Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gun-Related Shenanigans Part 2!

In which our hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel that is the Tutorial.

I wander back out of the alley directly into twin beam weapons from another of the tall alien bug types. They push at me a bit, and I find my feet sliding along the ground, but it still can't seem to hurt me. Sighing, I look around for any signs of Kinetik, but he's long gone. Not terribly interested in redeeming himself by engaging any of the alien invaders, then. It takes a few seconds to walk up to the guy with both his beams on me, but it doesn't hurt any more than walking upstream in the lazy river at the waterpark. I eventually walk right up to him and punch him in the brain. Right, okay, gotta find the good doctor.

Another way that Champions Online's combat is a bit more interactive and a bit more strategic than it's contemporaries is it's liberal use of knockback effects. At this early point in the game your character will still only have two moves, which for most powersets won't yet include any of these, but they're fairly common later in the game. Things like positioning of your character relative to the enemy and the proximity to any sizable ledges or holes comes into play, and the relative strength of your attack usually dictates the distance of the resulting knockback. These twin plasma beams (which are actually a power you can get for yourself later on) exert a constant pushing effect that can be struggled against for as long as they're maintained. Most of the knockback powers that ol' Iron Will here is going to be getting will be of the single whallop variety, which will only impact once and send a character a given distance, and can't be canceled if the initial attack wasn't successfully blocked.

There're also neat ranges and areas that attacks are effective in, like some that will affect one target directly in front of you while others do damage in an arc or a cone, some will affect everything on a line, some in a radial burst around the character, and some in a radial burst around the target, which can be a character or a spot on the ground depending on the power. It can get reasonably strategic, but seeing as we don't have any of those powers yet, I'll blather about it in exhausting detail later.

Fortunately, Doctor Silverback's hologram is visible as soon as I set foot on the street, so I walk over there. I pause for a minute before handing over the Sonic Pacifier to this guy. On the one hand, he's a gorilla in a lab coat, which strikes me as not only powerfully amusing but also completely trustworthy. On the other hand, he's a hologram on a pedestal, which has usually meant a murderous artificial intelligence in the past.

In the end, the fact that he's a gorilla in a lab coat wins out and I hand over the Sonic Pacifier, which can apparently be analyzed by the same machine that projects the hologram. Handy. I try to remember all the sign language I know from high school, but then Silverback starts talking. Embarrassing.

Wait, wait, shooting oneself out of a cannon? I should have known. Every holograph in the game seems to want me dead... but wait. He might let me pull the trigger? Does that mean I wouldn't be the projectile? I'm a little confused.

Well, I'll help this guy repair his doohicky, anyway, but I draw the line on stupid self-destructive missions at shooting myself into orbit.

I head up the ramp behind the holographic Silverback and find myself in a courtyard in front of a massive blue building that seems to be the Champions headquarters. There are Qularr flying around everywhere fighting armed army or national guard soldiers while AA guns fire at the various Qularr fighters filling the sky and bombarding the ground around them with some kind of explosive energy weapons. Several other superheroes, including the one who I recognize as Ironclad, are running back and forth amidst all this chaos taking down as many of the Qularr as they can, and in the middle of it all is a giant cannon angled up towards the massive Qularr mothership. A wild shot from one side or the other blows a massive chunk of concrete out of the wall right next to me, showering debris all over the ground around me, and just a few paces to my left one of those little orange beetle things has just immolated a soldier who's still firing his rifle at the aliens even as he burns. Right. Guess I have some work to do.

One of the coolest things about Champions Online is it's Public Missions. The best comparison I can think of is that these are basically like pick-up games of basketball in the park. A chunk of the map will be designated as the mission zone, but it isn't instanced or anything; players are free to come and go as they please. The mission goes on and on in an endless loop, and passing heroes can just sort of drop in to help or play through the whole thing once or several times if they prefer. In this particular public mission dubbed "Battle Of The Ironclad" the players have to defend the cannon from the aliens by first killing thirty of them (this can be accomplished by five players getting six each or by one getting thirty while everyone else stands around and watches) and then by opening ten crates to find repair parts, which again can be divided up amongst present heroes however they like. In this particular public mission, the majority of players seem to want to keep going around beating up aliens and it's up to one or two people to actually go around and collect the crates. There's nothing wrong with this, but the mission won't progress to it's next stage until all ten crates are picked up, so one instance of Battle Of The Ironclad can last for hours if everyone wants to let it continue. After this, there's a two minute countdown during which players have to protect the cannon, and then the mission resolves, everyone gets an exp reward and an item and it ranks everybody's contribution on a little scoreboard that appears in the lower right corner, then it resets a minute or so later and starts all over again.

