Champions Online Beta Impressions

A lifetime membership is a really big deal. I can only think of one particular game in the past that has ever offered one and that was Lord of the Rings Online. While I didn’t overly care for LotRO out the gate, I probably would have played for a few months and I really wanted to play it once I got sick of EQ2, but didn’t want to really pay additional costs for it at the time. So in a way I did regret not getting the membership there. Here comes the second game of Champions Online and again I was really looking forward to this MMO and am now faced with a tough decision on whether I should pay the $199 for a lifetime subscription.

The views and effects are great

Champions Online has had an already storied history that many may have heard. The game started its life as Marvel Universe which was backed by Microsoft as the publisher. Microsoft at some point then decided to cancel the project, taking with them their Marvel License. Cryptic Studios, long known for City of Heroes, bought a new license for the game engine, Champions, and took the product to Atari who decided to give the game a chance. The game apparently kept much of the work that was originally done with Marvel Universe, taking out locations, storylines and characters and replacing them with similar stories and characters from the Champions Universe.

Now I’ve never played the Champions RPG game, but I hear a lot of really good things about it, but this never really got me going. I have mostly been excited about the game because of City of Heroes. While I felt that game made a lot of mistakes, I look forward to seeing how Cryptic fixes those mistakes. Secondly, it is nice to see another game enter the ring that isn’t fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I like fantasy, but it is nice to have change. Just reading up on the game and there are many features that I think are really great ideas, such as the Nemesis system or the class-less skills.

Finally interaction with the world in an MMO!The class-less skill system actually leads to what is without a doubt the best MMO to date for creating a custom character. You can change any little bit of your appearance, there are lots of options to add into your character, and even more costume options to be found in the game. You can then pick what exact skills you want your character to have. And then, once you are in the game, not only can you unlock more costume parts and learn new skills, but you also can change the appearance and the location of most of your powers. You also have a mind-dizzying choice of travel powers at the lowly level 5. To me the most amazing choices were Swinging (ala Spider-man) and burrowing (which I laughed the first time I saw someone jump underground). Never before any online game have I really felt that I was creating MY character, heck this game does better at that than 99% of all PC & video games as well. It puts other games to shame.

Visuals I’m torn on, it is a sort of cell-shaded style mixed with realistic style that doesn’t really catch either head on. I almost feel like they didn’t want to lose either camp so they just kind of found a middle-ground. Personally I felt my character looked bad, but maybe that was my own fault, but I never felt that I could create a skinny hero well, the system seems geared towards a big hulky, square-jawed hero rather than the skinny pipsqueak hero like Peter Parker. But overall I just never felt sold on the character graphics.

The environments can be downright awesome though and I have thoroughly enjoyed running around and exploring the zones. There was stuff to see around every corner, and a lot of areas to explore. I particularly liked how there were hidden quests to be found. You could rescue poor doctors being attacked by zombies and the doctor would offer you a quest. These offered nice touches as there was no big giant exclamation point over the doctor’s heads in the first place so you had to just do it to find it which is what I have really missed when WoW start the trend of just telling everyone about every quest in the game. They also have done away with coordinates, instead giving you a giant circle on the mini-map where you can find what you are looking for. This was actually a nice compromise, you narrow down the area to find something, but there still is exploration in trying to find it. They also heisted their idea for perks offering up plaques and lore to find throughout the game. All these things combined really make an MMO that emphasize exploration more than anything else which is a stark contrast to CoH’s “call your contact, go in random building” system.

I do think that Cryptic has learned many lessons really well from CoH which is all you can ask for. They didn’t have PvP or tradeskills in CoH, both of these things have been included at launch in Champions. Now, I haven’t really had the time to use either of these systems, so they could be utter crap. But honestly even so they offer a distraction which is what those systems are really meant to do and it is a needed one at that. They also included loot, which was also sadly missing from CoH. The problem is that I don’t understand it at all. It isn’t like the typical weapon/armor/jewelry slots. There appears to be 6 slots, with small symbols that I don’t understand representing them. And I don’t know what goes to what. There are the popups that tell you what item you already have when you pop over any particular item, so I just generally put in a higher level item and be done with it regardless of what the stats were. I just wanted to play the game in beta to get a feel, not figure out the weird system.

