A Star is Born:
Let’s Play Champions Online Pt. 8

 By Shamus Nov 10, 2009 38 comments

I’m in town, minding my own business and getting a big bunch of XP for killing Canadian terrorists, when the woman I’m talking to reveals that she’s actually under the control of the cloned brain I’ve been looking for.

Er. A what? I haven’t… I mean, I think I would remember if I’d been looking for something like that. I’ve been asked to to some pretty strange and sketchy stuff since getting here, but so far nobody has asked me to find a cloned brain.

Regardless, cloned brain wants to talk to me, and so invites me to come out into the wilderness. Okay then.

Up in the mountains I find…

staronchest_giant_brain.jpg

An astral projection. Of a clone. Of a giant brain. I have no idea what the etiquette is in a situation like this, but I guess I can rule out shaking hands.

Giant Brain tells me that he needs my help. I don’t know about helping an astral projection of a clone of a giant brain that was just mind-controlling a bystander in base, but he’s got a green outline when I mouse over him and it says “hero” under his name so… I guess he’s a good guy?

Luckily, Astral-Cloned-Giant-Brain is eager to prove that he’s on my side. As a token of friendship, he clues me in on some super-duper giant-brain level intel: Soldiers from Steelhead are being executed by the Hunter-Patriots. These executions are happening in the nearby valley.

This is not actually news to me. I mean, the Hunter-Patriots are terrorists. They’ve been shooting me on sight pretty much since I put an end to the NOT ORDINARY storm. I figured out they were bad news ages ago. I was actually in that same valley earlier when I was beating up those very same guys so I could steal their plans for their maple-powered death ray. And thank you so much for reminding me of that debacle, Astral-Cloned-Giant-Brain.

But ACGB thinks this is a news flash for a big-jawed tiny-brain like me, and he’s using it to try and convince me we’re on the same team. He asks me to go save a few Steelhead soldiers for him. Or for me. I’m not sure, really.

So… you’re proving your allegiance by telling me my mortal enemies are bad guys and then as a sign of good faith you ask me to rescue my own allies? Is this like one of those “so bad it’s good” deals, where a movie is so awful that you enjoy it? Except in your case it’s more like “so smart you drool on yourself and eat shoes”?

Right. Off to the crash site to beat up some Hunter-Patriot guys. Again.

I fly into the valley and look for groups of Hunter-Patriots gathered around Steelhead soldiers. About I dozen or so fights in, I glance up and notice I’m not making any progress on this mission. Checking the map, I see I’m just outside the mission area. So rescuing these Steelhead soldiers doesn’t count towards making me believe the brain is on my side.

Problems? Try PUNCHING!
Problems? Try PUNCHING!

I move my traveling violence show to the other side of the valley and find punching these guys in the face to be far more convincing of the genuineness of Brain’s offer of friendship.

I return to ACGB, who tells me, “Now that I have helped you, I ask you to return the favor.” I assume he’s talking about the XP he just awarded me, since telling me to go and beat up my own enemies to save my own allies while he does nothing doesn’t fall within any definition of help that I understand.

Now the ACGB lays it all out and explains what’s really going on:

There is a bad guy called the Overbrain. He apparently clones brains, and then enslaves those brains through mind control. This seems like an insane level of effort with dubious return, but I’ve been working for Ravenspeaker, so it’s not like I have room to criticize the feasibility of what anyone else is doing.

ACGB here is not yet under the sway of the Overbrain, but a new shipment of mind-control gear is on its way and ACGB is sure he won’t be able to hold out if the Overbrain gets his hands on it. ACGB has confused the driver making the delivery and the new gear has been left down in the valley. I need to go blow it up.

So I need to go around, beat up some more Hunter-Patriot guys, and steal their explosives. Then use those explosives to explode the mind control gear.

It turns out the gear is in a simple crate and guarded by a couple of befuddled drivers.

