The very first thing Champions Online does is throw you into the least awesome part of their character creator, the occasionally baffling Choose Your Framework screen.
It's not so much baffling because of the interface (which is about as straightforward as you can get with twenty options right off the bat) but because, from here, you really don't have any idea what the powerset you choose will have in store for you later. They do give a paragraph description of what you'll likely be good at, but not how you'll progress or what your choices later on will be. They also don't really give you an idea what your ideal role in a party would be, which I don't really miss, but which is generally a standby of MMOs. City Of Heroes, for example, had you choose a class first (Tanker, Blaster, etc., the names said it all) with a pretty self-explanatory role attached to it, and then choose which actual powers you would have after that. Champions is quite a bit more fluid. While some powers simply won't work for some roles (if you're flinging fireballs at everyone, you're not ideally suited for hand-to-hand combat, whereas if your only power is super punches, you're not going to be much for ranged DPS) you can generally manipulate your stats to fulfill whatever role you wind up preferring. Additionally, Champions lets you mix and match powers as the game progresses; notice the "custom framework" option at the bottom, with which you can choose two powers from two different frameworks and a characteristic from a third, if you like. Choosing one particular framework at the beginning doesn't limit your choices later on much either. You could start with the Electricity Framework, for example, and start taking Martial Arts powers as soon as you level up. It's a steeper learning curve than most MMOs, but I find that I prefer it to the bland "choose your class" options of most games, where you wind up with the same six characters repeated thousands of times throughout the game world. In Champions, there's a lot of variety in the population.
It also isn't immediately clear how the combat works until you actually play a bit of the game. What they refer to as an "energy-builder" is actually your default attack, which you toggle on by clicking an enemy and which your character will continue to use until they or the enemy are disabled. While they're doing this, they'll steadily build energy which you can then spend on more effective or flashy moves. So basically, combat for every class works about like the Warrior works in World Of Warcraft, except that you don't start at zero energy. Your Endurance stat determines your maximum energy points and your Recovery determines both how fast you get it back and how full it is to start with. Characters with a high enough Recovery can unleash their most powerful moves without using their default attacks first at all. It's... strange. It's actually a pretty great system when you get used to it; one of the things I hate about most MMO's is the built in "down time" that your character needs to replenish whatever before you can start, y'know, playing the game again.
Also, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn't bitch about Telekinesis a bit. While it sounds like it would be, you know, telekinesis (which I for one associate with it's definition of moving things at a distance) like Darth Vader or Sylar or Jean Grey or so many other awesome characters have had, the folks at Champions Online seem to think that kinesis is Latin for weirdass energy sword. Seriously, if you choose Telekinesis, your character will fight by throwing glowing pink darts and then hitting things with a glowing pink sword it pulls out of thin air. I can only assume that they were going for some kinda Psylocke-from-X-Men thing, but it doesn't make any sense whatsoever. If you want a guy with telekinetic abilities, Force is significantly closer to the mark.
A more personal gripe is the power choices themselves. While you have a metric shit-ton of options for shooting-stuff-at-people powers (Electricity Fire Force Ice Archery Gadgeteering Munitions Power Armor Telekinesis Telepathy Celestial Darkness Infernal Supernatural Sorcery) and different ways to do it, the options for actually fighting someone with your bare hands are pretty limited, with only Martial Arts and Might available for hand-to-handers. (There's also, of course, one sword, two swords, and punching daggers, but that's not really the same thing, is it?) So if I just wanted to make a character like ol' Iron Will whose superpower just makes him physically different from most people, I've just got two to choose from. Martial Arts would work, except the animation involves them jumping into the air and then hovering a foot off the ground while rapidly jerking around to alternately punch and kick the enemy several times a second in what looks like something between a glitch and an epileptic fit. It would work for a speedster or a ninja, but just looks silly when a regular looking guy runs up to an enemy and then lifts off the ground and spazzes out. Might is a fairly straightforward punching-people power, so for Iron Will, we're going with Might.
Might's a pretty good powerset taken all-in-all, and my only real objection to it is that because it's the only really viable moves set for an unarmed strength-based character, I've used it on enough of my alts that I'm a little tired of it.
