Champions Online Combat Preview: Challenge AcceptedS

After some hands-on time with Champions Online earlier this month, I pronounced myself skeptical of the combat system.

My beef was that a lot of massively multiplayer online game developers claim that their combat is somehow fundamentally different than the usual system of point, click, cool down, then click again established in MMOs like EverQuest II and World of Warcraft. I said Cryptic's claim about Champions Online's action-oriented combat was no different and admitted that the question would need more hands-on time than I had had to really determine if Champions' combat is different or just looks different.

Never one to shy from skepticism, Cryptic Studios stepped up with a second hands-on for me so I could get a better feel for the combat. Here's what happened.

What Is It?
Champions Online is a superhero themed MMO developed by Cryptic Studios for PC and eventually Xbox 360. Combat in the game takes place both between superheroes and villains and in arena style player versus player fights between superheroes. The primary controls for combat with the keyboard configuration are the number keys 1 through 7 and on 360 controller, it's the face buttons and face buttons plus left trigger – although the exact controls haven't been finalized yet.

What We Saw
I played through the beginning and the boss fight of what's called a "lair" in Champions both with a ranged character and with a melee character. It's an instanced dungeon where a group of players face off against and/or rescue non-playable characters. This particular layer involved a mastermind villain taking over a prison and (full disclosure) was partially developed by Kevin Stocker, a guy I know outside of work who knows a thing or two about the movie Aliens.

How Far Along Is It?
Champions Online goes live September 1. The 360 version is still a long ways off, according to creative director Jack Emmert.

What Needs Improvement?
Targeting Gets Tricky: You can change between targets on PC by just left-clicking a target with the mouse and on the controller, you tap the left bumper. However, the frenetic pace of combat makes these simple controls tricky, especially on PC if you're holding down the left mouse button to adjust the camera while running to one side to avoid an attack. I'm hoping that on the controller scheme they work it out to where you could tap the left bumper repeatedly to change targets among a mob – that would really smooth things over.

The Picky May Not Be Pleased: There are things you can do in Champions Online combat that single-MMO players may not be used to; however MMO connoisseurs probably won't be surprised – or impressed. For example, a WoW devotee may not be used to the idea that you can dodge any attack (even spells) by moving out of range and an Age of Conan fan might not be used to the idea that bosses and mini bosses have specific tells that require you to block or dodge, depending on which attack they're signaling. If you've played both of those games plus a dozen other MMOs besides, however, none of this will sound especially new, different or special and you'll probably stay skeptical while the less picky players are enthralled.

Still Feels Like A Cool Down: Technically, the spells in Champions don't need cool down periods after you cast them. However, you can't cast higher level spells without building up endurance with low-level attacks. It's a little bit less boring to mash the X button over and over than just sitting there and watching the timer on your best area-effect spell expire; but it still feels like a cool down period just the same.

Ranged Combat Is Cheap: This is actually a plus for a jerk like me – but I think it's cause for complaint. Emmert says that the tradeoff between a ranged superhero who can just spam a single fireball attack while flying around in a circle is that a melee superhero's attacks are more powerful. He says that this makes it more rewarding for the melee character if he or she can just get to that fireball-spamming jerk and execute an attack. But if the jerk is me, I'm telling you right now, you'll never catch me. You'll die cursing me for the cheap jerk I am.

What Should Stay The Same?
There's Always Something To Do: To quote Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's review of Eve Online, MMO combat works like this: "You click on an enemy and start kicking his shins. He then starts kicking your shins. Then you take it in turns kicking until one of you falls over." Champions Online shakes that up a bit by giving the player more to do than just stand there and kick. At any one point during combat you could be kicking someone's shins, raining fire down on them from the air while you hover overhead with your fiery fairy wings, dodging an attack with a well-timed mashing on the A or S button, or waiting for a command to pop up and tell you to mash a button to collect an item drop or escape an enemy attack or hold. You're always moving in Champions, always changing targets and never not mashing on an a button once combat gets going. Big plus.

It's Console-Oriented: What makes Champions feel action-y to me is the fact that everyone is moving all of the time and you're frantically pounding on attack keys to keep up. It's more like Marvel Ultimate Alliance than WoW, and that's exactly the feel that Cryptic was going for, according to Emmert. He says that the future of MMOs lies in consoles, so their goal was to get an action RPG experience inside ofa persistent, well-populated MMO world that worked just as well on console as on PC. To that end, Champions was planned with consoles in mind all along, with none of the built-in "latency" of other MMOs where you have to wait for a spell to cool down simply because the technology on which the MMO is built cannot handle a bazillion particle effects at once.

Final Thoughts
After the much-longer hands-on, I've changed my mind. Combat in Champions Online does feel different than combat WoW because of how fast everything moves – including you. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a revolution in MMO gameplay, but the quick combat is going to go a long way toward making the jump to console smoother and more fun. My only conflict now is deciding whether or not to wait for the 360 version.

Oh, here're a couple of other tidbits of interest that came up during my extended hands-on:
—They're already planning out a secret identity system for DLC
—The 360 controller will work at launch, but it won't be "supported" technically until a deal on the 360 version is reached with Microsoft
—The biggest criticism Emmert fears hearing is from superhero players who want a purely solo masked avenger experience. That's just not what Cryptic is out to do with Champions Online – so if any potential reviewers are reading this, think Justice League instead of Dark Knight going into it.
ETA: Cryptic Studios clarifies that "You can play solo in Champions as much as you like; you don't have to team up to enjoy the game. However, this is a Massively Multiplayer Online Game, with the emphasis on Multiplayer. Other players will affect the world of Champions Online. You'll see them running off to stop a bank robbery, while you're on your way to rescue hostages. This isn't a game for players who want to be the only superhero in town."