These are some of the coolest things ever. First off, it allows people to just come in and contribute a bit and then leave again, if they prefer. If I'm into killing Qularr but not so much sticking around for the whole mission, I can just drop in to kill three of them and then leave, and my contribution would still be counted towards the overall mission. It also encourages teamwork among random strangers, as you don't have to be in a team or anything when starting the mission, but most of them are difficult enough to require the cooperation of at least two or three heroes. This one being in the Tutorial section is an exception, and the entire mission can be completed by one hero if preferred. Also, they keep playing out whether anybody's there or not; several times I've come across a public mission with half of the objectives completed and nobody around.

Most of the public missions in the game follow a similar formula: kill X number of something, activate/collect/destroy/use X number of something, and then survive a countdown or beat a boss within a limited amount of time. The bosses are almost always immensely powerful and will require you to call for help to beat them within the time limit, but not always. Exp, Item, Scoreboard. And that's how they go: basically an unending pick up game, except that other players can't pull a knife on you if they don't like the way you ball.

It's a pretty awesome idea in my humble opinion that really puts a focus on the multiplayer aspect of MMOs, and one I hope to see other games shamelessly imitate in the future.

We've got a guy who looks kinda like a raver in snowboarding pants over on one edge of the courtyard shooting green lightning at the bugs, a huge guy in purple armor running back and forth and pounding the Qularr into submission whenever he catches up to one, a mobster with a pair of six-shooters gunning down most of the flying ones, some kinda robot covered in blades, and of course Ironclad, another of the Champions. Okay, yeah, we got this.

Ironclad, as it turns out, is nothing like the other Champions. Instead of standing around carefully avoiding doing anything helpful, he's running around like a madman beating the living snot out of aliens faster than I can, ripping chunks of concrete out of the ground and throwing them at the ones he can't reach, and just generally kicking so much ass that I start to wonder if the rest of us are even necessary. I'm starting to feel more like a sidekick than a savior, and it's refreshing as hell. Now THIS is a superhero I can get behind.

Between the six of us we manage to wipe out the first wave of Qularr in record time. Then Ironclad shouts that we need to recover parts to repair the cannon from the crates scattered around the courtyard. Yes sir Ironclad sir!

The mobster guy and the raver guy manage to keep the Qularr ground troops off my back long enough for me to pry the crates apart and recover the spare parts. So far so good! Now we just need to defend the cannon long enough for the mechanics to do that voodoo that they do so well.

Me and the bladey robot guy go back-to-back with Ironclad, who keeps yelling out inspirational sayings about the glory of battle and defending the earth while he slings chunks of concrete at the aliens. I can't see what the other guys are up to from where I am, but whatever they're doing, none of the bugs even get close to the cannon before it's repaired.

And that's a flawless victory for me, Ironclad, and whatever the other guys' names are. I'm feeling pretty damn good about this. Plus, I think I've finally settled on a name for myself. I'm going to be Iron Will, in part to honor Ironclad, mostly because it's an old saying anyway. I like the sound of it.

I head back to Doctor Silverback to report our success at repairing the cannon, desperately hoping he doesn't try to shoot me out of it.

Oh, jeeze. It turns out the Champions are basically responsible for the whole thing, after having kept some Qularr homing beacons after their last fight with the alien invaders. Now these beacons are apparently drawing invaders from across the galaxy directly to the building right behind me. Champions... man, I don't even know about you guys anymore.

I'm betting Ironclad had nothing to do with this decision.

So my job is pretty straightforward. I'll have to sneak into the Champions HQ building and shut the beacons down to basically call off this whole invasion. Sounds simple enough. The door is apparently still sealed, too, so there shouldn't be any aliens inside the building for me to deal with. All I've gotta do is go in there and flip some switches.

What could possibly go wrong?

Next: Something goes wrong!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gun-related shenanigans 1!

Our continuing playthrough of Champions Online picks up where it left off: like fifteen minutes into the optional segment before the game even officially starts.

Around a corner and down an alley from Surhoff's encampment I find the friend he was talking about, a woman called "Silver Avenger Mayte Sanchez". I can't really tell if she's a superhero and Silver Avenger is like a code name, or if it's the name of the outfit she's with, or if perhaps Silver Avenger is a rank like Corporal or Captain. Maybe that would put her second in command of her organization after Gold Avenger so-and-so? She's not dressed like a superhero, so you never know...

Oh, shoot, she's been talking. I should pay more attention.

