Disclaimer: To avoid a lawsuit from Marvel, all analogies in this review refer to the DC universe.
I love most things super-hero. I was excited when I learnt of City of Heroes, an MMO in which subscribers play as super-heroes, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Superhero games, like movie tie-ins, had mostly been horrible. However, the demo clips on the NCsoft website looked promising, and pre-ordering the game gave you a unique power as well as early access to the game through beta testing. That sold it for me.
Originally, City of Heroes allowed you to choose between five archetypes: the Blaster and the Scrapper, your typical range and melee damage dealers; the Tanker, who can absorb a lot of damage; the Defender, who can heal or protect his teammates; and the Controller with, among others, the powers to stun, immobilise, and slow down his enemies. More archetypes were added later on.
First, you pick two power sets like fire damage, invulnerability, super strength, blaster riffle, or katana, and then two abilities, one for each set. Your goal is to fight evil on the streets of Paragon City. As you bust the bad guys, you gain experience and level up, gaining more abilities in your chosen power sets as well as enhancement slots. These slots allow you to customise your powers to your liking, increasing their damage, range, accuracy, etc. You can eventually choose abilities in power pools outside your original two sets, allowing you to fly or run fast, for example.
After you have decided what kind of hero you want to be, you are taken to the costume screen, and this is where City of Heroes blew my mind. In your average game, when you even get to customise your character’s look, you can only choose between five or six faces, eye colours, or hair colours. City of Heroes has dozens of options for each characteristic, be it hair style, face, eyes, mouth, body wear, sleeves, belt, gloves, pants, or boots. You can link colours so that they match or go for a more patchy look. You also have sliders to select the height of your hero and the size of certain body parts like the shoulders or waist. Of course, you have the all important boob slider, which allows you to customise the figure of a female character from As to DDs.
These options make each hero unique. You realise how great and fun the feature is when you look at the clock and you realise you have just spent forty-five minutes making your hero look awesome. The one disappointment at the time of launch was that capes were not available because the developers didn’t like the way they flowed when the characters moved around. Capes were eventually added, and they were worth the wait.
My first super-hero was Leibniz. Not only did he invent calculus in the City of Heroes universe, but he also had control over weather and illusions. It was a weird power with which to play. Illusion controllers cause “spectral wounds” (wounds that heal over time because the enemy eventually realises they’re just illusions), so I had to make sure to knock out the bad guys quick because dead people can’t find out their wounds aren’t real. Think about it. It makes perfect sense.
The enemies you have to fight are varied. You start your crime-fighting career at the bottom of the ladder, busting street gangs. As you get more experienced, the gangs get nastier, relying on stolen military technology or cyber-enhancements for extra firepower. You also fight the mafia, Nazis, ninjas, zombies, mutated monsters, evil corporations, aliens, and evil doppelgangers from another dimension: classic super-hero stuff.
Enemies come in four difficulty categories: minions, lieutenants, bosses, and arch villains, who can only be taken down by groups of players. You can fight crime by either sweeping the streets or by getting missions from your contact. These missions take place in buildings that only you or your group can enter. No one else can interfere. This gameplay device is called instancing. It was the first time I’d come across this in an MMO.
The community in City of Heroes is probably the best I have ever experienced in an online game. It consists of comic book fans role-playing as super-heroes. There is no malice or competition. You want to be Green Arrow? You’re Green Arrow. It doesn’t matter that Superman or the Martian Manhunter are more powerful. You’re playing as the hero you want to be, so the point isn’t to become top dog but to team up with different super-beings and beat the bad guys. I would log on and join friends to rid the streets of gangs, fight arch villains, or kill the Hamidon, the only raid content available back then.
Mind you, the gameplay has a couple of flaws. Although levelling up is made quick and easy early on, beginning with just two abilities doesn’t lead to the riveting experience one expects when starting an MMO. Imagine reading a comic book in which Superman only hits people with the same punch for thirty-two pages. Another problem at the time was the power pools. Unless you wanted to be the Robin of your group, you had to choose a specific power from the pools. Otherwise, your character couldn’t reach his or her true potential. Without certain abilities, you’d start to wonder why everyone around you was kicking ass while you were always running out of endurance. A subsequent patch fixed this issue.
I eventually moved on from City of Heroes. Did Newton (a gravity controller, of course) expose Leibniz as a fraud? I wish there was a more grandiose reason why Leibniz hung up his tights. The truth is I started playing Worlds of Warcraft and I couldn’t afford two subscription fees per month on a graduate student’s salary. Every once in a while, City of Heroes offered a free weekend or ten-day trial, and I would go back to check it out. Now that a free version is available, Leibniz may make a more permanent return.