Six thousand words on video games is one way to say "I missed you all," right?

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So... yeah. I've been gone a while.

In a way, it's been symbolic of a deeper thing. I haven't just been away from Websnark since... yeesh, May. I've been away from writing. I haven't updated my livejournal. I haven't written fiction. My word processor hasn't actually been launched more than twice in all that time.

This is, as I've mentioned before, very unusual for me. I'm the kind of person who writes to keep my brain on an even keel. Which is really where all this has gone -- I hit the point some time back of full on writerly burnout. My mind simply stopped working in that way. I needed time away from... well, from everything like this.

Am I back now? I think so. We're going to give it a shot, see what kind of momentum we can get going. We'll see. Weds and I also have some plans that I won't go into now, but suffice it to say Weds is a very cool person who knows things I do not.

So what have I been doing with my time these last few months? Not counting stalking the wild Transformer toy with Weds and having a pretty decent married life, anyway?

What else. Video games. Specifically, I've been playing City of Heroes, The Sims 3, and, most significantly, the closed beta of Champions Online. And I have thoughts on all three -- thoughts which will turn into longer essays later, but for now let's get something 'inked,' shall we?

Coh Architect Logo V4B

City of Heroes

It's weird. Not counting games like Soulcalibur, where I'll play each new edition that comes out when it comes along, I haven't stuck with a single video game for a long period of time before City of Heroes. Really, City of Heroes has been a reliable standby for me -- something that has kept my interest, that has continued to engage me, that has inspired me, that has been tons of fun for over five years now. I've been playing City of Heroes longer than I've been writing Websnark, for Christ's sake.

And that is a testament, really, to the job that the developers have done over the past years. They have continually updated the game. They have strived to push the envelope. They have expanded the game's content and gameplay. They have added yet more hot babes, some of them in loincloths. And they are continuing in that vein. It's a remarkable achievement.

Which is somewhat bittersweet, because City of Heroes really has crested the hill. While they are doing a yeoman's job, it is in fact all downhill from here.

That seems odd, in one sense. Certainly, Architect was a monumental shot in the arm. As I've discussed before, it was amazingly fun, especially for a person like me who lives to dig into backstory and adventure design. During the beta process, I freaking lived in the Mission Architect. And after release, I filled my slots up almost immediately.

Well, I mentioned in that linked essay that the biggest problem with Architect was how fast you burned through your arc slots. That was very true, and it took a long time for Paragon Studios to resolve that. Too long, really. When they finally announced that you could buy additional arc slots, the momentum associated with the launch of the system had turned to inertia. And, unfortunately, there were some major issues that came up which ended up harshing the buzz on Architect. People had developed any number of 'farming' missions -- designed to powerlevel characters or farm the Architect badges. Paragon Studios responded with changes -- some of them pretty draconian. They dropped dozens of badges from the game. They even deleted some of (what they described as) the most egregious examples of powerleveling from the game entirely....

...and unfortunately, they caught some innocents in the process. See, they have a feature called a 'leveling pact,' and that leveling pact allows two players to link their characters, so that if one earns experience while the other is logged out, the experience is divided between them. It's a great idea and a nice system in the game.

Unfortunately, a number of leveled-pact characters looked like powerleveled characters to the search algorithms they were using. And got wiped. Right at the same time that they were eliminating those dozens of badges from the game.

Now, here's the thing. A lot of people were pissed off that they were eliminating badges. Badge hunting is a popular pastime in City of Heroes, and a lot of players had devoted weeks to hunting these badges down. By eliminating them, the players who were legitimately hunting badges were being punished alongside the players who had found exploits in the system. It is never a good idea to take something away from your players, after all. Sometimes it's a necessary idea, but it's never a good one. There's almost no way to spin it as a positive, after all. So, tempers were already high because of the changes.

Now, add to that characters getting deleted. And add to that innocent players having characters deleted because of an error.

Paragon Studios fixed the issue. To my knowledge, lost 'innocent' characters were restored with all their perks, as quickly as the GMs could do it. But, the damage had already been done -- and between all of that and continuing issues over players gaming (or trying to game) the rating system, the Mission Architect honeymoon was pretty well over. It didn't help that at the time they still hadn't had ways to buy additional arc slots, so the most passionate users of the Architect system were already out of the loop, cutting down on impassioned defenders when it was having growing pains.