Okay, so... alright... so, she wants me to use a gadget called a Sonic Pacifier to stun some of the aliens, but only the angry ones. And, at the same time, this Sonic Pacifier will also scan their stunned angry brains. Their brains need to be scanned because these angry aliens are being angered by aliens, and we need to figure out exactly how, except that we know how because we can see their alien anger transmissions. But these angry aliens are also setting up an alien transmitter that will stop alien transmissions and possibly make them less angry. This is a bad thing because we need the aliens to be angry to find out why the aliens are angry, other than what we know, which is that the aliens are angry because angry aliens are transmitting something that makes them angry that they're trying to block with an alien transmitter. These are orders passed down from a guy named Doctor Silverback who I've never heard of before. This is particularly upsetting because my back is silver and this is one more name I won't be able to use as a superhero.

Man, she didn't even get into how this gizmo works and I'm all kinds of confused. Even though I'm fairly certain that there's been a miscommunication somewhere along the chain of command, I figure I'll do what the possibly-superhero-possibly-soldier says and just assume that she'll get blamed instead of me.

Before I leave, though, I notice an old woman standing amongst the soldiers staring at me. When I talk to her, she explains that she can't find her cat, Reggie. I hand her the mindless ball of murder with the easily personified face that's been trying to slash my wrists for the past half hour and she squeals with delight. Some people, man.

Okay, so, I take this Sonic Pacifier and set out to use it on aliens and break some of their stuff. Simple enough on my end, I suppose. It only takes about half a minute to find some of the big angry bug guys stomping around at the end of the street. I pull out my handy Sonic Pacifier which looks basically like a gun, point it, aaaaand...

He explodes. Holy shit. His buddy looks at me, mandibles agape, and then charges in looking like he wants to tear my head off. I suppose that's fair. I point the dread device again and, you know, pacify him. Sonically.

This is a little disturbing. There's burning chunks of exoskeleton fluttering down through the air and dousing themselves on the thick coating of alien blood that's all over my skin, and I can't imagine that the device has had enough time to get any sort of a detailed scan of their brains... which appear to be all around me. I look for the little display on the gun, but only find a decal that says "FoxBat's Limited Use (TM) Explosive Foxbat Ping Pong Ball Gun." Um. Oops.

The way that item use works in Champions Online is actually pretty handy in general. Rather than having to go through your inventory bag and double click on an item every time you want to use it, you instead have to drag that item to a smaller ready-to-use bar on the bottom of your screen next to your powers and moves 'n errything. Think sort of like the "belt" slots from Diablo, where you would put things from your backpack that you needed to get to quickly. If there's nothing else in your ready-to-use bar and you receive a usable item (as distinguished from equipment or mission items that you can only use at one place) the game will automatically put it there instead of in your equipment. In this particular circumstance, I already had something there from the Foxbat's Weapon Case mission and had forgotten about it, but the Sonic Pacifier went in the slot right next to it, so no problem. Just need to keep track of which icon's which.
Well that's embarrassing and gruesome. I fire the last exploding ping-pong ball in the general direction of some more Qularr down the street and huck the expended gun over into some rubble. When I'm telling the newspapers about today later, I think I'm going to have forgotten the "thought the Sonic Pacifier was a handgun" part. What was I thinking? I dig around in my pocket and pull out the actual Sonic Pacifier, which is... a weird handgun looking thing. Oh. Hrm.

Well alright then, take two. I make my way a little further up the street from the gooey crater that was my last attempt at taking some readings and fire this newer, sleeker gun thingy at one of the giant insects. It seems to send out this transparent beam of... I guess sound?... that makes the big tough insect guy shrivel up into a wan husk of his former self, paw uselessly at the air, and then collapse to the ground and die wheezing. This um... this doesn't seem much better than FoxBat's anti-tank handgun I was using a few seconds ago, but apparently it's taking the readings we need, so I keep doing it. Science is gross.

Okay, so now that unpleasantness is taken care of, I have to find and destroy the transmitter that was making these guys so big in the first place. Or, destroy the transmitter that was going to make these guys less big. Or something. It's pretty hard to miss, though, as it's a giant pulsating mushroom thing next to a big pink vaguely Giger-esque spider antenna thing just a little ways up the street. I probably should have saved the last Foxbat Ping Pong Ball shot for this thing, but whatever it's made of, it's probably not as hard as my fists! I run up to it and start pounding away at it, putting a bunch of hand-sized dents in it until it's lights go out and it quits humming and, you know, shuts down. Except that doesn't happen. Instead, the damn thing explodes in my face.

