We are the Champions, my friends…

I know.  I know.  I said I wouldn’t buy Champions Online until a few months after launch, but I broke down and bought it anyhow.

So… initial thoughts abound.

First, there’s character creation.  I was as impressed with this as I expected to be… Cryptic has really taken the framework for CoH and expanded it severalfold.  I was a little surprised that some seemingly obvious options weren’t available, but then I remembered… more costume pieces can be unlocked in game and through RMT.  What we have to work with initially is pretty staggering.  I’ve made two characters already and have concepts for a handful of others, based solely on various costume pieces that made me think, “Hrm, I could design an interesting character around that”.  That, my friends, is always a good sign.

Next, we enter the game proper.  I think Spinks has caught some glaring omissions here, most notably customized NPCs and a character origin sequence.  Both are absolutely central to the genre and their continued absence is frankly surprising.  Why can’t we create sidekicks, mentors, love interests, and other NPCs who provide our character with context for adventuring?  Why can’t we use dropdown menus or radio button lists to select the flaws each NPC has, which will inevitably lead them to danger?  I mean, Lois Lane was compulsively curious and fearless, and the trouble those two qualities put her in gave Supes fodder for hundreds of quests.

Then there’s the character origin sequence (Spinks refers to it as “gearing up” but it’s really more generic than that – e.g. the Hulk has no gear of note, nor has Superman).  I’ll grant that it’s not feasible to have a protracted cutscene for every possible superhero origin, but even something like a Mad Libs-style minute-long overview would help put us in the shoes of our heroes and be a great way to start off the tutorial.  Select the nature of your powers, select how you attained them, select what you were doing at the time, etc.  This could scroll or be otherwise displayed on screen next to a picture or your hero.  This should come immediately before the tutorial, and help give us as players a better grounding in who our hero is, in a genre-conventional way.

One of the first things I noticed when I started playing was that the interface is a bit different from what I’m used to, and also lacked much explicit explanation, and consequently I had numerous questions that I’ve only slowly answered through trial and error and some degree of inductive reasoning.  It would definitely be helpful to e.g. tell the player that the basic energy-building attack need only be turned on and left on… for a while I was hitting the key really quickly to attack, and consequently (as I learned) I was only turning the power on and off and on and off ad nauseum.  I also didn’t realize that you couldn’t buy powers until out of the tutorial, and spent some frustrating time attempting to figure out how to buy powers.  Now I know that one must travel to a Powerhouse to purchase the various powers and talents that make a hero super.

I quite like the basic flow of combat, which is very fast and engaging.  The player turns on the energy-building quick attack and generates enough energy to hit the energy-expending powers, or which the character initially has one.  Both of my character have felt very powerful, and had no trouble fighting several henchman-class mobs at once.

The PvP minigame is very reminiscent of a WAR scenario, by obvious intent.  At any point a character can queue up for PvP, and upon queuing I’ve never waited more than 30 seconds or so before entering the minigame.  Basically, it’s a 5 vs 5 free-for-all, where the first team to get to 15 kills wins.  Brackets are apparently set up for lvls 1-10, 11-20, etc, and characters entering are automatically upleveled to the appropriate cap level, e.g. my lvl 8 hero was set to lvl 10 for the duration of the PvP minigames.  The action tends to be pretty fast and furious, with the obvious caveat that how things work will vary wildly from one team to the next.  I’ve been in games where we just slaughtered the other side, and games where my team ran all over the place with no coordination at all, and we got slaughtered.  I suspect that I’ve also had teammates remain in the entry area, instead of entering the PvP battleground itself.  Presumably these people are of the same ilk as those who logged into WoW and WAR battlegrounds/scenarios then went AFK.

Travel powers seem pretty fun, as they were in CoH.  I’ve only experimented with Flight to this point, but was duly satisfied there.  I appreciate that the first travel power comes at lvl 5, meaning pretty much anyone who completed the tutorial will qualify.  Both of my characters were lvl 7 or so by the time they finished the tutorial, helped in no small part by the Open Mission they each completed several times.

Open Missions are the CO equivalent of WAR’s Public Quests.  Basically, the concept was ripped off in its entirety, with the same basic structure and concepts.  In brief, upon entering the area for a Publ… erm, an Open Mission (OM), a player sees the goals for the current phase of the OM.  For the tutorial OM, there are 3 phases: 1) defeat 30 Qulaar, 2) grab 10 crates, and 3) defend the cannon for 2 minutes.  You can enter at any phase, and continue from that point.  Generally there are multiple other characters working on the OM so you just show up and carry on from whatever point they’ve gotten things to.  This is a great concept and one I always thought had a lot of promise in WAR… the biggest problem there though was that few PQs could be soloed, and so completion depended on having other players around.  Given CO’s shard-free design though, it’s easy enough to find a zone with lots of people in it if you feel like doing an OM.  I will note that the rewards given at the end seem to have two problems from what little I’ve seen thus far.  First, it’s difficult for a newbie player to know where the reward equipment is found.  This could be better indicated visually so that people can find it from a distance, which is especially valuable when the OM areas are larger, e.g. Canada.  Second, it seems that DPS is king for reward structures in CO, as it was in WAR, which leaves tanks and healers running far behind.  This can be ameliorated to some extent by the build system.

So what is this “build system”?  In short, it allows any character to define several different gameplay approaches and switch between them based on the situation.  Each character has an offensive build, a defensive build, and a versatile build.  Defensive slotted powers like Personal Force Field or Regeneration can only be slotted in the defensive and versatile builds, while some offensive powers can apparently only be slotted in the offensive build (I’ve not yet seen any such that I’m aware of though).  So e.g. a character might be a perfectly viable tank using one build, able to soak a fair amount of damage, and by switching builds, might be less invulnerable but more able to dish out rapid damage.  This is an excellent idea and one I hope to see developed further.

The graphics are quite stylized, not in the same art style but in a manner reminiscent of WoW.  CO looks very much like it’s ripped from the pages of a comic book, and I think the art direction and execution is excellent.  Some people have complained about the heavy black lines that outline characters, but I quite like them, so I didn’t turn that or any other feature off.

As for the game client, it’s run very smoothly indeed on my new system.  I wasn’t checking FPS (in part because I didn’t know the command to do so, which is apparently /showfps 1 to turn it on, and /showfps 0 to turn it off), but I didn’t notice any real issues.  I did experience a fair amount of rubberbanding, which is due to server-side lag (i.e. the server thinks my character is in a different position than my computer thinks, so I’m bounced backwards).  As launch problems go, this is fairly minor and hardly unusual.

I’d say this launch has gone very well by and large, from what I’ve seen.  More news to come as I get to spend more time in game.  I’ll be heading to Malaysia tomorrow night so it’ll likely be a week or so before I can spend much more time playing, but I am looking forward to it.

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