Few people are familiar with the second Poincaré conjecture, which asks: "Would it be possible to make a videogame which contains no crates?"  Many people believe it is possible, but it has yet to be proven.
Few people are familiar with the second Poincaré conjecture, which asks: "Would it be possible to make a videogame which contains no crates?" Many people believe it is possible, but it has yet to be proven.

Several questions spring to mind:

1) It’s a crate. Why do I need to blow it up? I’ve lifted and smashed things larger and heavier than that by accident. While trying to talk to someone.

2) Actually, why destroy it up at all? I could fly that sucker back to Steelhead Base and they could take it apart to study. Or just put it in with the recyclables. Seems a waste to just blow it all up.

3) If we are going to blow it up, is this really what the good guys have come to? I have to scavenge explosives off of our foes? Heck, there is a flak gun ten feet away from the box, and the thing pounds the everlovin’ daylights out of me when I approach from the air. It seems like that thing would be a better source of explosives than wandering around, punching guys and swiping their hand grenades. It would actually be hilarious to swipe the crate and use it as a shield against the AA gun, thus tricking the bad guys into shooting their own stuff.

Brain? Are you listening? No? Sigh. Fine.

Astral-Cloned-Giant-Brain is really set on the plans he came up with and isn’t interested in listening to reason or the rude things I’m shouting at my computer. Okay, okay. Let’s get this over with.

I extract some explosives from the local terrorist population and then take the explosives to the crate of mind-control equipment and activate it. A progress bar fills up as I put the explosives into place. Once full, the box blows up in my face.

Somewhere in southern California, a game developer is laughing his ass off at me right now.

An explosion going off in my face as I use explosives I didn't need to destroy something I could have smashed to help a floating brain I now hate.
An explosion going off in my face as I use explosives I didn't need to destroy something I could have smashed to help a floating brain I now hate.

I return to the giant brain. He maintains that he is a super-smart brain and that he is my ally, despite the fact that the last job he gave me demonstrated that at least one of these facts must be false. At least.

Now he wants me to find a teammate…

Sigh. The teaming system.

Group combat is a mess in Champions Online. If you are in a team of three or more people, bad guys will automatically run to get reinforcements. When they do so, they get to retreat at running speed while blocking. (Players can’t do that.) It’s extremely difficult to stop the runner before he gets help, and chasing him will often drag you into crowds of foes, who will in turn all scatter for reinforcements, etc.

The thing is, the bad guys do this even if your team-mates aren’t anywhere to be seen. If you’re in a group of three people, it’s folly to enter combat while your compatriots are back in town, because the bad guys will smell the scent of a team player on you and run off for help. You’ll end up fighting gangs intended for three people. This means anytime one person takes a break, everyone needs to. So once you join a group, you must stick together or you’ll be worse off than the guy next to you who’s working solo. Actually, you’ll be worse off than him either way.

Just as you mop up one group, another one rushes in along with the guy who originally ran off, and someone from that group will go get another, and another, yea, even unto the seventh generation. Bad guys will even get reinforcements from mortal enemies. They will do so even if the reinforcements are way too strong for your party. They will do so even if the reinforcements are so far away they can’t even be seen from your current location. They will also go for whatever help is “closest” when looking at the map, even if that means jumping off a cliff. This is really annoying when doing a “rescue” mission where a civilian is cowering in the face of (say) four foes. You wipe out three, but the fourth one gets away and goes on walkabout. Then you’re all alone with the NPC you’re trying to save, but he doesn’t consider himself “saved” until his attackers are all dead – even the one halfway across the map who is trying to talk a group of terrorists to help him out fighting these superheroes.

These annoyances are compounded by the low-XP approach the game has towards combat. Enemies aren’t worth fighting for XP, and being in a group has you fighting a lot more. Sure, three people can mow through foes faster than one, but not nearly enough to make up for what the game throws at you and the hassle of needing to stick together.

What you get is this: Our team assaults a group of four level 18 robot cowboys. One of them runs off into the desert. We mop up the other three. Hey… wasn’t there a fourth guy here? I don’t see him. Did someone else kill him? Did you? I don’t know. Then we move onto the next group. Halfway through that, the runner returns with a group of level 26 escaped convicts, who proceed to wipe our party.

