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PC Review - 'City of Heroes'

by Michael Bragg on July 3, 2004 @ 1:14 p.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


I'm a relative newcomer to the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) community. I didn't spend 47 hours straight playing EverQuest; I passed on the chance to be abused by Ultima Online. I was burned once with a MMORPG -- Star Wars: Galaxies nearly soured me on the genre with the Great Thanksgiving Mount Patch Fiasco. Reliability and server uptime are only really found consistently in Horizons, which demands a fair bit of playing time from its subscribers. Since I have a job (whose resources I misappropriate to serve up hot, tasty game reviews), I don't have the time to devote to making my Dark Elf mage/pastry chef reach Level 75, and if I'm out of the loop for a week or two, I've missed huge chunks of the story in most MMORPGs. The casual gamer has never been the genre's traditional demographic, and stability hasn't been its strong suit.

Enter City of Heroes into the fray! Developed by Cryptic Studios, and published by NCSoft, City of Heroes combines tight game play, stunning graphics, and rock-solid stability into a package that easily accommodates both the power gamer and the "weekend warrior" mentality. Add to that nifty powers and the ability for the admins to patch-on-the-fly, and you have a recipe for success that has seen online role-players by the thousands flocking to pick up a subscription.

The general idea of the story is that Paragon City is a city full of superheroes. Ever since the 1930's, heroes have come to Paragon to fight the forces of comic book badness: Nazis and Satanists and gangsters, oh my. In recent years, the heroes have fended off an alien invasion by a species called the Rikti (though one hopes it was more difficult to do than throwing water at them, like the aliens in M. Night Shamalamadingdong's Signs), and seen a resurgence in the Nazi activity (helped along by a growth in talk radio listeners). Your job, as a new superhero in Paragon, is to bring order to the streets, "defeat" a bunch of thugs, and level your butt off.

When you first install the game (and activate your subscription -- the game won't play without a separate visit to NCSoft's website) and start it, it's immediately obvious that the game's flexibility was designed with the comic book enthusiast in mind: character creation is extremely flexible and fun.
First, you’ll need to select your origin: magic, mutation, natural causes, science, or technology. After that, you can choose your archetype – the actual sets of powers you’ll have in the game:

  • Blasters deal out a punishing hail of bullets, fire, energy, or ice from a distance to put the hurt on their foes. The only drawback is that blasters tend to have a bit of a glass jaw, so they’re best off keeping well away from the melee combat.
  • Controllers do just that: they control. Weather, fire, or even her enemies’ own minds are just puppets for the controller’s will. Even less durable than the blasters, controllers are made to really shine in groups of heroes.
  • Defenders are a must for any team of intrepid do-gooders. The defender is a classic healer, restoring health, buffing up the good guys, and debuffing the baddies. Go into combat without one, and your team will soon find itself at the nearest hospital, arguing about the $600 bill for Tylenol.
  • Scrappers are built for soloing. Solid melee capabilities (but no ranged attacks) and good defense make the scrapper your best choice if you’re the antisocial type. Plus, you get to use cool swords and hammers to dish out the pain.
  • Tankers can usually be found at the very front of the battle, using their immense defensive abilities to act as “damage sponges.” Their melee attacks are powerful, but the recharge time is pretty long.

The next step is to choose your initial powers. Choose wisely, but you will be gaining all sorts of new powers fairly quickly. Every even-numbered level up to 38 gives you at least one new power to use in your quests.

After choosing your origin, archetype and initial powers, you’re into the real fun: designing your character’s costume and appearance. The options run from three-foot-tall cowboys to eight-foot-tall cows, with just about anything you want in between.

A casual player can zip through the costume design in just a couple of minutes; however, a serious gamer can spend a solid two hours mired in the minutiae of gauntlets, shoulder pads, helmet vents, and color coordination. In fact, the costume development could almost stand as a game on its own, a sort of “Queer Eye for the Hero Guy” that allows the Fab Five to come in and give a super-makeover to the woefully uncoordinated superman.

After you finally get your hero ready, it’s time to enter Paragon City, and an easy-to-follow tutorial guides you through the basics of movement, combat, using buffs, and leveling up. The interface is smooth and fairly intuitive, using standard WASD controls and mouse movement for three-dimensional freedom of direction. (After eight levels, flight is an available power, so you have truly 3D movement in this game.)

Something you’ll notice when you first enter the city is how visually rich everything is. The design team at Cryptic definitely took the time to make the game pretty – building models are detailed down to the lips on window sills, each section of the city has its own design aesthetic, and even on low-end systems the images feel lush. The overall style is very much like a Golden-Age comic book’s vision of the future, and harmonizes well with the design options for heroes’ costumes.

The next thing you’ll notice is how much fun combat is. You know how everybody looks forward to the spell effects in the Final Fantasy series? That’s how just about every combat power looks in CoH. Depending on the powers you chose, your first reaction is likely to be something like, “whoa,” “wow,” “cool,” or “holy crap, that’s a big freakin’ hammer.” The bad guys are just as likely to hammer back with their own cool powers, so watch out! Defeating the relatively simple bad guys of the tutorial gives you enough experience to move to level 2, but you’ll be unpleasantly surprised if you think all the enemies will be that easy.

With your first level under your belt, you’re off into the game, where the adventures you create are yours entirely.

