It's no surprise to anyone that City of Heroes currently has the superhero MMO genre pretty well under wraps. In a story fit for a comic book, however, a new contender is rising to the challenge the reigning champion, even though they were created by the same source. Champions Online is Cryptic Studios' new entry into the fray, and thanks to its heavy comic book influences and superhero flair, it seems that it might just have the muscle to win the clash of superhero MMO titans.
Everything about Champions Online looks like it was ripped straight from the pages of a modern comic book, from the art style to the missions. The game boasts a cel-shaded look with a heavy emphasis on linework to make the visuals resemble the medium from which they get their inspiration. The initial plot of the game features an alien invasion, which, in an uncharacteristic display of cunning for a comic book villain, hits the Champions headquarters first and hard, and these Champions are really the only ones who can stop the invasion. As a fledgling hero, you must rise to the challenge and repel the alien invasion while saving the citizens from their menacing drones. At the same time, you must also learn the gameplay, since it is all a fairly transparent and well thought-out tutorial.
That is getting ahead of yourself, as you must first create your superhero from a decent selection of archetypes and costume pieces. The most obvious comparison is to that of City of Heroes, and while the archetype system has less depth in Champions Online since you only pick one archetype and not a pair of them. However, there is a much vaster costume selection in Champions Online. To create your nemesis of evildoers everywhere, you can clothe your hero using a variety of categories, each with a smattering of options. Ultimately, we settled on a Green Arrow-inspired character, named her Broadhead and gave her the bow combat style before sending her off to fight the invasion.
Combat in Champions Online is quite a mobile affair and feels naturally so; in other MMOs, movement during combat feels cumbersome, if not counterproductive. Our nimble little archer had two main attacks, a sustained barrage of arrows (the total duration of which is represented by an on-screen bar so we know when to press the button again to renew the assault) as well as a sonic arrow. A reliable strategy was to engage enemies with the barrage and then backpedal or leap to higher ground to force enemies to engage us at range or follow us to get into melee.
The game has an interesting use of energy in that it is generated by your basic attacks and then used for your stronger ones. For example, while the basic arrow attack generated energy, the sonic arrow consumes a good chunk of it, and when the player is out of combat, this energy level slowly but steadily drops. This leads a bit more strategy to the proceedings; to fight some stronger enemies, it's not a bad idea to bulk up your energy bar on some weaker ones first so that you can start combat with the big guy with all guns (or arrows) blazing. To stay alive in tougher fights, player can utilize real-time blocking, during which players take only a small fraction of damage but cannot attack. Enemies often have tells in the form of certain animations or effects as to what attack they are about to do, and once you get the knack for blocking stronger attacks while taking the smaller ones, you can dish out some pain once the combat begins to click.
Destructible objects play a surprisingly large role in Champions Online, not because they can be broken but because they can be picked up, thrown and broken on someone else. The city is filled with mailboxes and the like, which can be picked up and thrown to deal heavy damage to a target; stronger characters will be able to heft cars around in the same fashion. While carrying an object, you can do nothing other than throw it, so blocking and other attacks are out of the question, but since even a lowly mailbox can often one-shot a foe, the tradeoff is usually worth it.
Characters don't get equipment, but you will often pick up augments for your offense, defense and support slots. These augments can be slotted and removed at will, allowing you to tailor your character's performance in a variety of ways. You will also get to utilize devices as temporary mission items and mission rewards, which have various effects, such as calming frenzied enemies.
Champions Online takes many cues from other MMOs in some of its quest designs, such as how any random Champions who wander near the Champions headquarters will take part in a public quest that consists of multiple waves of objectives followed by a scoring system that rewards the players who contributed the most. Quest areas show up on the radar as circles, with larger ones used for "Kill X" or "Find X number of Y" quests and smaller ones indicating when you encounter a specific NPC or enemy.
One aspect of the game that surprised us was the relatively functional use of the Xbox 360 controller to play the game on the PC. While the support is obviously official thanks to 360-specific button icons appearing while the controller is plugged in, it feels a bit cumbersome. It adapts well to the mobile style of the combat, and with some tweaks to the targeting distance and ability selection, it could easily be a fun way to play, which is odd considering how MMOs are usually the last thing you'd want to be caught dead playing using a gamepad.Champions Online is still in development and has some stability and animation issues here and there, but the game really grew on us. At a glance, it is easy to dismiss the game as a mere contender to the City of Heroes throne, but with its many enhancements and additions to the successful formula, Champions Online has the makings of another great entry into the genre. At the very least, it's the first superhero MMO that lets you pick up a police car and chuck it into a group of evildoers. That's got to count for something.
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