Sunday, September 6, 2009

Champions Online

A boring, non-witty post title.

This is my thoughts and feelings behind Cryptic Studios' new MMORPG, Champions Online. It's a modern day superhero MMO set in the Champions universe (it's a niche pen and paper game). It shares a lot of stylistic similarities with City of Heroes/Villains, but that's bound to happen since Cryptic was also the development team behind CoX. Honestly, CO bears similarity to a World of Warcraft/City of Heroes hybrid, which is good and bad (mostly good, imo).

Visually, CO looks and feels a bit dated right out of the gate. While the models are shiny and fairly detailed, the particle effects and animations seem clunky. I'm not sure who does the animations, but they just don't have the same crispness or flow as characters in even dated games like Guild Wars. This isn't to say they look awful, but overall the game looks kinda average. It's still crisper and better looking than WoW is, but that's not really saying much - WoW is kind of an old game.

The (visual) character customization is good, and has a wide variety of character options. However, there were a lot of bugs in the character editor the last time I saw play at the end of beta that made creating a character and costume rather awkward. If you compare it to City of Heroes, there are simply not as many options. CoX has a lot of costume pieces to make a very unique character and build, and CO has many fewer. Compared to many other games (most?) CO still has a very large number of options. Compared to their competition, they're a little low, so I can't really see it as a major selling point.

Still on the visual front, I do not understand why a game made in 2009 can't have hair and clothing physics. Remember the 90s? It was okay for Lara Croft to have a solid block of plastic hair back then. Now there are numerous F2P MMOs that have real hair and clothing physics. A game released in 2009 in box that costs 50$ and has a 15$/mo subscription fee really has no excuse.

It's worth noting that Redefining Nerds doesn't usually talk about visuals in place of gameplay, but because CO's major selling point is visuals, I feel it important to point out how it stacks up. Overall, I think it's acceptable if you are into the other facets of the game too.

Gameplay is my area of expertise though and CO falls sort of short.

The first and biggest issue I have is the reduction/elimination of the support role. Defensive support, eg. buffs and healing, are reduced to maintained beams of healing that apply heals over time, instead of strategic healing bursts and pre-emptive damage prevention. All burst healing is self-targeted and all damage reduction buffs are self only. This takes virtually all the skill out of playing a support character, and forces a support player to focus on doing one thing, instead of multitasking to protect their team effectively.

In general, CO is very solo-focused. Everyone can 'tank' with a few stray power selections for survivability, and everyone deals at least decent damage due to the way the super-stat system works. The result is that even though there are dozens and dozens of powers in the game, every character falls into one of a very small number of categories:

1: awful
2: generic melee brawler
3: generic ranged blaster
4: God

Regarding #1 and #4 is my next point. The balance of the game is really awful. Even with a wide variety of powers, many of them are like Mortal Kombat characters - mostly the same, except a few are clearly better. Some powers are 'outside the box', and these range from mostly useless (gadget mines) to absurdly good. This huge disparity even between individual powers means that it's easy to end up making a character that does the exact same thing as someone else's character, only much worse at it. Combined with a complex statistic system which rewards minmaxing, and the average player is likely to produce a character statistically inferior in every way to an experienced one.

This leads me to my next point - you can only change the most recent ten changes to your character. You can't change anything before that, so if you get to level 20 or so and find that something you picked early in the game isn't what you wanted, there's no choice but to reroll your character from scratch.

Perhaps the worst of all of it is that there are a number of powers and abilities that are must-have. Even worse is that they form a core group of abilities that supplement other powerful abilities that are not 'essential' but are in the same power tree, making them available sooner. This means that in essence, that you can make "God," a build that can literally handle any problem and deal with any situation.

During the end of beta event where numerous boss Destroids spawned which required large teams to kill, we ran "God" in solo, and easily defeated the enemies without breaking a sweat. In PvP, the God build was able to defend itself against the most dangerous forms of PvP offense (knockback infinites) and completely ignore all other forms of PvP offense, all while delivering its own knockback infinites and huge spike damage.

