To understand Champions Online, you have to understand Champions, which is the grandfather of pen-and-paper superhero roleplaying. Since it was produced during the '80s, comic books were a bigger deal, and I'm pretty sure that both Marvel and DC weren't interested in licensing their properties out, so the end result is that Champions wound up with a superhero mythology all its own based on heavy doses from both universes. Champions Online is the spiritual successor to the pen-and-paper game, allowing players to take the role of heroes defending Millennium City from the usual array of superheroic threats.
The good: The parts of Cryptic Studios that didn't become Paragon Studios were behind Champions Online, which means that a lot of CO is based on the things that City of Heroes either could not or would not do. You've got freeform powers, more active combat, world-hopping maps, and in recent updates, the game has started adding in vehicles and the like. It's also free-to-play, with the main limitation on free players being that you can't make a freeform character (without a pricey microtransaction) but instead must conform to an archetype. It also boasts a costume creator that's arguably even more robust than the creator in City of Heroes, if such a thing is even possible.
The bad: CO has always had a troubled history, starting with the fact that some of the features it has over CoH are sort of gut-punches in disguise. As it turns out, freeform powers made it remarkably easy to gimp your character without hope of an easy respec, and the combat system is kind of a mess. The game has since introduced a lot of fixes and changes, but it's still bearing some scars from its earliest incarnation. There's also the simple fact that this game clearly loves its cash shop in a way that CoH never did, so expect to spend some coin there even if you are subscribing.
DC Universe Online
Sony Online Entertainment's entry into the superhero genre is also the first MMO boasting one of the big two as a licensed universe. This is the DC universe you know, albeit only in broad strokes; you don't need to know what's happening in the latest issues of Batman, but you need to know who the heck Batman is. You play as a hero or villain, working with the heroic heavy-hitters or the big names in villainy in plots that essentially run through the greatest hits of DC Comics.
The good: DC Universe Online isn't just licensed; it's licensed in the universe that allows for more crazy sandboxes. More than that, it's got an action-based combat system that seems tailored to a console game and a unique way of handling character powers and abilities that's distinct from the two games with their roots in Cryptic's development braintrust. There's also the simple fact that it's available on a console -- always a bonus for players who like to have options.
The bad: DCUO broke a few of the major trends with superhero games, starting with the fact that you can't begin the game by going nuts in your costume creator. Costumes are unlocked through a combination of in-game equipment and previously worn equipment, which might make a little more sense in the long run but can be frustrating if you're used to CoH's open systems. It's also been criticized as being a relatively shallow game, with little to do at the top but grind for relatively minor enhancements. There's also the sense that you're always going to be overshadowed by the big names, since it's a lot easier to stack your character against Statesman than Superman.
In contrast to the other games on this list, Marvel Heroes puts you in the shoes of one of the eponymous heroes and lets you rampage through various Marvel-themed locations to take on Marvel-based enemies. There's not a lot more to be said.
The good: You aren't going to have to stack up against Spider-Man and Captain America in this game; you'll be playing them. Considering the breadth of the Marvel roster, I figure there's no shortage of heroes to choose between. Moreover, the game clearly wants to maximize the rush of combat between titanically powerful individuals, promising big explosions, big stakes, and big setpieces. And it's going to be free from the start, meaning that the business model won't have any awkward hurdles to jump during development.
The bad: Whatever trends DCUO broke are broken even harder with this game, which goes the Nexon route of making you play a predefined character rather than giving you any choice in the matter. Readers of at least one of my other columns will probably have guessed that I dislike this immensely. Beyond even that, the game really does look as if it's a Diablo-style game with superheros on top of it, which is not going to be everyone's cup of tea and won't really replicate the sense that you get from CoH. (That's not to say it'll be bad; X-Men Legends did quite well by slapping the X-Men into a Gauntlet clone.)
Oh, and it's not actually out yet. So you're not going to be able to move right in.
The Secret World
When I first heard about former CoH players going to The Secret World, I was a bit surprised; they're very different in many ways. But if you like the modern occult influences in CoH, you're going to like them even more in TSW, which takes that idea and runs with it. There are several sections of CoH that juxtapose a modern setting against occultism, guns, and monsters, and the parallels between being a gun-toting hero in Paragon City and a gun-toting hero in TSW are pretty obvious.
The good: TSW is sort of like New England Online, which means it's equal parts creepy and beautiful. The Circle of Thorns might be annoying to fight, but they're certainly flavorful, and in TSW you're surrounded by those sorts of magical cultists on a regular basis. There are also plenty of choices about how to handle all of the supernatural elements, not all of which simply come down to beating the crap out of the thing with tentacles. Fans of fixtures like Ouroboros and the Midnight Squad will have plenty of fun here.
The bad: This is not a game in which you are playing a superhero. Here, you are not a hero fighting against unknowable forces; you are an ant running around with other ants trying to control a world beset on all sides by anteaters. The shift in dynamic is a heady one. That's even putting aside the fact that some of the game's systems, such as combat and some of the investigation missions, are criticized as not being as ready for prime time as the release status would indicate.
So where am I going? I'm saving that for later. Right now, I'm going to implore comments to be sent along to firstname.lastname@example.org or left in the comments below. Next week, let's talk about Star Wars Galaxies. Because it's the same thing and it's not, at the same time.
By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.