I'm getting pretty tired of being sent on missions designed to kill me. I mean, I suppose it's possible that Silver Avenger Mayte Sanchez didn't know that the thing had a bunch of explosives in it... which, I admit, is pretty unintuitive... but I have a sneaking suspicion that she and all her swat team guys are either having a good laugh at my expense, or being scolded by Socrates for failing yet again to kill me. I suspect my next mission is going to be something along the lines of flying a fighter plane full of nukes into the alien spaceship or running up to hug some of the Qularr ground troops with a belt full of dynamite.

Heading off to deliver the pacifier's scan data to Doctor Silverback, though, I hear the squawk of a radio from inside a police car asking for help. I rush over for a better listen.

The look on my face here pretty much says it all. Apparently Kinetik, another of the vaunted Champions, has gotten himself captured and put in a cage by the Qularr. Kinetik, as I understand it, has Super Speed as his one and only super power. If there's one superhero on earth who shouldn't be able to be captured, it's Kinetik. But then, I have no idea what sort of forces were brought against him or what kinds of weapons they had, so I probably shouldn't judge. I run to go find him behind the Magic Lantern bookstore, which is only about a block away.

There's some minor resistance along the way. Good ol' fists still seem to be getting the job done faster than that pacifier thingamapoop, although admittedly less completely than Foxbat's gun. That guy must be a hell of a superhero when he's in his element and has time to prepare. I wonder if he'll need my help more often when this is all over. I'm starting to think I probably won't need an alter-ego superhero identity, since I'm probably going to be pretty recognizable all the time. So what should I go by that I'll actually remember? I like William, but it just doesn't sound all that heroic. I still haven't run into anything that can actually hurt me, so I should probably use that somehow. Invulnera-Bill? Nah. Indestructi-Bill. Hrm. Invinci-Bill? That rolls off the tongue better, at least...

I'm batting aside Qularr so easily that I almost don't notice that I'm already behind the bookstore. I look around and see Kinetik in his cage... which is a flimsy looking thing made out of the same Qularr tubing as all their other machinery that I've been destroying, and guarded by a single soldier, one of the tall ones.

... That's it. That's the entire force preventing him from making his escape.

I dunno about these Champions, man. So far I've only met two of them, but one didn't realize people were in imminent danger fifteen feet in front of her eyes and the other can't take a single Qularr soldier or figure out a way out of a cage I could probably squeeze through without having to break in the first place, at normal speed. I mean, seriously, one guard? I killed one of these guys a little while ago by punching him in the crotch. Once. For plane tickets.

Well, alright then, I'll help this guy out, but I'm getting pretty disillusioned so far. Maybe after all this they'll let me onto the Champions and trim some of the fat. Or maybe I can get on whatever team FoxBat's on. Or work for Surhoff. Yeah, that'd be better.

I run right past the alien and up to the cage. He flips out and starts shooting me with some kinda blue energy beams that I can't actually feel, so I mostly ignore him and focus on springing Kinetik. There looks to be some kinda complicated locking mechanism that I probably couldn't figure out if I tried, so I just tear the door off.

Woo, yay, you're free. Now that you're out, all we have to do is kill this bug guy and-

Oh, you have got to be kidding me.

Alright, so, I guess, I guess you're just gunna use all that superspeed and just run away, then. That's great. That's very impressive. Go Champions.

I kill the big bug guy and wander back out onto the street, shaking my head slowly. I didn't want to get a big head, but you know what? This city DOES need me.

UP NEXT: Gun-related shenanigans part 2!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The first boss I actually want to work for.

In which our tour guide Iron Will takes us through the third section of Champions Online's tutorial, which you probably could have completed on your own in the time it'll take to read this.

Unsurprisingly, the police chief's refugee camp seems a little more well-thought-out than the one run by the politician, vacant supeheroine, and murderous artificial intelligence triumvirate. I first notice this when I actually have to turn sideways to get through the hastily constructed police car barrier they have at the end of the alley, although it still seems to rely entirely upon the extremely advanced alien invaders from light years away not having mastered projectile weaponry, as many of the convalescing survivors are in plain view of some of the flying Qularr like the one I pegged with a bulkhead before. I assume that the Qularr have some sort of weird warrior honor code thing that I just haven't picked up the specifics of, yet. Like, it's okay to send big beetle-lookin' fighter jets in to shoot at the ground with lasers, but using large-yield weapons to just flatten a city which would take a negligible fraction of the energy spent to get here in the first place are considered dishonorable. And while you can shoot at stuff in the ship, once you've set foot outside, you have to go hand-to-hand or spittle. Unless you're one of the flying guys. I don't know, it's a complicated honor code.

