Spandex Evolved

Having read all of the uproar over Champions and their lifetime subscription plan, but only if you order now and not after you actually get a chance to play the game, I was glad to see that they had relented somewhat and actually opened up the beta to pretty much anyone before the deadline for making a decision. I was also curious since a lot of the bloggers seemed to be disappointed with what they had seen of it. I wondered if this was a fault of the game or just a case of the hardcore MMO fans looking for something, anything, to be the second coming and dethrone WoW.

So, first my overview of the game play experience. I know that much of this has been posted elsewhere but I think it’s important to put down what I saw while playing so you can see why I’ve formed the opinions that I have.

Character Creation:

Character creation is much like that of CoX, you pick your starting power set and then you design your character. Unlike CoX you can either pick a pre-designed, I’ll call it template, character or you can go completely off on your own to choose your two starting powers. I like the idea of being able to build exactly the character I want but even in my short time messing about I saw a couple of ways to gimp yourself, though I have to admit I didn’t see any blatantly overpowered combos. The templates are nice as they give you a good starting point and pointers as to how to advance the character to create one of the standard MMO archetypes.

As you would expect from the team that brought us CoX the actual character creation choices are mind boggling. If you can’t find the look you’re looking for you probably missed a tab/drop down or you really need to seek professional help. Again, this is what I would expect the CoX character builder to look like if they were to re-design it from the ground up, nothing ground breaking but a nice evolution.

Tutorial:

Again much like CoX, once you’ve completed your hero you’re tossed into a tutorial zone with an emergency in progress complete with sirens wailing and fires raging. The evolution here is that it opens with a cut scene of a group of cops calling for backup and the response giving you a bit of the story of exactly what the heck is happening here.

The first parts of the tutorial are standard fare; how to move, quests, combat, loot, retrieve the item etc. All the stuff someone new to the genre would need to know but that us old fogey’s know by heart. Still it’s good to go through it so you can pick up on any quirks to the particular game. They even introduce you to the quest chain mechanic, talk to A and do his quests until he sends you to B etc. The best part of this was that there was actually a coherent story behind doing all of these quests, you even end up going to help the cop that was calling for backup in the opening scene.

The tutorial also introduces you to the first mechanic that isn’t an evolution of something from CoX, the “Public Quest” (PQ) pioneered by WAR. The one improvement that I noticed is that the PQ’s here run whether or not there are any PC’s around so if you come to the game 6 months from now you’ll still be able to complete the quest because the NPC’s in the area will help you. I’m not sure if that holds at higher levels but I truly hope it does.

After completing the first PQ you get sent into your first true instance (though I should point out that pretty much every zone is instanced so that they can control the number of players in a given zone – thank you EQ2 but most players won’t realize that). In this instance you hook up with Defender, who is one of the “named” NPC’s much like Statesman in CoX, and help him take out a boss mob which then allows you to put an end to the invasion that is the whole story of the tutorial zone.

When you exit the instance you have another cool moment where all the NPC’s and soldiers line up and salute you for helping save the city. Unfortunately a hero’s work is never done so there are two other NPC’s waiting for you to send you off to your next hotspot. Again, nice evolution here, you get to pick your second area from either a snowy Canada or a desert region. Having only played through the Canada version I can’t say for sure but I certainly hope that the story is much different for each area even if the results are the same.

From 5 to 10:

This leads me directly to the first big evolution from CoX for me – the story driven game play. Sure CoX had quest lines and story arcs but you could miss them or ignore them and, frankly, they weren’t all that inventive. I got to the Canadian area just after another disaster hit and everyone in the region that offered quests offered quests to do with this one story. Sure some of them were tangential but they were all caused by the story event. This is not just a quest hub with everyone having their own agenda of kill 10 X or fetch the foozle quests, they’re all related. This made the area feel more like a coherent whole. This whole thing is also why I ended up playing until 11:30 on Saturday night when I had intended to knock off around 10:00. I wanted to just finish this story real quick.

The other thing I noticed in getting through this first story arc was that leveling is extremely fast. I started the tutorial around 7:30 on Saturday night and had made 5 by the time I finished it about 45 minutes later (it took me this long because I ran the PQ about 5 times trying to get the high score). By the time I finished the second zone at around 11:30 I was already 10 and I had easily spent 30 minutes or more playing around with different travel powers trying to settle on one I liked. I’m not sure if the leveling will slow down post 10 but if it doesn’t I can see myself being capped within 6 months and I’m a notoriously slow leveler. Unless it slows down drastically I wouldn’t be surprised to see many people hitting the cap within the first 30 days. If it does slow down that drastically I can also see many others getting frustrated.

