The two Cryptic staff demoing Champions Online to us in a cosy meeting room in 2K's E3 suite are playing on Xbox 360 pads. They're playing on PCs, not 360s - the game doesn't have concept approval from Microsoft just yet, although the team are confident of it - but the pads are still a telling, and reassuring, sign. Champions is being developed from the ground up for both systems, and should work equally well on both. The console MMO is here.
Champions Online is the new superhero MMO from Cryptic Studios, creators of NCsoft's City of Heroes. It, or something like it, began life as Marvel Universe Online, before Marvel's licence and Microsoft's publishing support got stripped away - which makes it all the more odd to see it for the first time while Sony Online Entertainment's comic book rival, DC Universe Online, is being premiered a few blocks away at the Sony E3 conference.
That game has everything Cryptic used to have. Now the platform shoe is on the other foot, and Champions suddenly looks like an underdog, notwithstanding its new home with publishers 2K Games. But it would be foolish to rule Cryptic out of this race. An all-too-short demo shows a game that's getting the basics just right.
What it lacks in familiar setting - Champions Online is based on the Champions pen-and-paper role-playing series - Champions makes up for in smart, accessible combat design, and an opportunity to run wild with the exotic and jolly cliché of classic comic books. Cryptic bought the Champions licence outright, and can do whatever it likes with it. We're shown an area called Snake Gulch in the South Western Desert, where crazed steampunk robot cowboys with laser lassoos run riot in a lurid parody of Michael Crichton's Westworld, under the command of an electric gunslinger called ASCII Oakley, and overlooked by an prison in a permanent state of riot. This is exactly the right sort of place to start.
Cryptic is taking its mantra of total customisability even further than it did with City of Heroes, giving players free reign to choose any sets of power they want, without having to commit to any archetype or career path. The two characters shown are a vampish, life-sucking lady wielding giant pink energy swords, and an armoured brawler with lightning attacks and an expanding dome force-field that pushes enemies away. All the abilities we see are fast-paced and have no shortage of visual impact, and these characters are at just level 18 of 50.
Although the traditional MMO bar of numbered skills resides in the bottom left, the bottom right shows these assigned in a cluster to the game pad's face buttons. Several of these clusters can be swapped between using the right bumper. This could become cumbersome as the game gets more involved in the later levels, but at the low-to-mid-level we're shown, it seems to work fine.
Combat seems more rhythmic than tactical, with the emphasis - when it's not simply on smashing through as many bad guys as possible - on matching their signature "shtick" attacks with appropriate counter-skills. Shticks are advertised with a logo above the monster's head - a POW if it's about to explode, for example - and might take the form of a sudden lunge or sustained spread of damage-dealing in a cone.
As well as loot, enemies drop rollover boosts, which might recharge health or endurance (the resource for powers), or provide a temporary attribute buff. This is a smart inclusion of a morsel of console action game design, similar to that shown recently in Blizzard's Diablo III; it should help keep the pace up and the reward high, allow Crytpic to tune encounters on the fly, and reduce menu-dipping an inventory management. It's a sure sign of Cryptic's determination to make a streamlined and adaptable game from the ground up.
Much less encouraging is the game's interface, which is plain, flat and unappealing, and very hard to imagine gracing a TV screen. This will need plenty of attention before the game's projected release in spring. It has a cheapening effect on the game's clean cel-shaded graphics too, which is unfair. Although the fine black outlines can serve to emphasise how simple some of the geometry and textures are, overall Champions Online is a decent-enough-looking game, with strong, clearly defined character designs coming to the fore, as they should. Overall, however, it lacks polish and solidity; The Agency is already proving that a game can straddle next-gen consoles and medium-spec PCs and look smart, but Champions doesn't quite match that yardstick.
In such a brief glimpse, it's impossible to get a proper appreciation of the one thing that's most important to MMOs - the world. In terms of structure, Cryptic says that Snake Gulch represents a "neighbourhood", a persistent area open to all players that will run seamlessly into surrounding areas, although these will be grouped into larger themed areas - an island, say - that will be zoned. There will, naturally, be instanced areas for group play within these as well. In terms of style, all we can say is that it's a relief not to be shown the kind of bland, boxy city environment that dominates superhero games.
Not as much of a relief as it was to see those game pads, however. Not that we want to see MMOs divorced from their mouse-and-keyboard roots, but if they're going work on consoles too, there has to be a unified approach. Cryptic seems to understand that well, even if it can't yet say that the game will allow cross-platform play, and we're cautiously confident about the game's release in less than a year's time.