Champions Online's move to free-to-play is very bad news for the criminals of Millennium City. My latest creation, Chill Valentine, is in the local park, icing top-hat-wearing goons with frost bolts. All around me, fellow heroes are unleashing their own brand of justice, in the form of fireballs, telekinetic powers and the occasional thrown car. With no subscription fee to put players off, the streets of this superhero MMO are rammed. It is a very bad day to be wearing a top hat and a striped shirt.
The cost of playing for free is choice. Full subscribers can pick and choose from Champions Online's magical tombola of superhero abilities, but non-paying Silver members have to make do with a choice of archetypes that limit their character's progression to a preset template of themed superpowers. Extra archetypes can be bought in the game's item store for about £7.
Chill Valentine is a frosty Glacier archetype, so she unlocks predictable ice-themed abilities in a linear fashion as she levels. First there's the frost bolt, then the charged-up frost bolt, then the area-of effect frost bolt, and so on. Each archetype is designed to fulfil one of the three traditional tank, damage-dealing or healing MMO roles – which would make sense if there was much reason to group with other players, but aside from a few intermittent 2-5 group dungeons, there isn't.
As well as new archetypes, you can also buy costume pieces for your character. These come in themed packs at about £2 each, and offer the most outlandish equipment, from bear claws to massive robot jetpacks. There are still hundreds of items for Silver players to choose from, so the shift to free-to-play hasn't impacted the enormous visual variety of the heroes fighting around you. As I mop up the local evil Mime population, I spy a huge demon, complete with wings and devilish tail, and a tiny imp throwing around benches twice his size. From zombie ninjas to robot magicians, your fellow champions will look completely different, even if their abilities are the same.
Cash for items
For a subscription fee of £10 a month you can become a Gold member. This will pay for about £3 of item store points each month, open up more character slots, unlock special costume parts and, most importantly, allow you to customise your archetype. You can play with the old character creation system that lets you pick and choose your powers from any speciality, and create a superhero that actually feels like your own. In Champions Online there's little reason to fight for extra loot, and there's little in the way of end-game raids to look forward to, which means the powers are everything. While Silver players have complete run of the world, which is as colourful and overthe- top as ever, they will likely struggle to find reasons to stick around adventuring in it.
Little has changed since Champions was released two years ago. Once past the exciting tutorial, most of the quests are straightforward thug hunts that move you from zone to zone without much sense of purpose. Across the street from the park, members of another gang wander vacantly, waiting to be brought to justice. Farming these walking punchbags was satisfying for a while, but I never felt like a superhero.
Still, there's fun to be had in the first 20 levels, before the lack of character building and high level challenges start to grate. Millennium City is a great place to punch Mimes for a few hours, but not even the wastes of Canada or the exotic jungles of Monster Island can keep things interesting when your hero is stuck on rails. The character creator and explosive opening make Champions worth a download, but it's unlikely you'll be kicking crims around in a month's time.