Last Sunday, I got to meet up with some of our awesome readerbase and try out the Serpent Lantern adventure pack with them. We also made the Massively supergroup, originally named "That One Massively SG." If you'd like to join, send a message in the Massively chat channel (titled Massively); everyone in the SG has invite privileges. As always, you can also send a message or friend request to me at @Auspicious.
Either way, our run through Serpent Lantern was cut a little short, mostly due to personal stuff (people have lives too!), but it let me make a lot of observations about the team dynamics in Champions Online. I'm not new to teaming in CO, but even I was surprised by the way the Serpent Lantern handles big teams.
The short answer is that playing with other people is fun, but feeling like I have no control over whether or not I die is not fun. After the break, we'll go through the long answer.
The cast and setting
In our group of five heroes, I played the healer. Our team also had one invulnerability tank, one defiance tank, and one other melee (I forget his build, sorry!). We also had only one ranged damage dealer; he had Personal Force Field as a passive, so even he was built to be fairly tanky.
The setting was the new Serpent Lantern expansion, and after I'd made my post about how Serpent Lantern was on the tough side, I began to hear why. Player feedback on the new VIPER enemies seems to verify that the lowest-ranking henchmen are the most fearsome due to their ridiculous pulson guns.
The problem with aggro
One of the biggest problems we had happened really quickly. I faceplanted at least once a fight, and often many more times. We had two dedicated melee tanks, so this outcome should be surprising. However, this is not really their fault. It's the aggro system.
Once a character is within a certain range of an enemy, that character is added to that foe's "threat list." If a character attacks an enemy, he is placed higher on that enemy's threat list. Some attacks can be used to increase the threat a hero generates. If you've played World of Warcraft or really any MMORPG released in the past decade, this system should not be a real surprise to you.
There's another way to get on the threat list, though. If you heal someone else on the threat list, you also generate hostility. Again, for those who have played World of Warcraft, this system should be very familiar. While it works just fine in a billion other games, it is a serious problem in a game like Champions Online.
Enemies deal lots of damage and attack in packs. One hero can be expected to take on as many as four or five enemies at a time; in a group of five, fighting ten, fifteen, or even twenty enemies at once is not uncommon. In CO, the maximum number of enemies a hero can attack with one strike is five. This makes it tremendously difficult for a tank to keep other teammates, especially healers, alive. I've always known about this problem, but with the exception of Destroyer's Robot Factory (which is a horrible wipe-fest in most teams), it can be handled by good teamwork and smart use of healing powers. Two tank-like characters working in tandem can control groups of ten or so without too much trouble and three can handle a ton.
"The dilemma is clear; heal the tank and die, or don't heal the tank and she dies. The smart answer is to do nothing. It's better that another tank attack the enemies and kill them than it is for you to try and save her."
The problem arises when people make even small mistakes. If even one tank gets tunnel vision, your group doesn't have three tanks, or a group of extra flying enemies spawn on top of your party, things can get into bad shape really quickly. If a healer dispenses even one heal in these circumstances, any extra foes that haven't been engaged will immediately target the healer. In some situations, it forces the healer to go into panic self-defense mode. In most situations, the healer simply dies before his defensive powers animate.
Even if your teammates do everything right, things can still go wrong for a healer. A single fully charged Psionic Healing can restore 3000 lost hit points, which is around a third of a good tank's health. A single level 40 henchman has a mere 1900 hit points. Even with high Presence, that Psionic Healing will generate more threat than can be generated towards those henchmen via damaging attacks. Even if Challenging Strikes are used on every attack, the henchman will be over half dead before enough threat is generated to offset that one heal. In the meantime, the tank may be taking hundreds of damage points per second. The dilemma is clear; heal the tank and die, or don't heal the tank and she dies. The smart answer is to do nothing. It's better that another tank attack the enemies and kill them than it is for you to try and save her.
The problem with Serpent Lantern
The words "pulson gun" have become akin to curse words on the CO boards. The new VIPER henchmen have a deadly weapon, the Pulson Gun, which deals truckloads of damage. On top of that, pulson guns also penetrate forcefields without damaging them and ignore a portion of their targets' resistances. As far as I know, evasion works normally against them, but since they are rapid fire weapons, they are pretty hard to dodge.
My secret weapon as a healer has been the power Mindful Reinforcement. It's not really a "secret," per se. Mindful Reinforcement is costly per click, but provides a large forcefield buffer, animates quickly, and has no recharge. In Sentinel mode it can be fired rapidly, due to Sentinel mode's fast energy recharge. Because MR doesn't actually "heal," it doesn't generate much threat. Enemies tend to penetrate through the forcefield somewhat quickly, but that extra health buffer lets a teammate heal herself, either with clicky self-heal powers or by killing enemies and grabbing Boosts. Mindful can heal an ally if enough time passes without the barrier breaking, but this is almost never a bad thing. It's important to watch out for it so you can be aware of incoming aggro, but the extra healing is more a benefit than a detriment.
The pulson guns wielded by VIPER henchmen ignore MR completely. Nothing is more frustrating than watching an ally die when he has over a thousand extra hit points of forcefield left. This makes my choices very binary, again. As a healer, being unable to prevent my own death (either from the tank dying and then dying afterwards, or dying trying to save the tank) is frustrating.
This is equally frustrating for the tank, as well. Having a power like Invulnerability completely rendered inert by enemy henchmen does anything but make one feel super.
The problem with open power selection
I guess at its roots, the real problem is this: why have a teammate that isn't a tank?
If I were to create an optimized team selection, I would most likely select four teammates with defensive passives and AoE damage powers, along with one healer. Damage dealers are superfluous -- there's no need for them and they die too quickly. Tanks don't really need to be protected, they're easier to keep alive as a healer, and they're more likely to keep the healer from dying.
The problem with open power selection is obviously this -- there's obvious, optimal ways to play CO. If I can choose between a hero with Electric Form and one with Regeneration, the obvious choice is the regenerator. Layering on more damage isn't all that important, even if it is fun, because it's too easy to make it harder to die and still deal damage at the same time.
What does anyone do in this mess?
"Having a power like Invulnerability completely rendered inert by enemy henchmen does anything but make one feel super."
These are issues I've struggled with for a while now. I realize Poz has stated that aggro mechanics are getting changed sometime reasonably soon. I realize that teaming is a smaller problem for CO, since teaming isn't as common. I realize that most players simply don't know how to team, which makes this issue much worse than it would be if players were actually forced to play well.
The first advice I have really goes to tank players. Pay attention. It is so vitally important that tanks in a team pay close attention to a fight in progress. Cone taunts like Shockwave are very good at grabbing aggro at a distance. Gigabolt and Shadow's Embrace are unlikely-but-great ways of grabbing enemies from long ranges. This could be applied to any game, but CO forces players to focus more on the screen. Don't just hit power hotkeys. Pay attention to the entire battle.
The next advice is for everyone else. Pay attention. Make sure that the toughest teammates go in first, and neutralize or hold big baddies that are already being engaged. Don't split your attention elsewhere. If you are doing something like Serpent Lantern, you will wipe your party if you don't attack with the rest of the team.
And lastly, some advice for everyone: until Poz fixes the aggro mechanics, slot a defensive passive.