major superhero tropes. The available options go from the super-strong and resilient tank to the fire-using ranged DPS, passing by a total of eight different classes that cover your usual MMORPG trinity of roles.

While the base archetypes are enjoyable, the customization offered for the powers you’ll be able to use is a little limited, and there’s little space for hybridization, reducing the flexibility of your character.

Review: Champions Online

You can also purchase another eight special archetypes that offer a little more flexibility in the cash shop, but if you’re willing to spend money on the game, I’d definitely advise paying a monthly fee to go Gold. Not only you’ll get all the special archetypes (if you really really want to keep things simple), but you’ll be able to access the “real deal” of Champions Online: powerset customization.

Gold players will be able to build their own superhero from the ground up, with very few restrictions in choosing their powers from every powerset. Want to be a demon that fights with bestial fury mixed with obscure magic? You can. Prefer a mighty warrior-god wielding a heavy warhammer and unleashing bolts of ice? You can. Maybe you prefer a Jedi-like hero with lightsabers and mental powers? Guess what, you can do that too.

There are 24 power sets with about fifteen powers each, allowing for an amount of customization and variety that rivals with what you can do with your hero’s looks. Of course not all combinations are effective, but even just counting the good ones, there’s enough to satisfy the most rabid alt-a-holic a thousand times over.  Basically if you have a gold account in Champions Online you can be whatever hero you can imagine.

Review: Champions Online

This sheer amount of variation does come with a few problems, though. There are so many variables that it’s basically impossible to perfectly balance every single option. While cryptic continues to tweak powers and powersets, there really isn’t much they can do about it. A certain degree of imbalance is the price to pay for freedom.

Champions Online is largely driven by storytelling, and as such it features a wide variety of quests, that will bring you from Millennium City to Canada, to the desert and ultimately to more exotic locations like Lemuria or Monster Island. But that’s not all. Before you can fully access a new area, you will be introduced to the setting by the Crisis feature.

Upon reaching the appropriate level you will be summoned to the new zone, where a crisis will be unfolding. You will then go through a heavily story-driven and definitely compelling quest line to save the day. After that you will be able to access the normal area, that will be changed showing the effects of the crisis you just solved, and go about your business accessing new quests and the like until your level will progress enough to make you eligible for the next crisis.

Review: Champions Online

This feature is rather unique and very interesting, as it increases the narrative depth of the game. Cryptic probably took inspiration from similar features in single player RPGs, and demonstrated that it works really well in a MMOPRG as well. Not only it provides some engrossing questlines, but it also compels the player to care for the areas they play in. After all they saved those places, they already know and interacted with most of the key characters during the crisis, so the emotional bond with them is stronger.

The game also includes a public quest system, named Open Missions, that allow players to simply walks into an event (like a prison break or a bank robbery) and collaborate with other players on the spot to solve it. There are quite a lot of those scattered in the world, and they’re normally a good way to make some friends or earn some spiffy rewards.

Another innovative and extremely interesting feature is your personal nemesis (actually you can have multiple), a supervillain that you can customize exactly as you customize your character,  including all the costume pieces that you unlocked and purchased. In addition to that you can also chose his minions between several options, and his attitude. You will then be dragged into a lovely questline in which you’ll encounter and fight against your nemesis several times.

Review: Champions Online

This adds another layer of customization to a game that already has a lot more than what one would expect from a MMORPG. Unfortunately, though, while I think that the Nemesis feature is downright awesome, I also feel that Cryptic could have integrated it more with the rest of the game, and expanded it further, by adding your personal supervillain to non-nemesis-specific quests and by increasing the variety of quests available. If Cryptic will ever implement a romanceable nemesis (another quite classic trope of superhero comics), you can go ahead and add half a point to the score of this review.

Sidekicks are also present, but they are not as flashed out as I would like. The feature is limited to a sort of pet system where you can buy your non-customizable sidekicks in the cash shop (or receive some as rewards during major questlines) and you can summon them for a total of one hour before they disappear permanently. I honestly don’t mind the idea of making sidekicks a pay-to-play feature (after all Cryptic has to turn a profit), but in a game in which you can customize everything, from your look to that of your nemesis, not being able to customize your sidekick is a tad disappointing.

Review: Champions Online

A system that involved permanent sidekicks that you can actually customize, interact with and take with you even during the story-driven parts of your superheroing (I know this isn’t a real word, but Cryptic uses it in the scripts for the game, so I can too) would add a lot of value to the game. If they’ll ever get around doing it, you can add another half a point to the final score, because the lack of that feature is really easy to feel when you summon your pre-made, mute sidekick that will do nothing else but fight for you for a hour.

