The biggest problem plaguing Champions Online as a whole is that it never really took off, which is sort of a circular issue -- it doesn't have a large design staff, thus fewer players jump into it, thus the playerbase stays small and it can't justify a larger staff. But one of the core reasons behind that becomes clear as you look at the game's methods for advancement, which are pretty much completely insane.
I'm not kidding. You've got advantages, specializations, talents, powers, super-stats, gear, modifications, and a complex interplay between all of the above that requires you to really understand the system before you can make informed choices. It's six or seven different sets of fiddly bits to do what most games accomplish with two or three. While the game does go out of its way to explain how each stat works and each choice applies to everything else, it's still got a whole lot of systems that aren't immediately clear unless you do a lot of reading or play an Archetype first.
What compounds that problem is the fact that none of these bits is extraneous or unnecessary. Keeping all of these elements separate prevents abuses or self-crippling, and I can't point to any part that doesn't need to be there. The whole thing works very elegantly, but it's not always clear how it's supposed to work until you've played with it a bit.
At the lower levels, the game suffers from being a bit unclear in direction. The whole low-level experience has been reworked, but it's still not very engaging; it feels like the most rote parts of City of Heroes without the advantage of cell phone contacts. Heading off to do alerts or adventure packs is an option, but the latter has some major issues with length (at least Serpent Lantern does) and the former isn't always reliable for progression. Do enough of either and you run the risk of losing track of where you should be going.
The game also can't quite decide whether it wants to be action-based or not. You've got the blocking mechanic, which is very active; you also have the overall combat structure, which is much closer to a traditional format. It feels like both are jockeying for position somewhat uncomfortably.
If I have to summarize the whole experience in one thought, it's this: A lot of the game seems to be at an in-between point, trying to do too many things at once and not specializing in anything. The result is that it can all feel a bit disorganized, and it's hard to jump into the game cold for just that reason.
And I'd be remiss not to mention the cash shop because seriously. I've designed four separate costumes only to be told after the fact that I needed to buy more parts for them to work, and I get roughly nine million lockboxes every second as a drop. Cash shops do not bother me, but really, guys.
Here's the thing: All of those bits of complexity I mentioned? They're all things I am more than willing to overlook because the game gives me every single tool I need to build a mind-shattering number of different heroes. Once you've read up on the stats, looked at the power sets, and figured out what you want to do and all of that, you can easily throw together character concepts that would never work in any other game while still remaining balanced.
Want a character with equal parts ranged and melee offensive skills? You can do that. Want someone with healing skills and melee abilities? No problem. Recreate a CoH archetype? That works. Create some crazy sort of tanking control character? You got it. The flexibility of the systems mean that while everything is very complex, it's easy to understand where to prioritize and what innate attributes will work for you, and the systems are all balanced well enough that there's no one power set that leaves you overpowered compared to another.
Well, all right, that's not entirely true, but the point is that nothing is grotesquely overpowered or underpowered. In capable hands, you can produce all sorts of characters and make them entirely viable.
That alone earns the game several points from me, but beyond that, there's the fact that the game has no shortage of things to do when you get moving. You can lose track of your direction, yes, but that is not entirely a bad thing. Most games keep your options very narrow for a long stretch, but Champions Online opens the gates to the kingdom almost right away. If you feel like striking off into the wild blue yonder with alerts as soon as you hit level 10, you can go right ahead. And you can keep doing most of these things all the way through, like a version of CoH with even more options to go off and just grab content where you want.
The game really does feel like the spiritual successor to our sadly departed friend, and that's the biggest compliment I can imagine giving to a game. It's a serious shame that more of the Paragon Studios crew didn't get snapped up to work on Champions Online because I think we would see something truly astonishing. At least I can look forward to jumping back in.
Next week, it's time for me to start jumping into the other major superhero title out at the moment, DC Universe Online, which is something in a very different vein (or so I am told). I haven't yet decided whether I'm going to be hitting that up primarily on the console or the PC, so I'm relying on you fine folks to nudge me in one direction or the other. Beyond that, feel free to leave your comments down below or mail them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.