City of Heroes Ã‚– long touted as the last, best hope of comic book fans everywhere, this MMORPG is finally nearing release. After years in development, a major change in the gameÃ‚'s fundamental design, and fears of vaporware, comic book junkies everywhere will finally have a chance to get their gaming fix. Before I begin, a disclaimer: I am not a critic, or a professional reviewer, and this article is in no way intended to be an objective review of City of Heroes. Neither am I in any way associated with or employed by Cryptic Studios or NCSoft. I am, however, a long time tester and fan of the game. IÃ‚'ve been waiting for this since I signed up on the City of Heroes forums in October of 2001. ItÃ‚'s been a long wait, and to my delight IÃ‚'m not disappointed.
In the Beginning
When you start up the game for the first time you have to create a character. Character creation is definitely one of the high points of City of Heroes, and most people will spend a lot of time making character after character. I know I did. I managed to fill up all eight slots on each of my two beta accounts (closed and pre-order).
The first decision is to pick an Origin. The Origins are Natural, Technology, Magic, Science, and Mutant. At this point, Origin has little effect on gameplay other than to determine who your first enemies will be, and what enhancements you can use. This may change at a later date but at this point itÃ‚'s more of a role-playing, character concept choice than anything else. I decided to pick Science, as it fit my character concept.
I chose to play a Defender, so now I had to choose my starting powersets and powers. Players get to choose one primary powerset and one secondary powerset from the appropriate lists. After choosing powersets, I had to choose my powers. The primary powerset gives a choice between one of two different powers at level one, while with the secondary powerset youÃ‚'re pretty much stuck with the first power on the list.
City of HeroesÃ‚' immovable object. Tanks are designed to soak damage for their team, and do so far better than any other archetype in the game. The Tanker is also an able bodied meleer, able to dish out decent damage at melee range. Tankers get to choose a Defense powerset as primary, and a Melee powerset as secondary.
Equivalent to a light tank, the Scrapper specializes in dealing out mass amounts of melee damage as quickly as possible. Scrappers are more fragile than Tankers though, so donÃ‚'t really want to be the focus of enemy attention. Scrappers get to choose a Melee powerset as their primary, and a Defense powerset as their secondary. One quick note hereÃ‚"”the powers available to Scrappers and Tankers are different, with only a few sets overlapping. Both have access to the Defense powerset Invulnerability, but all Scrapper melee sets are unique to Scrappers, as are their other defenses.
Defenders are the closest thing youÃ‚'ll find to a cleric in this game. Healing, while nice, is not a necessity in City of Heroes, and many Defenders donÃ‚'t even have healing powers. Defenders get to choose a Buff/Heal powerset as primary, and a Ranged attack powerset as secondary. Sadly, the Buff/Heal powersets available to Defenders are exactly the same as the ones available to Controllers, except that the Defender powers are stronger in effect.
The ranged damage king, this is City of HeroesÃ‚' nuker archetype. As fragile as most mages, they pack an arsenal capable of leveling most foes before they even get close. Blasters get to choose a Ranged attack powerset as primary, and a Support/Melee powerset as secondary. There is some overlap between the Blaster ranged choices and the Defender ranged choices, but both have unique powers as well. Only Blasters can shoot fire, for example, and only Defenders can shoot mental blasts.
The only archetype with access to true crowd control abilities, the Controller is a difficult class to solo, but an invaluable addition to any team. Controllers choose a Control powerset as primary, and a Buff/Heal powerset as secondary. Controllers are physically weak, but the only archetype capable of manipulating enemy behavior.
Finally, the fun partÃ‚"”costume creation. While lacking the in-depth face and hair options of Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes boasts a very robust character generator that will letÃ‚'s players make almost anything they could want. Sorry, no capes. No, donÃ‚'t ask about them. Please.
Three basic build types exist Ã‚– male, female, and huge. All three can be adjusted using sliders for height and muscle mass, ranging from about 3 feet to 9 feet tall, and slim and athletic to bulging with massive muscles. The female models are attractive without being too, uh, excessive, and easily reflect the traits found in comic book heroines. The male models are fittingÃ‚"”think Captain America or Cyclops and you have your basic, median male character. The huge model is used to create heroes similar to The Hulk, huge bulky characters that take up a lot of room. Using the sliders though, you can still create short or tall characters, and with muscle mass reduced to minimum the huge character can still attain a sleek look.
I then named my character (Nuclear Force), added a backstory, a battle cry, and entered the tutorial. Most players can blow through the tutorial in about 6-8 minutes. ItÃ‚'s fast, easy, and gets you up to level 2 by the time youÃ‚'re done. Once finished with the tutorial I was offered a choice between Atlas Park or Galaxy City as my starting zone. I chose Atlas Park and finally entered Paragon proper.
