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Behind the Mask: A long, slow, rumbling

Patrick Mackey

One of the things I absolutely hate about comics is waiting. When I read Detective Comics regularly, I used to patiently wait while re-reading my old issues, wondering what was going to happen to Batman next. Eventually, I got into manga a little bit and was totally spoiled by the graphic novel format. Now I only read comics (or novel series) if I can get an entire plot arc in one shot. I hate waiting. Heck, I prefer to watch an entire TV season on Netflix instead of waiting for each episode to get released.

Unsurprisingly, I played through the first three issues of Aftershock, Champions Online's new comic series, before I decided I was irritated with waiting every week for the latest issue. I was sort of put off by bugs in the first issue of the series, and I decided that waiting for the final release would give the devs time to polish out the bugs. New content is new content after all, and when it's released weekly, it doesn't get a lot of time on PTS before it gets pushed to live.

Issue #6, The King is Dead, was released a few weeks ago, and the devs have put the finishing touches on Aftershock. How does it match up with the rest of CO's content?

A compelling story

One of the things that kept me coming back for new comics was a great story. Aftershock starts off a little slowly in the first issue, but the plot picks up quickly after that. At the end of each issue (except for issue #1) is a cliffhanger that makes you want to play the next one.

The story in Aftershock isn't very original, but it doesn't really have to be. It's pretty well-executed, and most of the side-stories are interesting to experience. The most fun part of Aftershock is that you're the center of the story. "Your own hero, your own story" is the thrust of Champions, and Aftershock really delivers on that front. Big-name heroes and villains are involved, but the player characters are the ones that move the story forward.

In accordance with being the center of the story, the player gets to make several big decisions. These can lead to some unlikely alliances as you explore the mysteries of Aftershock, but they aren't mandatory. Some heroes might not want to take the risks involved with helping bad guys out, and others might be the types to refuse help altogether. You actually get to make the decisions here -- it's in the player's control, and your actions are referenced elsewhere in the story. It's probably a far cry from SW:TOR's proposed story interactions, but it's fun nonetheless.

For those achievement-hunters out there, there's a perk reward for refusing everyone's help (including the good guys), by the way.

I think the coolest thing about Aftershock's story is that it is dependent on other events that occur in the game. You don't have to do Serpent Lantern or Demonflame to understand what is going on in Aftershock, but the events from those two adventures transition into the events of Aftershock.

If you were wondering what happened to Nama or Luther Black for instance, those questions are answered in Aftershock. We still don't know exactly what happened at the end of Serpent Lantern (specifically, who has the lantern now?), but Aftershock answers a lot of plot questions.

The story is also really faithful to existing lore. When you meet certain mega-villains, they're extremely dangerous, and only through outside circumstances are you able to handle yourself. You meet other villains too, and the game does a pretty good job of illustrating just how powerful they are -- through gameplay, and not through cutscenes.

Aftershock is pretty heavy on cutscenes. I've played through Aftershock a few times now, and every time I see the boss cutscene in issue #2 I futilely mash the spacebar because unskippable cutscenes are annoying. I feel the same way about literally every cutscene in Resistance, too; Aftershock is not alone.

The cutscenes are well done and voice acted, and they also include comic panels; little panels of comic art that pop up to show what's going on better in the scenes. Most of the panels are done pretty well, although the last time I played through, issue #3 was missing them. The most common ones to see are of people talking, but major actions also get shown in high quality comic art. It's a nice touch that works well.

Story versus gameplay

Aftershock's gameplay isn't an afterthought to the storytelling, though. A lot of the story is told through gameplay. For instance, in issue #4, you have to guide several NPCs through their traumatic past. Although one is a fairly generic combat scene, the other is a pretty cute mini-game that has you guiding an NPC through a hostile environment. It's more fun than it probably sounds, to be honest.

A lot of the actions are optional, too. For instance, in issue #1 you can engage some automated defenses to help you with the enemy. You can completely skip this if you want a challenge. Likewise, as I stated above, there is a perk reward for refusing all of the help in issue #3.

Aftershock also revisits some pretty cool enemies. One of them is an expanded boss fight from Demonflame, while the other is an old pal who skipped out a little too early the last time you met each other. Each of the boss fights is surprisingly more dangerous than I was expecting. When I was running it on Elite difficulty, one of the bosses lifedrained me so much that I was having trouble damaging him at all. I have Brute Strike with the Trauma advantage now though, ha! The battles definitely are a step up when solo compared to previous boss fights. They're not the boss fights in Therakiel's Temple, which are scaled for teams, but they give solo heroes a pretty good challenge. I haven't done Aftershock in a team, so I'm not sure if the bosses scale up very well. I suspect they don't.

Overall though, the mini-games and challenges in Aftershock are fun once or twice. I definitely found the cutscenes pretty annoying my second time through, and I tend to prefer Serpent Lantern-style content with huge mobs of tough enemies. I'm not sure what Aftershock is like in big teams; I suspect it's not as mobby as SL, though, which is probably a good thing for most people.

Overall, Aftershock delivers a great experience on the first playthrough, and while it gives a bunch of unique rewards that encourage players to continue running it, I didn't enjoy it as much as running through SL or Demonflame solo. I'll have to see how it scales to team size.

Another big problem arises, though; Aftershock takes a long time to complete. This is actually a pretty good thing overall, because it is a lot of content. However, it is long enough that getting a team to play through all of it might be kind of hard. You also can't quit in the middle of Aftershock without logging out or queuing for PvP, so if your group decides they want to go to bed, you have to either log out for 15 minutes or play a match of PvP if you want to go to Club Caprice and roleplay.

These are really minor grievances, though. Aftershock's story is well-executed -- even better than Resistance -- and the ending is sufficiently epic. Although in the end, the status quo is more or less maintained, you really do feel like you were a part of something fantastic.

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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