Not Your Usual Review Site


The first thing I have to mention about playing Champions Online with the Xbox 360 controller is the sheer ease and intuitiveness of gameplay. I am primarily a PC gamer and although I do love my PSP / DS, I am not a console gamer of any great skill. My six-year-old nephew drags me around in LEGO Star Wars on the Xbox 360 and sighs when I double-jump, miss the ledge yet again and my character dies another horrible death. So I approached this hands-on preview of Champions Online at their Media Day with a little trepidation if not mild panic. How many different buttons do I have to mash to fire off that special attack?

I really should have been reassured by my knowledge of Jack Emmert, Chief Creative Office of Cryptic Studios. Jack is a long-time tabletop gamer and comic book aficionado, not a huge computer MMOG game player. He is the creator of the sidekick system, a concept that has been adopted by many MMOGs following City of Heroes. Also known as a Mentor or Apprenticeship system, it basically allows players of diverse levels to play together by raising and / or lowering their levels while grouped together, often with added bonuses to both players.

“Developers tend to design the game they want to play,” said Jack, “I whined about not being able to keep up with my friends playing MMOGs.” The sidekick system, according to Jack, is the direct result of wanting to be able to continue playing with friends. Keenly aware of the importance of accessibility in bringing players into, and then hooking them on a MMOG, Champions Online is designed with a low barrier of entry, featuring intuitive game play without complicated combinations of button-mashing on the console to achieve required results. To wit, the play on both PC and the console has to be fun.

I breathed a sigh, half of relief and half of disbelief when I saw the laminated controls card sitting by the Xbox game controller. Button combinations for that special attack? None. Instead, you build up an energy bar. Smaller skills / attacks build this energy bar while the more powerful attacks spend it, requiring a bit of tactical decision making on the player’s part as to when to spend that bar. Billed as an action oriented game, the combat of Champions Online takes a leaf (pixel?) from console games and is more active / reactive. Every enemy has a “shtick,” a signature move that telegraphs so you can prepare for it. Sure, you can ignore it and hope it doesn’t do too much damage to you, but you are better off blocking, a single button move, to avoid the worst of that attack.

Another characteristic of console action gameplay design used by Cryptic for Champions Online was the drop of “boosts” from enemies killed. These drops provide health, power, or attribute boosts to your character and to use them all you had to do was run over them. With drops, there is no need for inventory access for “potions” and certainly less need for healing / buffing skills. It looks like an excellent solution for Cryptic to keep the game away from “waiting for bars to recharge” and to provide for continuous action. These boosts look like they will also be a way for tuning on the fly, so to speak. If the encounter is too tough, more boosts can be dropped. If it’s too easy, cut out some of the boost drops. Boosts that a character cannot use will not be consumed, and care is required, as there are negative “boosts” as well. It’s a nice way to keep players on their toes and away from “boost rolling.”

My first character was a Brick. That is a tank, a strong man. Able to thump chest! Yargh! I digress. The character was wonderfully made. With large exaggerated upper body and huge arms, he moved like the Hulk. It’s a great show of what character customization can do. Hand to hand was my weapon of choice and I was strong enough to break up a bit of pavement and throw it at my enemies. I am, after all, a super hero. We had two scenarios to run through and somehow, I ended up with a Brick twice with no one willing to change stations with me.

The first scenario was an indoor boss raid. We were to infiltrate Stronghold and “contain” Menton, a new character developed by Cryptic, disposing of his guards and minions that were in the way. He was tough, so we died like rats, then re-spawned quickly and learned to recognize his shtick and run over boosts. We finally took him down.

The second was an outdoor scenario in Snake Gulch. We were met by Belle Steele who filled us in on the history of a playground gone awry, leaving a Canyon filled with robot cowboys toting electric lassos and saloon gals with really electrifying kisses that they could blow at you. We triggered a quest there and after destroying a bunch of these yard-trash robots, out came the mini-boss, Annie Oakley (or was it ASCII Oakley?), to see what was going on. Robotic of course. I threw a lot of rocks.

It is difficult to write a good preview of a game given only two short hands-on sessions on mid-level characters. I can report that the art is lovely. Art Development Director Shayne Herrera likens playing the game to “playing in a comic book.” It is highly detailed and yet has the comic book cel-shaded look. The customization promised is exciting, given that Champions Online is following up on the character customization we saw in City of Heroes. Customization of powers is in the works, and players can also customize their character’s stance and moving animations as well as set facial animations.

The controls were quick to learn, and with developers pointing out the “shticks” and boosts, the game was easy to play. Skills clusters are assigned to the game controller’s face buttons and swapped out using the right bumper. At the hands-on demo, we hardly had to swap out any. I surmise that, as skills scale, this will remain a constant but it may prove awkward if more than two clusters of skills are required.

This is an early slice of the game, and we were not shown much of the game interface nor anything else besides the quick action combat, pre-built characters and the humor in the game in the design of Snake Gulch. Champions Online will debut on both the PC and the Xbox360 in spring of 2009. If the action-combat scales up and down without adding too much complexity to the game controls, Cryptic has another winner on their hands.

by Carolyn Koh


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