It's still an amazing innovation, but it's not enough to sustain the game at this point.

Paragon Studios knows this. They came out with a new content update -- Issue 15: Anniversary -- in hopes of invigorating the game. But Anniversary -- despite the fact that it returned the coolest villain faction ever developed for the game to the game (and reversed one of the worst early decisions City of Heroes made) -- was an extremely lackluster content update. Sure, the Fifth Column was back... but their return was focused on a single hero task force and a single villain strike force. Task forces and strike forces are problematic, because they can't be run solo. You have to have a team, so players who don't have a regular group have to grab a pick up group or else just skip the content.

For the record? My regular group of City of Heroes players jumped out of the game and started in on World of Warcraft many, many months ago. My only recourse for anything that requires a team is pick-up groups, and I don't actually like them. They're just too uneven for my tastes. So despite my absolutely love of the Fifth Column, I haven't actually seen their return as yet. Well, except in player-made Mission Architect missions. I fought Nazis on the Moon at one point, and that's entirely cool. It just doesn't help Issue 15.

Otherwise? They added some new costume sets, added a bunch of new character faces (several of which honestly aren't to my taste), and added some costume change animations. All of which is cute, but don't really affect gameplay at all, and the gameplay in City of Heroes is pretty stale right now.

Oh, and they added some refinements to the Mission Architect -- in particular, to quote their update page, they made it so "[missions] can now be selected for both 'Hall of Fame' and 'Dev Choice,' allowing players to attain both badges," which would probably be more exciting if A) more than 0.04% of the total number of arcs had gotten either Hall of Fame or Dev's Choice, and B) if they hadn't eliminated both of those badges as part of the purge.

Issue 16: Power Spectrum is currently in closed beta. It adds a feature people have been asking for since, oh, Issue 2, namely the ability to customize the look of their powers. Generally, that means being able to change the color of powers, as well as changing some animations here and there. That's awesome... and absolutely necessary, since Champions Online will be out soon and it's shipping with powers you can customize. It also includes more "powerset proliferation," which gives different archetypes access to powersets previously reserved for other characters. (Which also feels like a response to Champions Online, since they let you mix and match powers as you will). And you can tweak your difficulty more easily, which is a good thing. All of these are good things, really. They're just not overwhelming. At least in theory -- like I said, they're in closed beta, so I can't report on their actual implementation at this time, which neither confirms nor denies whether I'm in said closed beta.

At least the powerset proliferation constitutes new gameplay, which the game really needs at this point. Really, the game needs a monumental influx of new content and new gameplay, including major AI revisions, a ton of new maps, new zones -- the whole nine yards. As it is, new issues come out and they're just not as exciting as they used to be. The Mission Architect is partially to blame -- who cares about new content when there's 50,000 story arcs ready to be played in one building? But part of the problem is... well, it's over five years old. Its underlying technologies date back to the first Bush Administration. The biggest, most innovative games of its graduating class were Halo 2, Half-Life 2, Katamari Damacy, and... oh yeah, World of Freaking Warcraft. We've had multiple sequels to the first three of those games, and not only has WoW had monumentally more success and several major content updates (including two huge paid sequels)... but it too is showing its age at this point.

The future still looks bright for City of Heroes. Their second paid expansion (and the first since '05's City of Villains), City of Heroes: Going Rogue promises to resolve many of those issues. New gameplay systems (including the long long long overdue capacity for heroes to fall from grace and villains to redeem), a whole new world (cue song) with new zones, entirely new powersets and a move forward in their mythology is all really exciting stuff. At the same time, they've announced a loyalty program that's a bit telling: if you stay subscribed to City of Heroes from August through November, you're guaranteed a spot in the City of Heroes: Going Rogue closed beta test.

Champions Online releases in September. They practically could have named this promotion the "please don't quit our game when Champions Online launches" campaign. It's certainly the most telling sign so far that Paragon Studios knows it needs to step up to what could be a major blow to their subscriber base.

Still, Going Rogue does give some hope, and I for one am keeping my account for now. Besides, I've stuck with them for five years, and it's still a good game. I'm not ready to cut the cord. There's too much history there.

For now.

