City of Heroes Video Review
This is an in-depth game review for the MMORPG City of Heroes. Here I dissect the pros and cons of the gameplay. All footage was recorded using the Mac Edition of CoH.
If you've never played the game before, you'll be presented with a list of servers to play on and be able to create a new character on that server. The first thing you'll notice about character creation is that you have a huge amount of freedom to customize the look of your character. With very exceptions, you should be able to make any kind of character you want to make. For example, I made a GKaiser, a character from my webcomic of the same name. I made a few other characters from my webcomic as well, like Dark Shinobi. And you can customize every part about the character, even what their weapons and powers animations look like. It's pretty snazzy.
As for the combat, it feels like a superhero world. Some powers enable you to knock enemies down, knock them backwards and stun them into a daze. Many characters use energy beam attacks, guns, maces, sword, claws-- aside from the really exotic powers like super stretching and acid spitting, characters can pretty much do anything they could do in comics.
One very good point about the game is that it is very quest oriented and you dont just grind on respawning mobs to level up. A quest focused leveling path helps break up some of the monotonomy found in earlier MMORPGs like Ultima Online, NexusTK and Everquest. However, I do think the quests force the player to run around the world too much. There are way too many missions forcing you to go to a new zone just to talk to an NPC and then run to another zone to talk to yet another NPC. And many NPCs give you quests to run to a zone that might take you 10 minutes to get to. Sure, there is a train that runs between zones that helps cut down on the running, but only certain trains run to certain zones and not all trains appear in every zone! Why the hell isn't there just one train and it takes you to any zone you want to go to?! This "run around the whole world" design doesn't seem to serve any purpose but to waste the player's time, which is bad in a MMORPG because if you are in a group but it takes you 20 minutes to start the next mission, you're gonna lose people in your party. And when I say "waste your time", I really mean it; completing these "go talk to this npc in a different zone" missions reward you with NOTHING-- no experience, no inspiration, zip, notta, zilch. Total waste of time.
The Power Enhancement system is flawed for the same reason as the NPC zone hopping is. On paper it seems like a good idea; treat every power a character has like its a piece of equipment you can enhance FF7 Materia style-- you slot enhancement upgrades to improve the effectiveness of that power. However, only certain NPCs sell certain enhancements. One zone might only sell enhancements for characters levels 20-30, and another might sell the enhancements for levels 35 and 40. This is insane because the game design forces the player to replace all their enhancements every 5 levels, and if you don't then your character blows hard and it's essentially like being naked. So every 5 levels you have to run between zones to replace your enhancements. If you have a lot of slots, you have to spend a lot of time doing that-- at level 40 it took me about half an hour to re-equip. The party I was in completed two missions without me while I was screwing around with enhancements. The enhancements losing effectiveness if you out lv them is bad design because it serves no purpose but to waste your time!
Where games like World of Warcraft go for the very fine tuned approach to game mechanics, CoH has a lot more randomization going on. This is problematic for a few reasons, namely that while you might enter a dungeon at a different location, you tend to fight through the same dungeon layouts again and again. This does get a little boring after awhile, especially after you've cleared your 300th generic office building dungeon. The archvillain fights are also just power spam fests and require no more skill to clear than any other boss fight. The gameplay is just too repetitive. If i wasn't doing this review I would not have kept leveling all the way to 50 because of the lack of depth to the gameplay. In short, I got bored around level 35.
On positive element of the design is that the Defense attribute works more like Evade in other games. While a game like WoW has tankers reduce the amount of damage they take, tanking in CoH revolves around not getting hit to begin with. The benefit of this design is that the stereotypical healer class of Defender doesn't actually have to sit there spamming heal while the tank endures a constant stream of incoming damage; Defenders are free to attack just as often as other classes do and many of their power sets just increase Defense and regeneration, and don't actually have heals. This makes Defenders more fun to play than a stereotypical healer class in MMORPG and I wish more games would follow this example.
One drawback of this design is that the developers have, for whatever reason, made it so non-tank classes can reach the Defense caps. It is possible for everyone to basically be an unstoppable god who can solo enemies that would be the equivelevent of raid bosses in other MMORPGs. I believe this is a big flaw because it reduces the importance of team play in the game, which is needed for building a community. So while this kind of design makes City of Heroes a soloers dream, it makes it a nightmare for people who want to party. Granted, a player does have to spend a lot of time acquiring rare enhancements to be this powerful, but it's just a time investment and doesn't actually require any skill to accomplish.
