Champions Online is a bit of a button-masher. That's not always meant as a compliment; but to the sizeable contingent of gamers out there waiting for a true action-MMO - yearning for a departure from the slow, formal mouse-click waltzes of traditional MMORPG combat - it should be music to their ears. Button-mashing implies speed. Button-mashing implies physicality. Most important of all, button-mashing implies buttons.
As we explained when we saw it at E3, Champions Online is a massively multiplayer superhero RPG being developed from the ground up for both PC and Xbox 360, and is scheduled to be released on both formats in the spring of 2009. It was demoed then on PC hardware, but controlled using 360 game pads; and that's exactly how we played it ourselves when we scored some hands-on time at last week's Games Convention.
Before you even get to the action, however, there's one button in Champions Online that you may never be able to stop mashing: the "randomise" button on the character-creation screen. Cryptic made its name with a character-creation system of unparalleled flexibility and depth on its first superhero MMO, City of Heroes (so much so that Alec wrote us a love letter to it). We expected Champions' equivalent to be powerful, but nonetheless, what we saw blew us away.
You start by picking your gender and some basic variables - height, body mass, muscle size. Then there's the more unusual "stance" - a set of poses and animations, from Heroic to Beast, that gives your character some personality and defines how it moves. We pick the crouched, lolloping Beast.
Then you segue into a bewilderingly vast set of options for tweaking details of appearance and costume design. We're short on time, so go straight for the randomise button - and something truly magical happens. Every press generates a unique and startlingly cool hero: an impish, horned demon; an alien being with a skin of reflective mercury and fireball for a head; a cybernetic warrior with skeletal robotic limbs. Champions Online is a simply inexhaustible factory for charismatic super-beings. It's with regret that we have to give up and plump for one, but we do, settling on a black-masked and clawed character with glowing eyes and a ridiculous turned-up collar on his catsuit, part Nightcrawler, part Deadman.
Selecting your super-powers isn't quite as free-form - or at least, not yet. There are eight groups of powers - Darkness, Ego, Electricity, Force Fields, Mesmerism, Might, Power Armour and Sorcery. At the moment, you're required to pick primary and secondary groups (Darkness and Force Fields please thank you), but content designer Aaron Saffronoff tells us that the finished game should afford more liberty.
"It's still changing, as we keep opening up the system and breaking down the walls," he says. "For testing and implementation purposes, they start out in groups - it's natural for us to test them in groups. Our expectation is that you'll be able to choose any powers at any intervals, with some exceptions. You might have to drill a little bit farther into a particular group in order to access its most powerful ability."
Each power has three levels, at the cost of one skill point apiece. Skill points will be awarded every level for the first 50 levels, so there's a constant choice between levelling up your skills and expanding your repertoire. We suspect many players - 360 players, at any rate - will go for the former, just to limit the amount of hot-swapping they have to do.
As it stands, skills are quickly allocated from your tray (this PC version has a standard skill-bar along the bottom of the screen) to the top three face buttons, with a trigger being used to switch between sets of three. Other buttons take care of blocking - an important part of combat - and jumping - which also acts as a modifier on your attacks, changing their animation and damage output.
To keep things from getting cumbersome, you won't want more than 6 or 9 skills allocated to face buttons at any one time. Saffronoff explains that areas of the game are being designed around certain skill sets, with the idea that players will tailor their control setup according to where, and what, they're fighting. It's an interesting notion, although we're concerned that it might lead to some sameiness and pigeonholing in the skill design - and there still needs to be a decent system for quickly accessing skills you haven't assigned. On top of this, Cryptic is looking into a system of button shortcuts for text-based party chat on 360, to supplement voice chat.
Skills picked, we jump into battle. At Leipzig, Cryptic is demonstrating a Stronghold for the first time - Strongholds are funny-book dungeons, instanced encounters designed for five-man groups. With the aid of some cheats, we find ourselves soloing the clinical white corridors of Teleios' Tower, a super-villain's lair in the Canadian Wilderness region. Teleios is a mad scientist whose headquarters is overrun with clones of himself, mind-controlled dinosaurs and radioactive gloop, and the Tower ends in a boss fight with a giant floating brain. Cryptic's talent for cooking up gleefully unrestrained silver-age nonsense shows no sign of dimming.