If you’re not looking for a structured quest, you can encounter dozens of different types of bad guys on the street, dealing drugs or hassling local civilians. Thankfully, the zones in Paragon City tend to be stratified, with Atlas Park and Galaxy City (the zones in which you can start playing) well suited for beginner players. There are also “hazard zones” for more experienced players, with larger groups of criminals and monsters at higher levels. Unless you’re in a group or are a very well-fortified player, hazard zones are a very dangerous place to find yourself.

Alternatively, missions can be taken from various contacts around the city (although you start with just one, the number increases considerably with the amount of progress you make as a hero). These missions may be as basic as defeating ten members of a particular gang in a certain zone, or they may take you indoors – into those well-rendered buildings, underground into caves, or even the sewer system. These indoor missions are your basic dungeon-crawl, with lots of baddies to kill so you can rack up the XP; sometimes there are clues or hostages you have to recover or bombs you must defuse to complete the mission.

Once you’ve become an experienced hand at completing missions, you can form a group and take on a task-force mission. Task-force missions are a series of quests (both indoor and outdoor) that lead to an ultimate decisive battle, often against the leader of a particular criminal organization in Paragon. For spending up to five hours to complete the overall mission, you’re rewarded with an extremely powerful enhancement to one of your powers.

Speaking of powers, the smorgasbord of abilities you have to choose from in City of Heroes is immense. If you’re a Blaster, you can choose from assault rifles, jets of flame, beams of energy, and other ranged attacks as your primary power. For instance, Sniper Shot with the assault rifle will drain an enemy of approximately half of his health in one crushing blow. Controllers can force a crowd of enemies to attack one another with Mass Confusion, and Scrappers who choose to possess claws can attack Wolverine-style with their Eviscerate powers.

All heroes can choose from a set of common powers at level 8; among these powers are flight, super speed, super leaping, intimidation, and teleportation. These “pool powers” will drastically increase a hero’s ability to handle himself in combat, move through Paragon’s zones, or perform more effectively in a team of heroes.

Playing solo is definitely an option (mostly for Scrappers and Blasters), but the game is considerably more rewarding if you join a team of heroes. After all, that’s why you’re playing a multiplayer game, right? Teams allow characters with different powers to complement one another, making your combat vastly more effective (and the XP roll in). Teams who find themselves working extremely well together may even choose to form a super group (like the Justice League); wherein you can choose team colors for your costumes, and you’ll usually have a set of comrades online to lend a hand in keeping the city safe.

In order to aid, and encourage, grouping, City of Heroes allows a high-level character to mentor a low-level character and make them their Sidekick. Once you get to level 10 and someone at least 5 levels lower than you joins your group, you can /sidekick them which adjusts their Hit Points, Defense and Accuracy, but they don’t gain any new powers. This is great if you’ve got a friend that doesn’t play as much as you do, and you want to have a meaningful game experience with them.

Although it’s extremely easy to become so engrossed in the game that things like, food, sleep, sex, and hygiene fall by the wayside (for which I’d like to apologize to my girlfriend); the game still offers a rich experience to the person who actually has a social life outside of a glowing monitor. Most missions are self-paced (but be aware that there are some with time limits), and there isn’t really an overall storyline that you’ll miss by not playing for a few days – or even weeks.

Another of the big selling points for City of Heroes is its ability to be patched on the fly. Server downtime is extremely rare, the patches deployed are (or at least appear to be) well-tested before being put into circulation, and lag is practically nonexistent. I’m playing on a medium-end box, and I’ve only seen the game lag once in the past two months, for less than two seconds. On a daily basis you can pass crowds of dozens (if not hundreds) of players, with not even so much as a blink.

The game’s packaging is also very helpful – a rare treat by today’s standards of supplying a coaster and calling it documentation. You get a 120+ page manual that explains the game well, an errata page for the inevitable last minute changes, and an excellent map that gives you a high-level overview of Paragon City.

The game also allows you to create in-game movies using the undocumented demorecord feature, but you can only share the movies with someone who has the game client; it’s not like Fraps where it creates a mpg file. The file sizes are very small, though, as it records the demo to a text file and the game client then renders the text file.

Now that I’ve sung the game’s praises, here are some quibbles:

First, where the hell are the capes? This is a game about superheroes, for Buddha’s sake! The cape is pretty much a hallmark of super characters, the bad guys in the game even call the heroes “capes,” but there’s not a single cape to be seen. [This is a feature Cryptic is working on adding to the game soon, though – Ed]

Next, the tutorial (at least for now) is not optional. It’s a small thing, but it is an annoyance that would be better if it were fixed. Additionally, while the tutorial covers a lot of ground in a fairly short time, it doesn’t handle teaming up. There are a number of small features about teaming (like the ability to use the “Seek Team” option) which are worthy of explanation.

Third, powers that have an interrupt time (Sniper Shot, for example) could have a countdown timer around their option button, so you know how long you have to wait while the power charges.

Finally, there’s a quibble that cuts both ways: subscribers were able to download the first major features update, but a release date for making the update live was a week later. It’s a great idea to enable us to get the content on game exit (so we can start playing right away after the update), but not being able to use it yet was driving me nuts, but I guess in a way it makes sense to not overload the network and spread people's downloads over a certain amount of time.

Overall, from a scale of Pat Sajak to Bob Barker, this game is Alex Trebek without the mustache: sharp-looking, packed with features, witty, and fun, but with just a little something missing. It doesn’t really detract from the total package, but it sure would be nice to have.

Score: 8.5/10


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