On that note, PvP is really broken. Currently the metagame revolves around hitting the enemy into the corner with an endless knockback loop then laying down some pets or persistent damaging power (one of which has a pulsing knockback effect) so that the opponent can't escape. All other offensive forms, such as team spikes or landing a hold into a damage chain can be easily prevented by being aware and using teleport, which can escape any situation other than a knockback infinite.

Unfortunately for CO, there is also nothing to really challenge that build. There is virtually 0 endgame content for level 40 characters. This is the same problem that plagues City of Heroes right now (except that's an issue of 'worthwhile' endgame content). Most games have a decidedly endgame focus which is probably bad, but having nothing other than PvP to sate a high level character's appetite is just a mistake.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that at the end of open beta, CO was full of bugs. There were dozens of unfinished missions, incorrect help text for powers (or no text at all!), and numerous costume bugs. While I'm sure these will eventually get fixed, they were so low priority on Cryptic's list compared to hyping the game and selling lifetime subscriptions.

Overall I don't feel like CO was a game ready for launch. It does have a decent amount of potential, but honestly unless Cryptic hires some better developers to balance the powers, CO is going to be another totally imbalanced MMO with no insight into how to fix it.

That's assuming they fix the bugs, of course.


  1. What does this God build entail out of curiosity?

  2. The "God" build in the current meta utilizes a combination of some of the most deviously overpowered abilities in the game. The core of the build is created by the Molecular Self-Assembly power, which provides an infusion of 16% to your energy meter any time a power comes out of recharge. In addition to that, there is the Nanobot Swarm power, which reduces the recharge of any power currently in recharge by up to 30 seconds.
    This combination allows you to fill the rest of your build with a multitude of powers with short-to-moderate recharges, each of which can provide you with a significant active benefit in addition to infusing you with more energy any time they come out of recharge.

    The rest of the build includes self heals like Resurgence, Bionic Healing, Medical Drones, and Bountiful Chi Resurgence, giving you a perpetual method of regaining HP without the need of a silly passive like Regeneration. Resurgence, in particular, has a fairly long recharge, but is a guaranteed full HP bar any time you hit it, and the recharge can be cut phenomenally by the use of Nanobot Swarm.
    The build incorporates as many knockback powers (and knockup, and knocktowards) as it can fit in addition to a variety of pets. With those in place, you can loop targets with knockback abilities/patches, rendering them completely helpless while your pets tear them apart, allowing you to focus on managing your KB loop without the need of additional damage output powers (though some of the KB powers are pretty monstrous on their own).

    The pets you can choose are varied, but you can take most of the good ones: Munitions Bots, Command Animals, Summon Nightmare, and the previously mentioned Medical Drones. I toyed around with the idea of snagging Fire Snake, too, but it doesn't put perpetual damage or utility onto the battlefield.
    The Nightmare is integral, because it has a chance to hold targets, which allows you break out of infinite loops if you fight a similar build to your own, giving you the opportunity to turn the tables, or just reset the match.

    It should seem obvious, but the two crucial travel powers are Teleport and Acrobatics. Anything else is wrong.
    Teleport is pretty much an "I escape" button from anything except a knockback infinite (but that's what you have the Nightmare for).
    Teleport is also ridiculously overpowered with this build because it has a recharge any time you use it. If you use it without attacking afterwards, it has a 1 second recharge no matter what (see also: MSA gives you 16% meter any time you come out of teleport) and can be forced into another 10 second timer (another 16% ten seconds later).

    Lastly, you have some wiggle room. You can pick some spike powers, if that's your thing, but you're better of taking powers that leave a maintained effect on the field (preferably one that knocks down) so that you have a means of escaping from counter-attack in case you make an error. Orbital Cannon (conveniently from the Gadget set) is a good pick for this.

