There's no getting away from the fact that Champions Online is incredibly similar to City of Heroes, but with a combination of the digital gameplay of CoH and the tabletop sensibilities presented by the original Champions RPG, Champions Online is set to offer gamers a much deeper gameplay experience than any one of its individual ingredients could provide.
Champions Online finds your personalized character thrown into Millennium City as it is being overrun by the Qularr, insect-like aliens that have begun their invasion on Earth in the middle of downtown. With over 25 years worth of supplemental material for the Champions RPG to work with, the storyline here is quite expansive, and places you against individual super villains and groups of heinous masterminds set to take over the world and all those who inhabit it.
In keeping with the City of Heroes comparisons, Champions Online provides more story and character driven gameplay than its spiritual predecessor by focusing more on the individual heroes of the game than ever before.
As such, Champions Online offers untold levels of character customization, from the literally billions of possible combinations of physical attributes (height, weight, muscle tone, chin depth/width, eyebrow height/width, lips, eyes, mouth, legs, arms, and on and on it goes) and costume options (spandex, leather, matte or glossy finishes, multiple color wheels and various shades therein - you get the idea) to the incredibly detailed skill tree, it is nigh impossible for any two characters to be exactly alike, unless two particular individuals planned it that way.
At Gen Con Indy 2009, I had a chance to talk with Cryptic's Jack Emmert about the status of both the 360 and PC versions of Champions Online, the PC version of which entered open beta just a few short days ago, and is set to launch on September 1st.
Gamer's Intuition: What's the status of the 360 version of the game? The Champions Online FAQ list doesn't mention its existence... should gamers take this as a bad sign?
Jack Emmert: Our engine is fully compatible - you can play Champions on the 360, but right now it's in the hands of the suits and the business people that duel it out and figure something out. We really believe at Cryptic that the console is a place for MMOs to migrate to.
GI: As for the PC version of the game, we're still hearing the word beta thrown around a lot. Are you guys confident that the game will be ready for a September 1st launch?
JE: Oh yeah. You can play it now. Over 4500 people were in the last beta test – I'm not even vaguely concerned [about it]. We've already launched MMOs before, so we’re a little bit more battle tested.
GI: Some recent MMOs - Age of Conan in particular - had strong starts, but because of unfinished and incomplete areas in the game, crashed and burned shortly after launch. How will Champions Online be different?
JE: So I have a different policy. We stopped developing new content for the game last October. I thought it was more important to have less good stuff than more mediocre stuff. So what we did is just respond to player concerns and improve the game based on their feedback. And I think that it was a good decision because the game got a lot better as a result. And thanks to beta players who sweated the bad stuff, it helped us make it good.
GI: So that brings up another question: what sorts of inclusions to Champions Online did players react negatively to, so much so that you had to remove them from the game?
JE: We had a combo system that wasn't very fun. We had an item system that wasn't very good. Character creation had to go through several different revs.
GI: Real-time combat games can often slip into the realm of button mashers, especially when there is no "auto attack" command, which Champions Online doesn't solely rely on. How have you worked to avoid this button-mashing outcome and keep combat entertaining and fulfilling in the long run?
JE: So we have auto-attack on your basic attack that builds your energy, and then the rest of the attacks you hit [individually]. It's certainly much more fast paced than WoW [World of Warcraft], but you won't find the need to hit the same button over and over and over again.
GI: I've seen you guys discuss the checks and balances associated with creating either a very fast ranged character or a super strong melee character, and how that factors into melee characters being able to chase down the speed-demon ranged ones during PvP combat. However, a fairly large portion of that conversation concerned the overall suggestion of "if you are that melee player, find a friend who is fast and ranged to help even you out." If I'm playing alone, however, how am I to handle said such situations?
JE: They're abilities that knock fast characters out of their super speed or flying characters out of the air. In PvP arenas, a slow, strong guy can just pick up things and throw them, and that can knock guys down.
GI: But that brings up another question: Is the ability to say... throw massive objects at the flying ranged characters going to be enough to give me a chance at defeating them? Or will they shake off the dazed state and zoom off again before I have a chance to catch up?
JE: Judging by the speeds - no - because things aren't that big in PvP arenas.
GI: In coverage from over a year ago, it was reported that death penalties would concern the loss or degrading of upgrades. Is this still the only real death penalty, or are exp points and the like now also affected?
JE: No, we removed that. We removed all of that. Instead, the longer you stay alive, you get stars, and the more stars you have, you get a slight bump to your abilities. But, when you die, you lose a star, but there's no penalty otherwise - you just respawn somewhere.
GI: Is there a possibility that the 6-month or lifetime subscription options will remain available even after the game has launched and spent some time on the market? Or will anyone who wants to get in on the discounted rate be forced to do so as soon as possible, rather than paying on a per-month basis to see if they are ready to invest that much time in the game?
JE: I can 100% assure you as of Sept 1st, after open beta, those prices are gonna go up. So, open beta - you're gonna know exactly what the game is, so I want everybody possible to either play or get on the boards, make your best judgment, but then after that, we'll definitely have six-month and lifetime available, but the prices will be higher.
Judging by the incredibly crowded demo stations at the Atari/Cryptic booth, the game is already not without its share of fans. But, with a game that will only be in open beta for a span of a few short weeks before launch, will that give potential gamers enough time to really sink their teeth into what Champions Online has to offer, especially to the extent that they'd be comfortable shelling out the $199 for a lifetime subscription? We'll find out soon enough.