To an extent, MMO games are all about pacing. Whether it's over the course of a one-minute combat or a hundred-hour levelling curve, their components and currencies - hit points, experience points, content, the hard-earned cash you spend on a subscription - are all measured and meted out against one thing: time. An MMO developer's primary job is to pace their game so that stuff to do and a rewarding sense of progression come to you in the same steady stream that money leaves your bank account. It's a complicated art, but not an especially dark one - and though few get it right first time, most are getting much better at it.
Champions Online's pacing is all over the place. Cryptic's superhero MMO serves a huge heap of wish-fulfilment to you before you've even started playing, ladles yet more onto your plate after barely an hour, and then lets it all go cold and you hungry for half the game's length. It has hundreds of missions, but somehow they're barely enough to sustain a single play-through, and they're stretched out over a handful of over-extended locations. It doles out character progression in terms that are hard to understand or notice; it constantly showers you in meaningless items, but rations exciting new skills with mind-numbing parsimony.
It's a mess, frankly. But it is a likeable one.
In contrast with most MMOs, the main reason to like it is immediately apparent when you load it for the first time. Champions Online has a magnificent character creator. Cryptic - which founded its reputation for superb customisation with its previous game in the same sub-genre, City of Heroes - wants you to be able to be able to design and inhabit the spandex underpants, scaly skin or cyborg exoskeleton of any super-being imaginable.
It's normal to sink hours into this compelling and only slightly unwieldy toy before you even consider setting foot in Champions' online world for the first time. After giggling at the series of impossible freaks conjured up by the "randomise button", you select the basis of your hero's powers from a well-rounded range of frameworks: might, archery, sorcery, gadgeteering, martial arts, telepathy and a dozen more. Although they dictate your initial strengths, don't confuse these with the set character classes of MMORPG convention - you'll be able to cross-breed them at will, according to your own mad designs, as you level up.
Then you begin crafting your look. Although the game's lurid aesthetic and slightly plasticky character models won't be to all tastes, there's no denying that Cryptic is steeped in four-colour culture, and there's ample room to create any kind of hybridised pulp hero. My first creations were a black-clad Errol Flynn archer with a cybernetic arm; a telepathic version of The Avengers' Mrs Peel with a fetching beehive 'do; and Good Egg, a standard-issue caped crusader with a hot pink tick on his chest and a featureless white orb for a head. I guess I'm a silver age man at heart. You can even write a little back-story for other players to peruse ("Locked in an eternal battle with Bad Chicken over who came first").
For anyone who regards MMOs as one of gaming's greatest arenas for self-expression, Champions' character creator is a standard-setter, and it has a profound impact on the game in a couple of ways. The first and best is the amazing spectacle of other players. There are a few too many muscle-bound demons and cyborgs running around, perhaps, but for the most part it's an endlessly entertaining parade of homages to and spoofs of classic heroes and archetypes, and a fair few eye-popping originals. Meeting people in Champions Online is always an event, whether you make friends or pass wordlessly while questing. It adds so much richness to the world.
The second consequence is very much a double-edged sword. The character creator lets you be exactly who you want to be from the start - but MMOs are normally about becoming who you want to be. Although you can unlock special costume pieces through in-game rewards, the chances of these being relevant to your personal vision are slim, and so, visually at least, you're set in stone. You don't get the bragging rights, you don't crave the invisible upgrades half as much, and on your login screen a long-time character is indistinguishable from one born yesterday.
So with outward appearance sidelined from the start, the main levelling carrot in Champions Online is the acquisition of new powers. A tier system unlocks powers in your initial framework quickly, in others more slowly; the tremendous utility you can gain from straying from the beaten path (adding a heal to a damage-dealer, say) is a good enough recompense for any loss in efficiency.
Experimenting on your first play-through is a daunting trip into the unknown. Balance is, unsurprisingly, far from a given, some combinations aren't all that workable, and while you can strip back any decision and redo it, this is pretty expensive. This has caused a lot of anguish among players, particularly those who got used to a bit more flexibility for less cost in the beta testing phase. But it goes with the sandbox territory, is a bearable price to pay for all that delicious freedom, and in any case will probably be refined by Cryptic in good time.
All the same, the choices are hard, and they don't come often enough. You get your show-stopping and staggeringly useful travel power - flight, superspeed, acrobatics, the wonderful Spider-Man-style swinging, the clever implementation of teleportation and more - at a mere level five, after completing a short, dense tutorial tour (an alien invasion scenario that rockets you efficiently through questing, an "open mission" and a boss fight). After that, you get just one new power every three levels.
It's like being served a huge slice of chocolate pudding for a starter and then finding out the main course consists of one spoonful of thin soup every half an hour. With Champions' dynamic combat system - which has an (only slightly illusory) action-game feel - and ambitions for a console release, you can understand Cryptic wanting to avoid smothering your screen in buttons. But unless you have a particularly single-minded design in mind, it simply takes too long to build up a rounded suite of basic powers for basic situations, never mind acquiring something a little special. And the effect on the already rather lightweight combat isn't altogether complementary.
Fighting in Champions is a matter of building up energy with an auto-attack, and then expending it on powers, most of which you hold down a button to charge, and then release. You can also block in anticipation of enemies' super-attacks, which are telegraphed with neat comic graphics. It's a rowdy sort of scrap, fun in small doses and a little twitchier than the dry clicking of most MMOs, but with far less to interest you in the long run.
