Champions Online Review Part 1

By Shamus Posted Thursday Jan 7, 2010

Filed under: Game Reviews 37 comments

Full Disclosure: The gameplay comments in this review are based on the game as it existed in early December. Since then I’ve played very little and it’s possible that some of these concerns were addressed in one of the patches.

Not likely, but possible.

Perhaps my let’s play series ended sadly, but so did Champions Online. It began with incredible promise: Fun combat, fun character builder, and a lot of great ideas that all other MMO’s should adopt from now on, or I will count them as broken. The ability to name your character whatever you like avoids the inevitable and regrettable degradation of name quality over time that other MMO’s have. The action-oriented combat kept the game fun even when all other amusements had failed. The instancing of zones was an interesting feature, if still in need of a little more evolution.

But let’s break this down:


I know I’ve beaten this point completely to death. I said it in my weekly column, in by webcomic, in my let’s play series, and to anyone who has walked into my office in the past three months. Yes Shamus. The writing is bad. Please move on with your life now.

But I’m not just bringing this up because I can’t help myself (Even though I can’t.) I’m bringing this up because it’s a crucial and fundamental failure that harmed the commercial viability of this product. They perched tens of millions of dollars worth of development and technology atop ten dollars worth of writing. People say the writing in MMO’s doesn’t matter, but they’re wrong. In making the case against slapdash writing, this game is Exhibit A.

I said before: People want to accomplish things that make sense. They don’t have to be gritty, realistic, or “edgy”. You can go for camp. (Like The Incredibles.) You can go for satire. (Like Mystery Men.) Or you can play it straight. (Like Spider-Man.) But you still have to tell a story and present a world that makes some kind of sense to the audience. The world of Champs Online is a soup of brain-melting bullshit and nonsense. I’ve belabored this already, but the Champions Online setting is stupid and unworthy. It fails as a dramatic backdrop for players. It fails as comedy. It fails as homage to silver-age silliness. I’m not asking for dark, gritty realism. I’m not asking for relentless attention to detail. I’m just asking for a world that’s true to itself and worth reading about.

I take no joy in this, but Champions Online is now the second game to win my coveted (by idiots) award:



Champions Online has the best MMO combat ever. (Of the games I’ve tried, anyway.) My first thought once I got into the game was “why hasn’t anyone done this before?” It’s far more engaging than the standard formula of babysitting cooldown timers. You have a weak attack that builds energy, and then you spend that energy on your big powers. Occasionally foes will charge up something big and you have to block. Not only does this make for a well-paced fight, it makes for fights that look something like the comic book realm they’re trying to simulate. Why doesn’t the hero begin every battle with his biggest power? In the comics, it’s because you want to build a fight to a crescendo before the two sides pull out all the stops. In the game, it’s because you need to build energy first.

Fights are mobile, diverse, and occasionally spectacular. Thrown cars, breakable scenery, flying ragdolls, explosions, backflips, and particle effects.

It’s a system which is fun, playable for both twitch gamers and MMO types, and which builds up the setting itself by making battles look like proper superhero battles.


The combat and the writing are the best and the worst the game has to offer. Yin and yang and so on. I’ll cover the other, less extreme details in a later post.


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37 thoughts on “Champions Online Review Part 1

  1. Volatar says:


    Well Shamus, I had forgotten all about the “Goldun Riter Awward”, and man, is it perfect for Champs Online :)

    Glad that an MMO figured out some good combat though, I sitll should try the free trial…

  2. Well I’m still hanging in there at the moment. But I have to agree with you about the writing. The annoying thing is things like Viper could be really good.

    I mean evil terrorist organisations have been kicking about in the comics for years now (HYDRA anyone) but they don’t build huge bases right next door to high security prisons.

    As you say the combat system is brilliant though, and generally I just pop back once in a while to beat stuff up. Clicking past the explanations of why I’m doing it as fast a possible.

  3. Benjamin Orchard says:

    The way you describe combat reminds me of the way Street Fighter works in many ways: you fill your bar at the bottom, and then unleash the super move.