Surhoff, I'm encouraged to discover, has a sweet mustache, and clenches his fists when I walk up like he's ready to deck me if I threaten any of the civilians behind him, despite the fact that I'm a walking metal statue. I tear a lamp post out of the ground for no reason, throw it into the side of the building, and report for duty.

A convenient feature of Champions Online that winds up being inconvenient more often than not is the context-sensitive Z button (or other key of your choice). It basically fills the role of double-clicking in most games. Press Z near an NPC to talk to them, press Z near an object to pick it up, press Z near a computer terminal to access it, etcetera. The problem arises when your character is standing near several objects it could theoretically interact with, and the Z button doesn't know which one to latch onto, and seems to have an uncanny knack for putting the most likely option dead last on it's list of possible interests. If you're trying to open a door next to a stack of crates, you can be reasonably sure that the game will think you want to hurl each and every last one of those crates at the door before trying the knob. Fortunately, it also gives a little list of all the actions the Z button will cover that you can click on to select an action for yourself, so you don't have to work your way through every option first. It generally works out okay, there are just some places where it always seems to do the same thing. Chief Surhoff next to the lamp post is one of these places, and if I hadn't been one of the first to him after the lamp post respawned, you can bet somebody else would be hucking it into the wall instead of me.

Surhoff looks me up and down, seems unimpressed, and then starts listing things that need doing and politely asking if I'll help. Not only that, but the things that need doing seem, quite shockingly, perfectly reasonable. There are people trapped under the rubble, would I help dig them out? There are ambulances wrecked out there, could I recover medical supplies for the survivors here? Qularr are detaining and attacking rescue workers that are trying to do their jobs out there, can I go help them out?

He doesn't ask me to go get myself shot or beat up inanimate objects or anything; he'd like me to help with the survival effort and assist the authorities in doing their jobs. This is downright bizarre.

Hell yes, sir! I will do all of these things for you! I apologize for destroying this lamp post!

Feeling like I'm working with intelligent professionals for the first time, I turn to go, but one of the survivors waves me over, a guy named Griswold. Apparently he needs some help too, and while I'm out serving the public, I might as well help out the little folks, too. Very well, citizen, what do you need?

Um... he wants me to go look for his... vacation stuff. Because it was going to be an awesome vacation, and this lousy alien invasion made him drop his stuff.

I'm pretty sure two of those folks out on the ground behind me are dying, but no, you're right, you have the worst luck.

In foreground: myself, man weeping over lost plane tickets. In background: two people dying of massive internal injuries while a lone unequipped firefighter tries against all odds to save their lives.

... Yeah, sure, I'll go get your damn plane tickets.

It takes a few minutes, but I eventually find his briefcase, his plane tickets, and his passport, which was for some reason on a newer, bigger kind of Qularr that I mugged in an alleyway. I couldn't reach his head, but apparently punching them in the pelvis also kills them. Good to know!

So that vitally important mission dealt with, I drop off the vacation supplies with the unluckiest man on earth, run past some dying folks and out onto the street to dig more dying folks out from under rocks and kill some more aliens.

It doesn't take long to find some people trapped under massive pieces of concrete from the buildings above. It's actually pretty impressive that they lived through it in the first place, come to think of it. Whatever. I haul the giant chunks of rock off of them and send them scurrying off towards Surhoff and relative safety, then I use the same giant rock chunk to go splatter some aliens standing nearby until it breaks, lather, rinse, repeat. It seems like a pretty good system, and an actual good use for my newly-discovered super strength, since these rocks gotta weigh a ton or two. I like the way Surhoff uses his human resources.

A few superheroes (or should I say, OTHER superheroes?) are running around the street doing the same thing, so we keep it up until everybody obviously trapped under a rock, car, or other piece of debris is freed. It's a pretty good team effort, and I seem to be holding my own. I start thinking of names for myself again. Chrome Champion? Ferrous Fighter? Think, William, think.

In amongst the trapped civilians is one strangely-dressed guy calling himself Foxbat. I can't tell if he's a superhero or not... he seems to have gotten himself stuck under a not entirely impressive piece of rock. When I haul it off of him, he thanks me and says that he's going to go marshal his forces to help drive the aliens back, so I guess he is a superhero, just not a strength-based one. Fair enough. He also tells me that he's left a case of weapons around somewhere, and that I can have it if I find it. Haven't needed them so far, but hey, that sounds pretty handy. Thanks, man! He runs off toward relative safety and I go the opposite direction, being significantly more durable than he probably is. I think I've made my first friend in the superhero community!