What's more, the fact that all powers are either automatic or charge-and-release robs combat of some the tactile impact you'd expect of an action RPG. Combine that with the small number of slowly acquired powers, some of which might become redundant later in the game, and it gets old, fast. It's also a strange choice that the death penalty - and death, unless you stumble across a perfect build by accident, will be frequent - is loss of a "star rating", reducing your effectiveness in combat, and therefore making you more likely to die again.
It's possible, albeit difficult, to suck a little more long-term sustenance from Champions' RPG system. Based on the well-regarded tabletop role-playing game, this is a bizarre and not very intuitive table of strange stats (I challenge you to guess the properties of Ego and Presence sight unseen). Finding the right combinations for your character build is confusing and poorly explained at first, absorbing later on. You can spend points on these every few levels, as well as improving them through your nine equipment slots.
Speaking of which, loot is a problem. You don't see it, it's conceptually very weird, and you get a confusing array of incremental upgrades all the time through missions while substantial upgrades that make a discernible difference to your power are rare as hen's teeth. Items that have a special use - effectively an additional skill, often with a cool visual effect - are choice, naturally, but often mean sacrificing stats. As you approach maximum level, and face grinding repeatable missions or player-versus-player arenas day after day just for points that one day might get you one item, the sense of diminishing returns becomes acute. Crafting is a decent and quite diverting route to decent gear later in the game, but early on, it's only any good for one-shot novelties and utilities.
Does an MMO necessarily have to be an ocean-deep well of character progression to justify its subscription, though? That's a matter of taste, and there are surely players out there who want to enjoy persistent worlds in smaller doses, with less commitment and less tinkering. Champions' rough-and-ready combat certainly suits that style. All it needs to satisfy these players is fun and varied content to play, and enough of it.
Cryptic's hit-rate in this area is decidedly mixed. After the tutorial, you're chased off into one of two similar, restricted "crisis zones", which later open out into full-bodied and absolutely vast maps. But - and it's a very big but - there are only five of these in the whole game.
Of these, Millennium City is the mid-level centrepiece and by far the best and most original. While the others tumble into MMORPG tropes - poisoned wildernesses, unruly wildlife, rebel outposts - Millennium City is a proper, and quite spectacular, superhero's playground. There are dozens of satisfyingly-spun little tales in its mission arcs, there's an abundance of entertaining micro-dungeons for one player or small groups, and the urban geography is a breath of fresh air.
The overlapping pairs of the other zones (Canadian and New Mexican wastelands in the game's first half, the more colourful Monster Island and undersea Lemuria in the second) are extensive, but thematically quite dull, and over the game as a whole there just isn't enough variety. The silver lining is that Cryptic's decision to eschew servers and allow you to hop between instances of these maps at will can't really spoil the immersion of such a restricted and crudely divided world, so the positives - easy grouping with friends, or indeed anyone - far outweigh the negatives.
As for what's on those maps, it's mostly good news. They're thickly populated with enjoyably silly enemies with erratic, but not completely trivial AI. The missions are well-paced and sequenced for variety, and though they hardly defy MMO convention, they don't lean too heavily on it either. And they come thick and fast.
The trouble is, they go thick and fast too. MMO players may claim to hate quests that promote grind, but they hate grind without quests to support it even more, and Champions' short sharp missions, even in their multitudes, just don't generate enough XP. Opinions vary on whether there are any true "levelling gaps", but things are certainly stretched very thin at a couple of points in the mid-to-late levels. And what's even more certain is that there are only enough missions to support a single play-through, meaning if you want to create a new hero - surely one of the principal attractions of this game - you'll be doing absolutely all of it again.
There are a few other diversions. There are more substantial dungeons, or Lairs, for five players - but they only arrive in the second half. Given Champions' free character design, these can't really offer the same tight co-operative interplay as other MMOs dungeons. But they're terrific fun to smash through all the same, and Cryptic has thoughtfully included the option to switch any character between three builds that will skew its stats for offensive, defensive, support or all-round roles, making balanced grouping more plausible.
Ditto the mouth-watering chance to create your Nemesis. This is a custom-designed boss whose henchmen will occasionally and randomly mob you (this makes you feel special, but can be annoying), and whose missions provide some of the best fun later in the game, as well as some endgame rewards. The Nemesis could be Champions' most appealing and unique feature; if I keep playing, it will be because I want settle some scores with Bad Chicken.
There are the open missions, based on Warhammer Online's public quests: multiplayer staged missions that anyone can take part in. Many of these don't work properly at the moment, and the rewards aren't clear enough, so they're having a similarly hard time reaching critical mass even on Champions' large and busy maps. The random fracas of the player-versus-player Hero Games is fun but under-developed, and will probably struggle to sustain the focus on it as a source of endgame loot; ditto the repeatable, high-level UNITY missions. Most Champions players will probably gravitate towards collection and completism, the game's Perks (read achievements) and Action Figures (read vanity pets) being an appropriately nerdy, box-checking time-sink.
In terms of quality if not quantity, the game's content is a good effort, and it will be fleshed out. In a year's time, Champions Online has every chance of being one of the better MMOs out there, and superseding its estranged elder brother City of Heroes. Cryptic has proven its ability to make that happen, so all it needs are the resources and the paying audience.
But right now, it's just not quite enough. Technically rough (it doesn't run smoothly, in terms of graphics or lag) with lumpy character progression, shallow combat, a narrow world and thinly-stretched - albeit entertaining - content, Champions Online is off to a scrappy and threadbare start. As it stands, it's hard to recommend. But it's not hard to like - for the customisation, and for offering a genuinely different flavour in MMOs: a bit of poppy, disposable bubblegum in a world of nutritious gruel.
6 / 10