The basic rhythm of the game is this: hammer away at a single main power (firing bolts of Dark energy out of our fingertips, in our case) in order to build up a resource called Equilibrium, which you can then spend on the rest of your powers - we have telekinesis, a stronger energy beam, a force-field knock-back and others. It's a clever way of re-wiring the standard RPG resource mechanic so you always have something to do - always a button to mash. It's repetitive, but fast-paced and satisfyingly rhythmic; although it's not quite a brawler, positioning and timing are definitely more important than most MMORPGs.
There's a little more dynamic scripting and interaction than you're used to from MMOs, too; get spotted by a scout and guard-raptors will suddenly spawn around you in groups, while you can pick up and hurl level furniture at your enemies for a spot of extra damage. That said, it's not a radical departure, for the most part working on the same principles of "pulling" monster spawns and keeping an eye out for wandering patrols. Target-selection is simple and trouble-free at all times, and aside from health or buff pick-ups, regular monsters don't drop loot to slow you down.
"Whether it's PC or console, we're striving to introduce action to the genre," says Saffronoff. "Consoles just make it an easy door into that, actually. We're tackling combat for console by just giving players a reason to move around, and giving them some kind of visceral feedback for their actions."
What we can't get a sense for, in solo cheat mode, is how party dynamics will work when there are no set classes, and each player can mould their powers however they want. Experience with City of Heroes suggests that this will all sort itself out, somehow - but Cryptic isn't going to leave it to chance. You'll be able to switch between standard group roles that will accentuate that particular side of your character; for example, pick "healer" and your health will be lowered, and Equilibrium increased to make you both more vulnerable and able to heal more. There'll be no penalty or cost at all for swapping roles - you'll effectively be switching from "solo" to "party" mode, and picking which archetype you want to play each time.
A similar "good problem to have" that Cryptic faces is this: when it's possible to create such striking and individual character designs from the outset, how can players get the visual feedback of character progression through armour sets that is the primary motivator for most MMOs? "Obviously being able to show off your trophies, as it were - 'I've done this, look at me' - is a big part of every MMO," says Saffronoff. "There's a social aspect, a competitive aspect." Although loot is less central to this game, there will certainly be desirable costume elements (think City of Heroes' cape) that you'll need to unlock through expense or effort, though any of these can be turned off if you want to showcase your pure, original design. "There are going to be pieces of costumes that you can only get if you've accomplished a lot," Saffronoff reassures us.
It's impossible to get a sense of the scale of Champions Online from a poke around one instance, but what Saffronoff tells us suggests that Cryptic is, sensibly, opting for a relatively small number of relatively large zones at launch - all the better to fit into the game's tight development schedule. "The three zones we've already talked about" - Monster Island, the Desert, and the Canadian Wilderness - "we're delivering at least that many more," he says. "But each of those zones has several neighbourhoods in it, and each of those neighbourhoods has several areas where players can go. My expectation is that if you go to the desert, by the time you get to the end of it you'll have seen a huge variety of different mechanics, and even very different environments."
Beyond that, there's just a list of unknowns. Player-versus-player will be in at launch, but what form it will take is unknown. The exact skill and character development system is still being worked on. The business model - whether it will be subscription-based, whether it will focus on expansions or free updates - is to be decided. Cross-platform play is up in the air.
So is perhaps the single most exciting feature in the game - Nemesis creation. Every character will have an opposite number that you'll design yourself, encounter in the game - and even play. But Saffronoff won't be drawn on details yet. "On the tech side, we're committed to it and most of it's already in place," he admits. "But it's something that will be going through several iterations... there are so many things that could change." We wonder whether this feature might slip, but Saffronoff firmly denies it. "It'll make launch," he states confidently.
For a game - an MMO game, at that - that's due in six to nine months' time, Champions Online seems to be in a pretty fluid state. Perhaps that's just a reflection of the development process required by a title that hands so much flexibility to the player. At any rate, we're not that concerned. What we played was a little rough-and-ready, but punchy and sweetly moreish; a solid action-RPG - reminiscent, dare we say it, of the ahead-of-its-time Phantasy Star Online - graced with an extravagantly brilliant character creator. On consoles - at least until Sony rolls out DC Universe and The Agency on PS3 - it will be in a class of one.