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PC Preview - 'City of Heroes'

by Mark Crump on April 7, 2004 @ 2:40 a.m. PDT

City of Heroes is the first superhero themed online RPG and will offer a host of exciting and compelling gameplay features. Players create their own heroes, choosing from hundreds of different powers, skills, abilities, and items and design their own unique costumes. Then they can band together with other players to fight evil, build their own secret headquarters and strive to become the premiere hero group in the city.

Publisher: NCSoft
Developer: Cryptic Studios
Release Date: April 27, 2004

Pre-order 'CITY OF HEROES': PC

Your average MMOG is usually four or five games rolled into one: the crafting game, the soloing game, the grouping game, and the PvP’ers; all rolled together in a shake-n-bake, hoping the end result is palatable. Usually, trying to make the game something for everyone causes it to fall flat, or worse, feel unfinished and rushed to market. City of Heroes minimizes that risk by focusing on one thing: dressing up in a pair of tights and opening up a can of whoop-ass on some bad guys. CoH attempts to break out of the stagnant sci-fi and fantasy MMOG market by introducing another popular theme: superheroes.

Like most games, before you can play, you need to design your ‘toon. Character creation here is very detailed and can easily fill up two hours just designing your avatar. You first choose your Origin and Archetype. Origins are how you got your superpowers, either through mutation, technological enhancements or industrial accident. Your Archetype is what “class” you are going to be; you can be a tank and just take punishment, or a controller who can affect your enemy’s wills, or a blaster who excels at ranged combat. All in all there are seven origins and five archetypes. Once you’ve made those decisions, it’s time to choose what superpowers you have. You’ll choose a Primary Power Set and a Secondary Power Set - these are dependant upon your specific Archetype. Tankers, for instance, have Defense power sets as their Primary Category and Melee power sets has their Secondary Category. This means that a Tanker's Defense powers will end up being more powerful overall than his Melee powers. You can choose a single Power Set from the Primary Category and a single Power Set from the Secondary Category. These powers both define your Archetype, and are the ONLY powers you will get; all others are just sub-powers off these. A Tanker whose power set is fire-based won’t have access to any of the ice-based powers as an example.

After that it’s the fun part: designing your costume and perhaps the most time consuming part. There are easily 20 different combinations you can mix and mingle, including color choices, what shirt you are wearing (or not), belt type, whether your pants are baggy or tight, and you can even deck them out in a pair of Gene Simmon’s sized platform shoes (accessorize, accessorize, accessorize!). You can also design costumes based from some famous ones, like Captain America and Wonder Woman. What I like is that you can get very creative, making it so your avatar doesn’t look like many others, which is a refreshing change from MMOGs out today where everyone’s just a clone of each other.

After that’s over with, you can go through to the excellent in-game tutorial, which walks you through how to use the movement controls, get missions from your contact and how to fight. The best part, though, is that your character keeps the items and experience from the tutorial, which grants you a level when you finish it.

After all that prep work is done it’s time to get down to playing the game. Each superhero gets a contact who hands out missions, usually a policeman, newspaper reporter, or city official. These missions are very similar to the missions in Anarchy Online, where you are asked to go retrieve an item, or clear a zone. Like Anarchy Online, the mission zone is instanced so only you have access to it. There is a mini-story arc, where once you run out of missions from one contact, they will introduce you to the next contact. There are also criminal groups trying to bring Paragon City to its knees, so most of your missions will involve trying to thwart their nefarious plans. There both solo and a group mission, so City of Heroes fits my one requirement in MMOGs: the ability to log in for an hour and get something accomplished.

In addition to the missions, you can roam around the game’s neighborhoods – their version of a zone – and fight criminals there. When you defeat a criminal, you get two types of experience: Security XP that’s used to determine your overall level, and Influence, which serves as the game’s currency. The bad guys also drop two types of loot: Inspirations, which are one time effects like healing, and Enhancements, which can augment your powers permanently. In other words, an Inspiration is like getting a healing potion, while the Enhancement is more like a piece of armor dropping. You can also trade in some of your Influence XP at a contact for inspirations and enhancements also.

Ok, now that we’re done with the obligatory background info, the real question on your mind is probably: how does it actually play? The answer is very well indeed. The thing I liked the most is that a lot of the time-sinks associated with MMOGs are largely gone. You don’t camp for loot because there really isn’t any; you don’t have to scrape your coppers to get that spell, since the abilities are either automatically given to you, or you buy them using your Influence at your contact. That which means most of your time is spent playing the game, and not the game system. I don’t have a lot of time devote to a game that has a lot of needless time sinks just to advance. Games like EverQuest have so many time sinks, if your friends are a higher level than you it’s a given you won’t be doing much with them. That makes it unnecessarily rough if the only reason you play the game IS your friends. In City of Heroes, if your friends get far enough ahead of you they can make you their sidekick, which temporarily boosts your level to one close to theirs so you can group with them. It’s a fantastic idea that eliminates the problem created by having online friends who can play more than you, and therefore get too high in levels to play with you.
and the like.

Graphically, CoH is a mixed bag. While the graphics have a comic-book feel, they look a dad dated. The outside environments are done well, and the character and particle effects look fantastic, but the instanced interiors for the missions are a let down. For starters, some of the layouts don’t make much sense, and are very repetitive. Graphically, the instances need a lot of work as well. The missions with office or warehouse interiors are bland, and the object graphics, like tables, computers and room doors are very out-of date and really need some sprucing up. They do get better as you advance to higher levels missions - the sewer levels look great, for instance. The sounds are decent, with the combat sounds being a higher quality than the background music, which can get repetitive and boring. Graphics aren’t the whole piece to a game though, and CoH’s game play shines through.

One other interesting item is that at least the Beta lets you record a demo that can you share with other players. The game engine just writes down a text file that you can load into your game client, and watch a game your friend recorded. I don’t know if this is going to be in the final product, but I hope it is since it’s a great way to share your adventures with friends. The downside is, the person you give the recorded demo too will have to have the client installed since it uses the client and client files to actually render the demo.

The superhero theme works well for a MMOG, and there’s a huge potential audience for it. So far the beta has been fairly stable with just the usual, expected bugs that are quickly fixed. If the current crop of MMOGs doesn’t do it for you, City of Heroes looks to be a great change of pace and should be worth checking out if the current quality holds through to launch.

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