Still, one hopes they either have a lot of real gameplay followups behind this... or else City of Heroes 2. (I for one think a true sequel should be named Nation of Heroes, but then I'm weird.) While City of Heroes may last years before it becomes uneconomic to keep the servers running (Hell, The Matrix Online just shut down at the beginning of this month, which is just stunning when you consider no one on the planet thought it was still online. And the original Everquest is still getting new content, much less still running! Seriously! The Underfoot expansion's scheduled to hit servers this November!) there will come a point where the major development of the 'City of Heroes' universe will require a new engine and design, to take advantage of all the lessons they've learned over the past five years.

Of course, there are those who say Champions Online is, in fact, City of Heroes 2. Paragon Studios needs to fight that perception tooth and freaking nail, and Cryptic won't make that easy. But that's for down below in the third section.

Sims3 Logo Ver798665

The Sims 3

The Sims has been one of those franchises I've plugged along with from "small times" as Ray Smuckles would have said in happier times. At this point, they know how to sell us this thing. Each new generation of the game is a significant improvement in gameplay and design. You get hooked on the (mostly mundane) beginnings of the new generation, and then expansions come out that build on your game in weirder and weirder ways. This was true back in the days of The Sims, it was true in The Sims 2 (and I'm still pissed off that the last two expansions never came out for the Macintosh), and it's true now in The Sims 3. The major innovation this time is that you're not playing a household, you're focused on one household of the whole neighborhood, but as time passes all their stories evolve at the same rate yours does. People don't just get old, they get married and have kids. New people move in as old people die off, and if you want to send every one of your household's residents to entirely different lots in the neighborhood, all in real time, go for it.

It's all smoother and slicker than in previous years, and the expanded sense of scope really is an improvement. It feels far more like a town now. There's lots more to do. There's challenges to achieve. There's a truly startlingly large amount of fishing. And there is a real feeling of evolution. You're meant to have your characters hook up, procreate, grow old and die while their children do the same, and on down into the ages.

As with almost everything in the world, there is an up side and a down side to this.

The up side is an increased sense of the Soap Operatic reality that has always been the Sims. Friendships are reworked, so it's less important that you befriend everyone and his brother. Mistakes can last for a long time indeed. Ghosts (the token magic of this first game) can be a part of families and even if they're not, you have a sense of the past becoming the future and beyond. And, if you don't like all that, you can turn aging off and say the heck with it.

The down side is some loss of effective functionality. In The Sims 2, when children grew up and moved out, that became a different playable household. If you wanted to jump over and see what they're up to and play them for a few weeks, leaving your main house alone, you can happily do so. Not so in the Sims 3. If you change the household of focus in the Sims 3, your old household continues evolving -- they just do it without you. They become NPCs. You can turn off story progression the same as you do aging, but at that point what is the point? You might as well play The Sims 2 and get the ability to send them Sims to college or send them into a hot tub for unhygienic sex.

(As a side note -- the lack of hot tubs in The Sims 3 is the first thing everyone notices. Somehow, the Hot Tub experience has become emblematic of the Sims as a whole, and its lack feels palpable. So, while I maintain that The Sims remains a Soap Opera simulator, let's not rule out scrambled soft-core couples porn as a secondary goal. This is only exacerbated by your ability to seduce the pizza delivery guy or the plumber.)

The tradeoff of tight continuity over ease of shifting plotlines is a relatively minor one. The major strike against The Sims 3 is economic. Now, it's worth noting they've made it trivially easy to recolor and repattern... well, anything in the game. If you want to have a Toyota Prius painted like a cow, you can. If you want your bookshelves to be painted like a cow, you can. If you want your clothing, kitchen appliances, laptop computers, carpet and juice bar to be painted like cows, you can. It's the cow apocolypse! Run!

On the other side of it, if you want new objects to paint however you'd like... well, you go to an online store and you spend "Sims points" on it. Which is to say they've implemented the same kind of microtransactions that every other video game has. Yaaaay. I suppose it's not significantly different than the DVDs of new clothes and stuff you could buy for The Sims 2, only it feels chintzier somehow. They know it's easier to get someone to spend a hundred 'points' (in reality, about a buck) than it is to get them to shell out thirty bucks for a DVD collection -- even if the collection then comes to significantly less money per object than your online purchasing.

