I’m currently playing the Open Beta for Champions Online, the new game from the studio that made City of Heroes, my MMO-crack of choice.

I’ve been playing CoH since before it came out in the UK (17th of September 2004, says the archive of everything) and, apart from a gap around 2006 when I stopped playing it for a while, I’ve had a subscription for most of that time (50 months, since I got a floaty healy thing a little while ago). I beta tested City of Villains.

City of Heroes was made by Cryptic Studios, published by NCSoft. Cryptic Studios then started making Marvel Universe Online, Published by Microsoft. Cryptic then sold City of Heroes to NCSoft lock, stock and barrel, including 90% of the dev team (Less the original lead designer, Jack Emmert) and shortly afterwards announced that Microsoft had ditched MUO (due to “inability to compete in the marketplace” (by which they meant “won’t beat WOW”)). Less than a week later, Cryptic announced, from the ashes of MUO, Champions Online, based on the tabletop RPG system which they had, in turn, bought up. (It would be published by 2k Games, except that soon after that Atari bought up Cryptic Studios, mainly for the Star Trek MMO they’re also working on).

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that this is City of Heroes 2.

Of course, it isn’t. It’s patently Champions Online. It says so on the box. The worlds are different, the systems are different. Many things are different, not only from City of Heroes, but from any other MMO currently out there. Mostly, if you draw out a box with “World Of Warcraft Mechanics” on one side, and “City of Heroes Mechanics” on the other, CO falls somewhere down the middle.

The combat is actually original, which is nice. You still have the concept of “Health” and “Power” (mana/stamina/whatever) and your little one to eight boxes at the bottom with corresponding number keys, but there’s no actual cooldown. At the start you’ll get two powers – I did with my sourcerer, and I’m told it’s generally universal – one that does very little damage, and one that does a lot. The one that does very little damage actually increases your power when you use it, and the one that does a lot you hold down the button for as much power as you want to use (a-la Worms, Scorched Earth or Wii Golf) and let go. That’s the first new thing, which changes MMO combat quite a lot. The second is that if you see an enemy about to shoot, or a projectile coming towards you, press shift to enter block mode. You can’t fire in block mode, but your power regens.

The closest thing I can equate it to is Tabula Rasa’s combat, only without the annoying UI problems or targetting (it’s still “tab to target, face anywhere”).

Second thing is you get a travel power when you leave the tutorial. Full travel power, full speed. Fly, superjump, flameing flight, tunneling, web-slinging. Whatever. The only time you’ll have to walk across a battlefield is a) fighting things, or b) escorts.

Third: No different servers. If there are too many heroes in a zone, it spawns off another copy, and when you change zones you can choose which one you get (much like CoH), but it’s all one server.

Four: No unique names. Your full name, as appears in chat by default, is character@username. The name above your head is Character. You could have an entire supergroup full of identical heroes called Bob, if you like.

There’s another shot at invention-style crafting, and the ability to mix and match any power from any set is really nice.

It still feels like City of Heroes 2, some of the mistakes are new, some are old, but it’s all very familier. Zone-level monsters which spawn after X of creature Y are defeated, “Contacts” who give you missions, people shouting your name as you walk by, the menu structure and progress. While they’ve migrated to the WoW-style “I have an exclaimation over my head, I have a quest!” system (CoH favours a tree of available contacts, who introduce you to their friends), the mission briefings are the same style. One of City of Heroes’ main departures from standard MMO lines was that every mission was instanced, meaning you never had to wait around while the big bad evil respawned, but you never got the feeling there was anybody else in the world. Champions goes the other way, with almost every mission in the global world. There are also “inline instance” missions, for want of a better term, where you’ll enter an area and suddenly have a mission to help with this big event that’s about to kick off.

Missions vary though Kill X, Interact with X, Find Y, Escort X. After the tutorial – an instanced zone taking you though roughly the first five levels – you go to another mass instance before entering the game proper, which works well and introduces you to the world and systems nicely, providing you read the screeds of text it throws at you.

The landscape looks pretty. I’m not a massive fan of the character design – and I am really quite happy you can turn off the horrible “draw thick black lines around every feature” “comic-style” graphics option, which I had to do because the game really doesn’t like my system specs very much.

In general I find CO to be a spiritual successor to City of Heroes, though one without the body of work and creativity of the other. It’s something of a shame they compete so much. Ultimately, I see it as City of Heroes with five years hindsight and a different licence. The main distinguishing thing for a lot of people will be the more active combat system, which you will only find out if you like by trying it.

On that, you’ve got until Wednesday to sign up and play the open beta.

I should work out if I’m actually going to buy the full game or not. I’m currently not sure.