Champions Online Preview - Open Beta and About to Release - Thoughts and Analysis
by: Michael Hartman
; edited by: Michael Hartman
; updated: 4/17/2012
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This preview is written at the end of the final open beta of Champions Online This article looks at game in its effective release state. Pros and cons are analyzed and some areas of improvement are pointed out. The desperate need for full character respecs is addressed.
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Not Quite a Preview, Not a Review
This is not quite a review of Champions Online, but it is close. Look for a review soon! This section will eventually link to the full review of Champions Online, so go ahead and bookmark this page so you can check back shortly.
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A Note About City of Heroes
Cryptic's other Superhero game is City of Heroes. As it was their first game, and there are a lot of similarities, this preview will compare Champions Online (CO) to City of Heroes (CoH) quite often. That is simply because it is a logical comparison and it serves to illustrate points very aptly. Make note of those abbreviations (CO and CoH). They will be used occasionally throughout the article.
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Graphics in Champions Online
Champions Online is a pretty game. With that said, the graphics are nothing ground breaking. If the graphics are better than CoH, it is not by much. The power effects show evidence of a few more advanced high end graphical features, but that is minor at best. It is worth noting that the CO engine was designed from the beginning to support power customization, which is certainly a plus.
RECOMMENDATIONS: By default, the game comes with "comic book style outlining" enabled by default. In my opinion, this feature makes the game look terrible. It causes things to have a washed out, hazy look. I highly recommend that you turn OFF the comic book style outlining in your graphical options.
I also recommend turning off shadows or at least turning them down. The performance gain is huge, but more importantly the game just looks better. Shadows are really overdone and are incredibly obscuring of the otherwise nice looking environments (and faces).
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Controls in the game are well designed and responsive. If you played CoH or just about any modern MMO you will be familiar with the controls. Unlike Guild Wars, you can jump, which is an important bit of information for many gamers. Customization of keybinds and such are standard and expansive. The macro system is also similarly robust as the one in CoH.
One very interesting facet of the controls is the built in support for XBOX 360 gamepad controllers. While this controller is not "officially supported", it works quite well. You will need to use your keyboard and mouse for some things, but you can play most of the time with just your XBOX 360 controller. This is a nice option for some people.
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Champions Online User Interface
The user interface is clear and uncluttered. In a recent dev blog post, the Champions Online staff noted that they specifically hired someone a few months ago to redo and improve their UI. It would appear this was a wise hire, as the UI is quite good. There are a few major problems, however:
CHAT: Currently, you cannot add vertical size to the chat window. This is absolutely brutal. You can only see about 6 or 7 lines of chat. The net result of this is that people barely pay attention to the chat window. It is simply too small to read, and scrolls by too fast. This is something they need to put on a very high priority, as socialziation is the most killer of killer aps for MMORPGs.
LACK OF HOTKEY BARS: You get two hot bars for powers, and that's it. While that is enough for your 14 powers, it may not be arranged or organized the way a lot of people prefer.
FORCED HOT BAR ELEMENTS: This is worse than the lack of hotkey bars. You are forced to put your energy building ability in the first slot (#1). You are forced to put your travel powers in the two right most sections of your 2 hot bars. You are forced to put your shield in the first, left most hotkey. There is no good reason for these restrictions. Players should be able to decide where they want their powers and hotkeys.
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Newbie Tutorial and Early Life
There is a decent newbie tutorial zone, but it really doesn't spend any time teaching you how to use the user interface or the game mechanics. It seems to setup the story of the game more than the actual gameplay. Furthermore, there is currently no way to simply bypass it and start off at level 3 like you are when you finish the tutorial. This gets very tedious as the tutorial is engaging once, maybe twice, and no more. You cannot train levels during the tutorial, but you will be able to as soon as you finish it.
After you finish the tutorial, you can choose between the CANADA zone or the BURNING SANDS desert zone. It does not matter which one you pick, as you can travel back and forth between them. To put this in World of Warcraft terms, these are basically the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor of CO. Each of those two zones are filled with content in a wide range of levels.
However, when you first go to Canada or the Burning Sands, you will be in a slightly different version of the zone than what people see at slightly higher level. There is a chain of storyline quests that you complete to basically bring the zone to a slightly improved state. This is very similar to the pre-sundering version of the world in Guild Wars. This is like a second tutorial to some extent, but it is far more open.
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Character Creation and Customization
The character creator in Champions Online is definitely excellent. It is similar to the one in CoH with a few additional options. One of the few flaws is a severe lack of stock faces. While you can control many specific elements of your character's face (cheekbone size, jaw size, eye size, etc.) it is pretty difficult to get faces that look good and different from the one stock face. This seems to result in a lot of people slapping helmets on their characters.
