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When I happened to check my work email on Friday night, I was pleasantly surprised to find an invite to the press weekend beta of upcoming superhero MMORPG, Champions Online. After a (surprisingly quick) download and install, I was online and getting started.

Boy, was I ever just getting started. If you’re familiar with Cryptic’s first two superhero MMOs, City of Villains and City of Heroes – now in custody of NCSoft – you’ll probably have an idea of how complex the character creation process can be. First, you need to choose an archetype – do you want to be a tank? Do you want to be nimbile and agile and avoid hits? Do you want to do higher consistent damage, or have more spike damage with powerful critical hits, etc.

Once you’ve done that, you get to pick what sort of powers your hero has, and you’ve got the standard gamut of superhero abilities. Is your hero a telepath like Professor X, or do you want to be like the Human Torch and burn things instead? Maybe you want to be a normal guy with a gadgets or a suit of power armor (hey there, Iron Man), maybe you want to be a super martial artist, or maybe you just want to have guns – lots of guns. I was actually really pleased with the variety of choices here, and Cryptic has done a good job at getting away from a more restrictive class-based system. There are a lot of options to be had.

As with City of X, there are even more options when it comes to creating how your character looks. There are almost too many options, honestly – there are so many different sliders and costume choices for every little part of your superhero’s outfit that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The people who want to spend hours designing their appearance will undoubtedly be able to pull something great out of it. For someone who wants to just get started right away, it might be a bit more of a hassle (that said, the Randomizer can certainly come up with some nifty-looking superheroes if you give it a few clicks).

I ended up going with a female telekinetic, who I named Psiona and dressed in a skimpy miniskirt. What, like you wouldn’t do the same? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

The tutorial starts you off in the midst of an alien invasion of Millennium City, with the public needing a new super-powered hero to step up and help save the day! (That’s you, by the way) Combat in Champions Online is actually pretty fun, and very mobile – it’s quite entertaining to be circling around an alien and peppering him with a barrage of psychic blasts before running in and busting out a kinetic sword.

It also does some other cool things: You’ll be able to see the general area where you can complete a quest on the map, for one. I was also able to pick up some objects and use them as weapons – bashing aliens with a postal box is surprisingly entertaining (alas, characters will need super strength to pick up larger objects like cars). Once I was able to choose my super-method of travel, I opted to go with Spiderman-style swinging, and it’s terrific fun to be swooping about the city.

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Unfortunately, it’s also really, really unpolished. This ranges from things that are quite clearly bugged – when I tried to customize the movement keys, I found that the maps for left and right were, in fact, reversed – to things that are design flaws: Is there any particular reason to have the “Next” and “Back” buttons swap places when you’re trying to navigate through a quest-giver’s dialogue? Really?

For a tutorial, it could have really explained things better – I still don’t understand how equipment works exactly, and I ended up having at least six or seven pieces of different equipment by the time I finished the first dungeon. Also, I had to do the first dungeon twice – upon being told to speak with two members of the Champions superteam outside the building, I ran out the way we’d come in, only to find myself having to start over. It turns out I missed a barely-visible side door in the final room that I was supposed to have used as an exit. Whoops.

As fun as the swinging through the city was, it was also kind of hard to control. There was a point in the desert area right after the tutorial where I tried to swoop down into an area through a broken glass roof that was obviously designed for this purpose (and I had, in fact, jumped right in normally) … but whenever I tried to swing down, I just bounced off of it into the air. Really kind of frustrating, and it took me out of the “Wheeee! I’m Spider-Man! Awesome!” mindset that I’d originally had.

The ideas under the hood of Champions Online are actually really solid, and I still have hope that this is just a buggy beta build – that when the final game comes out, they’ll have improved the tutorial and made it a lot more accessible, a lot easier to jump right in. Hell, maybe after the first bit, once you get used to it, it’s flippin’ fantastic – it wasn’t available, so I have no idea. As it stands, the game – the introduction that I saw – is simply too rough to stand against the MMO sphere’s other big-name titles. This is what is supposed to sell your game to people, and … it didn’t. Not to me, anyway.

I’d love to see Champions become a true success, and if that means having Cryptic hold it back until it’s finally ready, then so be it. Don’t rush it out the door, guys. People have been waiting for a new superhero MMO for a while – give it the polish and care it deserves. I’ll keep my fingers crossed on this one.

I will also say that the NPC “Foxbat” made me laugh. Poking fun at Batman-a-la-Adam-West never, ever gets old.

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