We've written a fair bit recently - in rounds one and two of the Ten Level Test (more soon, sorry about the wait), discussing EVE Online's new player experience, and taking timid steps into the terrifying world of RuneScape - about the critical opening moments of an MMO. The first few levels can only ever scratch the surface of these vast games. But that's just it - their sheer mass is so imponderable, so intimidating, and so much of it seems so far off that they desperately need a bite-sized introduction that not only teaches you the basics of the game's systems and interface, but gives you a taste of what you're in for.
Cryptic Studios seems to understand this very well. The first five levels of Champions Online, sampled in a recent press beta preview, could well be the most concise and effective curtain-raiser for an MMO yet. In the space of a couple of hours, you're catapulted through combat basics and mission styles, bundled into an open mission - a phased open-world encounter in the style of Warhammer Online's public quests - and marched into your first Stronghold, or instanced dungeon.
Heroes from the Champions team introduce themselves and fight by your side, conveniently filling in the lore of this unfamiliar superhero universe, and at the end of it all you're bestowed with a character-defining reward: your travel power. After just one play session, you'll be flying, teleporting or super-jumping around Champions' clean-cut metropolis, Millennium City.
It's intoxicating stuff, especially given the rhythmic dynamism of the combat. But in a way, it's nowhere near as intoxicating as what comes before it: the character creator. Given Crytpic's track record as original developers of City of Heroes and its world-beating character editor, it's not surprising, but it's still worth celebrating.
It is, however, a bit confusing. Champions Online's main flaw in the early stages is that it doesn't explain its RPG system and how your character fits into it very well, and before you get to the delicious costume editor, you need to pick your "origin" and power. The origin determines your starting suite of stats - constitution, endurance, strength, dexterity, intelligence, ego, presence and recovery. Many of these are unfamiliar and their explanations are too technical, while the descriptions of the nine builds are, conversely, rather vague. It's hard to know exactly how your choice will affect your character's strengths and grouping dynamics in the long term.
Easier to grasp is the selection of power, which will determine your main combat skills and how you fight. Archery, gadgeteering and four kinds of martial arts line up alongside might, sorcery, power armour, telekenesis and eight others. It's a mouth-watering selection, and already hard to imagine being satisfied with rolling only one character.
Every conceivable option is offered as you mould your character's body and facial features; if you're not excited by the bald head and plain blue jumpsuit, hit randomise all a few times for a preview of the insane gallery of procedurally-generated super-freaks this astonishing creator is capable of. One of the options with the most impact is also one of the simplest: stance, a four-way choice between normal, heroic, huge and beastlike attitudes and animation sets.
But it's once you're into the costume options that Champions Online's character editor really takes off. 'Costume' hardly covers it - facial expressions, cyrbernetic appendages, equipment, logos, animal parts, wings and tails are all included. After a happy hour of fiddling I eventually settled on a slim, athletic Archer in a black leather catsuit and dashing red neckerchief, with an Errol Flynn moustache and robotic bowing arm.
If you can ever declare yourself satisfied and stop tinkering, enter the world and be introduced to Millennium City, home of the Champions super-team. It's under siege from bug-like, anthropomorphic alien invaders known as the Qularr, who've wrought enough destruction to conveniently block off the streets around a tight little tutorial area. A giant blue forcefield takes care of the rest.
The Qularr also serve as very numerous but still quite easy fodder for your hero (and other beginners - this isn't a solo instance) as you learn the basics of combat. This is something you'll actually have to do, as Champions has a striking, charge-and-release energy-based system that's unlike most MMOs and, for that matter, the majority of RPGs.
You still have skills, just a couple to begin with, but there's an important distinction between them; one does mild damage and charges up your energy, and the other expends energy for heavy damage. Also, rather than clicking these skills and waiting for predetermined cast times and cooldowns to play out, you're modulating the energy gain or cost, and how long the skill is effective for or how powerful it is, yourself. This is done by tapping or holding down hotkeys, or joypad buttons - Champions has been designed with the Xbox 360 controller in mind, even if the console version is currently off the radar. There's also a highly effective block that you won't need much in the early stages but will clearly be very important later on.
It's a flexible, rhythmic and satisfying scheme. It's easy, cathartic and fun to deal with large groups of enemies, even if the target selection is a little clumsy - and that's greatly assisted by the fact that enemies drop health, energy and power buffs. These really reduce downtime and keep the pace of combat high, close to hackandslash action-game levels, and in their way are just as satisfying as filling a bag with loot (although there's some of that, too).
Loot seems one of the weaker aspects of the game at this point; it's often hard to identify what slot the mystifyingly-named equipment items are for, and what benefit they'll have within Champions' initially obtuse RPG system. It's also hard to crave improvement to your appearance when the character editor lets you create such absurd and impressive heroes.
It's clearly in skill customisation - something you don't get to explore until the end of this five-level introduction - that Champions will offer its long-term reward and opportunities for showing off. However, once again, the skill-up interface - accessed from a database terminal - is a little confused and could use some clearer instruction and information. Champions Online's UI overall needs work - it's clear and attractive enough, but often doesn't offer the options and information you want, or where you'd expect to find it.
Before you get to spend skill points, you'll need to run through missions, mostly simple fetch-this kill-those save-them collect-that variants, although made more exciting by the dense enemy placement and brisk combat. Coming up on level 5, you'll be instructed to join an open mission, helping the hulking Ironclad repair and defend a giant cannon from the invaders. This works exactly like a Warhammer Online public quest, moving through three increasingly tough phases with differing objectives, although it's possible to solo with Ironclad's help. There's a player leaderboard at the end, but no loot.
Capping off the game's introduction is a solo Stronghold instance that has the player enter the Champions' HQ, which has been overrun by Doctor Destroyer and his robots - they've used the Champions' equipment to summon the Qularr invasion. Overcoming a mini-boss and some tight enemy groupings isn't too tough with the AI help, although you'll notice that long aggro ranges can make sticky situations tough to get out of in Champions Online - they're clearly tuned for the fast travel powers. Tiny, but well-staged and well-paced, this Stronghold bodes well for Champions' group content and set-piece missions.
Rewarding its completion with a travel power might seem a bit premature to City of Heroes veterans. But it's surely getting to create and fight your nemesis that presents the tempting medium-term levelling in goal in Champions Online, and there's a lovely logic to getting to set the seal on your character with another defining power - flight, super-speed, super-jump, teleportation, jet boots, swinging, acrobatics, ice slide or burrowing - at the end of the tutorial, and before stepping into the game proper. MMOs are rarely so generous.
All in all, it's a very encouraging start for Champions Online. I only had time for a brief glimpse at the content beyond these five levels, but it seemed of a similar density and quality, spread over much larger and more open zones (a desert and the Canadian wilderness). Cryptic has some work to do to clarify its interface and Champions RPG system - but the good news is that the raw, tactile accessibility and pace of the combat, and the bright, graphically slick setting more than make up for that in the early stages. We'll bring you more from the beta in due course as Champions heads towards its July 14th release.