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.