Saturday, August 22, 2009

Champions Online (not so) Mini-review

[Note: This was intended to be a short review, but it turned out a bit longer then I had planned.]

I've been a fan of the Hero games HERO roleplay game system since I was part of a play-test group in high school for the original Champions rules. I've also often lamented that the MMORPG developers could learn a lot from the traditional pen and paper game designers if they ever bothered to talk to them.

Thus, it was with some hope and excitement that I entered the Champions Online open beta last week.

Unfortunately, I guess I have to start this by saying I'm pretty disappointed with the game on a number of fronts.

Because I have the game pre-ordered I was sent an "early" invite to the beta... which began last week and is also open to anyone who goes to file planet. My pre-order "perq" came down to being able to dl a locked copy of the game early and get maybe a few hours jump on those who had to dl it when it "opened." Seems to me its more that I did THEM a favor by pre-downloading and decreasing the hit on their servers at launch, then the other way around.

But okay, so I log on and make a character. First thing I am struck by is the lack of options in the character editor. It seems very reminiscent of my CoH experience but with an even more limited the range of options then CoH at launch. To be fair, there are some options like tails and wings that only came later in CoH. But the range of clothing seems to have been proportionately reduced. Perhaps to make room for these specialty pieces in the art budget. Net effect is a narrow range of general costume options. Struggling and compromising, I come up with something that seems vaugely right for my character conception... a classic sneaky thief type ala Lady Christina in Dr. Who and the Planet of Death. A character type I've played many times in pen and paper Champions games.

Then I hit character stat assignment. Second disappointment. Unlike a pen and paper HERO session, I can't assign stats as I like. Instead I have to pick from a limited list of stat packages according to archetypes they pre-selected. They all seem distressingly combat oriented, but I finally decide that the "acrobat" type fits my character the best.

Next, I go on to pick abilities. The choice is again distressingly narrow and all combat focused. I pick a gun skill and a martial arts skill because this is supposed to be highly skilled human, not some mutant over-the-top power blaster or similar silliness.

For a game that was touting how open ended their character system is, this again feels distressingly like CoH redux ( but there was more range in choice within that system then in this one.) There I picked an “archetype" and then starting powers from that archetype All thats happened here is that it is turned upside down. As I discovered when I later got my first level, my choice of initial powers limited me to guns and martial arts for all future powers. So I'm still stuck in an archetype, its just that it was inferred from my initial power selections.

Alright. That was less then exciting, but maybe the game will play interestingly, I think...

More fool me. As I enter the tutorial it looks almost EXACTLY like the opening of City of Heroes. Im standing in the end of a blind alley-way and directly in front of me is a policeman with a "talk to me" sign over his head.

I won't go into details on this because I don't want to spoil it for people. The tutorial is a bit longer with a bit more storyline. And actually the story line is mildly amusing.... but it feels distressingly like a single player game as I move through it and I start wondering why exactly I'd pay monthly for a single player experience...

I finish the tutorial, complete with fanfares and trumpets about what a wonderful "hero" I am. And here I need to digress because there is a pattern. City of Heroes praised the players as "heroes" for everything they did... some of which was heroic like saving lives and some of which the heroism could be seriously argued like breaking into buildings and confiscating materials all without warrants or chasing down and beating up people on the streets just for belonging to a gang or having an unpopular political affiliation.

Jack Emmert likes to put canned applause in his games. Enough, Jack, really. The only people to whom this player-fawning game behavior has any value really need professional help, not yours. How about making a game for well adjusted adults rather then ill-adjusted 14 year olds?

But I digress. After the feelings-of-deja-vu tutorial I am sent into the “real game" and I go to "Canada." Again, the game play is remarkably familiar. I've been playing MMOs since their inception on AOL. And they are all distressingly the same. This is no different.

The HERO system is one of the most strategically complex roleplaying systems out there. As a HERO player I was hoping to see actual HERO mechanics in play. No luck. The game has me running around clicking attack buttons, and an occasional pick-up or respawn button. There is no evidence that is visible to me, the player, of the timing chart, which is a central part of the HERO system.

