Friday, December 10, 2010

The Powerhouse

At this point in Champions Online I'm right where I would be if I had chosen "Take me to a crisis!" instead of "Take me to the tutorial!" at the end of the character creator. Everything up to now has been completely skippable, but if you skip the tutorial entirely, your game starts in either the Southwestern Desert crisis or the Canadian crisis and you go from there. The only real difference is that, having gone through the tutorial, ol' Iron Will's a good two levels higher than he would otherwise be at this point.

He's not going to need them, exactly, but it's generally a good idea to soak up experience levels whenever they're available and not a grind to get, as later on in the game there aren't quite as many missions available as you'll need to level up appropriately. Better to be constantly plowing through areas that are scaled for a level or two below you than wind up like my first character, always doing missions scaled for four levels above him because those were the only ones left.

As I may have mentioned before, the size of this game is it's main shortcoming.

While we're circling to land, a Director Kaufman who sounds encouragingly like Chief Surhoff in general demeanor and gruffness comes over the radio to explain the situation at Project Greenskin, the name of this for we're apparently landing in. According to him, a giant "radiation shield" went up around the base recently, and ever since then it's been being attacked by swarms of irradiated mutants. I admit, that does sound like a bit of a pickle.

The irradiated mutants I think I can help with, depending on just how irradiated they are or what definition of "mutant" we're going by here. I don't know much anything about the effects of radiation on metals, but I'm assuming given no evidence whatsoever that if I can survive bullets and laser beams, I ought to be able to survive high doses of radiation. More relevant is what kind of mutants we're dealing with, if it's typical malformed people inundated with cancerous cysts or, like, the Hulk. The first type would be the only ones that would make sense with this much radiation everywhere, so we're probably dealing with the second.

I have no idea what a "radiation shield" is or how to fix it. I assume that has something to do with the sky being neon green in this area, but that's all I can figure. Is it like a forcefield? I don't think radiation works that way, but maybe. Or is it just a cloud of radioactive gas that's so dangerous nothing can pass through it to get away except this specific helicopter...?

We land and the copilot hops out to give me a hand and tell me what I ought to do. Nice of him, I suppose.

Alright, fair enough, but first Witchcraft told me I've got to go to this "Powerhouse" place. She marked it on my little map here...

Oh, there it is.

It's just a short quarter-mile away, past the soldiers pretending to hold guns, over the sandbags, and across a hundred foot fall to an irradiated battlefield crawling with mutants and green fire of questionable health effects. Hrm...

Oh, or, there's a teleporter right here on the landing pad. Hot damn! Somebody actually thought this through.

I strongly recommend this route.

I find myself face to face with a giant spinning gear full of lightning. I guess that's the door to the Powerhouse? Seems unnecessarily dangerous, but nothing's managed to hurt me yet, so I plug my nose and step through, trying to remember my Interdisciplinary Science 101 class's lecture on conductors and whether or not a giant metal wire shaped like a half naked guy would be damaged by absorbing a large amount of electricity or be able to simply distribute it through itself without harm.

Evidently, without harm. I'm in a weird metal room with matching superhero looking guys in all four corners. So, this is the place where they're going to help me perfect my powers. I guess it's like a gym...?

Actually, the Powerhouse is more like a store wherein you spend your gained levels on new powers, stat boosts, or power enhancements.

It's also the best place to test out new powers, because while you're still in the powerhouse you can get a full refund on a new power if you try it out and don't like it. Once you step through the giant electrified gear of death, though, the powers you've picked out in the Powerhouse are permanent, and will cost you in-game money to replace. This wouldn't be so bad, except they make you pay to unlearn your powers (or stat boosts, power enhancements, etc) in reverse order. So if you had a bunch of level to spend and got your guy sonic arrows, ice blasts, fireballs, and lightning bolts, left the powerhouse, decided the sonic arrows didn't fit, and then came back to replace them, you would have to first pay to unlearn the lightning bolts, then the fireballs, then the ice blasts before you would be able to pay to unlearn the sonic arrows. Prices also scale up the higher level your character is. Seem pointlessly difficult? Might be some laziness on the game's part to prevent you from getting a 2nd or 3rd tier power and then going back and unlearning the prerequisites or something, I dunno.