Another thing about the "raid bosses", which in this game are called ArchVillains: in a MMORPG like WoW, classes are balanced for raids by having raid bosses with rage timers; if you dont defeat the boss in a certain amount of time, they become uber powerful and smoke the raid. This encourages players to build their characters correctly. CoH doesn't have that layer of depth so players build to be defense when they should be offensive, thereby becoming nearly invincible...at which point the game loses much of its challenge. You have the Rogue equilivent class of Scrappers going for defense caps, thereby becoming tanks and doing less dps than they are capable of...but it doesn't matter because archvillains can't even hit them. Truth be told, the Arch-Villains have articial intelligence identical to every other enemy in the game. It requires no special strategies to defeat them. The only thing that defines an Arch Villain is they have more health than other enemies do and give more experience. Otherwise you just wail on them and they die. Even the old 8-bit Mega Man games have bosses that require more strategy than an archvillain in CoH. The reason this is a bad design is because having bosses that require strategy to kill helps break up the monotonous of the constant killing of unchallenging minion mobs. Granted this isn't a problem unique to CoH-- there are a lot of MMORPGs who make this mistake, but I think it's worth pointing out there is a lot wasted potential in the boss designs of this game.
Another complaint I have is in the power set pools. Too many of the auxiliary powers are pretty much required, such as Stamina and Health. Combat Jumping, Acrobatics, Weave, etc. This offends my "keep it simple" approach to game design; everything that a character requires to do their primary job should be found within their archetype power sets. All the other abilities from other pools should be entirely optional. However that isn't the case. For melee characters it's incredibly hard to keep up with the incoming damage from enemies if you don't have Tough, Weave, Combat Jumping and Health, and for everyone it's impossible to keep up with your endurance needs if don't have Stamina. This means everyone tries to take these powers, and everyone becomes more cookie cutter. This wouldn't be hard for the developers to fix if they just deleted these powers and instead tweaked the archetype powers so they offer these effects. For things like Acrobatics, many characters must take powers that they will otherwise never actually use, therefore wasting a power spot just to get a power they need in order to do their primary role like tank. That seems like bad design to me.
The easiest way I can think of fixing this problem is changing the way Endurance works. There really isn't any good reason to make the toggle buffs consume endurance, that just adds unnecessary endurance drain on characters. If none of the toggles consumed endurance than powers like Stamina wouldnt even be needed, but another easy fix would be to just make every archetype pool have a power that has the effects of Stamina and a power that has the effects of Hasten, then remove both Stamina and Hasten, replacing them with something that not everyone must take in order to be able to optimally function.
I am also very critical of the tier 9 powers not always being as good as they should be. This is supposed to be your best power and it's not as good as just spamming three lower tier powers? If that's not intentional, it's a design flaw but if it's intentional then the designers have made a game where the power that takes the longest to get is worthless, and that trips up new players because it's counterintuitive to the RPG design philosophy of time investment = get good reward. The rewards that take longer to get should be better than rewards than take less time to get. This isn't rocket science.
The Auction house system is totally broken. Because there isn't enough drains in the game economy, unless you have a lv 50 character you will always be outbid by higher lv players. The secret ah system is stupid for this reason. Any invented enhancements over lv 20 are worth more money than my character earned getting to lv 30. Sure, you can theoretically buy the recipes and materials to make the invented enhancement rather than buy the ready to use version, but good luck farming the materials or finding them to buy when you, as a new player, have such little inventory space to store items for later usage. The inventory space for new players should be at least 50 spots in your bank by default. As for obtaining the money, it wasn't until I started selling archvillain drops from level 40+ mission and rare recipes on the auction house that I was able to afford to make set inventor origins, because even the low lv ones were worth over a hundred million in cash.
What the developers should have done is make it so you cannot sell an invented enhancement for a higher price than that enhancement ought to be worth. Letting a lv 10 enhancement be worth over a million inspiration just allows the market to exist solely for people who have been playing the game for years and makes the game more inaccessible to new players than it should be. These low lv invented enhancements arent even very good and the only reason you'd want them over single origins is so you dont have to constantly replace your enhancements every 3 missions.
Also you cant hold enough salvage between your bank and you cant bank recipes. It's just a very limiting system forcing you to throw things away rather than hold onto them until you can make things with em. I ended up selling salvage to get more space but needing that salvage later on when a random recipe dropped. There is just way too much randomness to the whole matter.
Better to just sell your recipes and raise cash for buying invention enhancements when you're lv 50.
-The game has very little endgame. This is probably one of the big reasons the servers are very low population. CoH is all about the journey to level 50, whereas most other MMORPGs are about keeping that journey going even after you reach the highest level. Besides rolling a new character and prestige grinding for your Supergroup, there isn't much to do at lv 50. And getting to 50 is relatively easy because you can farm AE ( Architect) missions custom made by other players.
There are some task forces (basically raids) for lv 50 but the rewards aren't terribly impressive unless you just care about experiencing the story of the game.
Now some people may think a lack of end-game and pvp content isn't a big deal, citing that this stuff doesn't appeal to CoH subscribers. The problem with this line of thinking is that the endgame and pvp content in CoH is severely lacking. It is foolish to believe content that doesn't exist won't appeal to the playerbase just because they aren't using the content that doesn't yet exist.
