A week with Champions Online

13 September 2009
2:26 am

champions2

Open beta, head-start and launch day events have all come and gone for Champions Online and at last the game is released and live. In between healing 10-man Ulduar and entertaining my boyfriend's visiting mother I've been feverishly leveling various superheroes now that they won't be nuked. Overall my earlier enthusiasm for the MMOG is still there, but it's been tempered and refined now that I've had the chance to spend more time with various mechanics.

However, and with no apologies, this is a bitching post. There's a lot to like in CO, but there's also a lot that's made me extremely frustrated. Beyond just the "expected" bugs and glitches– I use airquotes because, for reasons foreign to me, the prevalent mentality with MMOG releases these days is that it's cool to ship things broken, they can always be fixed after launch!– various paradigms they've employed in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition really make the game suffer in my opinion.

Rounding off the top of my list has to be the way they handle respecs. As the progression framework for CO doesn't have "classes," players can pick and choose whatever abilities, traits and talents they want within specific limitations. Focusing solely on one skill tree (like Sorcery or Martial Arts) will give you the big-badda-boom abilities faster; diversifying your skills will give you more variation, but you'll be trading in the more powerful abilities available to someone who chooses not to split their trees up. Partly because of this, Cryptic has chosen to tag a pretty strict penalty on players who change their minds and want to switch skills out. Initially, respecs– called "retconning" in CO– were only available for the ten most recent picks. This doesn't just include attacks and powers, but also traits and stat bonuses. After a lot of teeth-gnashing this was amended to let you retcon back to blank if you wanted, but doing so would cost you a lot. The four most recent purchases were relatively cheap, but they quickly multiplied so exponentially that even attempting to wipe back to start from a level ten character was well beyond my financial means. Part of this is that the cost for each respec is just way too high; part of this is that currency, itself, is really difficult to come by in CO right now, even at max level.

This has the effect of really making me frustrated and nervous about buying any skills. Because the penalty for changing my mind is so tough, I find myself spending easily an hour deliberating each time it comes to pick a new ability– that's not hyperbole, I have easily spent more time in the Powerhouse picking skills than actually playing my character. And frankly, that sucks. The game thankfully houses skill trainers inside a convenient trial room that lets you pick and repick abilities without penalty, letting you try stuff out before you commit, but a lot of the time flaws in a decision don't become obvious until you come up against another enemy. Several times I have settled on a power, only to figure out three levels later that it had gimped my progression and was holding me back at my current level; then by that point the cost to go back and fix the mistake is pretty difficult to manage.

This is something I've absolutely taken for granted in WoW; especially with regards to spells, those are decided for me by virtue of the character class I've decided to play. If I ding level 46 and get a spell or two I don't care about oh well, nothing that I could do about it. In CO when I'm forced into picking a skill I absolutely don't want just to get access to one I need, I get very resentful. Coupled with the fact that you only have fourteen powers in total (compared to my what– forty, fifty on my priest in WoW?) that's a hard pill to swallow. And if I have a talent build I don't like in WoW, a modest amount of gold lets me nuke it all and start from scratch. CO puts me in a state of mind where I'm pushed into planning out my character a lot more than I really want to; it's distracting and, frankly, stressful, and an unlimited, if pricey, total restart on your character is something that Cryptic needs to add fast. Especially when it feels like the punishment for picking the wrong choice is needing to start over with a new character entirely.

Speaking of spells, I'm feeling that even when you do lock in on a framework, the selection of abilities is pretty poor there too. After four other attempts I finally settled on creating a "healing" character, but by level 12 I'd figured out that the extent of it consisted of a single healing ability, an aura that granted an improvement buff to allied players in the near vicinity, and a rez. For comparison, I'm just going to leave this right here.

healingspells

There's really not as much differentiation between frameworks as I initially thought going through the different powers, and when something cool is stepping outside the box, it's done so in a really slight manner. One of the powersets is Gadgeteering, which I initially found really cool. Battlebots? Hell yeah! Except you get two: a pair of armored leprechaun-looking things that morph into cannons, or a pair of floating healbots. Both blueprints die if an enemy, player or NPC, makes as much as a disagreeable face towards them. They also can't be controlled directly, as in "go attack this," and have a tendency to make things annoying by aggroing everything other than the unit I'm actually attacking.

Stuff like this is disconcerting, especially from the start. Balance is always going to be a problem in an evolving "world" like this, but it's frustrating that the spectrum swings so wildly in CO; certain powersets are ridiculously out of control and kick the butts of any and everything placed before them. Others are so weak that there is absolutely no way to play the game without the help of another player.

This is to say nothing of the extreme wonkiness with level progression. Players are now beginning to vehemently complain that there's not enough content to progress their characters out of the mid-twenties on beyond, forcing them to grind to level up any further. There's a decided lack of content poking out in places too, which I really hoped would not be the elephant it turned out to be; the dream of "start whatever zone you want and go back and forth, or not at all!" has not manifested, and there's certainly an unspoken sort of level requirement you're forced to meet if you want any hope of starting up, say, Millennium City, for example.

Despite the kvetching, I do still like Champions Online. I have found myself frustrated, especially with the feeling that it was paramount I pick the "right" power choice each level or I'm screwed, but part of that is because I'm still so interested in playing. Whether or not that remains to be seen further down the road, though, is still up in the air.

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