Anyway, since Iron Will went through the whole tutorial and stuck around for Battle Of The Ironclad a few times, he's got more levels than most characters do to play with here. Let's pimp him out a bit.

The first menu seems confusing at first and then gets pretty intuitive pretty quick. "Powers" are moves like the two you choose at the very beginning of the game, stuff like ice blasts, eye beams, summoning zombies, whatever. They're divided into the different power sets like Fire, Telekinesis, Sorcery, etc, and having more powers from a specific group unlocks more advanced powers from the same group. For example, if you want a second-tier fire power (Like Fire Breath, I think, but don't quote me on that) then it's unavailable at first unless you have one other Fire powers already, OR two powers from any set. More advanced ones require three from the set or five from any, etcetera. This means that you have access to all the powers in the game and don't have to choose one powerset to stick with while leveling up and choosing powers, but specialization helps you get stronger powers faster. It's fairly well designed, I think.

Travel Powers are a separate category. You only get one of these until pretty late in the game (Level 35, I think?) and they're all available up front. These are chosen separately because they have no effect on the functioning of most of your non-travel-powers and are in some cases a little redundant with each other, but offer a pretty good variety for flavor purposes. More on these in a minute.

Ranks and Advantages are enhancements you can apply to powers you already have. Using the same fire powers example, say my new Fire Breath is already pretty good, but if I wanted to blow all my ranks on it, I could bump it up from rank 1 to rank 3 and make it much stronger, or I could instead choose to spend them on a specific enhancement FOR Fire Breath, like Spitfire, which would apply the Clinging Flames status to everyone hit by Fire Breath, igniting them and causing additional damage over time. The catch? Every power only has room for so many ranks or advantages, so you'd have to choose. You couldn't, for example, have a rank 3 Fire Breath WITH Spitfire. Maybe rank 2 with Spitfire or rank 3 without, after that it's full. It's a good concept, but I really wish it would just let me blow all my ranks on one ridiculously buffed power, since I'm usually the type who'll stick with one or two signature moves once I've got 'em, but oh well.

Your Characteristic Focus is which Stat you want to be your Super Stat. It'll give a sizable bump to one of your eight basic stats that will increase with your level. A few levels later, you'll get another, but that's it. Generally it makes sense to choose the same stats for your super stats that you already have an advantage in from your Innate Characteristic way back at the beginning of character creation, but you could mix them up too.

Finally, talents are a kinda strange feature that lets you pick another stat to boost by 8 (a smaller number than the bonus you get with Characteristic Focus) or two by 5, four by 3, etcetera. It's kind of just one more way to incrementally build up your stats. However, unlike a Characteristic Focus, you keep getting these throughout the game, but you can never choose the same one twice.

Why not a simple point-buy system with which you could choose to focus on stats or powers, specializing or generalizing as you see fit? ... like... y'know... because.

Righto, first things first, no more jogging around everywhere. We're gunna pick a travel power for Iron Will. What are our options, trainer?

That's actually a pretty good selection. Some things that aren't immediately obvious about the powers until you've tried them out on an embarrassing number of alts. Obviously, they don't all handle the same; some are faster, some are slower, some stay on the ground while some go through the air, etcetera. But not only that, they also don't all control the same. Flight, for example, you simply point in a direction and then you can leave it, focusing on other things like the chat window, inventory, making yourself a sandwich and forgetting you're playing a video game, etcetera. Swinging, on the other hand, has you hitting the "shoot a new cable thingy" button everytime you reach the apex of a swing, or you rock back and just kind of dangle there limply. Also, you have to keep holding the button down, or you'll fall.

Actually, you know what, I'm just going to go through them all one at a time. Bask in my knowledge of trivial things.

