A Post-Mortem Look At The Flagship Superhero MMO
For full disclosure, I was a long time player of City of Heroes, dating back to the original game's preorder beta. I didn't stay subscribed to the game for it's entire lifespan, for a number of reasons, but I experienced just about every aspect of the game over the years. As of December, 2012, the game is no longer active. This review is not for the title in it's "current state", since it's basically nonexistent but rather, a review of the experience I had with City of Heroes over it's eight year lifespan. The ups, the downs, the different sorts of additions to the game, and the changes to it as a whole. It's less a traditional review, and more a retrospective on what worked about the game and what didn't, from the perspective of a long-term player.
Also? It's really long.
2004: Taking Flight
City of Heroes wasn't my first MMO experience- leading up to it's release, I'd been very interested in Star Wars Galaxies, but as a high school student at the time, I wasn't able to really dig into SWG as much as the game seemed to need me to do. Over time, I lost interest, and when I discovered a superhero-themed MMO was in the works, I was immediately interested. Finding out about the game, preordering it, and picking it up on release day is kind of a blur to me, but what struck me immediately upon starting the game up was how easy it was to play, and how much everything made sense with how it was introduced to the player.
City of Heroes was always sure to give players a comprehensive and easily understood tutorial. The game modeled itself after lots of other MMOs at the time, but made some major, experimental changes to the established formula. For one, loot was practically nonexistant. The City of Heroes version of 'loot' were 'Enhancements', essentially tokens players could slot into their powers to boost them in a number of ways. Rather than wearing a helmet that provided +5 Strength or 10% extra fire damage, you would slot a Strength Enhancement into a specific ability, boosting it's damage output, or slot an Accuracy Enhancement, boosting the to-hit chance. Other powers accepted various enhancement types, and at high levels it was even possible to get special 'Hamidon Enhancements' from the game's lone raid boss, which would boost powers in multiple ways with only having to slot a single enhancement.
Secondly, the game's approach to teaming and quests were a bit different. While 'hunting' or 'street sweeping' were viable ways of gaining EXP, City of Heroes gave players individual instances for more involved encounters, which could be tackled by up to eight players working together. Missions scaled based on the number of players on a team in an incredibly satisfying way, not just boosting enemies to be tougher, but increasing the number of them substantially. Where a lone hero would encounter enemies in groups of three or four at a time, a full team of eight would encounter huge amounts of enemies, bolstered by more powerful Lieutennants or Bosses, with their own special abilities.
A big thing for the game, however, was the Sidekick System. A first for the MMO genre, Sidekicking a player would boost their level artificially to one beneath your own, allowing friends of any level makeup to be able to team together. Players who were at the level cap could bring along friends who had just gotten the game and started with their first, level one character. This fostered a great amount of community, even early on, since level restrictions were practically nonexistant for 80% of the content in the game- and the 20% that level mattered for, well, you could always level down to participate in them, temporarily.
The game's combat, though satisfying, wasn't anything particularly special. Traditional 'click power, wait, click power' mechanics prevailed, but the animations and sounds made them nice and satisfying. Additionally, the power set selection elevated the game's classes beyond the lone path presented in most games for any given class- Blasters, the ranged DPS class, could focus on Fire to do as much damage as possible, or take Ice for some control elements. But on top of that, their secondary set selection contributed as well- players could be a Fire Blast/Ice Manipulation blaster, for example, damaging with their fire and slowing or freezing enemies with their ice. Or they could be an Electric Blast/Devices Blaster, sapping their enemy's 'Endurance'(aka mana or energy or whatever) while using their devices to buff themselves or debuff their foes. This flexibility extended to every class, not just at launch, but over the lifespan of the game. The flexibility and individuality this system provided for, particularly as more and more powersets were added to the game, gave it an immense amount of replayability. Even players who only liked to play one specific combat role, be it Tanking, Control, Buffs, or Damage, were able to make characters that played in drastically different ways from eachother. I would know, since I only really liked playing Blasters- and was able to make dozens of them over the years, all of them playing in unique ways while still delivering that satisfying ranged damage I'm all about.
Outside of combat powers, though, City of Heroes did something distinctive and crazy for the time- Travel Powers. While other MMOs were awarding players a mount as a mid to late game reward, giving them a moderate increase in land movement speed, City of Heroes offered players Travel Powers early on, at level 14, allowing players to take flight, run with super speed, teleport at will, or jump like some kind of human frog. It wasn't just a fast way to get around, it was an exhilarating experience. The movement powers in City of Heroes are something that kept the whole game from ever succumbing to the travel drag that other MMOs fell victim to, it was never difficult to get anywhere the player needed to go, and in most cases it was even fun to get there.
And of course, permeating the whole thing was the visual customization players were able to experience. For the first time in an MMO, your appearance wasn't tied to your gear at all. Your character could be designed to look how you want it, and would never have to change away from that. Everyone looked unique, even at launch, and the additions over the years only made it better. Oddly, the game didn't have capes available to wear at launch- a pretty important thing to be able to use in a superhero game- but they were added with one of the game's earliest major content updates.
