So in part 1, I introduced SciFi. A riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a tech-suit and holographic cape.
Over the last week, I patched up my Champions Online installation, re-installed City of Heroes and (with no help from NCSoft whatsoever) re-activated my account and added the Going Rogue expansion.
All I needed to do now was actually play the games.
The ghost of MMO past
First up was City of Heroes. My old stomping ground. It was the first online rpg I played that didn't require you to move around by typing stuff like "Go North". The game itself is heading towards its 7-year anniversary, and has had a solid subscriber base ever since it opened. After a year or so, the City of Villains expansion was released, to let you walk on the dark side of the line, and last year Going Rogue promised players the option to cross that line back and forth with a moral choice system.
But before you can walk the mean streets of Paragon City, you must first create your Hero.
I was suprised to see that the power set in CoH has been expanded since I last visited. I was easily able to pick the powers I wanted; SciFi would be a Technology Controller, with Illusion Control and Force Fields, each chosen independantly.
To be honest, I wasn't sure what SciFi would look like. I knew he'd be tall and thin, with the helmet/facemask and cloak, and that the cloak would probably be a purple similar to the Aurora Borealis. But as for full costume colours and other features, they just needed to look technomagical.
For Body Type, you have three options: "Female", "Male" and "Huge". But each option is surprisingly customisable, with six sliders to control height, muscle tone, and an infamous "Boob Slider" on the female model.
Girls, don't complain. If there was one in real life, you know you'd use it.
But by the time I actually got to design my character, I realised how dated the engine has become. The colour palette has 160 colours to choose from (newer games have 100,000 that amount). The hands are mitten-style two fingered affairs, and you can almost see where the developers left out polygons in order to boost performance.
And it's this limitation that really makes the character creation process suffer. There are dozens of options, but they are all overlays: smooth and flat with a lack of textures and 3d shapes. You can make your chestpiece (for example) resemble about six different types of machinery, but they're all so similar and generic, it makes you wonder "What's the point?" None of them stand out.
Another major issue is: No capes. City of Heroes launched before NCsoft had the technology to make draping capes, and so when they did add them, they made capes a reward for reaching level 20. When you first make your character at level 1, you have to make-do with half-capes and trenchcoats. The half-capes hang around your neck like a scarf. They don't so much say "I am the night. Swear to me!" as they say "Why don't we go boating after elevenses?"
So I settled for a trenchcoat, androidy-looking arms and legs, generic techchest #4, and a helmet which seemed designed for someone who probably commutes to work by lightcycle.
It didn't help that I could see a bunch of costume elements I'd like on their website, but sold separately as part of "Booster Packs".
Overall, the process is clunky. You can't rotate your character by clicking and dragging; you have to use the arrows underneath. You can't preview an item before adding it, and everything is in incredibly awkward drop-down menus.
And now, for your amusement and delectation, I present six costumes from the Random Costume Generator. You can see the variety that was offered, and the level of graphics available.
You may scoff now, but in 2004 this was an unheard of level of customisation.
The finished costume for SciFi is at the end of the article. Before that, though, we have some Championing Onlining to do.
Shutting Sown All The Beacons since September 2009
Champions online was the first game to trump City of Heroes' character creator. It was (and still is) an example of how to give a player freedom of choice when making their in-game avatar. Players can pick a powerset, or pick any two powers they want from a large number of available options.
However, picking something for SciFi wasn't easy. The powers are pretty much "Build energy by shooting power X" and "Spend energy by shooting power Y". There isn't a hell of a lot of difference between them all, even if there were dozens to choose from.
Costume-wise, though, I couldn't have had more options. The combinations available are stunning and varied. You can give yourself a cloth glove on one hand, and a metal gauntlet on the other. Robot arms? Leopard Tail? Shark Feet? Maybe you fancy a hook hand? Two hook hands? Two hook hands, two wooden legs, a speech impediment and the tail of a Wombat? You can have it. And more.
