Sunday, August 16, 2009

Champions Online Review Part 1: Background on Champions Online

One of the many graphical glitches in the game that the Devs ignored
As Champions Online (CO) turns the corner into Open Beta and the NDA is lifted it's time to talk about the game. I joined Closed Beta back in December and the game was literally an unplayable mess until about April. And since then, it has come a long way. The first thing I had to to when I wrote this was vent about the Beta itself. This is the 3rd closed Beta I have been part of, and it was the worst. It was the worst when it came to the actual quality of the game they presented to us, worst when it came to the beta staffs responses and responsiveness to the testers, worst communication between the staff and testers. Which is made even more annoying because it had the best Beta testing community when it came to knowledge, providing feed back, and helpfulness. So, I vented, I won't bore you with my venting, so that's been edited out.

CO is creatively Bankrupt:

Sorry to say it, but it's true. It's one giant pop-culture riff, mocking, and rip-off, and not a funny one like you would get from a classic MST3k or Airplane!. It's like watching Scary Movie or Meet the Spartans over and over. A good chunk of contact and story line is ripped off from some other movie, game, or book. Despite how much I love the movie, did we really need 2 contacts based off of “Big Trouble in Little China” and multiple story lines taken from it? Did there need to be two mission arcs based off of “Apocalypse Now”? Was it necessary to have a reference to obscure SCTV characters that most players won't recognize in Canada? And I can go on: Kill Bill, Anchorman, Blazing Saddles, They Live, Braveheart, Hellboy, and Pokemon all get used in the game. The entire Canada Crisis zone is a riff on Lost, a good chunk of the Desert is Westworld. For the love of Jack Kirby, there is a mission named after a Judy Blume book.

Even the systems are a rip off. If you do a pallet swap from WoW grey to blue, you have CO. The UI, the mission system, the dialog boxes, mission reward selection. All of it is straight WoW with little to no modifications.

And it's very easy to see that Jack “Statesman” Emmert had a hand in this. Signature costume pieces from CoH are blatantly copied here (I have seen some awfully familiar crab like back pieces in this game). What makes that even sadder is that despite the huge advancements in character scaling and coloring CO has over CoH, you actually have less costume options when it comes to the actual clothing your character wears. I will give them that they have a greatly expanded selection of mecha and angel/demon costume pieces. Of course this leads to a different kind of creative bankruptcy. If you stand at the entrance to the tutorial on a night when a batch of new beta players are allowed in, you invariable see a parade of Led Zepplin and Meatloaf album covers interspersed with a little Manzinger and Robotech. Hell, if you stand in Renaissance Plaza you'll see more winged characters than a demo of Aion. It's not just costumes, it's enemies as well. They even included Chinese Ninja Sorcerers that teleport.

Finally, if you played CoH you should remember a few years back there was an April Fools press release about adding visual sound effects like “Bang” and “Freem” to the game. Jack liked the idea so much it is actually an integral part of the game mechanics. Yes, you will see “Freem” popping up over enemies heads. Frequently.

Don't Listen to Jack Emmert:

Jack is either completely ignorant of the development of the game, or has been purposefully leading a media misdirection campaign this entire year. Either way, you can pretty much ignore everything he has said about the game this year. I won't go start pulling quotes, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb. If you look at his recent interviews with, his comments on what the testing community was saying are the opposite of what we were saying.

One of the most important and talked about features of the game is not officially supported:

That would be playing with an Xbox 360 Controller. Every video you see of public play tests, every appearance on G4 TV revolves around the use of a 360 controller. The initial control design of the game didn't even have keyboard turning built in because it was expected that you would play FPS style with a 360 controller. The G4 MMO report even once mentioned that “If you aren't playing with a 360 controller, you aren't playing it right.” Well, the controller isn't officially supported and the developers refused to respond to issues with the controllers.

Another important feature just didn't make it:

Remember when they talked during the early development of the game about not having cool down? Once the animation was over, you could hit the power again. That's not right. Some powers have cool down and some might as well since they made the animations excessively long.

The Game is Cheap:

Remember playing old Nintendo Games and it would seem like the game “cheated” to make it harder on you? Well, welcome back to that old feeling, CO does that a lot. Enemies will suddenly develop travel power like abilities to chase you down, they will move into areas you can't follow or hit them in, but they can hit you. They will chain juggle you like a Killer Instinct combo. They have no limit on their use of powers that normally cost Endurance to use. Their sight and attack ranges are huge, much bigger than yours. And powers that require charging, well, they can be charging the second one up while the first one's animation is still finishing.

And PvP is cheap. Ranged attacks, flight powers, invulnerability and healing are all over powered for PvP, and playing on a game pad or 360 controller presents you with a major advantage over keyboard play in PvP. PvP matches boil down to this: The team with the healer wins, and the most flying ranged attackers is the tie breaker.

Instanced missions were added as an after thought and it shows:

They are very short and under developed, and most appeared during the last month of testing. A lot of missions that should be instanced aren't. There is one mission where some bad guys have taken a lab and infected the staff with an experimental mutagen. You have to get there, get the stuff to make the antidote, and save the scientists. Would make sense to have this happen in the lab, nope, you do this all from the parking lot.

Some incredibly odd choices were made during development:

Twitter integration, control of I-Tunes and Winamp from within the game, useless Chibi-Style vanity pets were all added to the game, to be fair we have been told that a programmer did the Twitter thing in his off time, but it's there. They did this instead of fixing: bugged mission, invalid costume pieces (for that, they just don't let you create the character if the pieces make an invalid costume), broken features, bad text, fixing the Respec system, and other issues that got reported to them. You can also tell that they spent a large amount of time on the Foxbat enemies, giving them very detailed appearances and special animations and effects that no one else had, but ignored most other enemies.