Flight: Pretty self explanatory, you can soar around unassisted like Superman, Thor, Angel, pretty much the entire Legion of Superheroes, etcetera. In comic books, this it typically the fastest possible way to get around, as it's in as straight a line as the curvature of the earth will allow and the friction of air would do much less than the ground to stymie their continued acceleration. However, in Champions Online, it's actually one of the slowest, primarily as a balance thing, I assume. Still, it's quite a bit faster than running, you can maneuver well even indoors, and as long as you gain some altitude early on and point towards a spot above the horizon, it keeps you well above danger in most areas, so you don't have to pay any attention until you're above your destination. Definitely the easiest and most relaxing way to get around in a hurry, if not actually the fastest. Fun extra: if your costume incorporates wings of some kind, they'll flap automatically while you use this power.

Superjump is just what it sounds like; the character jumps a ridiculous height and then lands a fair distance away, at which point they can immediately jump again, bouncing along like a giant superball, the Hulk, or any character in an anime where there are streetlights. It's actually significantly faster than flight (doesn't make a lot of sense, but again, balance) for overland travel in a straight line, but unlike flight, the topography has an effect on the travel itself. If, for example, you jump to your maximum altitude and then land at a significantly lower altitude than you took off from, your character will take falling damage. However, while in travel mode, you can simply step off a ledge without jumping and land without taking any damage, provided the total fall was less than your optimum jump height. Also, you can't set it and then leave it like with flight, as superjump requires you to re-tap the jump key everytime your character lands, unless their destination is one jump away. So, you have to actually stick around and DO it, which is much less convenient for longish trips, but significantly faster. ... Also, as Champions Online is so small scale (my main complaint) there really aren't any longish trips, at least not on the scale of other MMOs.

Superspeed, as exemplified by the Flash and mimicked by Quicksilver and a few hundred others, is one of those powers that you'd think would be an automatic win button if anybody actually utilized it intelligently in comic books. (I mean come on, you could take out a fully mechanized army with a straight razor.) This is why, in the comics, it tends to be limited entirely to waving one's arms or running really fast, but not too fast, for no discernible reason. As a travel power, that's all it really is, the character sprinting along faster than anybody else can move on the ground. Now technically, this might be the fastest power in a straight line with no obstructions (if not, it's second only to teleportation) but there are very few straight lines with no obstructions in the world. With Superspeed, you'll still have to maneuver along whatever paths you'd have to take walking, go back and forth up switchbacks to climb steep hills, watch out for ledges, and be careful not to run through too many enemies, because attacks that can knock a character out of travel mode are ridiculously common. Furthermore, the animation just looks silly.

Acrobatics is basically a combination of superspeed and superjump, scaled way down. Think Batman, Captain America, Catwoman, Deadpool, any character loosely based on a ninja or martial arts, or, you know, real life gymnasts. You can run around faster than normal characters but not as fast as any other travel power except maybe tunneling, jump high enough to clear most obstacles but not any imposing landmarks or walls designed to keep you out, and basically just get around in a hurry without looking overtly supernatural while you're doing it. I get it as a flavor choice, and it kind of works in a place like Millennium City or Vibora Bay where there are a lot of opportunities to jump from rooftop to rooftop and run along ledges and the like, but in most places in the game (wide open desert, tundra, jungle, etcetera) it's kind of a waste.

Teleportation, on the other hand, is just this side of broken. Teleportation is one of those powers that varies a whole lot in comics, from two-seconds-to-mars guys like Dr. Manhattan to guys that just sort of blink around like Nightcrawler. In Champions Online, it's more like the latter, but kind of misses that mark too. Now, in a game like City Of Heroes, teleportation worked by clicking on a distant spot (within the power's range) and charging up, and then instantly appearing there, the only slowdown caused by having to charge up for the next jump. Champions' method requires less pointing and clicking but doesn't really make a lot of sense. You basically turn into an invisible (but not quite, characters with a high enough Perception can still see you) mote of light that can fly for a few seconds, and then turn back. Seriously, that's it. It's more or less identical to flight except that it doesn't last as long, you can fall to your death if you don't hit the key again fast enough, and it's a little faster. When I think teleportation, I think instant travel (like, say, clicking on a point on the map, having to wait a reasonably long amount of time to charge up a teleport, and then disappearing and appearing there) not a weird energy form. It is, however, incredibly useful in PVP, in which every cheap built-for-PVP character can use it to escape an enemy when they're getting low on health and heal up somewhere removed from combat before teleporting back in. It's also fairly handy for getting past enemies you don't want to have to fight, as you're invisible for a short period while you use it, so your mileage may vary. Just bugs me that it doesn't feel like teleporting so much as phasing through stuff.

