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.