When hot tubs become available, it's a pretty safe bet they'll cost a few thousand points in the store. Assuming they're not going to be part of a paid expansion, anyway.

All told, The Sims 3 remains a lovely way to accidentally spend nine hours reminding your character to eat while forgetting to do so yourself. And with the upcoming World Adventures expansion scheduled to hit personal computers in November, EA is going to continue to print money off Wil Wright's legacy for a long time to come.

Champions Logo

Champions Online

Not long after my last City of Heroes essay (and in part thanks to an offhanded comment in that essay) I got into the closed beta of Champions Online. As with all closed betas, Champions Online has been a bit of a rough ride, especially since their beta schedule was two nights a week, typically -- Wednesdays and Fridays. The first (pretty unstable) build of the week would be pushed for Wednesday, and a bug-fixed/stabilized version of that build would go in Friday. Sometimes it would be spectacularly broken, and sometimes it would be pretty amazingly flawless, but all in all it was... well, a closed beta. Betas aren't there for the fun of the testers -- they're so that the game breaking bugs get caught before someone actually pays for that thing.

Still, those sessions gave me a pretty good idea of how Champions Online was supposed to go. And now that the NDA has been lifted and we're into Open Beta, I can share impressions with you guys.

Now, before I got into Closed Beta, most of what I heard about Champions Online was... well, pretty awful. Generally, the word came from disgruntled beta testers who'd up and quit, often for legitimate reasons -- though naturally that gives you a pretty one sided sense of things. I'll write a bit about the nature of a closed beta process -- and what it is and it isn't -- later on in the week, luck willing. Suffice it to say I've watched the game evolve a tremendous amount since getting in, and I can make a few subjective assessments.

On the whole? This is a really, really good game.

Seriously. Cryptic Studios developed City of Heroes before the NCSoft buyout and development split (though all of the developers who were still working on City of Heroes at the time of the split stuck with the property), and their experience with the older game informed Champions Online tremendously. In particular, Champions Online addresses a lot of the long standing complaints people have with City of Heroes. Hitting some of the high points:

  • Characters can be built out of any combination of powers, eschewing classes (or archetypes) and permitting a broad spread of abilities, which themselves can be customized in color and often in animation or anchor point. (My current open beta character concept is a techno-shaman whose basic abilities are reflected by light blue electricity, along with some sorcerous powers. The technological spirits of the character's shamanism are reflected by various summonable robots and toys. Needless to say, this character couldn't exist in City of Heroes.)
  • Travel powers are automatic after the tutorial finishes, and are far more usable in combat. One can legitimately have a flying hero who never touches the ground. Further, there are a lot more travel powers available -- tunneling underground, riding a flying disk, having an ice bridge carry you a la Iceman, flying wreathed in flame a la the Human Torch (or, if you colored it green, Fire from Justice League International), an acrobatic style of flips and bouncing, and swinging. Swinging. Screw fighting crime -- I'll happily swing half-way across the desert for hours on end just because it's fun. There is far less of a sense that your character has to slog on foot everywhere in this game.
  • The character creation engine is astounding. Not only does it have broad uses, but almost everything is adjustable by sliders. What's more, a good number of the costumes incorporate not only patterns but textures. (A leather bodysuit is different than a cloth one, and both of those are different than metal -- and all three of these can be put through a knit weave or various patterns and cuts of jumpsuit, and that's just bodysuits.) You can have a stag's head. Or a shark head. There are jet packs and rockets and backpacks and freaking quivers. You can change your character's eye color. You can make his eyes glow, even, or go with the Batmanseque 'pupilless eyes' look. (I may create a Little Orphan Annie parody with no pupils, if I can figure out a good batshit insane powerset.)
  • Barring names that infringe on trademark, names are tied to a specific account instead of a server. Which means that anyone can have any name, but only one character in their own account can be named that name. So, if I want to name a character Force, the fact that my friend Mason might have a character named Force wouldn't stop me. Messages or mail to our respective characters would just go to "Force@ericburnswhite" or "Force@masonkramer" (neither of those are our real global names, for the record.) So, the days of trying to find a misspelled variation of the name we wanted in the first place? Are over.
  • Immersion is immediate and heroic. As much as I've always loved City of Heroes, the City of Heroes tutorial, while good at teaching you how to play the game, was terrible at making you feel like a hero. You were in a sealed section of town, beating up sick men (with, admittedly, glowing eyes) who were throwing small rocks at you and hitting you with pipes. And it took a few hits to beat them at that. As much as the backstory of the game justified the events, you never quite shook the feeling that the freaking Wondertwins could have solved this 'crisis' in ten minutes and still had time for a heartfelt moral and some cruel mocking of their monkey.