Every other majorly popular game from WoW to Ragnarok Online has end-game and pvp content. The reason this is there is to appeal to a hardcore playerbase, who will then encourage their casual gaming friends (ranging from coworkers to siblings to significant others) to play the game with them. Casual gamers generally dont encourage friends to play because the majority of them don't stick with the game for very long. Casual gamers also don't tend to spend hours writing game guides for other players. For a game that has been around as long as it has, CoH has few fansites devoted to it and those fansites are pretty much just guild sites. Trying to find up to date information on how to perform a quest, unlock a costume piece or even build your character can be frustrating because many of the hardcore gamers who used to do this stuff have long since left the game.
So without content that appeals to hardcore gamers you are left with mostly casual gamers, who may not stick around long and therefore make it harder to build a dedicated communtity on any one server. sure, the forums are active but the servers inside the game are largely dead, unless you just want to sit and talk to people all day while pretending to be a super hero but not actually doing anything heroic like clearing missions.
I know I'm criticizing the game a lot here, but I'm doing so for a reason. I believe a lot of the things I've complained about help explain why CoH is a fairly low population game. During certain hours the servers are practically dead. Playing 6 pm to 8 pm CST, I didn't find anyone to party with. On the plus side, the exemplar system enables you to group with people much higher level. My lv 5 scrapper jumped to lv 13 in about half an hour when I partied with some lv 40 characters. On the downside, finding any parties can be hard at certain hours, and sometimes parties break up because people don't like waiting half an hour for someone to talk to a string of NPCs in different zones and/or re-stock their enhancements. The game also gets really boring really fast when the bosses are chumps and PVP is pretty much nonexistent because people tend to use the PVP events to engage in Hero and Villain roleplaying, and don't actually fight-- personally I think this is because there are no unique rewards for PVPing. There is also a couple of other minor quibbles I think hurts the game:
-The game's music does not loop. Near as I can tell there isn't any way to make it loop, either. This is extremely strange and makes the game very, very depressing to play in many areas.
-Major glitch problems with the Mac client. No matter what graphic options I choose, it's always screwed up, especially with certain powers like glacial shield / ice armor in the tunnel and sewer areas. Can make it almost unplayable.
-The game doesn't have a good pickup group system for helping you form parties with random players. You search for teammates the old fashion way-- spamming chat channels and randomly inviting people in the user list. This game has been around almost a decade, there is no reason it can't have a decent system for helping you find party members. Because of the sidekick / exemplar system the majority of players don't even care what level a mission is, they just want to do them, so a system like this would make a dramatic difference.
-The Achievements system. City of Heroes was doing Achievements before Achievements were popular; only CoH calls them Badges. Problem is the majority of Achievements serve no functional purpose. The only badges which give a reward like a special power or a health bonus, these badges require you to obtain a dozen other badges to unlock. This is bad design in a game where bosses don't drop l33t items which you can equip on your character to look cool. Every badge needs to have a tangible reward at the time of obtaining the badge. And no, having a small little graphic in a menu is NOT a reward. that's basically like saying, "Hey you did really good. Here's a T-shirt!". It's a cop out and it's a bad design because it discourages most players.
Each task force badge should give a bonus. you shouldnt have to do all of them to get the bonus. this change would make them work more like conventional raid design in an mmorpg and offer more tangible and obvious rewards to players. badge by itself doesnt do anything. Got to collect the whole set to get a 5% max HP increase bonus. So you have to do 6 quest chains to do it, all of them being the raids of the game. If this was better designed, each quest chain would reward you with a 1% max HP bonus, which serves the same purpose but the reward is more tangible and reliably given to the player.
-Near as I can tell there is nothing to gain from PVP that can't already be obtained from PVE play. This is why the PVP maps are pretty much dead, or used by some players for "roleplaying" between villains and heroes. Literally, I tried to kill this villain in the very heart of hero territory and these other two hero assholes just stood there because, as it turns out, they were roleplaying with that villain. Developers, when people are not using a pvp mini-game to PVP that means you need to re-design your PVP mini-game because there is a big fucking problem with it!
You know why PVP events in World of Warcraft are popular? Because there are things that can only be obtained through pvp and players want that stuff. If the rewards were the same as PVE. Some people believe pvp needs to just be for people who enjoy pvping; this is flawed. You can make PVP appeal to everyone if the rewards are worth it. And just because some players might say they hate pvp doesnt mean they won't spend hours upon hours engaging in PVP if they believe the reward is worth it, because the majority of them will. Here is the big problem a lot of people don't get about player feedback: players lie, and they lie a lot. What they say doesn't always add up to what they actually do.
A good team PVP system encourages people who arent hardcore about PVP to engage in PVP because a good team pvp system needs teams. A team PVP system that can only bring in less than five people at any given time of day is worthless. Fix your content. You have a fairly low number of subscribers for a reason and the reason is while the game's graphics look impressive, the game's design is not competitive. If your game primarily appeals to people who are largely using it as a graphical chat room then you need to focus more on the game part of MMORPG and less on the roleplaying part.
So what is my final verdict on this game? It has a few things I really like, but I can't see myself playing the game until it has some end-game content. I took a character from level 1 to 50 in a span of two weeks of play (total of 97 hours of play), so it's not a game that requires a heavy time investment, but I do feel a'bit empty since after getting to level 50 there is no endgame content.