Last week Champions Online started its week long open beta in preparation for the September 1st launch; those who had pre-ordered the game were given access to it (though I believe free keys were also available through a FilePlanet promotion at some point.) This is a game I have been looking forward to for a while; I had always wanted to get into City of Heroes/Villains, but unfortunately by the time it was an option the game itself was so graphically dated that I spent a handful of minutes in the trial before uninstalling it entirely. Given that Champions was created by the company that had initially released CoH, there are a lot of similarities between the two (some more cynical than myself might even call it a blatant rip at times, but let's not quibble.)
Ever since participating in the Tabula Rasa beta some time ago and playing that game to an extreme degree, then losing interest when my character was wiped for launch and I had to start over, I've always treated open betas as a sort of demo to gauge whether or not I felt a game would hold my interests. Champions, so far, has been such a compelling and fun deviation from the WoW grind that I've really had a hard time avoiding it. I keep wanting to go in and poke my character some more, even knowing that it's all going to be deleted in a week's time. Champions is a lot of fun and, thankfully, rather unique in a genre of WoW clones.
Set in the world of the Champions pen-and-paper RPG, the MMOG has you assume the role of a would-be superhero thwarting the evil machinations of supervillains hell-bent on destruction. Individual customization is paramount to the creation of your avatar; everything from your look to your abilities to even the way you move or the color of your powers is open for free configuration, allowing an incredibly diverse range of characters. This was one of the things I liked best with CoH and I'm glad to see it revamped for Champions. I did have a slight frown with the "body" editor, in as far as it was difficult to create a face that didn't look the same no matter what, but there were enough facial accessories like glasses and masks to differentiate the characters I created to a reasonable extent that I didn't feel like a copy constantly. Costumes can even be saved to disc (similarly to the way creatures and items can be saved in Spore, utilizing the metadata of a PNG file) and published online or passed to friends to share. The game itself has no classes; players can choose from a "framework" of organized roles, or forgo the structure completely and pull abilities across the entire spectrum of skills. The game features several "travel powers" that you receive very quickly in the course of character development– stuff like web-shooting (a la Spiderman) or flight or even a Nightcrawler-like teleport skill that lets you phase out of reality and reappear a short distance away. That was my personal favorite of all the modes and I spent a good bit of time simply quantum leaping from point to point, zig-zagging in and out of existence around other players and NPCs.
The appearance of the game itself is also gorgeous, with a cel-shaded comic book effect to everything that makes the game look very stylized and original. I would venture that Cryptic took a page from the WoW school of aesthetic for this, as it's definitely that game's cartoonish design that keeps it from appearing dated even as it ages.
Replayability is also a core focus of gameplay; upon creating your character you're thrust into brief tutorial zone to help demonstrate mechanics and skills. After you complete it you have a choice of two secondary tutorial areas with more quests. After finishing that, you have a choice of several zones in which to further your superhero career. Developers have stated that it's totally possible to level up to the end cap in one zone, without going anywhere else, leaving a lot of choices open for players who want to level a new character without repeating the same content over and over. With a nod to Warhammer Online, the game features open public quests and, if someone wishes, the opportunity to level to 40 solely through PvP gameplay.
Developer plans for players who reach the endgame seem ambitious, with constantly evolving quest lines and objectives to complete. The endgame is the only part so far I'm a bit iffy about, since I don't quite understand what, exactly, it is, but posts on the forum about it have been describing something pretty grandiose. There are a lot of side components I really enjoy; for example, you can create a costume for your character, and choose to stick with that look throughout the entire course of your development if you want. Unlike games like WoW where the gear you collect can leave you with mismatched outfits, in Champions you can choose to apply the effects of the gear without necessarily having your character's appearance reflect what you're wearing. Additional costumes can be created as well, lending a Sims feel to the nitty-gritty of just how involved and micromanaging you can be about your hero's appearance.
Having leveled several characters between 5 and 10, I've really enjoyed the game so far. The freedom of customization is extensive, not locking you in to a specific set or function if you don't want to play it. It does have its bugs and so far there's definitely been a lag issue that I'm hoping will be dealt with by the time launch comes around. The UI needs tweaking in certain ways as well, but these are all the sorts of problems that don't become apparent until you have lots of users running around killing monsters on your servers. Of all the games I've checked out since starting a character on WoW, Champions is set to be one of the rare ones that might keep my attention beyond the initial free month.