A city under siege. Aliens stalk the streets, abducting and bewitching the terrified population. Demons rise from the pavements, burning everything they see.
The people cry out, begging for a hero with the strength and courage to see them safely through this darkest of nights. And look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's... a bright pink clown with antlers and too much cleavage? Probably, and nobody would even bat an eyelid to see her casually pick up a truck, hurl it at the nearest escaped convict then dive in to tear his mates to shreds with glimmering Wolverine claws. And then breakdance.
In any other game, an encounter like might look a bit out of place. Silly, even. In Champions Online, not only is it an everyday sight, but a perfect metaphor for one of the most unusual, fun, frustrating, often borderline schizophrenic massively multiplayer games I've ever played.
Champions Online may look like a straight follow-up to Cryptic's first MMO, City of Heroes, but beyond the basic concepts of creating a custom hero and heading out to fight supervillains, the two games have very little in common. Instead of relying on randomly generated maps, Champions Online puts most of its action onto the overworld areas. Where City of Heroes offered fast-paced MMO combat, Champions serves up an all-out superhero action game built around an MMO's stats and level progression. At heart, the two have no more in common than Champions and World of Warcraft - similar elements, very different games.
It's unfortunate that Champions almost goes out of its way to make your first few hours a miserable experience. The interface is fiddly, and the tutorial an abomination. On paper, it sounds like fun, letting you meet several of the main characters, try out a wide range of things, and foil an alien invasion while learning the ropes. In practice, it's a frustrating mass of NPCs and quests that technically teach you what you need to know, but only in the same way a firehose down the gullet would technically quench your thirst.
True, but at the same time, not helpful. Once you've picked up the basics, things improve dramatically. The combat is easily the best attempt yet at making an MMO feel like an action game. You don't just stand around trading shots, but move around constantly - lining up enemies to get them into your shotgun's firing cone, finding yourself outgunned as extra goons join the fray, watching out for the icons that indicate a critical attack that has to be blocked and lashing back with the full charge of power it can give you. It's kinetic, explosive, and beautifully fast paced. Death is absolutely painless, there's no downtime between battles and, crucially, you're awesome right from Level One and only get cooler.
At the same time however, most likely as a holdover from the original pen and paper game, Champions Online all-too often feels compelled to over-complicate everything. Case in point, there are no character classes, so you can pick more or less whatever combination of powers you like. Hurrah!
However, you then find that their effectiveness relies on a combination of eight different stats, as boosted by in-game upgrades and inventory items. You can equip nine different items, each in their own slot, with items each split between three different crafting disciplines, some of them adding bonus powers, others changing the look of powers, some doing something when you click on them, others just a bundle of stats described as being a new gun or a mace or a heartwarming story about a cat or whatever. Ye gods, make it stop! There's no reason for it to be this fiddly!