It's a launch MMO.
Okay, let's cut to the chase. First things first, Champions Online at the time I am wriring this article is about three weeks old and still going through the initial teething stages that all MMO's do. There are bugged missions. There are random server crashes. There are some pretty silly imbalances. There are some things that make no sense, some things that should be adjusted and some voice acting that should be binned. There are a dozen things I could suggest over the course of the next few months to flesh this world out and make it more appealing, more dynamic and more enjoyable. It's a new MMO. That, sad to say, is how it always happens.
So you can't really judge it against, say, World of Warcraft. Or Age of Conan. They have had plenty of time to let the dust settle. Not can you compare it to Aion, which may be a new MMO for us in the West, but our good friends in the Far East have been enjoying this title for some time, so again it comes to us after being out for a considerable period of time. No, this is a new MMO, and should be judged on its own merits right now.
Champions Online started life in 1981 as a Pen-and-Paper Roleplay Game, and circled around The Champions, an elite band of superheroes defending the Earth in true Superhero style. So we're not talking about a licence that was pulled from no-where, it is as popular with roleplayers as Dungeons and Dragons, and on it's umpteenth revision of the HERO system. This is a universe that has, more or less, already been created over the course of the last near-30 years and as such the world, despite being limited, has a huge wealth of detail.
So, skirting around the licence, let us get stuck into the game. Because like most people, I had never played and truth be told, never even heard of the Champions RPG until I got my hands on this game. And in some regards, the first impressions I got were - this is rather like City of Heroes, although custom build is a nice touch and I'll get to that in a bit. The character creation, with so much choice and so many bits you could spend the best part of your first free month just making characters. Visually, it trumps City of Heroes though by actually going the extra mile and making it all look like a comic book. The bold, black likes and striking colours really do give it an amazing visual edge. of course, if you like it City of Heroes style you can turn these bold lines off and have it running plain, but why would you want to do that?!
The job system is usually self-explanatory. You have fire casters, psychic healers, gadgeteers, big mighty brutes and the like. Basically, you can pick any of your main job archetypes here and get on with things, there is absolutely nothing to stop you.
Apart from the custom building. And this, surprisingly, is where Champions Online makes good its promise.
Now yes, you can pick a gunner achetype and play it from a range, but say for example you get ganged up on? Later on in the Gunner tree you get aan ability to leap out of range, but what if you, say, whipped out a knife? Or pulled off a roundhouse to their face to buy you a second or two? That is perfectly possible when you start toying with the system. You have access to a tree faster if you pile your talents in, but equally you can for example grab a sword from the Single Blade tree to generate some energy, a quick gunshot to pull from the Munitions tree, then pick up a chainsaw from the Gadgeteering tree to blitz anything in front of you. It's when you start mixing and matching, taking a little from Column A and a little from Column B, that suddenly the game comes alive. Yes, you can have a full gun build. Or you could sacrifice an ability or two to grab an orbital cannon to rain down plasmatic pain on your advesaries. Yes, you could be a Matial Artist with plenty of chi moves, but when it gets too much you can grab a Psychic tree ability, charge it up and throw anything in melee range twenty feet into the air. Or you can be completely hyrid, grabbing shields and defensive abilities and enrages and gunshots and sword moves and build up an entirely custom build exactly as you want it.
Now, of course, this all sounds great and for the most part it really is, and it really is that wonderfully deep and open, but hybrid builds always run a risk of being a little short on power when it counts at lower levels, and it IS entirely possible to get it wrong. I did, a few times, before I got a custom build which people are now "borrowing" for their own enjoyment. But I don't encourage it, because yes I made mistakes but the joy is being able to experiment with a system with so many moves and stat choices. If you really balls things up though, retcon - undoing your choices - is really prohibitively expensive right now and should be something that Cryptic works on as soon as possible.
Also something that should be worked on is a couple of extra areas, just for a bit of difference. Flitting back and froward between Millenium City, The Desert (with the typical inclusion of Area 51) and The Canadian Wilderness (with typical inclusion of Bigfoot tribes). There is enough there if you look hard enough, and the Crime Computer will always detail where to go next for quests your level, but there are times when it does get thin on the ground and you just wish there was a hub or two more, or an extra world map in which you could just bridge the gap.
