Behind the Mask: The Endgame

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|11.04.10

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Behind the Mask: The Endgame
One of the common criticisms of Champions Online is that it has an incredibly shallow endgame. If true, this will be a very significant problem when the game goes F2P. When a large number of people with lots of time on their hands and only two character slots dive into a game without a deep endgame, the results will most likely be less than ideal.

This week on Behind the Mask, we'll look at what CO has and where it can possibly improve. There are some silver linings as always, but this week we're going to be pretty critical of the Champions endgame.
One month to 40

The level cap in CO is not very hard to reach. Even without an in-depth power leveling guide, it shouldn't take a player with a lot of time on his hands more than two months to hit level 40. The typical F2P grinder takes ages -- six months or more -- to hit the level cap. Normally this is a bad thing, but a longer time to hit the maximum level also gives players continuing incentive to play.

MMORPGs aimed at casual players tend to include level cap increases for this very reason -- developers want new content to be accessible, but they also need incentive. Raising the level cap sort of creates an artificial incentive, since players naturally want to continue to climb to new experience levels.

Currently CO development is headed more laterally, with the improvements to Westside, Desert, and probably Lemuria, as well as adventure packs anyone can play. These improvements are great, but these aren't going to help much for long-term player retention when Silver members will be limited to only two character slots.

The endgame grinds

CO does have a number of timesink grinds in the endgame. Although these things are staples of MMO gameplay, they are for the most part not very fun. The three crafted travel power quests take ages to farm (something around 200 hours plus for the first tier, unless exploits are used), and the rare Vibora costume drops have incredibly low drop rates and are rarely found in the auction house.

These tasks and a few others (such as Nemesis mission grinding or UNITY merit grinding) do provide necessary timesinks, but none of them is actually any fun. In other western MMORPGs, these kinds of grinds serve to fuel the greater endgame goals (grinding gold for repairs and reagents, grinding faction for better raiding gear, etc.) rather than being the final goals in and of themselves. This isn't universally the case (Guild Wars title grinding is a good example), but even in GW, title grinding is only one of many endgame things to do.

In CO, the primary thing to do in the endgame (besides roleplaying) is grind for a crafted travel power or costume parts.

I've been avoiding this issue for a really long time

Among people who play CO and especially former players, the argument against CO I hear over and over again is its lackluster PvP. I'm not going to say that PvP is a total joke, but because Champions lacks the class-based team PvP dynamics of other successful PvP games, it is hard to establish a real PvP scene.

Dueling is surprisingly interesting at the extremely high levels of play, but at the lower levels, melee characters just roflstomp players who aren't skilled at avoidance. Even in melee vs. melee, the battle is often more about who scores the first hit and less about who played the better game. Again, at the very high levels, this is less true, but for 95% or more of the playerbase, this is a huge issue.

Even fixing the issues that plague dueling (Laser Knight crazy reduction, Dragon's Wrath's being too good, etc.) won't completely fix PvP; Archetype heroes will not be competitive with top-end Custom heroes in PvP. Most high-end PvP heroes have a tiny handful of attacks (generally less than three) and a huge number of cross-framework defense or utility powers. Even if Archetypes blur the rules a little bit (giving powers like Resurgence or Masterful Dodge to heroes outside of the Supernatural and Martial Arts frameworks), heroes built with Archetypes will have too many attack powers and won't have the depth of utility needed to succeed in PvP at the top levels of play.

Even if a number of Archetypes are balanced with PvP in mind, that will still not fix the PvP issues. Team PvP is an utter mess. Teams are generally forced to resort to group spiking to the exclusion of all other strategies; there's not enough grantable team defense to stop a coordinated spike by two or more people. I mentioned a while back that I really wished CO had Protective Spirit, and how the existence of that one spell dramatically changes Guild Wars' PvP.

Protective Spirit aside, I'm not sure how to fix the team issues with CO's PvP. Even Protective Spirit would just encourage teams to run with Skarn's Bane (which removes buffs and ticks twice per second), so I don't actually have a good solution. It's a mess, and when a huge number of Silver players will want good, exciting PvP, this is a pretty big deal.

Not quite raids, but not totally off

Perhaps the biggest difficulty I have with CO's endgame personally is the lack of truly challenging team content. There is one really interesting endgame dungeon (Therakiel's Temple), a few poorly designed endgame lairs (Mandragalore, Andrithal), and two adventure packs that are better done solo or in small groups of two or three.

Let's go back and look at World of Warcraft. The endgame in WoW is entirely designed around raiding; PvP is an interesting aside, but it's very clear that WoW's designers want players to raid when they hit the level cap. What's even more interesting is that the actual raid difficulty has gone down tremendously since vanilla WoW. Extremely tough raids like BWL and Naxxramas are a relative thing of the past. In Wrath of the Lich King, it's clear that Blizzard wanted everyone in a raiding guild to down Arthas eventually.

Even still, WoW's raid design is a minor thing of beauty. Raids are designed with gimmicks, such as giving everyone in the raid a magnetic charge and wiping the raid if a positive and negative charged person stand close together. Virtually every raid in WoW has some trick; there are cool bosses that can't be tanked and require a mind controlled mini-boss to tank the raid boss. These little tricks aren't too hard to do in practice, but they all share a very important component: a single individual can wipe the raid (NSFW for language). That fact alone forces the team to work together towards a unified goal -- there is a real threat of failure in WoW if someone screws up.

In CO, there's little threat of failing a Legendary or Cosmic encounter. Even if one person makes a mistake, that person typically dies and the rest of the team goes on to win the battle. Therakiel's Temple has a few fights that require more finesse, but these generally require the whole team to screw up; most fights in Therakiel's can be saved by a pair of heroes who know the fight.

In my opinion, all Elite boss fights should be of this nature: sufficiently hard that a team must play optimally or wipe, possibly even needing a specific type of power to be present in the team in order to succeed. Elite bosses should require a full team of five to defeat.

I also think that Legendary gear (which drops from Very Hard currently) should only drop from Elite dungeons of this difficulty. There's no reason why the best gear in the game should be easily farmed by solo characters. Alternatively, only the final bosses (Luther and Nama) should drop the items on Very Hard, while the Elite dungeons have all rewards be Legendary loot.

I think that making tough endgame encounters that require a competent team would go a long way toward improving the overall endgame landscape.

Star Trek Online is getting it, so...

User-generated content is a regular buzzword these days, and there's nothing more fitting for a game as customizable as CO as allowing players to create their own stories. We know STO is getting user-generated content tools, so the framework is definitely being laid for CO to get them as well. I can't say for certain that we will, but considering the same kind of tools are also going into Neverwinter, it seems likely that CO users will see them as well.

Being able to play custom stories will be a big plus for many members of the CO community, so I definitely hope we get them. Hopefully, Silver users will be able to play (not necessarily make) user-generated stories, but we'll have to see.

Overall, CO has a lot of ways to improve its endgame. I think Elite lairs are the lowest-hanging fruit on the tree, but some attention needs to be made to other areas, particularly PvP, before the F2P version launches.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
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