Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

… and we’ll keep on fighting, till the end…

Well, I’m back from my business trip to Malaysia, and have had some more time to play Champions Online.  I’ll sort my thoughts into categories today, since otherwise I don’t think they’ll flow all that well.

Of Evil Twins

The Nemesis system in Champions Online is pretty well implemented by and large.  There are however a few areas where it can be improved.  At level 25, I’m told one gets a piece of mail indicating one should head to the police station.  I didn’t receive this mail, but had read about the system, so headed there myself.  The contact there directed me to log into the crime database and tell them about a criminal I’ve recently heard about… in other words, I was to create my Nemesis.

Character creation was similar to that I underwent to create my heroes, at least on the cosmetic side.  Sadly, there aren’t many options for henchmen, either cosmetic or mechanical, meaning your Nemesis’ henchmen won’t be all that unique.  I’d really like to see this changed on both counts, giving us options to fully design their look and also to have more input into their powers.  I understand that players shouldn’t have full control over their nemesis’ powers or those of their henchmen, since we’d end up with Nemeses that were far too powerful or far too weak.  Still, more control here would be greatly desirable.

Having said that, once the Nemesis is designed, the missions I’ve seen are great fun.  My character, Faefire, has a romantic rival named Frostmourne, who’s gradually turned into a lifetime foe.  Her grand entrance was suitably impressive, and I appreciated how she dovetailed into the plot that was already going.  The ongoing presence of my Nemesis has spiced up a lot of missions thus far; I don’t want to spoil the quests here so will just say that a) your Nemesis’ minions will appear from time to time and hassle you while you’re doing other things, and b) if you happen to move around a lot, very fast, it’s easily possible to bail as the Nemesis minions spawn, meaning they instantly despawn.  Several times now I’ve killed something, bailed rapidly (as is my wont), then as I flew away, saw some Nemesis minions running towards where I just was… as I tried to return to fight them (cause, hey, it’s my Nemesis!) I wasn’t fast enough, and they despawned into oblivion.  “Ha ha”, I cried, “witness the awe-inspiring majesty of my disintegration power!”  But then I stopped, cause that’s really more a supervillain sorta thing.  Heroes aren’t supposed to disintegrate people, it seems… antiheroes can, but they’re a wholly different issue.

Hero Games

I’ve played a fair number of Hero Games matches thus far (maybe 55 or so games) and by and large it’s a lot of fun.  The PvP comes in two flavours, to this point anyhow: team based and free-for-all.  The team based matches are 5v5, and are terribly, horribly susceptible to abuse from pre-formed teams, who use actual *teamwork* to fight opponents, even exploiting by focussing fire.  I know, can you believe it?

OK, all right, clearly there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact I applaud it.  What little teamwork I’ve seen has definitely made a huge difference in game outcome, as it should – one cannot argue that it isn’t all about the skill.

Well, skill, and taser arrows, and teleport, of course.  Cause nothing says “I deeply respect you as a player and want to show my appreciation for your time and effort” like chain-holding a player for 15+ seconds.  Nothing, that is, except for teleporting away, untouchable and unhurtable, whenever disaster looms.  I can honestly say that my character has been defeated around 35 times in all, both PvE and PvP combined.  And easily 20+ of those deaths have been at the hands of players abusing taser arrow.  I don’t use teleport, nor taser arrow, so have to rely on my non-flavour-of-the-month build.

How well does that work?  Heh.  My superhero is HEROIC, all caps most assuredly warranted.  Faefire can wade into a group of 5+ enemies at 3 levels above her and laugh at them while burning them to a collective crisp.  PvE deaths are incredibly rare for me (I think I’ve had about 4 or 5 now, and every single one came from me being cocky and pushing past common sense – e.g. “I wonder if I can solo those 5 villains at once?  They’re close enough for an AE…”).  I’ll talk more about builds in another post, but suffice to say that there seem to be a large number of very viable builds in Champions Online – and just a couple of powers that are unbalanced.  Rather than saying those powers are “necessary” though, what I think a player really needs is skill, plain and simple.  Taking advantage of line of sight, proper blocking, focussing fire, breaking the enemy’s morale… it’s a rare and pleasant experience to find a game wherein the PvP isn’t just a numbers fest, essentially controlled by whomever has the best gear.  In CO, gear makes a pretty small contribution overall to one’s PvP outcomes, and I must say I like that.

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.