    Frankly, it seems like a no-brainer, but on the other hand, many MMO’s are in the D&D vein of ‘magic users get tired over time’, which makes for an initially deadly combat OR magic users that are VERY conservative with their powerful stuff (and even their weaker stuff to a degree).

    However, by moving things the other direction–encouraging the weaker stuff to build up to the strong stuff–you get combat which gets deadlier over time, which seems like a lot of fun.

  4. Benjamin Orchard says:

    Oh, and writing MUST given some attention. I’ll say it now: I haven’t played Champions Online, but I’ll boldly state that I’m certain I could have written better stuff. Any company that is wondering if their writing should know this now: I’ll gladly write your stuff. And I’ll do a good job.

    Moreover, I want to know why no company has yet hired you to write game content for them. I’d be ecstatic over that.

  5. Nelson says:

    There are precedents for the energy combat mechanic. Combo point classes in Warcraft (rogues and cat druids) need to land about 8 seconds worth of small attacks before using a big combo move. Morale abilities in Warhammer take about 30 seconds to build up and are often game-changing. But in both games the buildup mechanic is a relatively small part of the full design; in Champions it’s the central element.

  6. Mark says:

    What other game got The Goldun Riter Awward? I tried the tag, but it only returned one article: this one.

  7. Jarenth says:

    I guess the degree to which you would like Champions Online is related to your ability to ignore the bad writing. I’ve found that I just tend to zone out, put on some mental shutters and ignore anything except quest objectives, and by just focusing on stabbing things to death the game has so far remained enjoyable.

    It’s stopgap, I know, but it works for me.

  8. Abnaxis says:

    One of the expansion characters in Diablo II had a move set like that too. You had Charge moves that built up different effects that would be added to Finishing Moves for potentially devastating hits. It’s a fun mechanic, but it always struck me as being easily exploitable, if you are creative about stacking the weaker moves to get the powerful ones super-fast or super-powerful. Haven’t played Champions, though, so I don’t know if that generalization applies here. I keep wanting to try Champions but I keep avoiding it because I’m afraid I’ll like it and I can’t afford it.

  9. Picador says:

    In Guild Wars, warriors build up “adrenaline” with successfull attacking, which powers their special moves. This is pretty central to one of the main classes, and it’s an MMO, so I think that’s pretty good precedent. But I agree that this should be closer to the default for how these combat games are designed.

    Another feature that I like about this is that it encourages faster-moving gameplay, since adrenaline fades over time. So the (fight/wait and heal/fight) rhythm, which is pretty monotonous, often goes away and is replaced by one fight right after another.

    Other games with similar mechanics: Mirror’s Edge (you gain speed as you run, so you have an incentive to perform several tricks in a row instead of pausing after each one), Batman: AA (attacks build up your combo powers, so it’s better to fight lots of dudes at once instead of taking out one at a time and waiting in between fights).

  10. MintSkittle says:


    The first game to win Mr. Trofy was Fable 2.

  11. glassdirigible says:

    @ Shamus
    I could hear you saying some of these in my head. I am beginning to wonder if your video reviews are an attempt to turn this into a podcast without actually making a podcast.

  12. Pickly says:

    I resent the implication that MMO names “degrade” over time. I happen to think the delicate symmetrical beauty of “XXX Smasherguy XXX” adds a great deal of flavor to the game. :)

    On combat building up to a finish, guild wars also has assasins with leads, offhands, finishers. Build up mechanics seem to me to have been used a good amount, though not as the basis for a whole combat system.

    From what you described, the combat system seemed to work well in “soft” combat advantages (pacing, timing, etc.), that would come into play for most mechanics. If this is the case, it probably explains a lot of the fun as well.

    As for the writing, at least we got the funny Star-on-chest articles from it.

  13. Artillery_MKV says:

    Remember, Cryptic created Guild Wars before selling it to NCSoft when they struck off on their own. Mechanically CO is the distillation of everything that Cryptic learned creating CoX and GW (and other properties).