I’ve gone to level 25 entirely through grouping, and I’ve gone all the way to 30 while soloing. I can say it is actually a handicap to be in a group. It’s far better to disband your team and simply travel around together. (Our team didn’t do this though. We sucked it up and played the game they way you’re “supposed to”. The only time we disbanded was for an escort mission, because the reinforcements kept going after the guy we were supposed to protect. The mission went from nigh-impossible to stupidly easy just by disbanding.)

Once in a while you’ll run into a forced-teaming mission where it says you need three people and players will just go to a mandatory-teaming boss and just camp out until another hero shows up. Then – without forming a team – they both rush in and pound on the boss. Once he’s down they go their separate ways.

I can see how they intended for the reinforcements to make grouping more interesting, but instead it wound up making teaming a cumbersome chore that everyone works to avoid, which then makes forced-teaming missions like the one Star On Chest is about to do into a hassle. Almost nobody groups in this game. Champions Online is a Massively Singleplayer Online Game.

…and go after the Overmind. I have no idea why he didn’t just have me go after the Overmind first. I guess he’s just way too smart to take such an obvious and clean route to victory, and would rather send me to suicide-bomb crates of electronics first.

Right. So I need to fight the Overbrain, and his henchman, Ape Plus. The Overbrain has been working to mind-control the Hunter-Patriots to make them into his personal army. Is that bad? I mean, they’re already terrorists. If the Overbrain controls them, maybe that’s an improvement? We still have the same total number of bad guys to fight. They’ll just be doing Overbrain stuff instead of Terrorist stuff.

Here is what I’m going to do: I’m going to solo this job.

Being that we're after something called "The Overbrain", you can be forgiven for thinking he's the red brain thing to my right.  The brain in the tube is actually our "friend", who has been astrally projecting himself.  This is his real self. I guess. The little floating doohickey behind that tube is the Overbrain. Ape Plus is there on the left. He's big.
Being that we're after something called "The Overbrain", you can be forgiven for thinking he's the red brain thing to my right. The brain in the tube is actually our "friend", who has been astrally projecting himself. This is his real self. I guess. The little floating doohickey behind that tube is the Overbrain. Ape Plus is there on the left. He's big.

Oh thank you, thank you, thank you Cryptic entertainment for countering your broken teaming system with equally broken and unbalanced superpowers. Thank you for giving me regeneration, which lets me finish off Ape-Plus and then hold down the BLOCK BUTTON for twenty seconds to heal up while the Overbrain and his henchmen annoy me with their attacks.
Oh thank you, thank you, thank you Cryptic entertainment for countering your broken teaming system with equally broken and unbalanced superpowers. Thank you for giving me regeneration, which lets me finish off Ape-Plus and then hold down the BLOCK BUTTON for twenty seconds to heal up while the Overbrain and his henchmen annoy me with their attacks.

I'm sorry, Overbrain, but I can't hear you over the sound of you getting your ass kicked. It seems like I attacked during some sort of terrorist-union-mandated break, since they guys behind me aren't getting involved.
I'm sorry, Overbrain, but I can't hear you over the sound of you getting your ass kicked. It seems like I attacked during some sort of terrorist-union-mandated break, since they guys behind me aren't getting involved.

staronchest_big_brain.jpg

So… astral brain guy. Nice to meet you in person. Or whatever. You know what I mean. Say, aren’t you a bit… you know… cold?

So, under the direction of a giant floating brain I freed the terrorists from the control of a tiny floating brain so that they will be once again free to terrorize the unpopulated Canadian wastes.

Is that a win for the good guys or not? I can’t even tell anymore.

Next time: For those of you who are sick of Canada, now it’s time for… MORE OF THE SAME!

201838 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.