A Fledgling Hero
Upon loading Atlas Park I was plopped down in front of the hero trainer for the zone, Ms. Liberty. Speaking to Ms. Liberty allowed me to train to level 2 and choose a new power. Characters get a new power for every even numbered level they attain. For every odd level they get enhancement slots that can be used to improve an existing power. IÃ‚'ll go into enhancements and enhancement slots later.
Now I was a mighty level 2 hero, and villains everywhere were no doubt trembling in fear. I had two options at this point, I could go beat up some street punks, or I could visit my first contact (listed in my contact list). Contacts are Non-player Characters (NPCs) that give out missions. I decided to visit my contact and get a mission, rather than just wander aimlessly. I followed a waypoint on the compass to my contact, spoke to him, and got a mission. I then followed the new mission waypoint on my compass to the mission door. Contacts give out missions that fall into one of two categoriesÃ‚"”door missions and patrol missions. Door missions require you to travel to a building, and go through a door into an instanced zone. While in the mission zone youÃ‚'re on your own unless part of a team. No kill stealing or griefing is possible. Patrol missions require you to roam the streets of Paragon and defeat a certain number of a specific type of foe. These missions can be fairly aggravating, as greedy players may KO that last enemy you needed right under your nose. Nevertheless, this isnÃ‚'t a rampant problem, as most players are pretty friendly in City of Heroes.
Health, Endurance, and Experience
All characters have three bars in the top right corner of the interface. The green bar represents hit points, which go down every time you take damage. All characters heal hit points gradually over time, even in combat. The blue bar represents endurance. Every character has 100 endurance and this number never increases. All powers use endurance, so if you run out of endurance in the middle of a fight youÃ‚'re in big trouble. Endurance management is an important tactical aspect of combat. The final, pink, bar is experience. As you defeat enemies and gain experience the bar fills up. When you attain a new level the bar resets to zero.
Defeating enemies and completing missions also awards the player influence. Influence is used to buy enhancements and inspirations, and may have additional uses in the future.
Unlike almost every other MMORPG out there, combat in City of Heroes is designed to be fast paced and fun. Even at level one, all characters will have a basic attack (Brawl) and an attack power of some sort. By level 2, that can easily be Brawl plus two attack powers. There is no auto-combat in this game, you canÃ‚'t just click on an enemy and go make a sandwich. You can set one (and only one) ability to auto-attack, which means as soon as the power recycles and a target is available it will go off. Many players use this for buffs or defensive abilities rather than attacks though. In combat, players have to choose which powers to use and when, then wait for them to recycle. Balancing endurance use, recycle time, and damage output are all important parts of combat. Do you really want to waste that high damage, high endurance, long recycle power on the minion with just a few hit points left? One of the best things (other than the pace) about combat in City of Heroes is that youÃ‚'ll almost never be fighting a single opponent. Fighting groups is the norm, and heroes and villains are balanced towards that. ThereÃ‚'s no need to be timid in City of Heroes, youÃ‚'re supposed to be mixing it up!
There are three (technically four) levels to enemiesÃ‚"”Minion, Lieutenant, and Boss (plus Arch-Villain). Minions are easy, and a minion the same level as you will con white (even). Heroes should be able to fight three white minions at once (solo) and win pretty much every time. Lieutenants are tougher than minions. TheyÃ‚'re the right-hand men of the Bosses, and order the minions around. A lieutenant of the same level as the hero will con yellow (somewhat tough). A single hero should be able to take a single yellow lt. and win. The final category of enemy are Bosses. Bosses are very very tough, and a Boss the same level as your hero will con orange or red (tough). Some archetype/powerset combinations are incapable of beating a same-level boss solo, but most heroes can do it with proper tactics and the use of inspirations. Arch-Villains are special bosses, the leaders of their particular villain organization and are tougher still. IÃ‚'ve never actually faced an Arch-Villain, so canÃ‚'t say much about them.
After completing a few missions, Nuclear Force had leveled up a few times, gotten some new powers, and had a bunch of enhancement slots on his powers. City of Heroes has been described by detractors as a lootless, itemless game. This isnÃ‚'t exactly true. Enhancements are the loot and items of this game, and theyÃ‚'re vitally important to keeping your hero in fighting shape. Enhancements are bonuses that can be added to a power that are dropped by enemies or bought in stores. Nuclear Force had several ranged attack powers capable of taking a few enhancements each. I could choose to increase damage, increase range, reduce recycle time, reduce endurance cost, or increase accuracy. The higher level you get the more powerful enhancements become and the more enhancement slots you can have in a single power. Powers can have up to six enhancement slots, but even at maximum level not all powers will have six slots, so placing enhancement slots carefully is important. For Nuclear Force, I chose to increase his damage and decrease his endurance costs.
Inspirations are temporary buffs that any archetype can get and use. Think of them like potions in a fantasy game and youÃ‚'ll have the right idea. Enemies drop inspirations, or they can be bought from contacts. Inspirations can be used to increase damage, accuracy, or defense, or to replenish health or endurance. The rarest and most expensive inspirations will allow you to Ã‚"ressurectÃ‚" yourself after a defeat.