Champions Online is a game built upon the potential of its jobs system, and a smatering of lovely ideas. The Nemesis System, where your superhero can have their own nemesis, is a nice idea but fundamentally basic - there aren't enough personalities to really cover all the ideas people have, and whilst the system is a wonderful idea, a Nemesis has to have a personality - being a copy of a boss you've already run into is a bit of a cop-out. Equally, the crafting system is wonderfully simple but at times the results can be a little too potent and powerful, and therefore those in PvP and later in the game who have invested time in their chosen professions will clearly have an edge on others. The storylines are wonderful, yes it's all cliche but really, this is a game that not only does cliche but revels in it with reckless abandon for its own welfare.
And to go back to the start, it comes with all of the usual launch title niggles.
But what Champions Online is however is promising. There are lots of rough edges on the outside that the naked eye can pick up on with ease, but there is a rock-solid groundwork underneath it that can only get better with time. Being able to build a superhero, and give them abilities you want them to have, and being able to colour them to really stand out from the crowd - as well as earning new costumes, nemeses and perks and toys. The PvP, quite rightly, is about showcasing now only the default builds but those who have custom builds, and therefore no match is ever really the same - which is what you want in PvP, unpredictability (something WoW fails at by a large margin). The abilities need fine tuning, but for the most part they are solid and working and it is up to the player to get stuck in, get deep and get involved - and learn what works with what, when and why.
Which is what makes it quite unique. World of Warcraft and indeed, Aion and most MMO's have very fixed class systems, very considered ways of going about things. Champions Online seems to throw the rulebook out of the window and invites people to really let their imaginations run riot. What you'd expect to be anarchy and bedlam turns out to in the end be the refuge of gamers who actually, truth be told, revel in this kind of depth and openness. Which includes me, as soon as I hit my third level 18 and my custom build started taking shape, I was gone. Lost, reading up on the abilities to work them into my build, enjoying the world events, the game mechanics. It's a deep experience and those not accustomed to MMOs will, no doubt, drown in it all and be lost without a trace.
But Champions Online made me have an epiphany. I've tried Age of Conan. Lord of the Rings Online. Dungeons and Dragons. Final Fantasy XI. Saga of Ryzom. Everquest and Everquest 2. City of Heroes/Villains. Darkfall. Matrix Online. Sttar Wars Galaxies. Even Aion, having previously been a big fan of Tabula Rasa (which was fairly open to styles of play itself) I've had plenty of time with NCSofts latest. They've been fun, we've firted and dated and I always went back to World of Warcraft. Blizzard seemed to have it right, regardless of the abusive nature the game has with its userbase - it was abusive, but we dealt with it. But Champions Online has shown me a glimpse of a promising future, where we are not tied down to pre-set builds, or what the developers want, or what they think we should have. Champions Online is all about power to the people, the devs ask the players what they would like to see. The class builds can be tuned, tweaked and modified in ways most MMOs can only dream of. You see plenty of copycat characters of Lara Croft, Goku, The Thing, Superman - but equally, you see some fantastic looking characters you wish you had thought of first. The players have the power, and to paraphrase another great comic legend - with great power comes great responsibility. The players not only know this, but for the most part the zone chats have been pleasant, respectful and interesting as players work with other players to explore, divide and conquer.
It may be early days and it may even be a muted reception, but Champions Online is a small but very potent revolution in the making. There is so much potential, so much thought and attention to detail in everything, so many in-jokes, references and great ideas, that even in this early stage for a long-time MMO player like myself, I am in heaven.
And though I won't score it, here's my final thought for you all.
I have played World of Warcraft since release. Without fail. Without questioning. Champions Online has made me cancel my WoW subscription. I'm not logging on for achievements, raids or dailies. Nor to level. I'm logging into Champions Online for one reason - it is the most fun I've had in a long, long time.
And I don't for a second regret it.