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.