Ice Slide is... weird. It's obviously inspired by Iceman, except unlike Iceman they don't actually create a slide out of ice so much as a surfboard, so it looks more like the Silver Surfer(NO RELATION), except the board constantly falls if you don't work to pull it up and it's very slippery. You have to go forward to gain any altitude at all, and you need a wide arc to turn do the the aforementioned slipperiness. It is, however, quite fast, and the poor handling actually serves to make it a bit more exciting to get around with, but it's just not as useful or convenient as most other airborne travel powers.

Swinging! Swinging looks really cool. Think Spiderman or Batman or Daredevil or any character that uses a grappling hook, rope, or some kind cable gun. It would go really well with Acrobatics, but alas, you can only use one at a time. It, too, is faster than flying, but it's a bit of a pain in the ass. You have to hold down the jump key to hold onto your little swingy rope, release it at the end of it's distance (maybe fifty feet?) or else rock back and dangle in place, and then hit it again immediately or begin to fall, which does a lot of damage. If you have a spotty connection, avoid this power completely, as you'll spend most of the game peeling yourself of the ground. And, alas, though the animation is really cool looking, the rope simply fires up into the air where it sticks a ways above you whether anything's there or not. Generally this works from the player's perspective while going through urban environments or forests and the like, but all the other characters can plainly see the line coming out the top of your character and vanishing into a random patch of sky. Looks particularly silly when you're swinging along a quarter mile in the air above, like, the desert. Still one of the better looking powers in it's element, though, but it's element is rare, and still a pain in the ass.

Tunneling is, I think, highly underrated. With Tunneling, you can dive into the ground and then tear around as a mound of disturbed dirt like Bugs Bunny or the Street Sharks. This is both slow, going only slightly faster than a normal run and slower than virtually all the other travel powers, and limited, since you can't leave ground level at all. In fact, it doesn't even allow you to go everywhere tunneling logically would: you can't tunnel up steep hills, for example, or even under things like park benches or curbs. These stop you dead as if you're actually just a two inch tall invisible guy (which is, I suspect, how it actually works mechanically) rather than under them. This one aspect of it blows (I can't tunnel under the damn hedge? I'm six feet under the grass!) and blows pretty hard. Why I love it, though, is that, like teleportation, you're invisible to enemies. But unlike teleportation, you're perfectly visible to other players, including opponents, but only as a lump of dirt and broken pavement, and you still can't be hit by anything but area effects. This is so funny sometimes I can't even describe it. Plus, unlike teleportation, you don't have to randomly pop out of the ground every few seconds for air; if you're in a hostile area and need to go afk for a few minutes, you can tunnel into the ground and just chill there, enemies walking right over your head. Great for missions where the objective is guarded by a bunch of enemies that you don't want to have to fight. Warning, though, the unable to tunnel under chairs this is pretty irritating, and for some reason enemies can still attack you after you go underground if you stay in the exact same place; you have to move a foot or two to either side before you're inaccessible. No idea why.

Jet Boots! Jet Boots are basically what you'd expect, with an animation fairly obviously modeled after the recent Iron Man movie (hands out to the sides to steady, legs wobbling a little bit, etcetera) and an undeniable cool factor. They carry most of the same advantages as Flight, such as the ability to just set a direction and leave 'im, good maneuverability both indoors and out, etcetera. They're not quite the same, though, in that jet boots have to "gear up" after you activate them. You don't go right to full speed the way you can with flight if you charge it up first. Instead you start at a low burn that kind of just lets you hover around, and after a few seconds crank it up to the next level, and then finally full speed a few seconds later. Overall it takes about the same amount of time to get up to full speed in jet boots as it would to fully charge your unassisted flight power and catch up to the guy who'd just left with jet boots, so it's mostly just a flavor difference, but it looks really good on robots or power armored guys. Tied with Flight for sheer convenience, in my book. Although, as you're about to see, a lot of travel powers are tied with Flight.