    By contrast, in Champions Online the entire of Millennium City is plunged into abject chaos by an alien invasion. Forcefields are everywhere. The police are cut off. You have to fight insect aliens, rescue hostages, free trapped people from rubble, rescue a lost freaking cat and return it to a grandmother, figure out where the alien menace came from, mount a counterattack, and storm the contested headquarters of the signature heroes in the game. Along the way, you meet several of those signature heroes, not a some L1 newbie unworthy of their attention, but as a peer, save at least one from a horrible fate, then fight alongside the game's Superman figure. And in the major supervillain fight near the end of the tutorial, almost always that Superman figure will go down and you'll have to save the day in his stead. And that is followed by a celebration, and for the rest of your time in the game, whenever you're in Millennium City random people will run up to you and gush over the fact that you saved their lives and the whole freaking city.

    Now that's superheroic.
  • While there aren't many zones, they are positively huge, and you move back and forth between them throughout the game.This also means there aren't loading screens all the time, and you get a real sense of city. (Or of desert or frozen countryside, depending). They're also totally beautiful.
  • PvP is in the game from the beginning and works the way you'd expect superheroic PvP to work. You can invite anyone in the game to duel, and then (after a rocket drops from the sky to mark the duel field) you two can duke it out. Or, pretty much anywhere (with no travel time) you can queue to go into team based or free for all PvP (under the title 'The Hero Games' after the original publishers of Champions). PvP grants experience and in-game rewards. If the model sounds familiar, it's because it's been largely taken from World of Warcraft, who did it as well as anyone in the business. I hate PvP in general, but this is a fun occasional diversion, and because I don't need to travel to special arenas to participate it can be done whenever I have a vague yen -- or see someone on the street I want to have a zero-penalty slugfest with. At the same time, I can never touch it at all and I'm out nothing.
  • Because they have access to the decades-long Champions intellectual property, they have hundreds of fleshed out supervillains and organizations to fight. You fight an actual supervillain in the tutorial. You fight a couple of Supervillains in whichever Crisis you choose after the tutorial. You actually run into costumed supervillains as a part of the missions you take place in, even outdoors, in the game. At any point you might discover yourself facing a full on spandex-clad nemesis -- and for those of us who've been playing Champions for half of forever, you'll also do some undignified squeeing during the process. (I was pathetically happy to fight Ankylosaur at one point.)
  • Viper (which by the way predates "Cobra" from G.I. Joe by several years) is a monumentally cool recurring enemy. They'd take 'the Council' from City of Heroes any day of the week.
  • Environments are moderately destructible, and your stats give you environmental options. A character with an area of effect attack will often lay waste to cars, boulders, computers, lampposts and the like. At the same time, the stronger your character the heavier an object he can lift. The first time you have a superstrong character who manages to pick up a tank, fly into the air, and hurl it an an enemy as an opening attack will stay with you for a long time.
  • You can make your own costumed nemesis, and that nemesis actually engages you in the game proper. I can't overestimate how cool it is to have a pack of your nemesis's minions show up and reinforce your opponents because they cut a side-deal to specifically take you out. Further, your nemesis is among the hardest opponents you face in the game. And after a while, you get the option to create more, until you have your own Rogue's Gallery.
  • The game is beautiful and laden with little touches. For example, going into a simulated wild west saloon in a robotic theme park, you see a saloon like interior. However, there's also a robot piano player. And he's merrily playing a slightly out of tune piano. And a whole line of robotic cowpoke girls are dancing in a choreographed western style line dance to it. That doesn't add a thing to gameplay, but man it's cool.

