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The Backlog: Champions Online

Last week I became Superman’s virtual pal in DC Universe: Online, and the week before I rebooted my continuity in the eight-year-old City of Heroes.  Falling squarely in the middle-ground between these two super-hero MMO’s is Champions: Online.  This week I returned to Champions to see how the game has fared since going free-to-play, and to determine which of these games is the best choice for thrifty comic book fans looking for a free online game where they can pretend to be superheroes.

Champions Online has a tangled history.  Its developer Cryptic Studios created City of Heroes, a game where players could create any hero imaginable… but most people just made knock-offs of Wolverine.  A mutant with three retractable claws on each hand AND a healing factor?  This was all a basic set of powers available right at first level.

Marvel comics took note and immediately hired Cryptic Studios to make a game based on the Marvel Comics universe. And by “immediately,” I mean “eventually”.

First, Marvel sued them for copyright infringement.

But eventually Marvel wised up and smelled the money.  This was right around the time that World of Warcraft launched and everybody wanted the giant piles of money that would undoubtedly be made by every new MMO game.

After a few years of development, Marvel realized that WoW was nigh-invulnerable, and cancelled their MMO, leaving Cryptic with a nearly complete game, but no license. Cryptic immediately acquired the rights to the tabletop role playing game Champions.

Champions: Online (and all of Cryptic’s games) is built on the same engine as City of Heroes.  This is very clear to people who’ve played both games.  The similarities are many, but Cryptic learned a few things when making City of Heroes, and many of that game’s flaws were addressed in Champions.

The traditional MMO combat style of slowly tapping number keys was gone, replaced by a more action-packed system where the basic attack recharged the “Power” bar, and more powerful attack drained this meter.  DCU: Online used a very similar system, and it is much more engaging than the combat in older MMO’s.

Champions was made five years after CoH, so there is a significant upgrade in graphics.  It not only looks prettier, it’s also more “Comic Booky”.  The art uses cell-shading to give everything a black ink outline, the User Interface looks like comic book lettering, and the story is told through animated cutscenes that use hammy Stan Lee-esque dialog.  Although City of Heroes has the greatest degree of character customization,  the improved graphics do a good job of compensating for the lesser variety.

Characters have excellent animations, and players can choose the sort of movement they want when creating their character.  This is something later done in DCU, but Champions did it first.

Unfortunately, Champions hit one big problem when switching to the free-to-play business model: the good stuff is all locked off.

Right from the character creation screen, problems become evident.  Most of the classes are only available to paying customers.  Even after finding a set of superpowers that seems fun, the costume options are rather limited for players who don’t want to pay.  The default settings on the costume design screen let players dress their hero up in outfits that will eventually require a fee, and this leads to having to either rebuild the character over again, or fork over a few real-world dollars for an imaginary super suit.

Both of the other super-hero MMO’s lock off some power sets and classes, but of the three games, Champions has the greatest limitations on character creation for free.

The items and powers that can be purchased include new missions, powers and clothing, but players who spring for the monthly subscription get access to a “Freeform” hero who can use any powers they like.  Players who don’t have the Freeform archetype are stuck on a very limited path with their free characters while paying customers get some major benefits that will justify the subscription price for many players.

When playing the three games in rapid succession it becomes easy to see how superhero MMO’s have evolved and influenced each other.  City of Heroes is the grand daddy of them all.  It has received a staggering amount of content updates in its time on the market, making it the best choice for players who want an endless amount of stuff to do for free.

CoH also has the greatest character customization too, plus the option to create your own missions that can be shared with other players.  Unfortunately, its combat is still very dated.  Despite being overhauled recently, it also falls into old-school mission design.

Champions: Online fixed many of the problems that its father had, offering faster combat, better graphics and new options for customization, such as how your character animates.  I’m sure the franchise has some fans, but use of the Champions license seems like a waste. Meeting Champions characters like Defender is hardly as engaging to the average person as fighting alongside the likes of Superman.  But Champions did give the designers behind DCU: Online some good ideas to use with those iconic characters.

DCU: Online is certainly the most action-packed and pretty of the three big superhero MMO’s.  The use of a big-time license definitely gives more weight to the NPC interactions, but no matter how pretty the visuals are, or who is doing the voice work, it still ends up sending virtual heroes off to kill ten goons, then go clear out a base.

For all of the advances the MMO genre has made, they still tend to fall into the same boring patterns and grinding that plagued the old days.  With flashy new MMO’s like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World coming out soon, it’s a tough sell for the older MMO’s, even when going free.

But still, old chum, there are those among us who prefer to patrol the rooftops of fair Gotham City (Or Paragon City or Millennium City) instead of fighting orcs and elves in our MMOs.  And those who wish to join the defenders of freedom now have three ways to do so for free.

Next month on The Backlog I take a look at Final Fantasy XIV to see what went wrong and if they fixed it yet.

Charles is a proud contributor to Default Prime, as well as the Xbox/ PC Department Lead at Player Affinity, a reviewer for The Indie Game Magazine, and a Special Agent at the U.S. Department of Electronic Entertainment.

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