  1. Doosteen says:

    I think it would be amusing to have a villian with mind-control ability that could actually control the player character. You know, like momentarily take the controls away from you, and make your character attack teammates, or jump off a cliff, or even just embarrassing things, like unequip all your clothes/armor.

  2. Rosewire says:

    You know, that sidebar does explain a few things. I’d been wondering why all the enemies had ‘run like a bitch’ mode activated. But truth be told, my group and I didn’t have all that much trouble. Except of course when one of our members started the fight on their own. Maybe they’ve fiddled with that bit of behavior?

    • Shamus says:

      Rosewire: It seems to depend on where you are. It was really bad in Snake Gulch, only mildly annoying in Canada.

      But it’s been about three weeks since I did any teaming, so you’re right: They might have fixed it a bit.

  3. mos says:

    Not to tell you what to do with your free time or anything, but I am increasingly surprised that you continue to play this (seemingly) horrible game when there are other great games (Dragon Age) that also come with great stories (again, Dragon Age).

    Is this something akin to watching Plan 9 From Outer Space? It’s so bad, it wrapped around to awesome? Because I’m not getting it.

  4. Randy Johnson says:

    @Mos
    We must be given the horror that is Cowboy robot land, there is just no avoiding it.

  5. TA says:

    For reference, the Brain and Monsieur Mallah.

    Champions Online? Intellectually bankrupt? Never!

  6. Groboclown says:

    Good one today.

    A nitpick: “ACGB here is not yet under the sway ov the Overbrain” – “ov” instead of “of”

  7. Bret says:

    Are the overbrain and Ape-Plus making out?

    Because, as derivative as that is, it would be hilarious.

  8. chabuhi says:

    I ran into the “Sorry, didn’t get the memo” issue a lot in Risen, and I’ve already seen it a couple of times in Dragon Age.

    I can only imagine how difficult a task it is for devs to make every single quest-line airtight, but that is, to me, one of the most irritating flaws in crpg’s. Maybe only topped by the successful completion of a quest that was never in my journal.

    It’s times like these that I wish my character had the dialog choice “I’m … I’m not who you think I am…”

  9. Chuk says:

    I think it’s “nigh-impossible”. You know, like Bill Nighy.

  10. Rosseloh says:

    Well.

    I had given up on CO after that free weekend, in which I never actually got to play, because the update servers were overloaded with people updating for the free weekend. Basically, they really should have gotten their act together and grabbed another server/bigger pipe before letting the whole world and their grandma try and download things.

    But those group mechanics? They would have been a killer right off the bat for me. While I’m quite good at soloing in MMOs, I much prefer to group, for the social aspects, and the fact that we can usually take on tougher things (my general group size is about 3, me and two friends). Effectively forcing the entire group to take a break at the same time, unless your leftover members want a serious challenge…That’s just bad design.

  11. Mayhem says:

    As I’m sure you know, you encounter the “enemy of my enemy is my ally” thing in City of Heroes, too. You’ll come upon two villain groups engaged in mortal combat (well, they’re usualy not actually fighting. It’s more like “mortal emoting”) and once you show up, they’re healing and buffing each other like they’re family. This is more of a throwback to before they had villains actually damaging each other in certain zones and situations, but it still doesn’t make sense.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Wow,you sure have a lot of spelling errors in this one.Is that just you beign tired,or is it the influence of the game and its story?

    And that explanation of team mechanic was hilarious!As well as that suicide explosive charge.Nice to see developers that love to joke with their players.At least it is nice for me,because Im not one of those players.

  13. J Greely says:

    I think the team-chain-pull mechanics have been (silently) cleaned up a bit; we lured some more friends in with the free weekend, and haven’t run into this problem when teamed with them. The messiest pulls I’ve seen while teamed were the endless waves of zombies around Vanguard, which were pretty darn endless. Also, it took a good ten minutes to kite him away from their spawn point and stop tumbling back to it at the first opportunity.

    We had a lot of fun finishing off the undead heroes last night, and made good use of the open-team mechanic, where you can choose to allow people to just join your team on their own. That made it a lot easier to finish off the higher-level heroes, since it let everyone sidekick up to level 30 with my character.