The description given to the left here is a little inaccurate for our purposes. As stated, one of the main strengths of Champions Online is the customization options for your individual characters. While Might CAN be used to excel at slow heavy attacks and taking less damage as the fight wears on, that's only if you keep going with Might all the way through your character's level progression, including taking it's passive abilities (abilities you can spend your points on that aren't actually "moves" you use so much as new traits your character acquires) and building it's primary attribute, Strength. Just to start with, it does none of these things. Rather than going for as strong as possible (I have a character I've already done that with) in this case I'm just picking it for it's energy builder and then building the rest of the character to be durable rather than strong (though the two are of course not mutually exclusive).
Of course, if you're going for a specific theme or concept (which I recommend going in, just 'cuz there are so many options that having a goal helps rather than just becoming a hodgepodge of mismatched elements for sheer mechanical effectiveness) you'll probably want to create a custom framework, which will let you pick and choose powers you want. Maybe you want to kick people in the head until you have enough power to explode them with a fireball like Ryu? Maybe you want to shoot people with a bow until they get close and then let loose with a sword? You'll want a custom framework. Don't worry, they're easier than they sound. Here're the screens you'd have to choose from.
The last screen is your Innate Characteristic, basically which stat bonuses you'll want to pick. Depends entirely on which powers you take, really. It's fairly basic. The default for Might is Strength and Constitution, and that works fine for me.
Then comes the fun part: the costume creator. First thing's first:
Wait and see, some day birth's gunna be like this.
Functionally, there's no difference between male and female in this game (like most, I suppose). It's entirely aesthetics and a few minor in-game dialogue tweaks ("get him!" vs. "get her!", stuff like that). However, there do seem to be more varied costume varieties for the male character models than the females. Also, as I'll get into in a second, with the male models you have more options as far as baggy clothes or general alien hideousness than with the females. It's sort of like halloween costumes in real life: guys can be anything under the sun they think would be cool, girls are mostly relegated to slutty profession/animal/theme. I'll touch on this a bit later.
The first two pages of the character creator are the slider section, which is a lot of fun. One page is virtually all aspects of the head, such as nose and eye size height and width, chin breadth and depth, etcetera. This is a fairly familiar system to most games that let you customize your character's head. It's not perfect, but it's more in-depth than most. Here's examples of all the sliders as far as they'll go to the left and then to the right, to give an idea of what all's affected.
Pretty attractive, no? Even more entertaining is the body sliders. However, this might just be me, but I noticed a bit of a problem with the female body sliders, lemme know if you agree.
With these sliders you can decide whether your guy is anything from a strange little wormy creature to a giant hulking mass of mutated muscle, and decide whether your girl is anything from a strange little wormy creature to a giant... cartoonishly exaggerated hotty.
This was pointed out to me by a friend who had set out to make a female version of The Blob (of X-Men fame) but found that no matter what he tried to do with the body sliders, it wouldn't let him make a female with anything but perfect hips and butt, even if her face was a nightmarish Aztec bug-god cyborg.
That's the sliders as far as they'll go one way and then the other. Though you can control most everything else about her appearance, Champions Online won't budge on one thing: all female characters MUST have a waist, hips, and butt you can leer at. Although, considering the target audience and the fact the the character's avatar spends most of the game walking away from you, I guess I can see the reasoning behind it. Creepy though.
You can also change how over-muscled your character is by changing the opacity of their muscle-shadow-texture-thing, which is kind of a neat feature. Goes all the way from what most comics look like (naked and skinless with colored bodypaint) to something approaching what people actually look like in spandex. Since Iron Will's gunna be dressed mostly in tatters most of the time and half of his costume is supposed to be bare skin, I'm going with the most impossibly defined musculature possible, but less ridiculous IS an option.
