Last week, when I reviewed Batman: Arkham Asylum, I mentioned that I was never really the superhero type, and that still holds true. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying a good superhero romp, or at least a superhero romp with good ideas, and that held true when I tackled Cryptic Studios’ newest entrant into the superhero MMOG world, Champions Online.

It becomes apparent from the moment you create your hero that the word of the day here is “customization.” Frankly ridiculous amounts of customization, in fact – the depth of the character creator in Champions is staggering. You start out by choosing your power set: Are you a fire-based hero? Are you a superhuman martial artist, a powerful telepath, a sorcerer, or some guy in a suit of robot armor? Beyond that, you can even customize things like the color of your moves – I want my fire blasts to be green, dammit!

To be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming. I took extra care in designing my power-armor heroine to look exactly how I wanted her, and it took me perhaps an hour – and this was without ever even touching all the myriad sliders and extra options the game gives you. It’s an incredibly deep character creation system, but it’s also an intimidating one, and it’s much easier for newbies to just use the Randomizer to come up with a cool-looking hero (which, thankfully, isn’t that hard).

After creating your character, Champions feels like a bit more of a return to form for an MMOG. Your quests largely boil down to killing a specific enemy, gathering a specific item, or the like – thankfully, the game handily illustrates just where the enemies or items in question can be found on your map, which certainly makes it a lot more convenient and less of a hassle.

The combat is a bit more “action-y” than your average MMOG, with your primary resource – energy – generated via a specific class of moves, and consumed by another class. So combat often boils down to alternating between your energy-generating moves and more powerful energy-draining ones, no matter your power set, but it’s very mobile – especially when your travel powers come into play. Punching someone in the face has been done before, but punching someone in the face when I’m using jet boots is a lot more entertaining.

Unlike more traditional online games, the world of Champions isn’t a cohesive whole: You join different instances of the various regions every time you log on or change zones. It’s an interesting idea, and it certainly has its merits – the individual zones are all large and nicely varied, from towering Millennium City and the toxic Burning Sands desert to, well … Canada – but it makes the game feel a bit more disjointed. It feels, well, less like an MMORPG, and more like an action game with an online component (only with all the trappings of the MMO genre).

Champions really makes an effort to make the player feel like they’re a true hero of the land, teaming up with the established superheroes of the world to fight evil, and it works … mostly. Every new world has an opening narration and cutscene explaining the history and problems of the area in question, and you’ll often encounter the other Champions in your quests, adventuring beside them. When you think about it, yes, everyone else is fighting the evil radioactive mutants and being hailed as the savior too, which does undermine the idea, but … it works as long as you allow yourself to get caught up in it.

That seems like a perfect metaphor for Champions Online in its entirety, actually. There is so much customization and flexibility under the hood that the people who want to dive right in and devour it all up can certainly do it. You can create your perfect superhero, with three powers from Telekinesis, and one power from Gadgeteering, who has the perfect mix of perks and everything, but … it really does feel overwhelming and intimidating, so people who are just looking to dip into the universe may actually be driven away. By the time I hit level 10 I had already acquired a full set of equipment, and wasn’t actually sure what some of it did (“Power Replace? What’s that mean?).

It’s really a shame that the game feels so overwhelming, because there are some really awesome ideas here under the hood. The character creation is phenomenal – this cannot be overstated – and the quest system is refined and painless, if not groundbreaking. The Nemesis idea, allowing players to create their own supervillain who will interrupt their questing, is a superb idea and one that they rightly deserve credit for. Even the fluff and presentation of Champions is nicely done in its own right, with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek silliness (such as an item that advertises itself like being “like lightning is injected into your veins, and the lightning is on fire.”)

I really want to love Champions Online, because the ideas are so impressive. But at the moment, it feels slightly like being thrown into an incredibly deep ocean without being told how to swim. Of course, this is only the launch, and every MMOG ever made feels rough at launch. There is certainly the potential under the hood for Champions to be really legitimately awesome once it settles down and works out the kinks, and – as with any review of any MMOG – it really is too early to call.

Champions really is a game where you get out of it what you put into it. Superhero aficionados will probably like it, but would-be dabblers might be better off waiting until the kinks are ironed out of the system.

Bottom Line: Incredible depth and customization. Like, to an absolutely ridiculous extent. The cel-shaded graphics look nice enough, and it’s pretty fun to be swinging your way through some nifty environments as your superhero of choice. Unfortunately, if you don’t plan on diving headfirst into the game, it can be hard to get into. Great sense of humor, though.

Recommendation: Superhero fans should probably get a kick out of it, and the character creator is unparalleled, but everyone else might want to give Champions Online a few months to grow up a bit.

John Funk thinks that more games should feature evil patriotic Canadians as villains.

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