The Pool Powers
Upon reaching level 6, Nuclear Force became eligible to select his first pool power. Pool powers are powersets open to every archetype. While not as powerful as Primary or Secondary powersets, they give players the ability to round out their character and make them even more unique. I chose Hover from the Flying power pool, so that I could take true flight later on. Hover allowed me to fly up out of reach of the enemy and blast them with my powers in return for a constant endurance drain.
One of the most frequent questions IÃ‚'ve heard from people is, Ã‚"Are there guilds? Can I make a superteam?Ã‚" The answer is yes. A player of at least level 10 can form his own Super Group. ThatÃ‚'s the only requirement. If you want to be a group of two, you can. If you want 74 of your friends, you can do that too. Upon creating a Super Group you choose a name and select the team colors. Every member of your Super Group can then go into the Super Group menu and choose where they want the team colors applied on their costume. After that is complete, members can switch between their original costume and their team costume at will. Although not in the initial release, teams will eventually be able to create their own bases (Justice Hall style) with a vault to store and share enhancements.
A Rising Star
About halfway through the beta, the development team announced they wanted experienced players to volunteer to test certain archetype/powerset combinations at higher levels. I volunteered, and Soulchill, the level 24 Controller was born.
The game at level 24 was both drastically different and yet fundamentally the same as the game at lower levels. I suddenly had a plethora of powers, including one of the coveted travel powers. Travel powers do just thatÃ‚"”allow you to travel around the city much faster than normal. All players have access to travel powers by level 14 through the pool powers. I also had a much larger number of more powerful enhancements, allowing my powers to hit harder for less endurance with longer durations. Missions truly start coming into their own at this level. Missions can be huge and story arcs can continue through quite a few missions. There is also the possibility of encountering the first Arch-Villains, though I unfortunately never had that pleasure. Soloing is still possible, but group play is the norm, and is loads of fun. Teams at this level can fight hordes of enemies, unleashing a huge array of powers on them in a fantastic display of special effects. Each archetype is fully realized at this point, as their specialization has become truly apparent. Nobody can tank like a Tanker, nobody can blast like a Blaster. At lower levels the differences are less apparent.
A Legend at Last
A few weeks after the bump to level 24, the development team did another bump to level 34. This puts characters squarely into the endgame areas of the game, and allows them access to all of their Primary powers and most of their Secondaries. The missions and mission areas are nothing short of spectacular, from vast underground caverns for the Circle of Thorns and their summoned demon minions, hi tech labs for Crey and their heavily armed operatives, to underground bunkers filled with 5th Column cyborgs and genetically altered humans. Story arcs can go for mission after mission, leading up to conflicts with the mightiest Arch-Villains the game has to offer. And the best part? Gameplay still hasnÃ‚'t slowed down. A good team can still engage in frantic, exciting combat. No camping. No single pulling. No waiting for rare spawns, just constant, aggressive, fast-paced fun.
Heroes at this level have a large variety of powers and plenty of options while playing. Just to give you an idea IÃ‚'m going to list SoulchillÃ‚'s powers, though I wonÃ‚'t go into any detail about them.
So IÃ‚'m Uber, Now What?
Block of Ice
Personal Force Field
City of Heroes does have an Ã‚"elderÃ‚" or endgame that begins once characters reach their mid 30s. Throughout the game world are what the developers have termed Trial Zones. If you think of these like Dark Age of CamelotÃ‚'s epic zones or EverquestÃ‚'s Planes youÃ‚'ll be on the right track. A Trial Zone is an area completely dominated by an amazingly powerful villain and its minions. One Trial Zone, for instance, contains The Hamidon, the near god-like source of all the Devouring Earth villains that plague Paragon City. The Hamidon is a gigantic villain, hundreds of times larger than any hero, and requires dozens and dozens of heroes working together to bring down. And thatÃ‚'s after fighting through all his minions to get to him. Defeating The Hamidon results in special rewards for the players that participate. Currently these are special Enhancers that increase two stats with a single slot. So you might get a damage increase/endurance reducer enhancer, freeing up a slot for something else.
Failure to defeat The Hamidon on a regular basis is supposed to have a detrimental effect on Paragon City. As of this writing the exact effect hasnÃ‚'t been determined, but is likely to involve increased spawning of Devouring Earth villains, and high level Devouring Earth showing up in lower level zones.
Should you rush out and buy this game on release day? Maybe not, but only in order to avoid the initial crush in the newbie zones. IÃ‚'d highly recommend this game to anyone who is a fan of comic books, super hero movies, or just plain action packed MMORPG fun. A comic book background is a plus, so long as you can accept that Cryptic studios has had to make some allowances to make the game fit the MMORPG model and maintain balanced gameplay. ItÃ‚'s not a perfect superhero game, but itÃ‚'s a very good superhero MMORPG. Despite having already played for three months every chance I get, IÃ‚'m looking forward to City of Heroes hitting retail so I can start the character I really want to play.