The next big evolution was the ability to respec at will, at least to a degree. Much like CoX every level brings with it some sort of points that you can spend at a trainer to purchase either new powers or abilities or improvements of some sort. The improvement is that you can go back to the trainer and unlearn skills then repurchase them. This means that if you want to try out something completely off the wall you can do so without fear of gimping yourself. Just buy it, take it out into the world and see how it plays, if it works cool if not, unlearn it and try something else. There is supposedly a limit as to how many things you can unlearn but I certainly hadn’t hit it by level 10.

As I said, you come out of the tutorial at level 5 and since you haven’t seen a trainer up until this point you’re encouraged to go see them right away, I should mention that the trainers are in their own instance. It’s important to see them, not only so you can pickup a new power but also because at level 5 you get your travel power. Again, in an evolution of travel in CoX you have your basic Flight, Super Speed, Super Jump and Teleport abilities but there are several variations of most of them so you can pick one that fits your view of your character. This is where I first found the respec ability the most handy. I was able to try out all of the different travel powers and see how they played and which worked best for how I played my character.

Again in this zone there is a PQ, though unlike in the tutorial this one isn’t required to advance the story. Still I think I helped on it about 3 times since I was in the area killing other stuff and they counted towards those quests as well. There was also a named fight that you had to trigger and I got crushed the first time I tried it solo, mainly because I wasn’t expecting him to spawn where he did. When I went back for my second try there were a couple of others there and I got a group invite almost as soon as I showed up. We took the named down in about 5 seconds, the leader made sure everyone got the update and then we all went our separate ways. I think he could have been soloed no problem but still killing him once and letting 5 people get their update is a much nicer way to go.

This area ended with another instance and another boss fight, this time solo, or grouped if you happen to bring one. It was a tough fight but I managed it and even while it was happening I could see ways I could make it easier which is important to me. I don’t mind losing a fight if I can easily see what I can do with MY character to improve my odds. I hate realizing that the only way to beat the encounter is to do it exactly like the devs want me to. Finishing off that instance dinged me to 10 and sent me back out into the same zone but with the previous emergency over, so it looked different, and some new bad guys moving in.

Final Impressions:

As I said, I don’t really see anything revolutionary here but you can see that this is the team that brought you CoX taking the lessons learned from that game and rolling in some features from some other games and creating a new and improved CoX. If you’re looking for a WoW killer, well you really need to just stop and realize that WoW was a perfect storm that will likely never be repeated and the only way it will die is if Blizzard kills it – and not by making a World of Starcraft but by just driving all their players away.

I didn’t really touch on the combat mechanics but there is some interesting stuff there as well and even the minimal amount of time I’ve spent with the skill tree system shows a lot of depth there. Replay-ability will come down to whether or not they can expand the offerings beyond the two current second areas. I’m not sure how many times I want to play through the tutorial or even the same quest series afterwards.

Will CO steal players from CoX? Some, those that are looking for the new shiny, but for those invested in the community and their characters there isn’t enough to overcome that.

Now the big questions:

Is it worth a pre-order? If you’re looking for a new comic book game that improves upon the CoX experience and throws in some stuff from other games it might be.

Is it worth the 6 month early subscriber? If the above applies and a superhero game is your cup of tea and you wouldn’t mind an early look at Star Trek then yes.

What about the lifetime? This one is tougher for me. I’m a big proponent of MMO’s trying different pricing models and I really like the idea of a lifetime subscription. I bit on the LoTRO lifetime and even though I haven’t played it a ton I haven’t regretted it. It’s nice know that it’s always there waiting for me. The problem I have with CO is first Bill Roper, I know he’s not the head honcho this time around but he’s done this before and that game died after a year. Secondly it’s actually Cryptic. I know they made CoX which is still going but lets face it they sold it off and walked away. What happens if they do that again, would my lifetime sub be honored by the new company? I don’t know all the details of why they walked away, maybe NCSoft pressured them or something but they have to partner with a publisher and who’s to say Atari won’t do the same thing in a year and then where would I be? Still, for me this is the perfect type of game for this model. It’s not a game that is likely to become my primary game, Lore isn’t really into the whole superhero thing and while there is crafting it’s not all that compelling for her and there’s really only so much of it I can play. Still, if I had the lifetime I can see myself dipping into it for a change of pace every now and then. My one piece of advice to Cryptic, and even to Turbine with LoTRO, is to make the lifetime available at anytime. Why wouldn’t you want to have a shot at that money 6 months from now just as much as you want it now.

Questions? I’ll be glad to answer them either in the comments or on Twitter – I’m Sisca there.

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