    That said, they didn’t learn ALL the right lessons. Teaming is anemic in CO and needs to be completely re-worked. It’s the writing in CoX that keeps the game playable to this day. CO does have some more serious arcs, but they are hard to find. The goofy arcs should be the ‘easter eggs’ in the game, not the other way around.

    THe other thing that CO got right is customization. Powers mix & match, the costume creator’s almost as good (in some ways better) than the much older (read developed) system in CoX. It’s this kind of customization that keeps players in the game.

  14. Bruce Harlick says:

    Artillery_MKV, Cryptic had nothing to do with Guild Wars; that was done by ArenaNet up in Seattle. While Cryptic did learn a lot from the development of City of Heroes/City of Villains, it didn’t feel like they carried many of those lessons over to Champions Online. I _really_ wanted to love CO; much of my early professional career was spent working on the Champions RPG for Hero Games. However, the writing just killed it for me; they showed no respect for the player or their own IP. There were too many pop-culture references and just too much bad to meh writing to hook me.

  15. Danath says:

    What other game won this coveted award?

    And it really is unfortunate about CO, I have run into the same problems, and have little reason to log on unless it’s to hang out with friends who are also planning to pop on, but with my love of melee characters, even regular combat can get annoying and tedious fairly quickly as I struggle to make the buggers stay in range for charge up attacks.

  16. Sesoron says:

    In any case, the free trial is more rubbish than I expected. It’s advertised that you can play for free up to level 15, for an unlimited amount of time. What they don’t advertise is that you can’t make it past the tutorial area on the trial, and that only offers content for about 4 levels. On the upside, the character I carried over from City of Heroes looks gorgeous.

  17. Matt says:

    For the previous winner, looks like it was Fable 2.

  18. Richard says:

    Yes! I am very much a fan of the most prestigious Goldun Riter award. Congrats to Champs for earning that.

  19. LK says:

    Pirates of the Burning Seas also shared a novel approach to (avatar) combat that had you managing it in a similar fashion.

    It was fun when they first introduced it, and when they first introduced it the developers considered it broken and unfinished, so they went back and made it much better.

    This, coupled with ship-to-ship combat that was essentially an MMO derivative of “Sid Meier’s Pirates!”, made it a very fun game (for me, but sadly not for the loved one I used to play it with).

  20. Jim O says:

    I’d thought: “haha awesome, but why is it named after the guy from Three’s Company?”

    After reading through your Lets Play its good to hear there were some positive aspects of the game as well.

  21. Joshua says:

    LOTRO has a “build-up over time” system with most of their powers. Hunters have Focus and Champions have fervor. Guardians require a block or parry before they chain their combos. Minstrels have to tier up their ballads, and Captains have to get into different chained battle stances. The only class that can do whatever it wants whenever it wants is the Loremaster, which has other limitations. Maybe not as elegant as what CO has, but the idea is there.

  22. Mazinja says:

    I do have one complaint with Champion’s Online combat…

    Quite frankly, I’m finding that being a Melee player in this game tends to be a horrible idea. When you are melee, since you are closer to the action, you tend to eat all AoE attacks the enemies may toss around. If you are fighting a huge enemy, you often cannot even see the emote that appears above their head, so you have to GUESS to block, so… melee dies. A LOT.

  23. Polecat says:

    As a sad fact about the writing, I remember how the CO team was crowing about how they got John Layman (Credited as a comic writer & editor) to head up the story writing. Could it be that CO is just as hokey in writing as CO, but the slower pace meant we never noticed? Beats me, I know I don’t pay a lick of attention to the stories when I play CO. Just tell me what to do and I’m good. Nope, don’t wanna know the reasons, just tell me who to beat up.

    – Polecat

  24. glassdirigible says:

    I am a fan of weaker attacks building up to stronger attacks, but only if the weaker attacks have merits besides letting you use the stronger attacks.

    When I played WoW they had finally gotten this right with feral druids.