Rocket Jump is not one of them. I can't actually think of an example of a superhero that uses something like rocket jump, but I imagine I've seen something like it in some old platformers. Rocket Jump handles much the same as Superjump, except the arc is much narrower and the overall airtime is shorter. They go about as high as a superjump, but they shoot you right up there, and then have you fall back down a comparatively short distance from where you took off. Lots of vertical motion, not that much horizontal. But, as it's also much faster, you can do two or three rocket jumps in the time it takes to gracefully arc one superjump, and the overall miles per hour overland are somewhat comparable. I actually don't know which one's faster, but rocket jump seems both zippier and less constructive. It is, however, a great way to exit a scene quickly and dramatically... provided there's a wall or building or ledge or something nearby that you can land on the other side of.

Fire Flight is flight with fire all over you. No, seriously, that's about it. Think the Human Torch or Green Lantern. It really handles exactly like normal flight except that your character gets a nifty cloudy glowing aura of a color of your choosing and leaves a trail of the same for a fair distance behind him. Looks good for an energy-based character or possibly a telekinetic or sommat.

Hover Disk is another of the ones that handles basically like Flight. Like Flight, it takes you high up off the ground and like Flight you can simply point in a direction and then let it take you there without having to worry about doing anything else. Unlike flight, it doesn't quite stop on a dime and seems to slide a little bit when you turn, give you the barest impression of what you have to deal with if you pick Ice Slide, although the Hover Disk won't drop you if you don't keep pulling up. Plus, it just looks cool, like riding around on a little flying saucer. Good for gadgety characters, futurey characters that don't quite feel right with jet boots, or guys you just want to be able to fly without actually flying. I gave one to Bushido Jones because he, I don't know, got one as a reward from aliens after saving their culture by challenging their evil overlord from the future to a duel or something. Yeah.

Finally, Earth Flight. I can't think of a good example for this one either, although it seems like something that an Earthbender from Avatar ought to do. This one handles pretty much exactly like Hover Disk, except a piece of the ground below you tears itself up with you on top of it and then floats you around. The animation for this looks really cool, and a few (I think three?) littler chunks of rock kind of float around you in a circle while you're riding on the main one. Also, the chunk of rock itself mimics (to an extent) the color of the ground you were standing on when you activated the power, which while hardly necessary is just kind of neat to me. I don't really know what inspired them to add this power, as there aren't any rock or earth related powersets in the game, but I've found that it has just the look I'm usually going for with a telekinetic character (who, of course, doesn't touch the Telekinesis powerset) or some kinda naturey druid type.

So, we have a few ways to go faster on the ground, a few ways to travel stealthily, and half a dozen ways to fly. For Iron Will, I think flight's out, although it is the most convenient way to travel. Just doesn't fit with the concept. Neither would teleporting, anything roboticky, or, hilarious though it can be, tunneling. I think, given his vastly increased strength and already impressive fitness level, that superspeed would be the best match for him. I'll just buy that for him and test it out to make sure that pfffffftHAHAHA!

Look at this jackass run! I forgot how silly the animation is. He's got his arms rigidly stretched out behind him in some weird imitation wing formation while his legs rotate around like a cartoon ninja or Sonic The Hedgehog. Okay, okay, nevermind, sorry. Let's see here. Maybe superjump? Having super strength and incredibly powerful leg muscles could conceivably be used to superjump. Works pretty well for the Hulk.

Okay, yeah, that looks quite a bit better. He kinda powers himself up into the air and then lands in a stomping half-crouch that crushes a big chunk of the floor below him. Looks convincingly heavy. Think we'll go with that.

Plus, it's much closer to my original inspiration for the Iron Will character, who was conceived while playing the 2008 Incredible Hulk game for XBox, in which the titular character got around via superjump. It was pretty good for $5 out of the bargain bin. So yeah.

Alright, travel power's been chosen. Now I've just got to figure out everything else.

UP NEXT: More Powerhouse!