There's a wonderful moment, around an hour into the film Logan's Run, where there's a shot that looks suspiciously like a plastic toy car being pulled through a length of Habitrail hamster tubing. You either wince in horror – suspension of disbelief not just sent crashing to the floor, but taking the ceiling with it – or you grin precisely because it's so silly.
To those who have a soft spot for such things, it's endearing. A similar air of techno daftness abounds in Champions Online, Cryptic's superhero MMO which turned free-to-play recently.
Sadly, the game missed the mark on its arrival in 2009. While it delighted many with its freakishly free-form character creation, it fudged the early game with a bewildering stat system that turned many players off long before the first month was over. It was an overwhelmingly underwhelming start, and the game has travelled a rocky road through player revolts and balancing problems ever since.
Sensibly, fixing this unfriendly welcome is the first order of business for Cryptic in this relaunch. As a Gold subscriber, you can still create a fully customized character with all the tweaking this entails, while Silver players choose from a range of pre-built Archetypes. Eight are on offer immediately with a further two available for purchase.
There's enough variety in the basic offering to keep most players interested for some time to come. As his name suggests, the Inferno will appeal to devotees of blasting magic while the Solider provides the gruntish, gunslinger role. The Grimoire channels into the darker arts of sorcery. A full breakdown of entitlements can be found on Cryptic's website.
Some premium cosmetic items and travel powers are also excluded from character creation but there's still the staggering set of options that so impressed us all at launch. With only one faction in Champions Online, there's more freedom for outlandish creations. You don't need to be evil in order to produce a dark, brooding character with arching wings that suggest a menacing death by pointy things. Or why not create a Playboy bunny with pink furry ears whose laser bolts possess the power to transform enemies into teddy bears? It's likely that your first few hours with the game will be spent playing with these options, an experience that justifies the download in itself.
Millennium City feels like a vision of the future seen from the fifties, where the secrets of the atom have only just begun to be probed. Somewhere in this world – you're quite sure – there are fresh-faced women wearing starched aprons, whipping up a batch of cookies for their husbands while mutants rip the head off next door's dog and futuristic, angular Chevys glide past the windows.
Gangs of pimped-up hoodlums populate the streets as civilians run in terror. Bowler-hatted miscreants reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange keep watch on the docks. Oh, and there are mimes. Mimes you can kill. The missions themselves have enough variety to drive the story forward, without feeling as though you're simply running circuits around a city repeating the same work ad infinitum.
The soundtrack keeps the faux-seriousness of the action chugging along delightfully. If you've ever owned a Casio keyboard, you'll be well acquainted with the sound effect button that does an impression of an electric guitar. Little touches like this and the drum-and-rawk riffs between mission hand-ins pepper the game's music, and the vibe sets the scene perfectly. It may be a little too generous to describe it as Bond-esque, but it's certainly good enough to be Dr Evil's jogging music.
While the crafting system was never revolutionary – more alchemy and experimentation than raw manufacturing – it's something that at least needs to receive lip-service in order to make an MMO feel complete, providing another level of customisation and a pleasing addition to advancement. Again, Silver members pay nothing for the same access as subscribers.
Aside from content expansion packs, limitations amount more or less to mere inconveniences. Having one bag rather than the premium four means you'll find yourself visiting the vendors and bank more often. Limiting the number of slots on the Auction House means that the more devoted economists will come out decidedly poorer than they'd prefer – unless they dip into their own pockets.
But, overall, the free game is extraordinarily generous, and this extends into the player-verus-player instances where a separate queue is provided for those with only Archetype characters at their disposal. It must have been tantalizingly tempting to consider combining these two in order to create feelings of weakness or limitation in the Silver players, nudging them towards a subscription. Cryptic is due no small amount of kudos for resisting that temptation.
The frantic PVP action feels decidedly more Counter-Strike than counter-spell and the areas are tight enough to support this play-style. And just in case you've been out of the loop for the last decade and are thinking, "You know what, how come nobody's ever thought of putting zombies in a game?" then yes, the now obligatory zombie component is in there. Sneaking around, blending in with the invading NPCs and taking shots at the heroes left standing – and unchewed – is incredibly fun stuff.
It's not all plain sailing though. Repetition of interior instances takes some of the shine off the overall experience. Pretty though the scenery is, if you look out of the corner of your camera's eye, you can sometimes catch cars with their pants down, stuttering as they roll along.
The controls require a certain amount of bedding in, as they lacks the crisp responsiveness of some contemporaries. At first you'll find yourself playing as you imagine your granny would – deliberately pressing one button before hanging a finger nervously over the next one, wondering if something terrible will happen if you carry on. Or even anything at all. (This of course is the very reason why Nintendo can afford to build its next regional headquarters out of gold-plated plutonium.)
Until you learn to adapt to the combat, there's a distinctly unresponsive 'rubber-key' feel to the game. Eventually though, once you've settled into the game's slower rhythm, it all comes together. Actions become more deliberate and consciously timed, you learn to look less at your cooldowns and take in more of the visual clues.
It's an adjustment you'll need to make quickly, particularly during the first dozen levels which feel a little imbalanced and decidedly un-heroic. After this point, with a bevy of Archetype powers at your disposal, you feel less vulnerable and more able to deal with the stickier situations you find yourself in.
If you find yourself rather guiltily feeling that you should throw some money Cryptic's way, additional purchases for the game are made through the Cryptic Store. Atari Tokens are available in bundles of 500, 1000, 1500, 2000 or 5000, with the best value being the latter at £37.50 (€44).
Some of the offerings – such as variations on the freely available travel skills – feel somewhat overpriced at 420 points. For 320 points, you're likely to want a little less random in your 40 Random Gift Boxes before parting with your money. But the necessities of a convenient life are more obtainable, with additional bags priced at 200 points.
Long-term, Cryptic is likely to find more profit in the Archetype offerings at 920 apiece, or the 420-point optional Adventure packs. With these significant exceptions, everything else amounts to largely cosmetic enhancements and you'll play a long game before you find this a problem.
There's an argument that pricing shouldn't come into the evaluation of this new sub-genre – and with good reason. "Extended Trial That Ends Up Amounting To Much The Same Thing As a Subscription" doesn't quite set marketing hearts fluttering in the same way that a bold "Free To Play" legend emblazoned across a publisher's website does.
But in the case of Champions Online, we need to make an exception. The greater part of its limitations are cosmetic and clearly laid out for you on a separate table, and there are no hidden surprises tucked away, poised to bring your enthusiasm and excitement crashing towards an invisible floor. There really is a lot of enjoyable game here for nothing.
If the traditional MMO studios entering the free-to-play market got together for a game of poker that would determine the fate of their relaunches, Turbine would be sat as rigidly as Steven Seagal doing that face. Sony Online Entertainment would be trying its best to play four hands at once without anyone noticing. Cryptic, on the other hand, would be playing with its cards face up, wearing a spinning bow-tie and sporting a grin so wide you could sail a ship through it.
Here, then, is the first not-quite-free, but very-nearly-complete MMO to take the brave leap into the unknown. Going all-in and showing much of your hand with little in the pot is a dangerous business. But if Cryptic has nailed the balance between content and currency, then it has also raised the stakes in the free-to-play game to the roof. That's something all MMO players should feel excited about.
8 / 10