    As a bonus, I got at least a dozen nemesis-minion spawns during the zombie-zerging portion of the open missions, and we had so much firepower that I didn’t even notice until one of them dropped my next Clue.

    Mos: different strokes, I suppose; I haven’t seen anything about Dragon Age that would make me want to play it, but CO is remarkably fun to play, despite the early-days bugs and the frequently dreadful writing. Things get better with every patch, and some of the recently-added content is actually good, like the new PSI missions.

    My working theory is that most of the really awful content was originally written when they had the Marvel Universe license, and had to be scrubbed in a hurry when they switched to the Champions universe and characters. This rushed effort produced a mountain of typos, a bunch of incomplete and illogical quest chains, and Ravenspeaker.

    That would also explain why they used Snake Gulch in a major demo: the rest of the game was in the middle of being de-Marvelized.

    -j

  14. Lazlo says:

    The answer to the second Poincaré conjecture is that it is entirely possible to create a videogame that does not use crates. You could use barrels instead. Perhaps a few chests. And a creaky wooden chair that mysteriously, when smashed, will be found to have contained a complete set of plate mail armor.

  15. Heron says:

    Lazlo: Don’t you keep your plate mail in the tiny hollow spots in your wooden chair?

    Maybe I should hire a new security adviser.

  16. Palette says:

    One of the things which really put me off of CO during my trial period was how overtly precious the names were and how thinly-veiled their ripoffs were. There’s a difference between a subtle reference, an homage, and blatantly ripping off a concept and filing off the serial numbers… CO does the latter, and gleefully.

  17. Rolaran says:

    “Did we take a left at alberta?”

    Okay, even the spellcheck that came with Firefox knows that, as a proper place name, Alberta should be capitalized.

    Secondly, is the truck on the left of that shot supposed to be the same one that was carrying the crate? Because somehow it doesn’t look like it would fit… I’ll have to go to this spot in the game to see if the perspective is just wonky in the photo, or if the terrorists have TARDIS technology now. Or maybe they lashed it to the back of a snowmobile and dragged it across Canada, braving wild animals and EXTRAORDINARY STORMS! Who knows.

  18. Lazlo: “You could use barrels instead. Perhaps a few chests. And a creaky wooden chair that mysteriously, when smashed, will be found to have contained a complete set of plate mail armor”

    Don’t forget to hide the pot roast in the chandelier, the money in clay pots, place “bromides”* in really obscure places and feed thousands of rare magical items to the rats so they can drop them when slain**.

    *Pictures of the villains and/or the heroes who are going to go after the stuff.

    **Cleverly spoofed in The Bard’s Tale with the first rat you kill.

  19. Triggerhappy938 says:

    I AM GIANT BRANE! I GIVE U MISHUNS 4 NO RAISON!

  20. Amarsir says:

    And here I thought the game was only cool to teaming. I didn’t realize it was actively hostile.

    I seem to recall being on a team of 3 for an instance. (Unnecessary, but to me the point of an MMO is teaming and there were so few opportunities.) Since there aren’t other non-faction enemies to go get, I’d assume that instanced missions are good fodder for teams.

    In CoH it’s true that enemies fighting will turn on the biggest threat (you) even when they were trying to kill each other a second ago. Especially with 5-year-ago-tech where they are only animated to be fighting but ont taking damage. The funny part is that in that case if they succeed, afterwards they make peace over your corpse and become lifelong friends. It’s like an after school special for NPC villains.

    But it’s also possible for you to introduce enemies to each other and let them do the work. It’s a common technique on the last mission of the first Villain Strike-Force, getting the hero to fight the demon and then cleaning up whoever is left.

  21. Miral says:

    When playing the beta, this is the mission that stopped me and made me decide to roll up an alt instead (well, that and because there were only four hours of the beta left). I wanted to solo it, but I just couldn’t manage to take out both of them at once with my melee-based hero; I could knock down one of them, but then I’d have about a third of my health left and be easy pickings for the other one.

