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Review: Champions Online
by Greg Mengel

Champions Online is fun. Lots of fun. Oodles and oodles of fun. But it's not perfect. Allow me to explain the way this is gonna work - anyone who wants just the summary of my review, head to the end of the article now for the cliffnotes. Everyone who wants a more in-depth look at the game, read on.

First of all, for those of you who don't know, Champions Online is a brand-new MMORPG released by Cryptic Studios for the PC and Xbox 360 earlier this month. Its theme is superheroic in nature - you play as your very own superhero in a futuristic setting that almost - almost - resembles the North America of today. It resembles the future in the way Mel Gibson's The Patriot resembles the past ... very, very loosely.

Detroit, for example, has been transformed from the ghetto-infested slum we came to love in Tim Allen's Home Improvement into a bustling megacity, a regular metropolis filled with jobs and skyscrapers and renamed Millenium City. The only real similarity between this new, sexy urbania and modern Detroit is the city's gang life, which is just as reliably varied and exciting as it is today. Other familiar areas get cameos too - Canada is overrun by zombies and terrorists, New Mexico's houses radiation junkies and deadly robot cowboys and vixens, and though I haven't been there, I've heard that at some point you go to The Moon. That's right, the f**king Moon. I haven't been there yet... but I've heard it's nice.

The gameplay in Champions echoes some core elements of traditional MMOs. Fighting is like in other online role-playing games (auto attack, use an attack power, use a healing power, lather, and repeat), but it has one major difference - holding the buttons for certain powers allows you to utilize them in different ways. Confused? I'll elaborate. When heroes with munitions power set click once on the "Two-Gun Mojo" attack, they will fire two pistols at an enemy simultaneously instead of just one. If the "Two-Gun Mojo" button is held down, then the player will continuously fire the same two pistols at an enemy for a couple of seconds, causing significantly more damage to a target. Similarly, a block ability is only activated when a player holds down the shift button. It's like Cryptic took the general principles of the old MMO setup and moulded it into something completely different. The change does wonders to make gameplay more exciting, and I hope to the gods of gaming that other MMO designers take the hint and adopt it.

One negative aspect of the gameplay is its repetitiveness. Killing 50 mobsters and defusing a gravity bomb may be new and exciting for the first twenty levels, but after a while it turns into a grind. I don't necessarily blame Cryptic for having those quests. I don't think it's really possible to have the kind of MMO we know of today without it.

You can tell that the designers tried their damned-est to keep levelling up interesting, though. PVP, which gives experience in Champions, is fun and relatively balanced, and 'Open Missions' allow players to team up with whoever else is in the area to stop spur of the moment catastrophes, like an alien invasion or a mayoral assassination attempt. But the best feature I found - the crown jewel in Champion Online's tiara - is the nemesis system.

The nemesis system in Champions works just like the character creation system in the game: you choose your nemesis' powers, give it a costume complete, and give it a facial expression depending on its personality. The only difference is that when you create a nemesis, you also get to choose A) the look and abilities of their henchmen, and B) whether the nemesis is a maniac (à la Joker), a mastermind (à la Lex Luthor), or a savage (à la Sabertooth or Lobo). If you pick a mastermind, your nemesis is more likely to rob a bank or steal the Hope Diamond from a museum. If you pick a maniac, your nemesis if more likely to be burning down an orphanage filled with puppies. If you pick a savage, your nemesis is more likely to attack the closest thing he sees at any given time, just because it looked at him funny.

Between your nemesis and your hero, you'll find room to express your latent creativity in Champions. So far I've released my inner Van Gogh creating a gun-toting, trench coat-donning zombie named "Ichabod," a barrel chested Green Beret skilled in the martial arts called "Misha," and, my favorite so far, a seven foot tall communist dinosaur sorcerer wearing tights and a cape whom I've dubbed "Tyrannosaurus Red". Awesome. But so much creative freedom has its costs. Taking note of all the colorful costumes you see running through the streets in the game is like visiting your crazy Uncle Tom's acid flashback and not being able to escape. Many of the costumes I've seen, like a hulking werewolf wearing the tight pink skirt of a cheerleader, will haunt me until I lay on my deathbed.

The biggest problems I've encountered are lag, server downtime, and bugs. Problems with lag is the most common discussion I've seen in general zone chats besides LFG requests and arguments about Barack Obama. Server downtime is to be expected with any new MMO, but that doesn't make it any better when I sit down and log in at my computer expectantly only to find I'm downloading yet another patch. Which brings me, nicely enough, to bugs - this game is filled with them. More than I'd usually expect from a game on release day. But, that's what the patches are for. In a couple months, most of the bugs will probably be gone ... we hope.

That's enough general information on the game. Here's my conclusion, in categorical summary:

Good. A new combat system counterbalances some of the repetitiveness of levelling, as do Open Missions and a fun PVP setup. After three characters and 46 gained levels, I haven't stopped having fun.

No complaints. The world is aesthetically pleasing, and the audio effects are varied and engaging. Both give the game the unique feel of a world that really does belong in an old comic book. That's a plus.

If you like superheroes, very good. If not, probably just good. It's an MMO, so it's meant to be played for a long time. Unlockable costume pieces and an achievement system ensure hours of play time for the perfectionist.

Very good if you like superheroes, just regularly good if you don't, like above. The Champions universe has been around since the early 1980s, so it's pretty vast, and the game does a good job of tapping into it and bringing playing characters into the mythos.

Bad. But Cryptic is already patching them away with success. I don't see bugs being a major problem for Champions a couple months down the road.

If you like superheroes, Champions Online is at least worth a look, especially if you you've played an MMO beforehand. Its new gameplay system and nemesis creation options are refreshing, and could become milestones for the genre. All in all, I'm pleased with my purchase.


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- Greg Mengel

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