Champions Online also includes three (for now) adventure packs. Operation Demonflame, Serpent Lantern and Resistance. Every adventure pack is a replayable, level-scaling, self-contained and story-driven scenarios that you can play alone or with a party. They are free for gold players, while silver players have to purchase permanent access in the cash shop. Once in a while Cryptic opens one of them for free during a week end, so you may get to play them even without a purchase.

Demonflame and Serpent Lantern are enjoyable, but I wouldn’t define them exceptional. On the other hand it’s quite visible that Resistance was created last, as it shows that the team learned from the mistakes made in the previous two, creating a storyline that’s really unique, fun and rewarding. If you’re a  silver player and you’re wondering which one you should get first, Resistance is definitely worth it.

Review: Champions Online

Recently Cryptic added a new feature called “Comic Series”. That’s exactly what they are: a MMORPG version of  an actual comic series. They work pretty much like adventure packs, but they are split in episodes released weekly, and they are free for everyone. The first comic series “Aftershock” is very well written and enjoyable, showing off everything that the team learned with the first three adventure packs and showcasing a variety of mechanics and play styles that really shines in the MMORPG market. You’ll find yourself going from escort missions to leading a NPC through a house while helping her avoid a patrolling enemy, passing through a whole range of surprisingly varied activities, some of which you probably never ever thought could be applied to a MMORPG.

Basically most of the activities and basically every instance in the game can be tackled by yourself or with a party, thanks to the fact that you can freely set the difficulty level before entering the instance. If you want to breeze through the content you can set it to normal and have at it. If you prefer a real challenge that will most probably require the collaboration of other players, you can select the elite level, and you’ll be served much stronger enemies and better rewards for the trouble.

Review: Champions Online

All in all, the content provided by Champions online, especially if you are a gold player, is extremely varied and very enjoyable. If you are a silver player  unwilling to pay for adventure packs, there may be some slow moments that feel a little lacking in content during the leveling curve, but nothing major. The introduction of the free comic series definitely mitigated the problem (given that they are repeatable and scale with level), smoothing out the progression curve for everyone.

The only (rather prominent) problem is that endgame content is still scarce, and while the Nemesis system and a few other features do provide some high level entertainment, the sheer amount of customization available turned the Champions Online playerbase in the biggest group of alt-a-holics I ever seen, with people reaching the top level and then just restarting with an alternate character, exploring all their superhero fantasies over and over.

Combat is, of course, an extremely important aspect of Champions Online. Superheroes tend to fight, and you will do it a lot in this game. Every hero has the usual life bar, but the real innovation is in the second bar related to Energy. While it may seem your superhero equivalent of the usual mana bar, it works in a very different way. Every hero has a set level of energy called Equilibrium determined by his Recovery stat, his energy level will degrade or regenerate over time towards that balance point. Using most powers costs energy, pretty much like in other games using most abilities and spells costs mana. Every powerset also has a energy builder power, that will allow you to regenerate energy faster when used.

Review: Champions Online

Basically, instead of using your abilities until your mana bar is depleted and then wait for it to regenerate like in other games of the genre, you’ll find yourself juggling between your energy builder and your other powers to keep your energy level as high as possible while performing as well as possible. It’s a mechanic that takes skill and definitely raises the tactical depth of the game.

Another original mechanic is blocking. While in most MMORPGs your character will block automatically based on a percentage of success or failure, Champions Online is more similar to action games in this aspect. You will have to block incoming blows manually, especially the most powerful ones (that normally require to be charged and are clearly indicated, at least in PvE). In addition to this for some characters, like tanks for instance, blocking also regenerates energy, integrating quite beautifully with the rest of the combat system.

This means that combat in Champions is considerably more action-oriented than in most games of the genre, while still retaining a nice level of tactical thinking thanks to the peculiar energy mechanic. The sheer variation in powers and power combinations make it even more enjoyable, requiring a nice combination of strategy, reflexes and planning.