More exciting than the great character creator is the power customization. You have full control over the colors for your powers, and as an added bonus you can control where many of your powers emanate from. Say you have a basic fire blast. You can have it shoot from the palm of your hand, from a fist, from your eyes, from your chest, etc. This really adds to the variety of characters and makes you feel more unique.
One excellent improvement over CoH is the fact that you can SAVE your costume to a file. This creates a .jpg image of your character with the actual costume details saved in the meta data. You can then load this data whenever you are working on a costume (in creation or even at a tailor). You can save costumes from the tailor as well. This is really handy as it allows you to save a specific state and work from it whenever you want. If you look at the image in your screenshots folder, it actually looks like your character is on the cover of a comic book. It is a nice touch.
The downside of this extreme customization is that you can very easily make a decision you regret a few levels later. Unless Cryptic creates a full respec option for Champions Online, there will be no way to fix your mistakes. Sadly, this casts a dark cloud over what should be one of the main selling points of the game. Hopefully they will see the light and add a reasonable, repeatable full respec option that is not super expensive or time consuming.
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Missions and Leveling Up
Leveling up in Champions Online follows the same World of Warcraft style quest grinding. You take missions, run to the objective on your map, perform a task, and return to the mission giver. Then you repeat until you level up. Fortunately, levels come somewhat fast so you do not get too bored of this setup. Sadly, fighting mobs or "street sweeping" is poor xp. They really need to balance that out. Not everyone likes playing FedEx delivery man running from point A to B for a little cookie.
Almost every level you gain either a new power, a choice of stat boosts, or an advantage point to enhance one of your existing powers. You also learn travel powers at level 5 and 35 which is very nice. You do not have to wait long for a travel power. They did not duplicate the miserable first 14 levels of CoH play as you crawl along waiting for your travel ability.
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What They Got Right in Champions Online
So far, it does seem like Champions Online got a lot of things right.
Early Travel Powers
Variety in travel powers (multiple types of flight, tunneling, etc.)
Status effects are not as crippling as they are in CoH.
You feel like a Superhero. Accomplishing this is not as easy as it sounds, and it is vital to making the game fun.
UI and controls, for the most part.
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What Could Go Either Way and Needs to Be Watched
Microtransactions: Cryptic chose to "double dip" and charge a subscription fee along with also having a microtransaction (MT) shop. Most MMOs pick one business moderl or the other, and do not try to make money in both ways. Cryptic insists the MTs will only be for purely cosmetic things, and anything that has a game effect will also be obtainable in game. Assuming that is true, that is encouraging, but it does not change the fact that other subscription MMOs provide the FULL GAME CONTENT for the subscription fee alone. The test will be how much content is made available to all paying customers, as a result of the subscription fee, rather than only to people paying extra for it via MTs.
Gamers should understand that the industry wide average cost per month, for bandwidth, servers, labor, etc. is about 25 to 50 cents per player. So the overwhelming majority of your monthly subscription is for new content. If you are not getting new content, then you are not getting what you are paying a monthly subscription for.
New Content in General: One of the biggest failures of City of Heroes was the lack of new content and new forms of gameplay post release. 5 years later, the game is still pretty much the same exact game with the same types of missions. If Champions Online hopes to be more than just a niche title like CoH, it will need to provide varied gameplay and new content additions over time.
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What They Got Wrong
No game is perfect, so of course Champions Online has flaws. Some of them are worse than others.
Chat is terrible. You cannot resize the chat window vertically, and the text size is way too small at high resolutions (and does not appear to be directly configurable).
Melee is significantly weaker than ranged.
Knockback is excessive and overused. Knockback protection is weak and too rare.
Some sound and visual effects are excessive and annoying. There should be a way to turn them off. In CoH, people wrote major hacks to the game engine to disable certain visual and sound effects. That is how seriously people take this, and how much it can affect overall game enjoyment. CO needs to learn from that and give people a checklist of power names with 2 checkboxes - one for visual effect, one for sound effect. They should default to ON, but you should be able to turn them OFF from your perspective.
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What They Absolutely Must Fix for the Game to Succeed
This section is as easy to write as it is important.
#1 Full Character Respecs: The lack of a full respec option is a glaring flaw in this game. As I explain in another article, Champions Online will fail or be a niche title if they refuse to add a full respec option. Extreme customization is not a benefit if your choices cannot be undone or recovered from at a later time. Being able to respec your last 10 choices is nice, but is cold comfort when the selection you hate was made 11 picks ago.
This missing feature is so crucial to the overall experience that I would be unable to recommend or give a positive review to the game if this problem is not addressed. The game is quite good otherwise, but none of that matters if you can easily ruin a character at an early level and have no recourse once you discover that fact.