This system also reared its ugly head in the stats. I didn’t really know what any particular stat did and how they affected me. I mean I realize what strength does, but does it help fire damage? If not, what does? These weren’t answers that I could figure out easily. I am sure there is documentation in the game, in fact I think it was when I was first creating the character but I was in such a hurry to move on to the next stage of character creation that I likely didn’t give much thought to it. Hopefully the instruction manual is good and gives me the answers I need here.

I do like how the game works with power usage though. It is definitely a more active solution. Instead of using you powers until you are out of energy, you use your big powers until you are out of energy and then use your small automatic power to build energy back up to use the big powers again. There is also the option to dodge, and while I realize that every game has the dodge ability, the only way you can actually dodge in this game is if you actually press something. What a novel idea. Basically your opponent will get an icon over their head when they are about to use a big power, and then you hold down the dodge key and it works. It isn’t hugely genius but it is surprising it has never been done before. All this leads to a system where there has a lot more strategy involved in the battle which is odd because I don’t much like the real-time battle, but somewhere along the way we’ve lost the strategy in normal RPG battles. This feels closer.

One thing they didn’t entirely fix was their reliance on instances. This was one of my larger complaints about City of Heroes, well sort of. It isn’t nearly as bad as what CoH was, that game had every single mission done entirely in an instance separate from the rest of the server. This game feels more like a world where each zone has tons of missions, start to finish. It still relies on instances for dungeons but they aren’t as frequent. I played up to level 11 or 12 and only ran into two total. This is good, they are being saved for bigger occasions, which does seem to be the standard in modern MMOs. I don’t necessarily mind it if used sparingly.

What I do mind is the instances of each zone you are in. Again, this is something most zoned MMOs do so to a certain extent I can excuse it, though I hate zones in the first place so not completely. But the instance size is really small. When I started the beta it was at 20 players, when I finished it had risen to 100. I can’t help but think this is far too few. Even if the cap is raised to 200 for live, that seems small to me and I just don’t like it. Maybe it is all dependent on the zone as well, but it is an MMO and as such I’d like to meet people and how am I going to meet people if they are in a different instance? This has always been an issue I’ve had with the idea and I’m sad that they didn’t put a stop to it. I realize that you need to curb lag somehow, but this is not a solution, it is laziness.

One problem that surprises me though given the instancing is that despite the fact that there are only 70 or 80 players in the zone at any given time, and the fact that the zones do feel really large in scope (past the tutorial) there seem to be players everywhere taking all the quest kills that are out there. There were several quests that I just couldn’t complete because the creatures were constantly camped. Others which I would start attacking the creature, only to have someone else swoop in and steal credit for the kill even though I started it (because they were higher level and thus did more damage). Oftentimes I just got frustrated with my inability to find what I was looking for so I just logged out to hopefully come back when less people were on. This really is the Catch-22 of instances. But really, it shows that while the developers did a great job making the zones seem huge, they weren’t really that huge.

[amazonify]B0024FA6EY:left[/amazonify]Overall, I ended up having this weird at odds feel for the game. When I was playing it, I had a lot of fun with it. So much fun that I lost track of time, I ignored my roommate, and I didn’t even pay attention to chat. However, I got frustrated with it easily, and while I was out of the game I often chose other games instead and had a hard time logging on in the first place. This has made my decision on the Lifetime Subscription a difficult one. The game does show a ton of potential as the fun that I do have while I am logged in, but I don’t know if the game is entirely there right now. The hope would be that like City of Heroes, there would be a number of high quality free updates, and unlike CoH there would be more frequent quality expansions that help Champions Online reach the potential that it has. And maybe, for that reason alone, it is actually worth sinking the high upfront cost into the membership.