The case is actually only about thirty feet away, but being examined by three Qularr of another new type, looking a lot like the regular ground-types but much bulkier. They still go down pretty easily, though, and I pick up a FoxBat gun, whatever that is. All that dealt with, I remember the ambulances and head over there.

Just as Surhoff told me, there are assorted firefighters and paramedics being menaced by Qularr ground troops. This, I must say, pisses me off a little bit. I jump in between the nearest firefighter and the offending Qularr and pound the bajeezus out of them with perhaps a little more enthusiasm than the ones who were minding their own business. He thanks me and runs off. Three down, a couple dozen to go.

About ten minutes later my fists are completely coated in green alien blood-goo, I've got an armload of medical supplies, and there are no rescue workers being menaced anywhere I can see. I stand on a rock for a while, enjoying the relative peace and basking in a job well done, pondering superhero names again. "Thanks for the help, Gilded Guardian!" Nah. "You saved my life, Platinum Protector!" Too many syllables. "I think I love you, Die-Cast Defender!" Hrm. The alliteration thing isn't working out so well.

I pause about half way there. Was that a meow? Down another side alley I find a cat in a carrying case. Now, don't get me wrong, cats are overrated as hell, but if I'm going to be a superhero now, I suppose I've got to rescue everybody that needs it, even if they would just bat me around and torture me to death for their own sick amusement if the situation was reversed. Friggin' cats. I scoop it up, ignoring it's repeated attempts to scratch my arm off, and head back to the camp.

Surhoff seems quite pleased when I show back up with medical supplies for the injured and a report of success on the rescues. I suppose he already knew about the latter, as they've been coming back here, but still. I swear I think I almost see him begin to crack maybe a smile. He doesn't thank me in as many words... we're entirely too professional for that... but he does let me know I've got a friend in the police department if I need one. Surhoff, man, you're awesome.

Since he's got a handle on everything around here, he asks if I'll go help out a friend of his a few blocks away. I'm a little reluctant to leave the first authority figure I've run into whose leadership I respect, but I'll go where he thinks is best. I resist the urge to ask him to adopt me as a son, sling the hissing little monster over my shoulder, and take off down the alleyway, confident he'll take care of everything here.

UP NEXT: I'm not even sure what I'm trying to do.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tutorial part two!

In which we continue our playthrough of the wildly popular (not actually, but I like it) MMORPG Champions Online!

Wow. The mayor of a huge metropolis wants to see me, personally. Granted, it's a huge metropolis that I've never heard of before, but this is still a big deal as far as I'm concerned. His makeshift office consists of a largish tent, several crates, a random girl looking bored amidst the horrific alien invasion, and two, count 'em, two guards in fancy suits, only one of whom has a gun. I suppose secrecy is pretty good protection on it's own, but we're about thirty yards back from the makeshift barricade of police cars, and I can see some of the aliens from right here. He's got some confidence on 'im, that's for sure.

I jog up and ask what he needs. Unpredictably, he would like me to do a job for him! Although I suppose that what with the recently discovered invulnerability and the current disaster state, I really shouldn't be complaining when strangers ask me for favors. At least this particular stranger might be able to write a letter to someone and get me some kinda college credit or an internship or something.

He tells me that he needs me to go back into a gutted building to find his briefcase, because his briefcase contains a code, and this code activates an emergency response... plan. This plan is on a laptop which I'll also need to go retrieve.

I um, I didn't know that plans could be activated with codes... maybe it's like some kinda automated defense cannon thing...? Or like a pre-recorded message on a PA system...? But why wouldn't he have activated it when all this first started happening instead of setting it all up in a building and then leaving it behind?

Er, whatever, I never understood politics. I tell him not to worry about a thing and run off. My voice sounds like I'm whispering through a harmonica or something; maybe my vocal cords are metal too? It's weird, anyway. I make it a point not to talk much from now on, since nothing's making much sense at the moment and I'd probably just ask a bunch of stupid questions.

A quick hop over the police barricades brings me within spitting distance of the burnt-out building, and there's a hole in the wall big enough to drive a truck through, so I just let myself in, only to come face to face with a hideous eight foot tall humanoid insect thing! I wave hello, hoping that this is as universal a gesture in... well, the universe... as it is on Earth. It stares at me for about two seconds, and then spits in my face.

