Tuesday 8 September 2009

And we'll fly and we'll fall and we'll burn

Clicking around the newly-imported archives I ran across an old post of mine from MMOG Musings about character builds and the straightforwardness of Lord of the Rings Online compared to City of Heroes, World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons Online. Coincidentally it’s something I’ve been contemplating again in light of the classless society that is Champions Online.

The initial options in Champions don’t seem too daunting. You’re offered fourteen Frameworks of powers (Fire, Ice, Single Blade, Power Armour, Supernatural, Darkness etc.), you pick the one that seems most appropriate to your character (or go crazy and pick a combination for a custom framework), and get two attacks. The first is an “energy builder”, a low damage auto attack that, as the name suggests, builds up your energy, and the second is a more damaging attack that requires a certain amount of energy. This avoids falling down into The Zero-Button Phase (the City of Heroes tutorial as a Controller was quite painful back in the old days, when you could end up with one Hold and one “Heal Other” power and spend half an hour slowly punching frozen thugs into submission), though The Two-Button Phase does last through the tutorial.

There are variations between the Frameworks: some attacks are melee, some ranged, some have additional status effects such as a chance to root or fear the target, so it’s not like the choices are utterly irrelevant. By the traditional taxonomy, though, whatever you choose you end up as “DPS”, whether blade-wielding assassin dealing death by micro cuts or mystic from the city of delusion firing mental blasts; it’s not the game-defining choice you usually have to make in character creation in a class-based game, where your selection generally maps to your role(s) for the rest of the game.

Having chosen your powers you get onto the properly difficult bit of character creation, the costume editor, and spend a good couple of hours tinkering with the sliders so your new born character doesn’t look like some exhibit from a muscle museum with sunburn, then another couple of hours weighing up the eye accessory options (are sunglasses a bit too showbiz for a member of the resistance trying to stage an uprising? Maybe a blast visor is more practical…) Then it’s off through the tutorial, and before long you’re feeling good at level five or six, and levelling up properly for the first time.

This is where things open out more. You need to pick stats to focus on (there’s a useful link in Syp’s handy tips on stat selection). You pick a travel power, and another of those starter tips is entirely correct: swinging *is* awesome. And in the game, ah. You also pick your next “proper” power; a couple of wiki pages go into the full technicalities but broadly, depending on pre-requisites, you could choose another attack (ranged or melee, single target or cone or AoE), or self-buff (active or passive, for boosting energy or damage), or a crowd control power (various roots and holds), or a healing power, or defensive power (passive, or active working in conjunction with the block system), or a pet summoning power (though they might be later on)… It must be a bit of a nightmare to balance, with so many combinations potentially leading to unintended results; I don’t imagine the early tweak to passive defences will be the last change to cause forum hysteria and mass wailing that characters fell less “super”, but being invincible isn’t a very practical base starting point for challenging gameplay.

The classless system is a real fillip for both roleplayers, who can escape the traditional class constraints and select the powers they believe most appropriate for their character, and powergamers, who can really go crazy with the min-maxing after checking out all the small print of every power. If you’re a roleplaying powergamer you can have some fun if an “uber” power seems like an unnatural selection for your character: perhaps the beams you’re shooting out of your hand aren’t flames but lasers from a glove-cannon, or starlight, or strawberry jam heated to unbearable temperatures (take a bow Cream Tea Man, a baker who, when not entirely sober, suffered a blackout and fell into his scone mixer which was then struck with cosmic rays…)

Actually, talking of roleplaying, another general problem with the superhero RPG genre like the “everyone’s a hero” issue is the whole business of gaining levels, and thus powers. It can make sense for some origins (perhaps you retreat to your hero-Cave between levels and come up with a new gadget or two), but if your story is that you gained your powers after being catapulted through a supermassive black hole it’s a bit harder to explain why new abilities keep manifesting themselves (maybe its space dementia and you just forgot the rest to start with…)

Anyway, the upshot of this all is a massive choice of powers for your hero, offering unparalleled freedom, and no “tank” or “healer” pigeonhole to get stuck in (I’ve seen comments that, in the later game, a team benefits from having a more conventional “holy trinity”-type setup, but I don’t have first hand experience of anything like that yet.) Bliss, right? Even if you’re a perfectionist and realise you made a mistake somewhere along the line the tailor and the respec (or “retcon”) system allow you to change everything about your character apart from the name, so long as you have enough in-game money (it seems pretty expensive, so not really practical to be endlessly changing your powers or appearance unless bankrolled by an extremely lucky auction house sale).

Oddly, then, I’m having a problem settling on a character. Deciding between so many powers is difficult, I’m not even trying to work out optimal builds or come up with a map of the problematique, but it’s not a great issue as I’m sure I could scrape up enough cash for a retcon if needed. It’s more that where in another game I’d try a few classes, and one of them would generally click in the way it played so become numero uno, in Champions I can build any character however I like to to suit my style. Characters are therefore more about concept than role or play style, and I’m coming up with a bunch of them, and having trouble choosing. I’ve never suffered altoholism like it before, perhaps it’s long overdue! This wouldn’t be a problem, but the tutorial is getting a little over-familiar (especially after a couple of re-rolls to either fix power selections without paying for a retcon or change names), so I’m going to have to make a decision before too long or go mad at the prospect of re-running the same content…

(Special bonus contest: see if you can guess which band I saw last week and the 30 song titles of theirs embedded in this post…  at least a couple stick out like sore thumbs)

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