ANYWAY. After spending about an hour in the sliders section trying to get his head exactly the right size and making at least one character whose entire power is having extremely large hands (who I named "Hans", which continued to strike me as hilariously clever until I sobered up a bit) it's on to the actual costume design. Didn't take many screenshots for this part because, really, there's no point. There are hundreds (thousands?) of costume parts to choose from, and it works sort of like a paper doll. You'll choose a body part (heads, torso-arms, hands, legs-feet) and choose from a number of types of that body part (animal heads, regular heads, heads with hats, heads with helmets, regular bodies, bodies with jackets, bodies with integrated shoulder thingies, bodies with chest armor, humanoid legs, bent-backwards monster legs, robot legs, etc etc.) and pick and choose from a pretty impressive list of costume parts which you can then color and, for the most part, texture to specifications. It's a little buggy at times; certain capes are only available if you're not wearing anything on your chest even though it wouldn't interfere, certain combinations are available for hands that aren't available for feet, etcetera. For example, while making Iron Will, I found that I couldn't go with metal skin legs, as your character has to have some kind of speedo underwear thing, and trying to texture the legs metallic only gave him a metallic speedo over gray skin legs. I worked around it by just giving him metallic tights the exact same color as his skin so there's no glaringly obvious seam, but little problems like that pop up pretty frequently if you're going for something specific. Still, the sheer variety available makes it a pretty damn impressive character creation engine, especially compared with many of the "choose one of six faces, choose one of ten hairstyles, you're good to go!" engine of a lot of MMO's.
Some of the various options available:
But, alas, another of those afore-mentioned inconsistencies pops up. Apparently, you can have shorts and textured skin or textured torn pants and regular skin, but you cannot have regular torn pants and textured skin on the legs.
Too bad, 'cuz those pants is perfect, but I'm way too obsessive to ignore the one weird calf throughout the whole game. After about eight minutes of trying to come up with a plausible explanation for it (maybe he's like Achilles, and he was dipped into the liquid metal that would make him invincible by his calf... and then they like, also dipped his feet in, but not his calves...?) I wound up just scrapping it and going with something similar but avoiding the leg-texture barrier.
Hell yeah, cutoffs. If there's one thing that will never, ever go out of style, it's cutoffs.
Still a bit of a seam between leg and foot, but they're the same color and the same texture, so that's the best we can do. There's actually always a seam between wrists and hands, ankles and feet, and at the waistline whether they're clothed or textured or not, so it's not really anything worth worrying about. ... Well okay, if we're being fair, none of this is anything worth worrying about, but you know what I mean.
The last tab lets you choose their stance and facial expression. There aren't many decent options facial-expression wise, and most of them look a little goofy, so we're going with "normal" and leaving it at that. The stances available are, and I might be getting the names wrong, normal, heroic, huge, beast, and huge beast. Normal's what you see here, hands at sides, looking around benignly, and kind of jogging along when in motion, which works for some, but I'm going Heroic for this guy, which is all clenched fists, wide stance, and puffed out chest, head down straight ahead and charging in motion. Huge does a pretty good job of implying size and weight, as the character is hunched over and clenching his fists widely at either side like he's about to pound something smaller into the ground and stomping around when it moves, and Beast is down on all fours. Huge Beast is just Huge with fingers splayed and jaw hanging open, which is a pretty cool look, but probably should just be a different facial expression option. Ah well.
And last but not least, we pick a name and type in a short bio of the character himself. Names are required, bios are not, so most people I run into haven't bothered, but if they have you can read a character's bio by right clicking their name in-game. Something short and to the point or witty is recommended (by, well, me) if you actually want anybody to read it. About half the people who bother with bios in the first place also bother to write down a long and usually grammatically flawed list of fictional situations their character has been in in the past, often doing very little to describe the character itself, but taking a good three minutes to read through if someone actually wants to, which nobody does. Eschewing a lengthy list of made-up names that he's beaten in the past, I instead try to cram in as many metal-anatomy-related cliches as I can in a paragraph:
"William hasn't been an invincible being composed of pure living metal for long, and honestly, he's not very good at it yet. He got into superheroing mostly because his new abilities had made him a liability in most other fields, due to his embarassing habit of accidentally destroying all but the sturdiest clothes/objects/structures. However, with his nerves of steel, brass balls, silver tongue, and heart of gold, Iron Will is proving much better at his new job than anybody expected, especially himself."
AND WE'RE DONE WITH THE CHARACTER CREATOR!
Next up: Play the damn game, stupid.