Champions Online is probably the most well-designed and enjoyable MMO I've had experience with. It is also, for whatever reason, probably one of the most frequently complained about, if world-chat is any indicatation of the general opinion of it's players. This is probably because it's full of easily-complained-about problems and laughable writing decisions, but this still doesn't do enough to knock it off it's pedestal as best MMO currently available, at least to me. Notice that, despite the fact that I've dedicated an entire blog (which has neither mass nor volume, but still, it took some time) to mocking it, I still like it enough to want to spend hours of my life playing through it for an audience, which is an endorsement in and of itself, I think.
And I've heard that it's soon going to be Free-To-Play, meaning everyone with the hard drive space to spare can come on over and try it out. It is my recommendation that you should, but seeing as you've no reason to believe me and I've got a whole pile of free time at the moment, I figured I'd show you.
Of course, a computer game playthrough with commentary isn't really a new concept. I certainly didn't invent it, and neither, in fairness, did Shamus Young, but it was his Let's Play of Champions Online and Lord Of The Rings Online that made me want to do my own, so all credit that I don't claim as my own to him.
Now. Champions Online is, in my own opinion, a great game, and probably the single most enjoyable MMO I've ever played. Which is not all that many compared to some, but I'd rank it above Star Wars Galaxies, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Guild Wars, Star Trek Online, World Of Warcraft, City of Heroes, and Lord Of The Rings Online, in that order. ... I haven't played Ragnarok or Everquest, I know I should, just haven't. Which is not to say it's perfect; it is, indeed, bursting at the seems with flaws, most of which I plan to viciously mock if I can think of anything even remotely witty to say about them, but I want it on record first that I really do quite enjoy the game. It has the best character-creation engine of any game I've ever played, bar none, and by far the most entertaining combat system of any RPG-style MMO. The graphics are pretty spiffy too, personal opinion, although I'm sure they'll look like crap in a few years.
The major complaint I, and most players I've talked to, have about it is it's length. There are only six different "zones" in Champions Online, and for most of the game you only have access to three of them. This wouldn't be so bad if the zones were, say, immense, but once you have your travel mode (which is attainable very, very early on in the game) you can cross one of these zones from end to end in about two minutes. Granted, there's a lot of stuff to do in these zones and you have to level quite a bit to be able to survive in most parts of them (the afore-mentioned two-minute travel time assumes you're flying right over most of the enemies and geographical barriers and whatnot) but when you're competing with games like World Of Warcraft and Lord Of The Rings Online wherein there are dozens of zones and it takes hours just to get from one end of the map to the other, it's ridiculously small-scale. Add to that the relatively low level cap of 40, and any hardcore gamer would probably be over and done with Champions Online in about a week.
Fortunately, I'm a very half-assed gamer, and the character creator is so much fun that I spend more time making alts and just running up the first ten levels with them than I do leveling existing characters past fifteen or so, so the short overall length of the game hasn't really bothered me yet.
Look-and-feel wise, Champions Online is often called the spiritual successor of City of Heroes/Villains. Not sure I'd agree, but considering they're the two most successful comic-book superhero themed MMOs out there, I suppose it's a fair comparison. The game mechanics are completely different, though, and while they're both comic-themed, CoH always seemed a bit down and a bit stark, whereas CO is largely upbeat and tongue-in-cheek, which works better for me personally. The humor borders on stupid a lot, but, well, I'll point that out when it happens.
While City Of Heroes had one of the best character creators out there when it came out, though, the Champions character creation engine is fantastic. Example: I've been doodling the same superhero since elementary school (I mean, you know, when I'm in the rare mood to draw superheroes... I've done other things in the meanwhile...) and have tried to make an approximation of him in virtually every superhero-themed game where character customization is an option, and CO is the first game ever (ever!) in which I've been able to recreate him exactly as I picture him. Comparison:
They even let me give him a gold-foil cape, finally, and a genuine Corinthian helmet (although they call it the "Spartan" helmet... movie popularity, I imagine) rather than just something closeish. Poifect. This guy's called The Centurion, and is my main character on both City of Heroes and Champions Online. He's also nearly completely invincible, can one-shot even level 40 enemies by punching them into the atmosphere, shoots lasers out of his eyes, freezes people with his breath, and can raise the dead. ... So instead we're going to be going with this guy who CAN'T solve every problem instantly:
THIS is our bold young hero, who, being made entirely of metal, is almost completely invulnerable, but not all that strong, can't fly, and doesn't have any cool eye beams or breath-powers. ... Trust me, it'll be better.
Neither of these really shows off the great variety of the character editor, though. With a genre as rich and varied as superhero comics, there've got to be quite a few options for your character's look-and-feel. Whereas in a setting like Middle-Earth or Azeroth you can simply choose your dude's race and hairstyle and be good to go, a universe like Champions allows quite a bit more. Maybe you don't want to be a guy in tights, maybe you want to be, say, an alien. Or a dinosaur. Or a robot. Or a skeleton that's on fire. Or a sentient pile of leaves. These are all totally doable, although the further your concept gets from recognizably human, the harder it is to get exactly right, and there are little programming oversights here and there that limit your options just a bit, but are kind of jarring given the freedom you'll get used to expecting. (Wait, I can have two-fingered hands made out of metallic lava flows, but I've got to choose between two-toed matte lava feet or five-toed metallic lava feet? BULLSHIT!) It's pretty damn neat though.
Further comparisons, just 'cuz I took screenshots and might as well use them.
So, you know, you can do a lot with both of them, but the Champions characters are quite a bit more detailed and customizable. In addition, Champions lets you customize their stances as well: how they walk, how they stand, the expression on their faces, etc. It's a pretty good system.
The game itself... well, I'll let you be the judge. I like it a lot. Come on back for the next installment, in which I come up with a BS backstory for our main character and start actually playing the game!