Well alright, maybe a handwave means something different on giant bug world. I try to think of something else to try while he spits in my face a few more times, which it occurs to me might be some sort of attack, as the stuff's dark green and sizzling off like cartoon acid. But for all I know, Qularr shake hands by burning each others' mandibles off, so who am I to judge?

But then he seems to get frustrated and tries to claw my eyes out. Uncalled for! I bop him on the head and he dies. So much for diplomacy.

It's good to know that despite incredibly advanced technology capable of sustaining and transporting life across thousands of light-years of space, the Qularr still deign to engage us in hand-to-hand combat for some reason. I step over the dead bug and root around for the mayor's laptop.

The combat in Champions Online distinguishes itself from other MMOs in a few ways, though this early in the game they're not all apparent. Besides the relatively active roll the player takes in directing combat through having to block attacks manually instead of just setting it and waiting for the fight to end, combat against low-level enemies tends to be much faster. At level one, for example, Iron Will is capable of destroying most enemies in a single hit with his energy-costing attack, or maybe half a dozen quick strikes with his energy builder. Melee is generally stronger than ranged (to compensate for the more limited circumstances in which it can be used, I suppose) but even the shooting classes shouldn't need to take more than three or four seconds per enemy at this stage. "Bosses" are different, of course, but combat in Champions is much faster and, therefore, much less of a drag than in most MMOs.

The developers seem to have picked up on this ahead of time, though, and have decided to award absolutely crap EXP for kills. For example, the shots below were taken at level Two.

At 3 Exp per bug, I'd only have to kill seven hundred seventy seven of them to advance to level 3 (in this shot I'd already turned in several missions since level 2).

The low Exp rewards for enemies effectively make it impossible to level simply by flying around and sweeping the streets like, y'know, a superhero. It's still pretty fun, but the only viable way to gain levels is to turn in missions, which, depending on the mission, sometimes aren't nearly as fun as simply going around utilizing your powers to defeat enemies would be.

I assume that this is on purpose. Since combat is relatively speedy in this game, it has to be worth less experience, while the more time-consuming missions are worth more. In most MMOs I'm more used to the other way around, where the missions are often only really there to get you out and make you kill hundreds of enemies (Boar Livers, anyone?) which you otherwise wouldn't want to do because the combat is so repetitive and annoying, as you'd probably prefer to keep wandering around and exploring or talking to people or gathering stuff or, you know, whatever. In those games, the majority of the experience and rewards usually comes not from completing the quest but from fighting the enemies themselves, merely giving you an incentive to put up with their lackluster and ponderously slow combat systems. In Champions, more of the missions seem to be collecting things or disabling things or, you know, anything that pops up a little progress bar you have to wait for, and the combat is largely incidental and can often be avoided completely.

So, while the situations are reversed, like most MMOs, the experience rewards are given out for doing the time consuming stuff that's less enjoyable. As MMOs make their money off subscription costs and are basically the most profitable when they take as much of a player's time as possible to advance, I get the reasoning behind it, it's just too bad all this epic superpowered head-bashing doesn't get us nothin'.

I find the laptop on top of a table in a pile of rubble, perfectly intact. I have no idea what it's operating system or ram or any of that stuff is, but this is without a doubt the most durable laptop I have ever seen. I make it a point to look for a similar one for myself and scramble up the rubble pile with it, not particularly worrying about whether it gets dinged by any of the rocks.

A similarly indestructible file cabinet is just on the other side of this debris pile, and I find the mayor's briefcase cleverly stashed inside it. As I'm leaving the building, though, I notice a girl across the street. Doesn't seem like a particularly safe spot to be standing and waving your arms around, so I jump out the third story window and trot on over.

She introduces herself as Melanie, name-drops the Mayor's daughter, and asks if I'll escort her to safety because she's afraid of bugs. ... Well, fair enough, I suppose, I am a damn handsome fellow and I do seem to be able to kill the things with my bare hands. Follow me, miss... miss?

As soon as I agree to escort her to safety she runs away down the street towards a swarm of Qularr pacing around the rubble piles. I think for a moment that she must be alarmed that a moving metal statue was accosting her, but I realize after a while that she has no idea how a bodyguard works and has assumed that merely talking to me about protecting her will keep her safe even if I'm nowhere nearby. Rich kids. I dash off after her.

I finally catch up to her around the corner and halfway towards the mayor's tent, cowering in the middle of the street because one of the Qularr is over on the sidewalk ignoring her completely. She absolutely refuses to go around the thing with me until I go over and get rid of it for her. One weighted metal left-hook later and we're on our merry, running triumphantly past the police barricades and into the mayor's tent where the strange young Melanie is reunited with the mayor's daughter and I get to go deal with somebody less addled. She thanks me profusely, I say it was no problem and conveniently forget to give her my name or any way to contact me later. Talk about high maintenance.

