Champions Online is the latest in a very short line of superhero MMOs that try to bring variety to an otherwise vastly unexplored niche of online multiplayer games. You customize the superhero of your dreams and run, fly, swing or teleport about the city, saving civilians and fighting crime. It's a basic concept, but if it's done right, it can still be an enjoyable experience. Champions Online doesn't quite manage to do it right.
To be a memorable superhero, the first step is a memorable costume, and Champions Online has a sprawling collection of costume pieces, giving you perhaps thousands of different combinations to piece together an outfit that's just for you. The options are nearly endless, including everything from mad scientist and cowboy to Catwoman and Beast. You could easily make yourself look like your favorite superhero, if you wish; if not, invent your own or press the Randomize button a few times to see what you end up with.
Power sets, however, feel a little more restrictive. You have 18 to choose from, or you can make a custom set by choosing abilities from any two sets. The choices are pretty standard superhero fare; you've got your elemental-based powers (electricity, fire, ice) and your "I don't have superpowers but I still fight crime" sets, like archery, gadgeteering and munitions. There are also the melee fighters, who wield fists, claws or swords; or people whose powers are a result of darkness, sorcery, the supernatural or telekinesis. Some power sets, like gadgeteering, can have pets, and sorcery and telepathy can learn healing abilities, while still others boast specialties in crowd control, tank or straight-up damage, so there's a class to fit every style of play. However, regardless of the power pool you choose, they all end up feeling very much the same. All the melee skills are interchangeable, as are all the ranged attacks, and the occasional healing spell or pet ability doesn't do much to alleviate the overall sameness of the classes.
The game starts with the sudden invasion of the Qularr, an insect-like alien race who, like all insect-like alien races (with exception of those in "District 9"), wish to take over the planet. Their first attack was on Champions Online's equivalent of the Justice League's Watchtower, and most of the famous superheroes have been killed or are missing. It's up to the B team heroes (that's you!) to save the day in their stead.
Combat is pretty simple, at least in concept. You have two basic types of abilities: those that replenish power and those that use power. The former usually doesn't do much damage, but it's a constant barrage that damages your enemy while slowly refilling your blue power indicator. Your bigger attacks use up that power — the longer you hold the button before using your attack, the more power it uses and the more damage it does, though even the weakest power attack does more than the former.
The biggest difference with combat in Champions, as opposed to the combat in other MMOs, is the ability to move while attacking. You can run circles around your enemies or keep them far enough away that they won't be able to touch you, all the while keeping up a constant barrage of arrows or fire bolts. This makes it feel less like a simple sparring match and more like an actual comic book battle, with tactics and position playing as much a part as skill and power. This also makes it much more complicated; you have to concentrate on your surroundings as well as your enemy, to ensure that you don't back yourself into a corner or walk headfirst into a large group of enemies.
This is made more manageable with the travel powers, which are standard fare for superheroes, but this is where Champions Online really shines. Travel powers are not simply an easier way to get from one point to another, but they also make it more fun to get from A to B. There are your obvious powers — flight, superspeed and teleporting — but there are also original ones — swinging, tunneling, etc. — that let you really customize your hero to match your personal comic book vision. There are even variations on flight, where you're surrounded by fire or floating on a sheet of ice, to fit seamlessly with your power set.
If running around and shooting things gets too boring, never fear! The world is your playground. Pick up a nearby park bench or cop car and bash in Qularr brains with it instead, and when you're done with it, hurl the item at another enemy to take him out as well. Be careful, though: The button to pick up a new "weapon" is the same button to talk to someone or pick up loot from your fallen foes, so more often than you prefer, you may end up with a handful of police barricade when all you really wanted to do was talk to a cop. Also, when you pick up a chunk of scenery, all your attacks change to simply "bash," so you're unable to use any of your other abilities. This can become a problem, since enemies seem more likely to gang up on you when you're carrying around a trusty lamppost battering ram, and the game is not very forthcoming about which button you use to drop said lamppost.
Of course, the hallmark for any MMORPG is teamwork, and whether you want it or not, Champions Online thrusts it on you with public missions. Similar to the ones in Warhammer Online, you are in the same area as other players and working more or less toward the same goal. In Warhammer, there was a sense of working together against otherwise overwhelming odds, but in Champions, it's more a feeling of getting in each other's way until you manage to stumble over victory. The public missions feel disjointed from the rest of the story, as if they were thrown in for filler but never fully polished up.
Who can really call himself a superhero if he doesn't have an archenemy? Without Joker, Batman is just an orphan in a rubber suit. Without Magneto, Professor X is just a handicapped school teacher who knows when you're cheating on tests. Enter your nemesis. In the comic book that is your life in Champions Online, you have the option to create your own nemesis. Build his power set, costume and backstory of reasons why he hates you, and be prepared to test your skills against him and his henchmen at random intervals. Your archenemy will show up randomly as you make your way through the world, and each time, he'll have a new plan to defeat you and a new gaggle of henchmen with whom to do it. He grows stronger as you do, and as you level, you can gain more and more nemeses until you've got a gallery of evil, insane villains that even Superman could be proud of.
Champions Online has the potential to be a great game, and it comes close, but the title feels a little cluttered. The developers tried to add in so many elements that none of them stand out, and trying to bring any one of them to the forefront is like trying to find a silver needle in a stack of silver-plated needles. It is an overwhelming task, to say the least. Additionally, the graphics are as oversaturated as the gameplay and end up as a brightly colored, headache-inducing blur.
Champions Online has something for everyone, so when we get to the bottom line, I'd recommend giving it a try. The problem with having something for everyone is that when you try to make everybody happy, no one really is.
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