    Feral druids had to balance:
    Mangle (a weak attack which enhanced bleeds)
    Rake (a weak attack which applied a bleed)
    Shred (a weak attack that had a very low priority)
    Rip (a strong attack which applied a bleed)
    Savage Roar (a strong attack which powered up all other attacks)
    Ferocious Bite (a strong attack that was only done when you had excess resources)
    And they also had a few cooldowns to manage that would temporarily increase damage or performed utility functions.

    Their damage in a bossfight depended heavily on knowing which ability to use in any given situation.
    Outside of bossfights their damage was still somewhat monotonous, partially by player choice because it tended not to matter so much.

  25. Ergonomic Cat says:

    My wife and daughter are both in the group of people that feel you can simply put ‘ or – on a name, and have it be okay.

    Worse, my daughter thinks adding a letter repeatedly is okay – Rubyyy

    I try, and I try, and they just don’t listen. And they think *I* have the problem in this scenario!

  26. Anthorin says:

    “Champions Online has the best MMO combat ever.”?

    Hmmm. You should try Dungeons and Dragons Online. I have played a lot of MMOs and I dont think anything comes as close.

  27. Traska says:

    Hmmm. You should try Dungeons and Dragons Online. I have played a lot of MMOs and I dont think anything comes as close.


    …to boring one to death.

    I’ve played DDO. That game makes drying paint look scintillating.

  28. Joshua says:

    I concur with Traska. I see a lot of people trying to push DDO on to you, and I personally think you’ll HATE it, for a variety of reasons. My wife and I played the free version, and then uninstalled it after about two weeks once we got a feel for how the game was going. It’s very repetitive.

    I presume that further reviews of Champions Online will include how lame and counterproductive you thought the multi-player was?

  29. Ellery says:

    Great series and review! I look forward to reading these.

    Warhammer Online has many classes (read: most) which have interesting “build & release” combat systems with a lot of variety from each other. Its a great game.

  30. ps238principal says:

    Having played CO, I think a lot of people here don’t get what the “build up” is. What I’m seeing described are combos, or rewards for landing several blows allowing you to unleash a larger power.

    In CO, the weak attack builds up your endurance. This can be spent on whatever powers you have, not some kind of “rarrr!” rage power or special ability. The small attack is where you get your endurance FROM, especially if the power requirement for an ability is above your “equilibrium” level (where your endurance rests when your character isn’t engaged in combat and hasn’t done anything power-related).

  31. Robyrt says:

    This is Game Design 101, people.

    D&D/WOW uses an energy meter that is replenished by resting to give the feeling of growing exhausted by fighting waves of enemies, and of anticipating a climactic fight by getting everybody rested up for the next wave.

    Street Fighter / Champions Online uses an energy meter that is replenished by weak attacks to give the feeling of constant combat gradually building to a crescendo, while providing periodic breaks in the action.

    Strategy games use an energy meter that is replenished by permanent investments (called income) to give the feeling of low-level skirmishes gradually building to a crescendo, where everybody is flinging their best stuff at each other left and right.

  32. RudeMorgue says:

    WoW uses the build-up mechanic for most of its classes.

    Rogues generate combo points, regain energy, and so on by landing attacks. Some special abilities (Envenom, Hunger for Blood) can only be triggered once other effects have been inflicted on the enemy.

    Warriors and Druids in bear form gain and use Rage over the course of a fight, both by inflicting and by receiving damage, which they can unleash with various powers.

    Arcane Mages build up their power by stacking Arcane Blasts, making each spell more powerful, but more draining than the last until they unleash a spell at full power.

    Fire and Frost Mages, Shadow Priests, and Warlocks build up stacks of debuffs on the enemy that make their later attacks more devastating.

    Death Knights inflict diseases upon their enemies, building up their runic power and unleashing attacks (Obliterate) that are enhanced by the diseases on the target.

    Melee Shamans build up charges of an ability called Maelstrom Weapon, enough of which allow them to instantly unleash their choice of several different spells as circumstances require.

    Priests and other healers often need to stack several other powers on a target before their heals become most effective.