    It appears my problem was that I didn’t have Regeneration. :)

  22. Ell Jay says:

    “Did we take a left turn at alberta?” No, but I hear washington, d.c. is real nice this time of year. Proper nouns get capital letters, Champs Online writers.

  23. Jeff says:

    Psst…
    “I figured out they we bad news ages ago.”

  24. Zerotime says:

    Network Q RAC Rally Championship. No crates. You’re welcome.

    Doosteen: How about the Baroness Anastari fight in World of Warcraft?

  25. Doosteen says:

    Zerotime,

    I’ve done my best to avoid a WoW addiction. That’s pretty cool though.

  26. Ross says:

    I…I want to play CO…but the writing…the horrid justifications…the broken powers forcing everyone to pretty much have the same abilities…I can’t bring myself to do it.

  27. MrPyro says:

    Lazlo: I have read a novel in which there was 4 easily broken chairs that each contained 50ft of silk rope, due to some conniving by the protagonist.

    Maybe all these random items in chests and barrels are there as part of some complex plot that the game’s character is constantly disrupting by accident.

  28. J Greely says:

    Ross: some powers and advantages are broken, and some powers are so good that most people have them. This does not lead to everyone having the same abilities. At most, it means that you never run into someone using a pure Archery build, and lots of people replacing the “appropriate” defensive power for their powers with Regeneration. The rest of their powers will be completely different, and can be combined in entertaining ways.

    For instance, with one character, I like to fly over a group of enemies high enough that they don’t notice me, air-drop a group of zombies on top of them, then charge up an AoE stun so the zombies can chew them up more efficiently. With another, I jump into the middle of a group, throw out a bunch of mini-mines, toss a smoke grenade to add to the confusion, and then start blasting away with a pair of pistols. With another, I charge in and summon a floating head that stuns and damages everyone nearby, throw out energy sprites that cause decent damage and occasional healing, and watch the henchmen fall down in neat little piles while I carve up their boss with energy swords. And I haven’t even tried a lot of the power-sets I see other players using effectively.

    -j

  29. Redbeer says:

    I can’t believe you’re looking for a new MMO and will abandon poor Star On Chest. This is a gold mine of material and you’re making damn good use of it.

    • Shamus says:

      Redbeer: I’m betting Star On Chest – Or Champs Online – will start to run dry soon enough. There are only so many jokes you can make about “is this quest dumb, or what?”. Not to worry. We’ve got at least another month left. At least. I played Champs for weeks before I began the story of SoC.

  30. RustyBadger says:

    @Daemian Lucifer, #13: I trust all *your* spelling and grammatical errors were made in the spirit of irony?

  31. Star On Chest’s left hand looks completely wonky in the second last image. Perhaps the Overbrain is messing with my head or the graphics engine.

  32. RudeMorgue says:

    For an example of a fantastic fight in which PCs get mind controlled (sort of), I submit Herald Volazj, in WoW’s “Ahn’Kahet: The Old Kingdom” instance.

    http://www.wowwiki.com/Herald_Volazj

    Periodically, he casts a spell called “Insanity” which phase shifts each party member into their own instance, in which they must fight weaker versions of all four of the other members of their party at the same time. Once you’ve taken out all four, you appear in someone else’s instance and can help them finish the ones they have yet to beat.

    It’s one of the most novel fights I’ve ever seen in an MMO.

  33. It boggles my mind that a game goes so far out of its way to punish grouping. I wrote a while ago about MMO designers punishing grouping on my professional blog. This goes above and beyond what I was railing against.

  34. Rayen says:

    okay mister shamus, i have a question. I happen to also read your stolen pixels comics and i saw star on chest in the southwest explaining why he won’t fight the terrorist robot cowboys. ummm… is that a different SoC or did you photoshop or what?

  35. Great read! I just started a trial of Champions Online the other day, and it’s kindof interesting so far. I love reading stuff like this, even though it’s dated now.

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