This makes it sound like Champions Online is in all ways a better game than City of Heroes, but that's unfair. There are still plenty of issues that need to be ironed out, and lots of those issues will only come with time and development of content. Let me hit those high (low?) points too:

  • The game is incredibly linear right now. You must start in the Tutorial (and no matter how awesome that Tutorial is, the fifth time you launch Ironclad you're pretty sick of his bizarrely Ted-Cassidyesque voice). Once finished the Tutorial, you must go to a crisis zone either in the Desert or the Canadian Wilderness. You must do the multiple missions to complete the Crisis. Only after all that is finished are you in a position to take control of your own path, and even then it's strongly suggested that you stick to the non-crisis version of the zone you're in until you level your way up in that content. One won't realistically start having adventures in the 'main' location of Millennium City until L11 or L12 at the earliest. (Though that does give an in-game explanation of how they were able to clean up the damage from the alien invasion so quickly). Someone who enjoys building lots of alt characters is going to get really sick of going through that same content over and over again. While one gets to know all the City of Heroes content (not counting Mission Architect), there's a lot more variety in the early levels before you end up following mission chains. World of Warcraft, which really is the gold standard for MMOs right now, has two major factions and those factions each have three different starting locations and quests, not to mention lots of quests that are specific to given classes or the like.
  • On the other hand, Alts are hard to come by anyway. You get a whopping eight character slots to begin with. You can earn (or buy) more, and people who get a permanent account during the promotional period get an additional eight. Compare that to World of Warcraft's fifty total alts, and bear in mind that if you spread alts between servers, you can make a whopping one hundred and twenty one alternate characters on City of Heroes without even touching on earned or bought additional slots.
  • While the character creator has incredible depth, it's also mired in a specific house style that's less comic-book and more cartoon. Even if one turns off the trademark 'black outline' surrounding characters to make them look inked (as almost everyone seems to), characters look closer to Kim Possible's wide eyes, the Tick's chin, or Justice League Unlimited characters than they do to a Greg LaRocque drawing. In particular, though you have a ton of sliders that let you change a person's features, those faces look very much alike unless you make them full on grotesque.
  • Crafting is, charitably, a work in progress. They're trying very hard to make crafting useful and relevant, and having it incorporate the capacity to swap gear and change your stats and abilities in other games while avoiding changing the lovingly created costumes in the game to something canned. However, the result misses the visceral joy of turning leather into pants that's such a bizarrely addictive subgame within World of Warcraft and other fantasy games. The three professions -- mysticism, science and arms -- feel arbitrary, and they've recently added a byzantine series of specializations within the main fields that just muddle everything. (As a side note, I have long maintained that the 'crafting' system in a superhero MMO shouldn't be goods, it should be based on in-game professions. For example, crooks could drop 'clues,' which a character can gather. If that character is a reporter, he can smith those clues into leads, which in turn could be made into a story you can sell, or you could take several stories and smith them into a series or expos�. Those could then be made into mission arcs or other in-game benefits. Meanwhile, a 'Detective' could take those same clues and smith them into leads, which become full cases. And so on. Sadly, that seems unlikely anytime soon.)
  • As cool as your Nemesis is, you don't see very much of them, and what you do see feels canned. You don't even create them until L25, which is more than halfway to the current maximum level. Even after you get your nemesis, you spend a lot more time being ambushed by your nemesis's enemies than you do actually confronting your nemesis. I really, really hope they drop your nemesis's entry to L15 or even lower, and make the Nemesis himself a more prevalent part of your day to day adventuring life.
  • Rather than have multiple 'named' servers, all the characters in the game officially exist on the same server, which then will spawn additional virtual servers to reduce load as much as possible. This was meant to put everyone into one pool, so that you don't have separation of players by what server they exist on. However, the dynamic splitting of servers means players are never really sure which instance their friends are going to be on and there can be a lot of confusion.
  • On the other side of it, as weird as it is to type this... it's not like the game goes out of its way to encourage friends to meet up in the first place. It's got plenty of social options, but in terms of actually adventuring together? The game is much more solo-friendly. In particular, though there's a mechanism to 'share' missions, it seems like most missions can't be shared via that mechanism. Most teaming that takes place are very short ad hoc pickup groups so that everyone waiting for mission objectives to spawn can clear the mission at once, then split up and go their separate ways.
  • The above probably highlights the most obvious weakness. Almost all the missions are live on the streets, in shared areas, rather than in discrete instances. As a result, during earlier levels when there's a lot of people trying to work their way up the only possible way to complete missions is to camp the various spawn points for objectives. There's something innately unheroic about camping a spawn point to beat up Canadian separatists before your fellow heroes have a chance to do the same thing.

