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I’ve always been a huge fan of the concept behind City of Heroes/City of Villains. I love the idea of playing as a superpowered hero or villain, designing my own custom character complete with backstory, and righting wrongs or committing atrocities in the name of justice or villany.
I was right there for the beginning of City of Heroes, played in the beta, and spent a good amount of time in the game. Ultimately, while I loved the in-depth character creator and overall aesthetic of the game, I became disillusioned with the repetitive mission structure and lack of variety overall.
While I have reactivated my account on several occasions, the game never hooked me the way World of Warcraft did.
When I first heard about Champions Online, I was incredibly stoked. A fully-realized superhero game, backed by a classic, respectable license, by the designers of City of Heroes, what’s not to like?
After playing the open beta, I can honestly say: quite a bit. I’m not expert on game design; I’m just a fan who saw enough in his open beta experiences to decide that perhaps Champions Online is not all I had hoped it would be. Several factors combined to convince me to change my mind about the game.
This isn’t a full review, rather one player’s experiences and opinions about the open beta experience.
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One thing that always turned me off about City of Heroes was the frequent performance hiccups I experienced while playing it. Constant lag spikes resulting in rubberbanding are one of the most annoying aspects of any online game. Combine this with flying quickly across a cityscape and it was not uncommon to frequently find myself magically teleported backwards several yards.
Flying, super jumping, or running at super speeds through the city are the things that make a player feel like a true super hero, and performance hiccups in these areas can really pull you out of the experience.
City of Heroes was the only MMO I’ve ever had this problem in (aside from the early days of Star Wars Galaxies), until I played Champions Online.
So much of Champions Online is clearly lifted from the City of Heroes (more on that later), but I didn’t expect they would copy the bad as well as the good. It’s ridiculous that I can’t move across a zone at high speeds on a very decent machine, especially when you consider that all of the zones in Champions are intstanced, and few contained more than 60 or so people.
Speaking of instances, how annoying is it that you can’t simply jump into a zone and hope to find your friends there? I absolutely refuse to believe that Cryptic couldn’t have done a better job with the system than to force me to communicate with friends outside of the game in order to get into the same zone and play together.
In today’s post-World of Warcraft MMO landscape, these types of performance hiccups are completely unacceptable.
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Lack of Originality
City of Heroes was a great game for its time. Unfortunately, that time was 2004. In 2009, gamers expect more. Champions Online is able to rise above its predecessor in many important ways (more varied mission designs, better graphics, better power customization), but utterly fails in others, borrowing far too much from CoH.
Before the start of beta, I eagerly devoured any Champions Online gameplay footage I could find. As I watched, I couldn’t help but notice a plethora of familiar animations, costume pieces, and sounds lifted directly from City of Heroes. I figured they were just placeholder elements, inserted into the trailers to flesh out aspects of the game that Cryptic hadn’t yet finished. I was wrong.
The character creator for Champions Online is basically lifted straight from City of Heroes. There are some significant costume piece additions, but it’s completely possible to recreate your favorite hero from the CoH/CoV days here.
Once you get into the game, you’ll notice many familiar sounds and animations as well.
When I buy an original game, I expect it to be completely original - not a dressed-up re-release of something I played five years ago. How well do you think it would go over if Microsoft released the original Halo with some updated weapons and a new map or two and charged a full 60 bucks? Or if Nintendo inserted a 3D Mario into the original Super Mario Bros and called it a completely new game?
Gamers wouldn’t stand for it, and I’m certainly not throwing down my money for what some would call little more than an expansion pack’s worth of new content.
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The Game World
The world in Champions Online is small. There are just a handful of zones, which are large, but the overall experience is an insular one. Throw in the fact that each zone is sparsely populated because of instancing and you get a game that feels far more single-player than MMO.
One of the best things about World of Warcraft is that Azeroth actually feels like a living, breathing world. You can travel from one end of a continent to the other without ever seeing a loading screen and you’ll come across anyone on your server who is in the same zone as you travel. This continuity makes the experience very immersive.
Champions Online is the opposite of this. You can travel from one end of a zone to the other seamlessly (well, other than the lag hiccups), but you’re going to see a lengthy loading screen if you try and travel somewhere else.
Forget about running into a lot of other people around your level who might be willing to jump in and help if you get into trouble. The zones are sparsely populated because of the instancing and the overall experience is a far more segregated one.
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Champions Online offers perhaps the most customizable character progression of any MMO. Any combination of powers from the game’s diverse pools can be realized, though not without sacrifices for dissimilar powers.
The problem with such a complicated system is that it becomes easy to hopelessly screw up your character. There are so many options to keep track of that even experienced MMO players will likely need a guide to keep it straight. Unfortunately, for those who don’t do their research, there is no full respec option in Champions Online, making it possible to completely gimp your character and be forced to start over.
There are too many stats to keep track of, too many choices when leveling up, and too much opportunity to massively screw up your character. There is absolutely no way this game will appeal to the coveted casual crowd when even so-called hardcore players can find it so confusing.
It's awesome to have options, but helpful to have some kind of guidance until players truly grasp the overall system. For example, which stats are most desirable? Which combinations of powers can be most usefu?. The tracks you can choose from are a good start, but more guidance (or a less-complicated system) would have been preferable.
The game is not necessarily all bad. There are some amazing features that I truly enjoyed, including: customizable powers, the ability to create your own nemesis, and the active combat system. The character creator is easily the most robust in all of MMOdom, even with the elements borrowed from CoH.
Overall, however, I found the experience lacking. I was expecting Cryptic to have taken all the good from City of Heroes, learned from their mistakes, and delivered a new type of superhero experience that stood head and shoulders above its predecessor.
What I got, unfortunately, was a rehash of five-year-old game elements with a glossy new finish and just the slightest hint of innovation. It’s possible I’ll give the game another try at a later date, I’m fickle like that, but for now I’m going to have to pass on Champions Online.