The mayor has a new job. Apparently the gravelly-voiced Chief Surhoff, the guy I heard over the radio earlier describing the situation, has set up another camp down the street with some of his officers, and they're completely cut off from this one by bands of roving Qularr and a minefield that the aliens have set up that kills anybody trying to go that way... and he'd like me to deliver a letter! I'm all ready to object to the absurdity of this plan and the lack of pay for every other job so far, but I realize that this one will at least get me away from these people. That giant hologram woman is still staring at me with murder in her eyes, and the dozen or so MARS troopers with their giant guns are still standing a ways off looking like they want to shoot something... though of course not the aliens the police are fighting against. I suppose I'll deliver the letter.

On the way out of the tent I meet Sapphire, 20% of the superteam known as the Champions, defenders of Millennium City. I decide to say hello.

She seems to be enjoying herself during this invasion, enjoying the cardio that the hostile aliens are providing and the new friendships it's creating. I kind of want to point out how many people are lying dead under the rubble in every direction, but I suppose that might be a bad first impression. She has kind of a vacant, collagen-injected expression on her face and seems to be dressed as a glam rock stripper from the '80s. I also can't help but notice that she's doing absolutely nothing to assist the police who are repelling wave after wave of invaders, assist survivors, fetch the mayor's various lost things, or, well, anything. And despite the fact that she can fly, she has apparently not been tapped for this deadly-for-anyone-walking-on-the-ground minefield mission.

Pictured: An unconcerned Sapphire, me, unpowered police officer fifteen feet away fighting for his life.

I give her a reassuring pat on the head, try not to look at her chest, and take off on my new mission. I think I have a sneaking suspicion how she got into the Champions in the first place.

At this point you'll want to take a slight detour and run up that crashed Qularr ship on the right for the Red Bug Down perk, which I can only assume is a reference to the movie Black Hawk Down or something else that I'm simply missing.

Perks are basically those extra little awards that virtually every game released in the last half decade has started doing in the form of badges or achievements or whatever they call them. Apparently they grant Perk Points which you can spend at some later point on things like costume pieces and action figures (in-game, not something they mail you) and the like. I've never bothered with them myself, although they are tracked in a list you can access at any point in the game to bask in how awesome you are, and some of them grant a Title, a little phrase or adjective like "Fireproof" or "Northerner" that goes above your name and is visible to other players in the game. They're awarded for everything from getting to certain places in the game or talking to certain people to defeating a large number of one kind of enemy, taking a large amount of damage from a specific source, or completing every mission in a given series. Basically a mark of status for the really hard-to-obtain ones, or a little piece of flavor for the characters of players like yours truly that don't really care about rank. For ol' Iron Will here, I've got my sights set on "Indestructible" or "Cold Iron".

Wandering down the street, I notice some new types of Qularr patrolling in front of me that I haven't seen before. Apparently in addition to little firefly things and big angry ones, they also come in big angry flying flavors. Even with a weighted metal fist, I don't think I can punch something thirty feet in the air, so I look around for something to throw at it. Several largish chunks of exploded Qularr spaceships are sticking out of the ground at various points. I decide to see if I can't pry a piece of one off to use as a weapon, and find much to my surprise that I can tear the whole thing out of the ground and lift it over my head with little to no effort. Score! Apparently I'm significantly stronger than I used to be, too... and, I've got a big honkin' chunk of pink chitin-metal to hide under. I bash the nearest Qularr soldier over the head with it and carry it down the street with me, hoping I don't look too conspicuous.

I've got a good throwing arm, and it works out pretty well. Thanks, football practice!

The mines that everyone was afraid of, as it turns out, are glaringly obvious pink lilypad things littering the street at distances of five to ten feet from each other, and I don't seem to have much trouble avoiding them all without even having to slow to a walk. For the second time in as many minutes, football practice comes back to help me through another of life's challenges!

Off to one side is an alleyway blocked off with police cars, and beyond that, at least somewhat concealed, I find Chief Surhoff's camp. It seems significantly better set up than Mayor Biselle's camp, as it's in an alleyway and at least somewhat back from the street rather than out in the open. He's cleverly set up near a fountain for fresh(ish) water, and back behind the officers manning the police car barricade are several wounded civilians lying on the ground being tended to by a firefighter, rather than a bunch of people with guns standing around doing nothing. This is looking a bit more promising already.