Basic features for a social game were also ignored. The Grouping UI didn't function. The Ignore feature didn't function. The week before Open Beta started, a tester asked about setting it so you would not accept dual, team, or trade invites. A developer told him the chat slash command for doing some of this, as they didn't plan of putting it into the UI.

The game is not Alt friendly and there is very little in the way of repeatability:

Everyone gets the same contacts and the same missions, and you will do them the same way and in the same general order. Most enemies are a palate swap of other enemies, and those that aren't are horribly over powered (Atomic Reanimators and Foxbat robots, I'm looking at you). The game requires little to no strategy, and there is only one way to accomplish each mission. There is no stealth in the game. You can't Crowd Control your way to victory. It's just straight in your face combat.

Here is how you will play the game: Make a character, do the tutorial, this will take you to lvl 5 or 6 depending on if you do all the side missions in the tutorial. Choose a Crisis Zone (Desert or Canada), this zone will take you to lvl 9 or 10. Do the regular version of your zone, this will take you to 13 or 14, then go do the lvl 11-14 content of the other zone, then go to Millennium City (MC), and then the game is straight line play from there with little to no deviation, with occasionally hops to other zones. It'll be that way for all characters, you pretty much have to do every mission to level, so there isn't a lot of options, and there is only one solution for each mission. Play through twice and you have seen it all.

They also expect you to pay via Microtransactions for extra character slots. 1 Server, 8 characters. Want anymore? You gotta either delete one or buy another slot for “Cryptic Bucks”.

The game is what was left over from Cryptic's attempt at a Marvel game and was cast aside for Star Trek Online:

Despite Cryptic assertions to the opposite, you can still look around and catch glimpses of what was almost Marvel Online. The travel powers of Swinging and Rocket Boots copy the poses of Spiderman and Ironman (I'm not talking similar, I'm talking dead on like they studied the movies). MC's design looks more like New York than a rebuilt Detroit. Open up the big map of MC in CO and look at a road map of New York and Detroit, and see which one this looks like. The city may have been rebuilt, but large bodies of water don't move.

Also, Cryptic claimed that resources were not diverted from CO to ST:O. We know that is bull because one of the diverted community liaisons posted a good bye to us on the test forums when they got sent to ST:O.

Everything you hated about Everquest is back again:

95+% of the content is open world, by the time I had completed 100 missions, I had only been through 3 instanced missions. Most of the missions involved killing a certain number of spawns, killing a named spawn, or interacting with a clickable or multiple clickables. Almost all of them involved waiting for a respawn or refresh of something. And this was during Closed Beta with a very small amount of players.

Oh, and welcome back spawn camping, we missed you too. With the limited number of spawns for some missions that require you to interact with multiples of the spawn, it's easier to spawn camp than to actually search for what you are looking for.

And while you can't Ninja Loot, you can Ninja mission spawns. This happens a lot, even in the Beta. You can also do the good old dick move of waiting for some one to aggro a mob you need for a mission, ping it a time or two, and then walk away and let that guy do the work for you. You've now gotten mission credit with no risk.

Crisscrossing zones, only I trainer access per-zone, having to zone in/out to get to the trainer. Crafting stations placed in inconvenient and sometimes remote locations. Missions scattered across a zone, far from the mission giver. Ahhhh...Time Sinks.

You will have trouble finding your friends:

There is only 1 “Server”, on the server are the zones. As a zone fills, new instances of the zone are automatically created. Depending on the zone, you can have between 50 and 200 players in it before a new instance will be created.

Just a little math, Cryptic is shooting for 100,000 customers. Let's say 10% play at any given time. A single zone, MC, allows for players from level 13 – 40. So, a conservative estimate says half the people online will be in that zone. That's 5,000 people in MC. At 200 a pop, that's 25 instances of a single zone. And there is no “Global” chat channel at this time, only Zone wide, and that does not cross instances. There is a little section of the zone list that tells you how many team mates and friends are in each instance, but it wasn't much use in Beta.

And the zones are huge. Massively huge. Bigger than any zones I have seen in other games.

You will have trouble finding your Enemies:

Missions and objectives are not always marked, some are mis-marked. They are often also not near each other or near the contact that gives the missions. Also, the markings that do appear on the map don't exactly tell you much and multiple marking can be used for the same mission types.

A new feature that they implemented are missions where a citizen will run up to you and report a crime in progress. Cool right? Well, these missions are pretty good, but where the citizen finds you and where the mission is are usually on opposite sides of the zone, and the mission is timed, so good luck if you are involved in something else or on a team. Then the fact that the citizens usually interrupt you during a fight, popping up a huge blue dialog box in the middle of the action does lead to problems as well, usually death.

Of course, they planned on you dieing so much that there is no death penalty, instead you get a bonus for living. And no, that is not a joke. It's the Hero Point system, and the more missions you complete, the more combat bonuses you get. When you die, you lose some of these points, but you never go negative.

Despite this, Cryptic managed to pull together something kind of fun at the last minute:

July 24th, 2009. That's the day they released the update that made the game fun. The problem is, it isn't that fun. Had this been an entirely Microtransaction based game, it would be the best game of that type I have seen. As a game that is based on a monthly subscription fee plus Microtransactions, it's decidedly about 5 years too late on content. Of course, the next updates made it worse and stability and load times took a nose dive, but it was fun for a bit.

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