Review: Champions Online

Superheroes wouldn’t be super without traveling powers. What would superman be without the ability to fly? Flash wouldn’t be as flashy (pun intended) without his super speed. Spiderman would be rather dull if he couldn’t swing between the skyscrapers of New York. In Champions Online you can chose between a wide variety of travel powers that go from the basic flight to more exotic ones like teleport or flying carpets. Every hero gains one at the end of the tutorial and the second at level 35, allowing him to adapt better to a variety of situations. Some traveling powers have to be purchased in the cash shop, but the basic ones already offer a nice level of variation, and some can even be unlocked during gameplay. They are definitely one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, and I can’t count the times in which I just found myself wasting several minutes just flying or jumping around the city enjoying the sensation of freedom.

Champions Online doesn’t have dedicated PvP servers (it actually has just one server, and each zone is split in multiple instances in order to sustain the whole playerbase), so gamers that like open, free for all PvP will probably have to look for other options. That said, there are a few options for those that like controlled and instanced PvP.

Review: Champions Online

First of all, there’s the ability to challenge another hero to a duel. The central plaza in Millennium City is a popular spot for that, but the most prominent PvP feature are the Hero Games, that allow players to fight against other players in instanced arenas. There’s quite a few different arenas and rulesets, that go from classics like battle royale, straight team battle and king of the hill, to more exotic ones like Zombie Apocalypse, that sees a NPC-aided team impersonating a horde of zombie, while the other must try to survive against the odds.

Ultimately PvP in Champions Online is fun, dynamic, and quite hectic, but the imbalances I mentioned above mean that players with the right combination of powers will always have an advantage, reducing the importance of skill (even if some would argue, with reason, that combining powers in the most efficient way possible is also a form of skill) . I would advise tackling PvP in Champions Online as a main activity only if you can accept that someone with a better power build than yours can appear, and will most probably trample you into the ground.

Another recently introduced feature is player housing, named Hideouts. Each gold player will have a free hideout that all of his characters will share, while silver players will have to purchase it. Additional hideouts can be purchased by everyone. While you can’t move furniture around, you’re provided with a nice level of customization in each hideout, allowing you to change the style of furniture, colors and many other details. There are also some interesting functional perks in having a hideout, like a shared bank that allows to move items between different characters on the same account. A little flaw is that, while all the hideouts have the same price in the store some have more features than others, causing imbalances in value that can be a little annoying. That said, they’re definitely fun to play with and customize, and provide a nice socialization area to enjoy with friends.

Review: Champions Online

In my adventurers as a veteran (some would say decrepit) MMORPG player, I found out a rule that applies to the whole genre. The more a game lacks in content when it’s launched, the more it’s community will resort to social interaction in order to find enjoyable activities. It’s no mystery that Champions Online launched incomplete and quite light in content, and it’s community definitely reflects that. While the lack of content has now mostly been addressed, Champions Online players are the most socially active bunch I ever met while traveling between the MMORPG dimensions.

One of the favorite activities of the community, for instance, is costume contests, powered by the extreme amount of customization available. There’s no day on Champions Online in which Supergroups (the local equivalent of Guilds) won’t organize one or more costume contests, allowing everyone to showcase his fashion sense (or lack of thereof), and to have a chance at winning some cool prizes.

The superhero setting is also very conducive to roleplay, and Champions Online has an absolutely amazing roleplaying community, with a large number of players meeting every day in and outside the largest social spots like the Club Caprice, to tailor overarching player-driven storylines and adventures, or even just to have a pleasant in-character chat.

Review: Champions Online

While the gameplay quality in Champions Online improved massively over the two years since launch, the heritage of the initial lack of polish and content is still paradoxically felt in a very positive way in the community, that is really one of the best features of the game, and something rare in today’s gameplay-driven theme park MMORPGs.

Ultimately, Champions Online is a very enjoyable game. If you love Superhero comics and customization is hard to imagine many better places to be playing in. While the game definitely started with the wrong foot two years ago, Cryptic decided not to let go and to continue working on it, releasing an amazing amount of content and gradually polishing what was left unfinished at release. Even today they still update the game once a week, ensuring a process of constant improvement that can only bode well for the future of the game.

Champions still isn’t perfect, but it has gone a long way, and at this stage it’s definitely worth playing and enjoying. It really shows all the love that the development team poured into it, turning it into an unique and fun experience further empowered by a fantastic community.

  • Game: Champions OnlineReview: Champions Online
  • Platform Reviewed: PC
  • Developer: Cryptic Studios
  • Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment
  • MSRP: Free to play (Premium Subscription available for $14.99 a month)
  • Release Date: September 1, 2009
  • Review Copy Info: A copy of this title was provided to DualShockers, Inc. by the publisher for the purpose of this review.