The six sliders in City of Heroes have become about forty, controlling every aspect of your character's build. From ear length to nose angle, from forearm thickness to calf girth, it's all adjustable to a degree that even Las Vegas plastic surgeons would consider excessive. And fret ye not, because the boob slider remains cheerfully intact.
I remember the character creator being Champion's main selling point when it first launched, and now that the game has gone free to play, I heartily recommend people check it out. You can spend hours in the creation process before you even log into the game.
But no translucent or transparent capes, as I found out to my disappointment. SciFi ended up with a metallic cape that hung down his back like the foil thing people throw on exhausted marathon runners and baked potatoes.
Like all good MMOs, Champions Online has a "Random" button. This button is presumably added for comic effect, as no-one could possibly play the results:
I guess this is what The Usual Suspects would look like if you watched it on LSD.
The new kid on the block
It's been out for a week or two now, and DC Universe Online is steadily climbing into the mmo sphere of consciousness as something you might want to play. Unlike other mmorpgs, which exploded onto the scene and then died away like a stripper jumping out of a cake and hitting her head on a beam, this snuck in under the radar. It came out about a month after WoW: Cataclysm's launch, and waited to be noticed.
Which it was. Makers, SoE, had to increase the number of European Servers the week after launch, and they still read as "High Population", even late into the night.
But the first test of a super-hero MMO is the character creation process, and I jumped in, eager to see what advances have been made in the 16 months since Champions hit the shelves.
I have to say that if any advances in character creation engines have been made, nobody thought to share them with Sonly Online Entertainment.
You have a choice of three origins - Meta, Magic and Tech - and the choice of Hero or Villain (admittedly, this last part is something neither of the other two games had at launch)
There are six different power types - two tank/dps, two healing/dps, and two crowd-control/dps. You then pick a weapon for hand-to-hand or ranged combat.
Luckily, the "Mental" powerset fitted Sci-Fi pretty well, being a master of illusions and telekinesis. I also gave him a fighting staff, for when he needs to wade in and knock heads.
Six is a recurring theme, as there are six body types to choose between when deciding your appearance. Small, medium and large; males and females each. But no sliders to customise them beyond their basic shapes. Even our beloved boob slider has been removed, and now all female characters are stuck with endowments which I suspect would cause severe back trauma for anyone not also endowed with super-stength.
The number of costume pieces is severely lacking. They're in shiny 3D, with unique models all round, but there may be less of them than even City of Heroes, let alone Champions Online.
And there's no option to go one step deeper and customise any piece of gear. For example, in the earlier games you could pick a helmet or headpiece, and then add a range of fins, vents, antennae, and so on, to add more visual styles. You pick a costume piece in DCUO and it applies it and boots you up a level in the menus as if to say "Done with this! Next item!"
Neither is there any cloak transparency. Curses! I thought to myself. Foiled again.
There's no "Random" button either. This came as quite a shock, if you can call "Not finding something after looking for it for ten minutes, convinced it must be around somewhere" shocking. I was all geared up to round this off with another rogues gallery of awful costume combinations.
Instead, I shall got straight to presenting you with the awful costume combinations of SciFi, SciFi and SciFi.
Of the three, I have to say that Champions Online's phenomenal character creator takes prize. The cloak hangs not from his back, but from a high collar/mantle which sticks out behind and above his shoulders. The helm is totally smooth, featurless and metallic. I am sure I missed other options which would have added to the effect. I am not exaggerating when I say that you could spend an evening just playing with the character creator.
But it's hard to argue with the level of detail offered in DCUO. High resolution, reflective surfaces, and your choice of 16,000,000 colours. While Champions went for a 3d comic-book feel, DCUO seems to be angling for a more realistic appearance.
But the real test has yet to come. Tune in next time, when I will actually attempt to play these games.
If I'm not back in two weeks, build a statue of me in Metropolis.
Holding a badger.