Last night, Cryptic Studios held an event that was all about the player versus player combat in its upcoming massively multiplayer online superhero game, Champions Online.
The basic need-to-know info about this game is this: it's City of Heroes, only bigger and better. And, no, Marvel and/or DC Comics won't be suing anybody anytime soon over it because the developer is scrupulous about original intellectual property. Not to mention Cryptic has plenty to work with from the pen-and-paper game on which the game is based.
That just leaves these five things you might not know—and probably should—before diving into a superhero-centric world.
1) Player customization will consume you
The player customization system isn't based on classes and doesn't require you to adhere to any pre-set superpowers. In other words, if you wanted to a be a gadget-using, fire-and-ice based golem or a scantily-clad dark magic cowgirl elf, you could make it happen—and no armor pick-ups or costume limitations would mar your mental image of what your hero is supposed to look like. There are default superpower sets you can choose from and a randomization option for body type and costume that let you get your character going that much quicker. Even better, you can lock certain options while clicking random so that you can keep a color scheme you like but try different body types, etc. And if you decided you liked one but clicked "Random" too soon, you can click "Undo" and go back to it.
This will probably occupy my first three and a half hours of gameplay.
2) Yes, there is PvP
Player versus player belongs in a superhero game. What do superheroes do besides flying around clobbering people out to destroy a city? Sure, they have girlfriends, sidekicks and drama with alter-egos – but Champions Online is an MMO, not a dating sim. Ergo, we need PvP.
PvP in Champions takes place both in the world and in special maps. The incentive to PvP (aside from satisfying your inner jerk) comes from very rare item drops (which are not subtracted from the loser's inventory) and experience points awarded for victories.
We were shown the dueling system that you can activate in the world by selecting a hero and challenging them to a duel. Once the other player agrees, a force field goes up around both players, preventing all other characters from interfering in the fight. From there, fighting game rules apply: first one to lose all hit points or get knocked out of the ring loses.
The PvP-centric map we saw was a five on five "prison break" level where five heroes are on the red team (trying to bust out of prison) and five were on the blue team. Both teams had two leader characters – the goal of the other team was the kill those leaders and take over as many turrets and hack as many computers as possible to make things difficult for the other three players to cross the prison to find the leaders.
3) The Nemesis System is like the Buddy System, only evil
What would a superhero be without a nemesis? A spandex-wearing Good Samaritan maniac, that's what.
Cryptic works in every hero's own private nemesis by letting the player customize their own evil villain who will then constantly try to destroy the player. The nemesis' visual appearance is determined with the same menu as the hero's character creation screen – but there are four "Nemesis Details" the player has to fill out in addition to the crucial costume and gender choices. First you pick the fighting style, which determines if they're a cold-hearted mastermind or a crazy savage. Then you choose their superpowers, which are like yours, but they have to use one of the presets – also, unlike regular enemies, a nemesis can use all powers within a power set instead of only a few. Next, you choose their minions (robots, ninjas, etc.) and a smaller power set for the minions.
Once created, a nemesis will encounter the hero randomly in the world. Additionally, optional "popcorn" missions will appear where the hero takes on his or her nemesis in a special map. When a superhero encounters their nemesis in the world, other players can join up to defeat him or her (and they don't die – they just go to jail or whatever); but the popcorn missions are solo instanced. We only saw one of these and it was mostly about "go here, clobber this, go there, rescue that non-playable superhero so he can join your party, etc."
According to creative director Jack Emmert, there's more to most maps than this (like "how do I get out of here?" puzzles), especially when it comes to nemeses. Also, he says, at higher levels, you will get the opportunity to put your nemesis away for good and choose a new one.
4) It may be action-flavored, but it's still MMO combat
I hate to be cynical, but a lot of MMO developers claim that their combat is somehow different than the usual click-click-cool down-click-click. Cryptic is no different, claiming that the frenetic pace of combat is what makes their MMO more action-y than most, despite still having to click on attacks, charge up certain attacks and do the cool-down thing. However, in the lone five-on-five prison break map we were permitted to play, I'm not sure it felt all that different than, say, World of Warcraft. Also, it may have something to do with the powers your character has. The ranged lighting chick I played felt like WoW because I just clicked and sat still while she shocked the beejesus out of the targeted enemy; but the brawler kung-fu guy I tried probably would have felt different in up close and personal melee (if I was continually getting him killed by ranged characters, that is). Definitely something that warrants a more thorough study.
5) There are no limitations besides the level
To me, what makes a good comic book superhero is the drama that comes from superpower limitations. The best stories are not about what Superman or Spider-Man can do; it's about what they can't. Champions has no limitations like these. There are no two superpowers that won't go together and no vulnerabilities to anything that comes from items, enemies or powers. The only limit is the level – you gain more superpowers as you level up (capped at 40 for now), so at lower levels, there might be things you can't do… but there's never any drama to any of it.
I brought this up with Jack Emmert because he's a comic book fan who knows what I'm talking about. He seemed really intrigued and is already talking about plans for patches and expansions to build out the role of the nemesis. So there may be more to this idea yet to come – but for now, no drama. Only superpowers.
All in all, I really like what I saw with Champions Online. It looked great, played decently enough (although two PvP matches really isn't enough time to be completely sure) and it's about superheroes – one of my favorite things in the world next to unicorns. If my computer can stand it, I'll definitely have to give Champions a try when it launches seven weeks from now.