My only "maneuver" is the dodge key, which I have to hit and hold at just the right time. Close timing is not really a good idea for a game which has to deal with net-lag. This mechanic worked okay for me but I expect results will vary depending on net-geography of the players. In any event, there is nothing terribly strategic about this.

I mentioned leveling earlier. HERO system is a point system and incremental, there is no "leveling". The same cannot be said for Champions Online. It has exactly the same D&D derived level system every other MMORPG has. At each level you don't get to assign your own points but instead have to chose from a limited selection of new "powers" that are pre-built for you. This again feels a WHOLE lot like City of Heroes, and nothing like the Champions game I know.

About the only place the HEro system surfaces its head is in the stats of items you pick up. And yes, just like every other MMO it has items you acquire to improve your stats. Again, this breaks with the unified point-system of HERO and makes it feel like a D&D/D20 type game. The items are descirbed as stat pluses in somewhat HERO terms, but this leads to a new problem which is context. You have no idea how much "4.2 energy defense" is in the context of the attacks around you because enemies never reveal the stats of their attacks. This makes it a blind numbers game that could be ANY system underneath. Again, very MMO-like, very HERO-unlike.

Im not going to go on much further, I think you probably get my point that this feels like CoH II (and in some ways an inferior sequel) not like any sort of HERO game I was envisioning. But I can't end this without one last gripe...

The game is UG-LY. City of Heroes had some of the nicest, most believable looking human characters I've ever seen in a game. It still stands up well against more modern competitors with much higher graphics requirements like Age of Conan. (Though I must admit that Conan's environments are much lusher and more believable. Thats the prettiest human-scale game I've seen to date.)

Someone decided to go a different route with Champions online and make it more "comicbooky." Ugly cell-rendering draws thick black lines around everything and the characters are much flatter in appearance. To me, this is a step backwards. I couldn't get into WOW in part because of its cartoony look. This in its own way is almost as bad.

Now, it is reminiscent of some of the classic Champions artwork... but that was a game made back in the days when RPG publishing was an amateur garage-shop thing and you didn't *expect* art to look great. This is a big budget computer game. I want a virtual world I can believe in. And reminding me that its a comic book doesn't help that. On the other hand and to be fair, maybe what they are doing is putting me on notice that this isn't a game for me.. a mature thoughtful adult. That their goal is to reach 13 yr old pimply faced comic book junkies of all ages.

If so, then I have to admit they have succeeded well.


RGM said...

I was directed here by a mutual friend. Having had access to CO since Alpha, I agree with your points whole-heartedly.

About the only thing stopping me from disseminating this blog article further is the spelling.

I don't mean to be a horrendous spelling nazi (Heil Webster?), but the places I'm planning to disseminate this to are somewhat unforgiving.

And while spelling is unimportant, some people equate "sloppy" spelling with sloppy thought.

There any chance this article can be run through a spellchecker and updated? This is the sort of reaction by traditional gamers that certain individuals seem to be trying to...shall we say...gloss over.

CyberQat said...

I'll see what I can do to clean it up.

I generally post first and then re-edit over time. I know its a bit odd but it works for me.

CyberQat said...

I'll see what I can do to clean it up.

I generally post first and then re-edit over time. I know its a bit odd but it works for me.

Anonymous said...

Okay, first things first...

1) Cryptic Studios purchased the rights for the name and the settings of Hero Games for Champions Online. There was never an intent to actually try or use the Hero System for online game play. To think that they were is a fantasy or dream, and nothing more.

2) I knew pretty much right along, all that Champions Online was going to be a high end graphics "knock-off" of City of Heroes. Different setting, same game (but higher system requirements). Thank you, but As much as I'd like to fight Viper, Foxbat and Doctor Destroyer... right now I would have to build an entirely new system to be able to run it... so I'll pass.

3) And, to all the people out there that thought they were going to get the Hero System Online... shame on you. You should have known better.