Second Wind: Champions Online

Champions Online screenshot

I remember playing and disliking Champions Online when it first came out. My wife and I had the same reaction when we both thought it looked funky and played oddly. It was as though the game was attempting to be some sort of kitschy '60s-inspired comic book game, so it was hard to take it seriously. It just wasn't that much fun. Granted, that was a long time ago, and since then the title has changed hands, been patched up, and been smoothed over. I've played it off and on since my first experience but always felt it lacked... something.

I knew I needed to give it a second chance, and what better avenue to do it in than this very column? I've been really diving into it over the past few weeks, and I've discovered that the game is actually really good. And really fun. And that it looks good! I streamed it live just to double check, and sure enough, the game holds up well and made me so happy that I continued to try it out. I even subscribed! (Will wonders never cease?) So today, I want to tackle the game from a fresh, newbier perspective than the one taken in our weekly superhero column, A Mild-Mannered Reporter, where Eliot has been chronicling the playerbase's frustration with the game's content-update shortcomings.

Be sure to check out the embedded livestream later in the article. It really shows off how fun the game can be, as well as covers some of its finer details.

Champions Online screenshot

The first thing people are likely to say about Champions Online is that it has amazing customization. It does, of course. Inevitably I'll be asked how it compares to the late City of Heroes, but all I have to say is that in some ways it's better and in others it's about the same. The customization is a game in itself. Do you make a character who looks like you, or do you create the most outrageous thing you possibly imagine? I have been drawing my own comics and superheroes since my first copyrighted character in 1985, so I'm somewhat familiar with the genre. I tend to make characters that are extensions of myself or are some version of what I would like to be.

Champions Online is the perfect game for manufacturing the kind of character I like. He looks like me, a normalish, smaller guy who doesn't really have much to offer but a fighting spirit. Normally I go with some sort of superpower to give my character his edge, but in this case, I decided to go with technological advantages. My character is someone who has been given some relatively killer technology in the form of rocket boots that allow him to fly and special guns that allow him to shoot scores and scores of monsters. The character creator allows players to tweak every single little detail if they want. Personally, I go for a clean look and give up on extravagant outfits or typical superhero looks. While playing, I came across a lot of characters that looked amazing and a lot of other characters that looked like victims of the "random" button. My guy went without a cape and wears a bullet-proof vest instead.

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This customization makes the game perfect for roleplaying, but I was so busy having fun while doing different missions that I forgot to locate a roleplaying group. I've reminded myself to do so; I look forward to sitting on top of some tall building while having a conversation in character.

I think the key to having fun in combat is to find an ability that you really like to use. At first, I found the gun-slinging profession to be pretty bland. I was killed easily, and it took me forever to take down anything. Suddenly, though, I discovered how to use the "two-gun mojo" ability. I can choose a target, start firing by using my standard auto-attack, and quickly hold down the button to pull out two guns. As it counts down, the damage builds on itself and the mob is riddled with bullets. Before, I was simply pushing the two-gun-mojo button once and letting it go, so the ability was not allowed to do its job. Remind me to read power descriptions from now on, OK?

Questing is mostly fun, but it does become a bit tiresome to fly to a location, run and gun everything down, and then do it all over again. The stories are often funny; the quests are peppered with optional clickables and other interactive elements. But mostly I found myself a bit bored if I did only the standard quest line until I stumbled across the UNTIL HQ, a place that provided me with two longer story-type quests that took me a few play sessions to complete. One of them sent me into the jungles to take down loads of military robots and flying raygun dudes, and the other one sent me into a region of insanity, tasking with defeating an evil mastermind as part of a epic story arc. During these missions, I got to see just how pretty Champions Online can be. In some ways it's one of the nicest-looking games I have come across in a while. It must be this new gaming PC!

Champions Online screenshot

The biggest Champions Online sore spot for me comes from its payment model. It's what you might call a freemium or tiered payment model, made popular mostly by Western developers. It's my least favorite model because it does things like limit chat options or cut down on inventory space when you avoid the subscription. Whenever I am playing a game for an article and it has an optional subscription, I normally pay for it just to see what I am missing. I didn't really notice the difference mainly because I am concentrating on one main character and have no real need for many of the paid options. The free version will suit many players just fine, thanks to the fact that the cash shop is mostly affordable and sells individual items. It's basically an impulse-buyer's paradise, although I haven't spent much in it yet. I'm definitely eyeing one of the new vehicles and lairs.

The most important and attractive element of Champions Online is the ability to tweak the living heck out of your character if you want to. You can adjust each power, change costumes, write a backstory, tweak stats and perks, fiddle with color schemes, combine and use special items, apply buffs, buy potions, and basically spend the entire weekend just messing with stuff. It's a perfect game for min-maxers, a group that I do not belong to. Even though I have no wish to be at the top of the DPS meter, I enjoy the fact that I can play with different settings and items and will not feel overly punished if I make a mistake. I was given a free respec when I signed up for a subscription, and it appears as though re-rolling a character is not that difficult. You can also load up different costume sets and even transform into different creatures. The amount of customization is ridiculous.

Champions Online screenshot

Someone warned me on Twitter the other day to avoid grinding through Alert Missions. They are basically instant and always-on missions that a player can queue up for. Each character in the group becomes the same level, and the mission begins. I played through a few but quickly realized that many people just want to grind the mission and move on to the next one. I remember similar activities in City of Heroes from back in the day, and I never understood the attraction. I kept myself busy in Champions by performing the standard storyline quests, tweaking my outfit, learning which abilities suited my playstyle the best, and playing through optional missions like the ones I found in UNTIL. I had a blast the entire time.

Here's another perk to Champs: I can play it with my controller. Sure, there are times when I have to switch to the keyboard and mouse to cover different buttons, but the controller combined with some of my character's abilities gave the game a real FPS appeal. If you watch the video, you can see how the controller gives the character movement more fluidity. Now Champions feels like a pseudo-action-based title with fun graphics and tons of quests to do. I can't wait to see more.

MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!