As you can tell, the exciting parts of Champions Online boil down to the new and exciting gameplay options in the game. (It is certainly worth noting Champions Online has a much smarter AI than its predecessor. The days of taunting a room of bad guys around a corner and having them all pile around it to let you fry them with AoE attacks seems to be done.) The problems Champions Online has largely boil down to the game being brand new and immature. While there have been plenty of broken and bugged bits (culminating in the first day of open beta being kind of a disaster as everyone hit the patching server at once and it melted under the weight), I won't officially hold those against Champions Online until after launch. That is, after all, why one has Beta tests.

Needless to say, however, I'm preordered on Champions Online. I'm really impressed with what they've done, and the game is fun and fast paced and has shiny bits I rather like. What this means for City of Heroes only time will tell, but I think I can officially state that right now? We have ourselves a ball game.

15 Comments

As a side note and as a test, Typepad (they of the annoying comment interface) now allows for OpenID authentication, which means it should work for all of you as well. As a second side note, we've had some comment issues of late, so you may have to wait for me to validate your comments before they appear. Apologies for the inconvenience, assuming anyone A) reads the above and B) wants to comment on it.

But what about Plants vs Zombies, man?

Awww, we missed you too.

I'll happily swing half-way across the desert for hours on end just because it's fun.

So what is there to swing from in a desert?

At this point, you don't need to apologize for only dropping in on occasion. We all know you have a more inconsistent update schedule than Order of the Stick.

Interesting. I can't say that I was up on all of the architect stuff and I haven't played CoH much at all for the last three weeks or so. I had a week long trip for work and became Mafia Wars' bitch and have had little to no desire to go back to CoH. I have to admit that CoH was starting to feel a bit repetitive to me, especially on the villain side. No matter how much I tried, I always ended up having to deal with that stupid, fucking boom box as a contact. That and trying to find an ad-hoc group to do Terra Volta was completely useless.

I'll be interested to see how Champs Online progresses. I might consider switching if I feel the impetus to continue playing superhero based MMO. The character generator sounds very nice. One thing that frustrated me with CoH was not being able to achieve the look that I wanted for a character.

Bo Lindbergh:
Cacti. Didn't you read that issue of Spider-man?

I'm not sure what it says about me that the thing I found most astonishing about your description of Champions Online was the name thing, while the thing that's repelled me about it is the art style.

I've never been able to grasp how the whole "Start as a superhero" would work, I suppose because it seems so contrary to the model that other MMOs use - WoW starts you as a minor adventurer who grows to become someone who stands alongside and is respected by your race's king; CoH starts you as a very minor hero who'll eventually save Statesman in one of the last arcs. Does Champions Online have that sense of progression at all?

Gary--

I've only played the demo of Plants vs. Zombies. Though that demo rocked on toast.

Bo--

As near as we can tell, there is a dense patch of atmosphere about 100 feet above us at all times, that's more than capable of anchoring a grappling hook attached to a standard Hyneman Ascender. Why the United States military hasn't taken better advantage of this dense air is beyond me. On the other hand, it may be related to global warming.

Mister Bankies--

Mafia Wars is powerfully addictive, but since you quickly run out of energy even with energy packs, I usually only devote time to it every other day now.

Man, I haven't done the Terra Volta run in half of forever. I've got a huge number of free respecs on every character thanks to my Vet rewards. I need to get over to the power plant again sometime.

Daniel--

The feel is pretty different. It opens with the idea that whether or not you're new on the scene, you're starting 'big,' so people generally give you the benefit of the doubt. In general, you're treated by contacts as a professional who knows what they're doing. The sense of progression comes from the chain of in-story events that slowly reveal the in-game secrets and mysteries to you.

That said, one of the major, recurring complaints about City of Heroes is a lack of that sense of 'superheroism' in the early levels. Yeah, intellectually you know the Outbreak victims have been enhanced, the Hellions are using magic to get an edge and the Skulls are shooting Miraclo into their eyeballs, but in a practical sense it feels like a bunch of nobodies are beating you up on a regular basis. This is reinforced by the near disdain some contacts have for you in the game. It's refreshing to have a sense that A) you've earned some respect and street cred even in the tutorial and B) people are generally glad you're doing what you're doing.

