Last weekend, I took part in the Champions Online free weekend and played my brains out on it. Coming away from it, I can't quite say that we have a true sequel to City of Heroes ... because generally, things are supposed to change and/or get better from the original, in a sequel.
This is the second time a de facto "spiritual successor" has let me down in recent memory. The first is when Mythic Entertainment forgot everything they learned when making Dark Age of Camelot, and took RvR in Warhammer Online a step backwards (but with prettier graphics and a popular Intellectual Property). Now, despite adopting the IP of the Champions tabletop game system, Cryptic Studios (and the similarities in the naming conventions of the two companies here blew my mind) has basically remade City of Heroes... except they forgot to put in all the neat stuff they added in later. That's right.. they've recreated City of Heroes as it was at launch.
Now, I didn't expect to be able to play a villain, that's not what I'm talking about. But it would have been nice to be able to do randomly generated missions like CoH/V, and the best thing going for CoH/V were the bank robbery missions. But none of that sort of thing is present here. The entirety of your gaming experience is doing quests (oh, excuse me, missions) which always consist of "go here, kill this, get that, come back." There IS an occasional escort mission, about 1 every gaming area it seems. There's also no player-created "lairs" either. And you can just forget about the player-created missions that are keeping CoH/V going. Champions online did hop on the "public quest" bandwagon that WoW ripped off from Warhammer Online, but being 3rd to the party, it doesn't feel new and fresh, it feels expected at this point, and fails to earn any bonus points, if only because it's a paltry replacement for the missing safeguard/mayhem missions.
There are, of course, new features and tweaks that make the game slightly different, but in essence we have all played this game before. In fact, we played it before and there was more TO it. It's like going to a restaurant, seeing they have a new dish on the menu called "Steak 2.0," and you order it to find that Steak 2.0 (despite costing the same as regular steak) uses less seasoning, is a smaller cut, and comes with no sides.
To make matters worse, the champions online engine feels exactly like the City of Heroes engine that is almost 10 years old - despite removing a lot of the good content, they've kept a lot of the bad tech. The movement controls are just as clunky and laggy. The camera controls are just as jittery and painful to the eyes. And frankly, the most visible change in the graphics is a huge step backwards - all the postprocessing (including the impossible-not-to-notice "comic book outline" effect), in my opinion just make the game harder on the eyes. Turning all that crap off made the game look SO much better.
Speaking of new things that don't improve the experience, let's talk about the new "block" dynamic. Holding shift makes your character block. Blocking makes you more resistant to damage and status effects such as knockbacks and such. I can appreciate that they're trying to make a more action-oriented experience, but here's the thing about MMORPGs - the reason they took all the "action" out of them is because when 40,000 people are all fighting at once on an MMO server, there tends to be a little more latency than when there's 10 people on a FPS server. The reintroduction of gaming elements that still depend on timing (and that timing has to be validated at the server level) just draws attention back to that latency and ends up being an irritation rather than an enhancement (because if you DON'T block when you're supposed to, you risk total annihilation). So, even if it looks like you blocked in time on your screen, you'll still take full damage because the server didn't know you were blocking when it rolled the dice on the attack against you. Nice try, but I'm afraid no cigar there.
The good news is, if you liked the costume design and character customizability options from CoH, they're back and better. There are still irritating little things about it - like, for instance, if your superheroine wears a corset for some reason this precludes her from wearing a cape. But, on the whole it is still the same robust character design system, and your ability to customize your powers is also improved. There is nothing stopping you from "multiclassing" this time around.. IE, if you want to be both fiery AND magical, you can! Want to have wolverine claws AND guns? Why not! Super strength AND ray guns? Go wild! Your ability to take powers from each power pool is only limited by the fact that some powers require you to have a certain number of powers in that pool already, so it's more like splitting your spec in other games, but it is still possible to do so. It also seems Cryptic remembered that people like to be able to choose what color their powers are, and that is brought over intact. Travel powers are also cosmetically improved, allowing for multiple flavors of flight, jumping, speed and such. Rocket Boots, winged flight, fire flight, ice bridges, super speed, even tunneling... you name it, they pretty much got it. And you're allowed to "try before you buy" every power, because there's an in-house "danger room" type simulator that lets you fight simulated baddies (for no exp or money of course) to see if the power you are looking at is really what you want. Definitely a good thing there.
But the problem is, all the fun is in the creation of your heroes and not in the playing thereof. As previously mentioned, the missions get very repetitive very quickly. Another design decision that got carried across from CoH/V is the "the higher you level, the weaker you feel" dynamic - IE, my munitions hero could kill 3 henchmen his level without running out of energy at level 5, but struggles to finish 2 at level 15 despite having triple the energy reserves and having specced completely for damage (and energy)... and it takes much, much longer to do so. The game also does not refill your "energy" (stamina, mana, whatever) while you are in combat - you have to do that by using whatever your chosen power pool's "energy refilling" attack is - which is almost always a low damage channeled attack that replenishes energy over time. Healing is an absolute joke - you'll spend an entire bar of energy to heal perhaps a quarter or half bar of health on a single target... and because there are no dedicated support power pools, that means your group is out the damage you would otherwise be doing. So it's really a much more effective use of your time and energy to try to kill the enemy faster rather than to support your allies with heals. Also, the targeting system is absolute balls.
And of course, we come to the great achilles' heel of every MMO - the other players. It even manifests at the costume level. Just like in CoH, pre villains, you still get people whose costumes consist of a giant, horned, demonic, batwinged, black-on-black-with-black-smoke "hero" named "Dark Lord Deathdark of Evil Darkness." Bwuh? And, it's easy of course to tell who the fat kids or middle aged men with small penises are - they generally have the super-ultra-massive strong-guy heroes whose shoulders require a two car garage and have more ridges on their muscles than the entire Ruffles potato chip factory. And then there's the virgin comic book nerds, all playing their scantily clad plastic sex puppets. Never has such a robust and customizable character creation system been (yet again) so abused in such a predictable manner. Though, it makes the awesome costumes feel that much more awesome when you come across one. You should have seen this one guy who was a dead ringer for George Washington, I kid you not.
Animosity between fellow heroes is also exacerbated by another great step backwards in the mission design - in open world missions (and the vast, vast majority of them are open world, remember), only one hero (and his teammates) can do a quest or start an escort mission effectively at the same time, and sometimes it's even so badly set up that even being on a team together doesn't help. This just encourages people who all want to do the same mission to be dicks to each other and try to grab the macguffin or whatever before anybody else.
There is a crafting system, and once you figure out how it works, it IS pretty well set up.. until you start to realize that very little of the stuff you can make is of use to you. Generally, most gear you find (or make, for that matter) raises contradictory stats... like they were trying to make "one size fits all" hero apparel and accessories that suit (or more often, don't suit) tanks or blasters in equal measure.
All in all, I was highly dissatisfied with the playing experience in Champions online. I loved the character creation experience... but I'm not willing to pay a subscription fee just for that. At any rate, after playing one weekend up to level 20, and trying a few different archetypes, I can honestly say I have no desire whatsoever to continue with the game... which, from what I read on CO-related forums, is just as well because (as was the case back in the early days of CoH), the endgame content is rerolling a new character. Le FAIL.
Grade: D+. That plus is for the character creation and customization options... the D is for, well, everything else.