We were privileged to check out two instances in Champions Online at a recent media day, and today we can share with you our impressions of Snake Gulch and Stronghold. [Ed. note: Though the only screenshots we could get approved to show are of Stronghold, we're working on getting a few of Snake Gulch too. It's well worth seeing!]
Snake Gulch is a robot-riven Wild West-themed amusement park gone very, very wrong due to some recent VIPER activity in the area. The instance is straight from the Champions sourcebook and is a great example of the benefits of coming into nearly three decades of quality lore. Everything from the roboticized "Howdy!" from the attacking automatons to the two giant cowboy statues looming on a nearby mesa lends a fun and absolutely unique feel to the area.
Starting at the outside ticket booth area, I began to get a feel for my character's build - one of the six Cryptic had put together for the event. Though character development is largely freeform in Champions Online - players buy abilities with points as they level up and are limited only by their imagination in terms of the variety of skills - the characters we played each had a themed look, with superpower skills to match. My character, "Electricity" (the name could use some work, I realize), could pump out small bolts of lightning as fast as I could hit the X button on the X360 controller (almost everyone opted for the controller over the keyboard) or if I built up enough charge with lesser abilities, my character could emit one long sustained stream of harmful voltage that passes from enemy to enemy as I hold down the A button. Both characters I played made use of this charge / discharge mechanic made familiar by the Warrior class in WoW, albeit with different sets of powers (later you'll see that I played a character in Stronghold named "Darkness" that shot bolts and streams of... well, darkness).
Electricity would seem a good pairing against robots, though, and we moved through the gates and deep into the canyon in short order, skipping a few content areas due to time contstraints. Whether it was through demo-mode overpoweredness and the rapid healing skills of the GM (likely) or our own rapidly evolving superpower skill (not so likely), we were soon approaching a showdown with the boss mob, Ascii Oakley. This particular nasty was reportedly the brainchild of John Layman, who we recently spoke with at International Comic-Con 2008, and was a triggered spawn - she'd only come out to fight once we'd roughed up the town by taking down an unspecified number of bad guys. Like all the major baddies in CO, Ascii performs a visual cue as she's preparing her signature attack. As a player, you'll want to hit the appropriate shoulder button on your controller to block when you see that cue, otherwise you'll take a vicious barrage of damage from Ascii's six-gun.
Villainous creatures both mutant and superhuman are sequestered on Monster Island, and the most villainous among them all are locked up in the ultra high-tech prison of Stronghold. But this vaunted supermax facility may have bitten off more than it can chew when psychicly superpowered Menton is incarcerated within. Now Menton has managed to sabotage the power suppressors that kept his mental powers in check, and it's up to our little supergroup to set things straight.
After trying out our new set of superpowers on training dummies in the ready room, we were ready to take on the first wave of enemies: prison guards which Menton had insidiously turned against us. I was expecting a flat gray backdrop for this fight and immediately impressed at the quality of the art even in the cellblocks. Instead of hazing into a blur at the limits of the draw distance, the walls, floors, and distant objects took on an angular yet familiar look - exactly what you'd expect in a comic book. The effect amplified the detail in the foreground, drawing attention to the incredible job Cryptic has done with applying shaders and textures to the cell-shaded character models and objects. The comic book effect is carried forward in the animations, where freeze frames at the end of exaggerated swings, spell casts, and other actions punctuate the moves as well as a wham! or biff! bubble ever could. Also, the nicely spaced cutscenes offer a nice bow to the console gamer; important since Cryptic will court X360 gamers as well as us PC types with Champions Online.
Nowhere was Champions Online more like a comic book brought to life than in the final encounter with Menton. After gathering parts needed to fix the power suppressors, we were ready to take on this master of mental mayhem. Though no figure in the Cryptic's rendition of Champions Online attracted more controversy than the spindly, stylized Menton, his abilities and associated animations were in top form. Especially poignant was a levitating buildup as Menton crackled with purple mental energy followed by an area-of-effect shockwave (that sent my character reeling in a elaborate ragdoll-esque knockback better than any I've seen in an MMORPG). This was followed by some of the better AI I've seen in an encounter, as Menton weaved among obstacles and ascended to the power suppressor superstructure to make targetting difficult.
Cheers and Fears
Though screenshots don't do the game justice, Cryptic has come a very long way towards achieving everything they sought to with their absolutely unparalleled cell-shaded, comic book brought-to-life look; it's absolutely spot-on and I can't say enough about it. The game is eminently playable after a relatively short time in development, a fact all the more impressive given that all the assets Cryptic developed for the now-discontinued MMORPG Marvel Universe Online were off-limits for the present project. Gameplay is fluid and the way abilities can easily be swapped out on the X360 controller is groundbreaking for MMORPGs. I'm curious as to how voicechat-averse players will chat if their hands are tied up with the controller, but this is a common problem that all console-destined MMORPGs from Age of Conan to The Agency and both the next-gen superhero MMORPGs will have to solve.
That said, I'm anxious to see more superhero pop in the coming months. While the kind of travel abilities that helped make City of Heroes and City of Villains special were promised in an earlier Q&A session, we didn't yet see these abilities or an urban setting like Millenium City that would help cement this game as a true, card-carrying member of the superhero MMORPG genre. And it is unfortunate for the Champions Online hype that DC Universe Online was showing incredible abilities like tossing buses and super-speeding up skyscrapers at Comic-Con International in late July. But some or all of that, plus a glimpse of the vaunted nemesis mechanic, is what we have to look forward to in the coming months.
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