You do get used to the art style. It takes a little time. It's a bit like Counterstrike players getting used to Team Fortress 2 -- the exaggerated and cartoony appearance of characters actually enhances identification over time. It does take that getting used to, though.

Apparently in the Champions Online you are bumped up to max level, to save the city. Only when the tutorial is finished are you demoted back to level 1. A lot of people have been complaining about how deceptive that is -- not everyone is as enamored of the tutorial as Eric.

I've heard bad things about Champions, particularly the gameplay. Every character is, in game terms, the same thing; you have attacks (ranged or melee), special attacks, an active defense and a passive defense. This makes every character a tankmage. There are very few ally buffs. Thus, no reason to group, ever, and every character feels the same.

But if you continue with City of Heroes, Eric, come by the Virtue server. It's very active, and it's pretty easy to find a PUG on the global channels. As far as MMOs go I have come to the conclusion that it's not the game you play, it's who you play it with that matters.

Remus -- I'm not at all sure where people got that sense. You're not max level in the tutorial. You're L1 when you start it, and usually L5-6 when you finish it. Your damage, health, stats and powers are all appropriate to your level. You're not treated any differently when you leave the tutorial and move on to the crisis (whichever crisis you do).

you have attacks (ranged or melee), special attacks, an active defense and a passive defense

That reflects a model that went out quite a while ago in the closed beta. Right now, you typically have a series of attacks based on how you want your character to play, which you can then modify with advantages to alter the game effects. You have a specific "slot" for passive powers -- you can put a power in the slot, and have its effects be innate, but your choices of what goes in that slot is dependent on the role you choose. If you take your Offensive build, your passive slot's typically going to have something that increases your offensive power, with some minor damage mitigation. If you take Defensive build, your passive slot will have something that protects you at the cost of some combat advantage. If you take Balanced (which I typically do) you can choose from a limited list from both.

I can assure you that every character does not feel the same. It takes some doing to work out the ideosyncracies of a given powerset, and that's assuming you don't go off book with your power choices. A Force wielder who has a tight group of knockback and hold powers plays radically differently than an electrical player who does heavy damage (which can 'arc' from enemy to enemy) and collateral damage, but is far less survivable. This in turn is massively different in feel and effect than a telepath who's sleeping things and creating the manifestation of their nightmares into giant glowing worm creatures that flop around and phallus stuff to death.

Most of the ranged powersets have a block of ally buffs that can be taken -- usually three or four of them. Melee powersets, not so much.

One complaint you list, however, is accurate. There is little need and less impetus to group in the game. The content is so solo-friendly as to make grouping impractical at times, and it's going to be somewhat rare that someone takes the powers to make themselves a good support character instead of a full on striker. You're right that everyone's a tank-mage, but that's not innately bad -- the problem with tank-magi in games is that they overshadow other character classes; in a classless game, the needs are different.

One area where grouping does come in handy are in those mission objective camps. If everyone joins a quick ad hoc group, everyone can clear the objective simultaneously.

And as I stated, I'm not dropping City of Heroes just yet. I've played on Virtue before (my home stomping grounds has traditionally been Pinnacle, it's worth noting). You're absolutely right that it's the people you play with that make the difference, even when you're soloing.

I'm relieved to hear that soloing is so easy - one of my fears in regards to the game was that it would be similar to the early model City of Heroes in which you had to group for lots of content, and to solo was Doing It Wrong. You had a post about that, didn't you?

I'll have to wait until I get a new PC to try it out though. This 'un struggles enough with CoH.

My group of friends have been playing CoH on and off since the beta, and I'd say we share a lot of your views. We're mostly on WoW now, but we make trips back to CoH to check out new stuff- most recently, to see the MA, and your Rogue Island police arc in particular. We'll probably buy the expansion when that comes out.

For CoH2- I agree; Nation of Heroes is what I'd call it.

Champions has caught my groups attention- two of my friends are trying out the open beta now, and I'll be picking up a preorder tonight. We'll probably play for a few months, then check back in 6months to a year down the line.

6k words on video games is a fine 'i'm sorry, how have you been'.

You didn't mention the coolest part of I16....

Not the customization. Not the difficulty changes...

But the fact that the 5th Column now spawns in the world and fights The Council.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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