    Most of the “wearing down” mechanics in WoW are countered by other abilities: Mages can Evocate to regain mana, Priests have a mana-generating minion called a Shadow Fiend they can periodically unleash, some Shamans have regenerative totems or fly into a power-ramping rage to restore their power, etc.

  33. Rack says:

    I actually preferred the writing in CO to just about any other MMO I played. Laughing and being incredulous at stupidity is more entertaining than being bored to tears by it. If ToR backs up $10m of game design with $200,000 of writing that will be one thing, but I prefer COs $10 of writing to WoWs $50.

  34. WarlockofOz says:

    I’m yet to try CO myself but from the sounds of it the ‘block’ mechanic is as important as the build, release cycle. That’s more of a tanking mechanic in the MMOs I’ve played, not part of a damage cycle.

  35. As for the writing, at least we got the funny Star-on-chest articles from it. That is the best observation I’ve seen.

    WoW really gets the serious writing/funny references balance right. I enjoy reading the quest text in it. They are working out the grouping issue as well, after years of missteps, they seem to have it right now. Northland is a great example of things that go right (and ones that do not).

  36. DKellis says:

    To clarify: in CO, it’s not really a build-and-release cycle.

    All attacks except for the Energy Builder attack use energy. Some use more than others. Energy regenerates at a certain speed (different for in-combat and out-of-combat) that is usually not enough to maintain a full attack chain; you can improve this regeneration speed by equipping items that boost the Recovery stat.

    The Energy Builder attack (you only get one per character, which you choose based on the framework in character creation) helps you regain energy faster, by giving you a bit of energy every time you attack with it. In early beta the Energy Builder had to be activated every time, leading to a lot of button-mashing. They soon changed it to a toggle (or a maintain, which is press-and-hold), so you can toggle it on during combat and then forget about it.

    Energy Builder attacks do little damage, but they do do some damage; it’s possible (if slow) to defeat an enemy with Energy Builder attacks.

    There’s also Energy Equilibrium and Maximum Energy, which is related: your Equilibrium (determined by your Recovery stat) is the level of energy you will recover to, alone, doing nothing, without any special additions or powers or buffs. Your Maximum Energy (determined by your Endurance stat) is the level of energy you can have at maximum, with powers and Energy Builders and buffs and everything.

    So if you have a big-hitter power that costs more endurance than your Equilibrium (Orbital Cannon comes to mind), you have to get some more energy first before you are able to use it.

    An interesting side-effect is that there is little effective difference between a power that costs, say, 10 energy and 15 energy, since that little difference will be regained via the Energy Builder (or other methods) anyway. Large differences in energy cost are needed to make energy efficiency matter.

    So it’s not a build-up mechanic as much as a basic cheap Mana Drain that everyone can get.

  37. Sorain says:

    one of the amusing things about CO’s combat is that some power sets have the kind of “HOLY FETH! DID YOU SEE THAT?” empty the energy bar you just filled powers you would expect in such a system, alongside the cheap bread and medium meat powers.

    Other lines (looking directly at melee and magic) just… don’t. While a charicter in a fighting game that uses their special bar up in 20% incraments to do middle of the road moves in combo is cool, it does not translate well into CO, since the time you spend executing said moves is longer then it takes the person with the orbital beam cannon to nearly reload their energy bar.

    Given the chance to design the power lines, every one would have two top teir powers made for “HOLY FETH! DID YOU SEE THAT?” moments. A Final Fantisy style summon thats just an effect for a massively powerful attack, (whatever it looks like, say a massive mecha swinging a huge sword to hit one target for massive damage, or summoning a fortress to rain energy beams down on an area for serius damage to all) A sword technique ala the famed omnislash that rips open a single target, a martal arts punch that moves so fast it ignites the atmosphere into plasma and knocks them into the air, what have you. Giving every line such a thing would give options, as it stands there are powersets for clearing mooks, and powersets for killing bosses. (Balence issues making the mook killers just as good at killing bosses aside)

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