    Finally, there is really only one power that you need to be a damage god in PvE. Gauntlet Chainsaw. At level 40 it does roughly ~1,000-1,500 DPS in a melee cone in front of you, which can be maintained for several seconds. In PvE, this means you can kill... well, pretty much anything.
    In PvP, it means that if you can actually catch an opponent with it (lol melee), you get a veritable boatload of damage in a short span of time.

    With so many powers that have short or moderate recharges, which you are constantly using, you almost never need to actually use your energy builder, which lets you keep your knockback loop running perpetually without even the concern of fitting in builder attacks. ESPECIALLY with Teleport.

    Needless to say, this build incorporates basically no melee powers other than the Chainsaw, and that only because of how much pure damage it does.
    I think Auspice was just being nice when he didn't lump "generic melee" in with "awful".

  3. I was being nice.

    God build:

    Stat build is superstat end/int. Rec is useless, str is useful for chainsaw and uppercut damage if you get uppercut. Con is nice for more hp, but talent-wise you can run either str or con. Dex is nice for better crits but they're unreliable, ego is only good for hold resist (useless).

    You want to go deep into Gadgets for Satellite Beam, as it's a pulsing knockdown every 9s that will jack an opponent out of a kd loop. If they block the beam, they're not hitting you with an infinite. Win-win.

    Gadgets also has molecular self-assembly, which synergizes stupidly with teleport to give you a full end bar in 2-3 seconds if you mash teleport, and gives you 16% every time a power cools down. With a lot of end you can get a crapload of meter back to fuel essential powers.

    Next on the busted list, also in gadgets, is nanobot swarm which drops 30 off of power cooldowns with a ridiculously low 60s recharge, which can be dropped by int to like 40s or so. Crazy. It also heals you. It's bs.

    Gadgets also has 2 pets (repair and gun drones) that are really nice, repair drones give hands free damage mitigation and recharge very quickly. If you're ever hassled when they die you can just tp, run somewhere, tp a few times to build meter and resummon them. Gun drones are extra hands-free dps on the way to sat beam.

    The question is whether to burn a power pick to go deep in gadgets, or use the gadget meter builder. The fire meter builder is .3s instead of .5, which is ridiculously faster meter generation. If you plan on telespam to build meter, you can just go with the gadgets one and save yourself a power pick.

    On the survivability avenue, picking a support passive forces you into guardian stance, which gives you a 25% hp opportunity cost. That means you've got to run some more defensive mitigation. Resurgence is a must as it's a full heal and breakfree, but boutiful chi resurgence (martial arts) is net energy gain at medium endurance levels thanks to MSA and heal over time. Bionic shielding (also gadgets) also reduces incoming damage and heals you. Invul, in power armor, is nice, but not essential.

    After going 6 deep into gadgets (gauntlet, MSA, NBS, gun drones, heal drones, sat beam) then picking up BCR and resurge, you've got max 5 powers left. Nightmare from telepathy is insanely good since it is a pet with a periodic hold and it can be modified to stay out constantly until its target dies. You'll need that to stay out of a knock loop, even though sat beam is enough, it might expire right as you're getting knocked, or you might forget to reapply it.

    So 4 powers left, we already have a spike power with gauntlet chainsaw which can do like 3-4k damage with a full run. One knock power is all we need, really. I recommend iron lariat. We can also use uppercut post iron lariat to knock infinite. If you want to use knockback, you can use lash/pyre. If you'd prefer standard dps you can get more pets, too, like summon wolves or even the sorc ranged pets, since you don't really even have to move if you use iron lariat into chainsaw.

    Acro and teleport are obvious travel choices. Acro gives meter cost reduction (too good!) and teleport is a breakfree plus invisibility and a meter refill all in one.

    Oh, and you should probably get the supernatural chains hold (forget the name) since it's .6 with no charge, and has a pretty long hold time. Good people will TP out but it requires human reaction speed, so you can lariat, chainsaw, end a little early, hold, lariat recharges (+16% meter), then clean up with whatever damage you might have.