Though the game had a strong launch, it went through some growing pains. The playerbase was outraged by the implementation of the notorious "Enhancement Diversification", something that was seen as stifling and limiting at the time, by giving diminishing returns on slotting multiple enhancements of the same type into a single power. But in the long term, ED (an unfortunate acronym for something that weakened players) ended up being a beneficial thing- players were able to diversify their build selections far more, and build towards specific sorts of goals, rather than DPS classes just loading Damage into everything, Controllers just loading Control, Tanks just loading up their damage resistances/avoidances, etcetera. There were a number of adjustments to the scaling of enemy counts and stats VS the number of players on a team, which made the game far too difficult for a short period of time before settling down into a stable balance. But throughout it all, the developers were very communicative with the playerbase, and in an era before weekly livestreams or constant youtube trailers, the City of Heroes developers were able to keep players feeling informed about changes. There was never a feeling of the goalposts of the game shifting, or there being so many complex things added that people would fall behind.
And on an interesting note- City of Heroes implemented 'Badges', essentially an achievement system, before the Xbox 360 had popularized the concept.
However, there was one thing everyone wanted. Unanimously, the player base clamored for the ability to play the other side of things- to slip out of their heroic tights, and into the devious power armor of a super villain. A year and a half after City of Heroes launched, a second city emerged- a City of Villains.
2005: New Faction, New Mechanics, New Classes, New Game
City of Villains was a lot more than people were expecting it to be, and a very different approach than players were imagining in their heads. Rather than simply playing as villains in Paragon City, where City of Heroes takes place, players were making characters in an entirely new area, the Rogue Isles, an island chain kept under the iron fisted rule of the supervillain organization known as Arachnos. While City of Heroes provided a light, comic booky sort of tone to everything, City of Villains was a bit darker and more grim. From the gothic-inspired architecture, to villainous tasks players were set up with doing such as robbing banks, kidnapping politicians, or even bombing buildings, City of Villains felt like the polar opposite of City of Heroes in all the right ways.
And that feeling didn't stop with the mission objectives- far more than just a red coat of paint over CoH's blue, City of Villains introduced it's own suite of player classes, each of them a more aggressive, independent mirror of the City of Heroes ones... except for one. Where the Brute was an obvious Tank rework, and the invisible Stalkers were a stealthy version of the CoH archetype of the Scrapper, Masterminds were something unique, not only within the dual City games, but within most MMOs in general. Pet based to an incredibly high degree, Masterminds were able to command hordes of zombies, robots, ninjas, thugs, or even demons, to further their criminal activities. The system devised for Masterminds was something unique, that I haven't seen any other MMO match even to quite this day. And boy, was throwing a huge amount of disposable minions at some would-be hero satisfying!
City of Villains upped the ante for the entire game, not just by introducing new archetypes and much stronger writing to it, but also by adding more types of content. 'Mayhem Missions', where players would assault Paragon City, face off against the police, and cause endless collateral damage, before ultimately robbing a bank and making their escale, would eventually make their way hero-side as 'Safeguard Missions', essentially having players go through that scenario but on the opposite, defensive side of things. Additionally, it brought Supergroup Bases to the game, highly customizable player-owned spaces tied to the game's equivalent of guilds. Originally intended for PvP, the whole PvP aspect of bases was repeatedly pushed back and delayed, until ultimately it was just silently dropped from the game, and supergroup bases became more of an artistic tool for creating social spaces than anything else. The other aspect of them, large-scale supergroup content that would have players competing over ownership of a special, unique object that provides buffs to their whole supergroup, was similarly pushed back over and over until it was ultimately canceled. Despite these shortcomings, players enjoyed the bases as a social space and a quick-travel tool, as well as for some of it's other useful features, such as item storage, and giving some long-term group goals.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest features of City of Villains was a complete mess. Player VS Player zones, and PvP content in general, just didn't work. The game's powers weren't balanced well for fighting other players, and attempting to change them resulted in some weird things, like powers behaving differently in PvP than they did in PvE content. Though the game certainly had a core group of dedicated PvP players, and properly incentivized PvP content by offering powerful enhancements and temporary powers as rewards for participating, it just never caught on, and sadly, resulted in some unfortunate changes to the PvE game as a result.
Overall, though, City of Villains brought a lot of welcome content to the City games in general- and being a 'stand alone expansion', it was able to draw in plenty of players who only wanted to be villains and didn't care about heroes at all, too.
The game continued on after City of Villains, eventually giving all players who owned either title the other for free in 2008, and adding things like time travel, randomly generated missions for both heroes and villains, new zones, new powersets, new Epic Archetypes(special classes available to players who reach the level cap), a crafting system that allowed players to create more powerful Enhancements, and even porting the game to the Mac.
But it wasn't until 2009 that the game recieved it's next major content update. And what players got was something they'd never expected to see- and ultimately, something that didn't get used in the way the developers had hoped to see it.
2009: Mission Architect, or, City of Farming
With the game's fourteenth major update, titled "Architect", players were given access to a new building in various areas of Paragon City and the Rogue Isles, called "Architect Entertainment". Within that building were kiosks that allowed players to design their own missions for the game, in ways that surpassed anything seen in other MMOs, even for years afterwards. Players were able to select from almost any map in the game, create mission contacts, write dialogue, determine mission objectives, and use any enemies in the game- or even create their own. The initial push with this system from players was exactly what the developers had hoped for, tons of story-driven content, clever uses of the system, lots of new enemies, and tons of things that instantly brought a ton of new life and interest into the game.
But that didn't last- as soon as people figured out that players could engineer enemies with only Fire damage, and then bring in a character who was immune to it, or fill a mission entirely with non-combat enemies worth tons of EXP the farms began. For every one of these weird farm methods the developers stopped from working, another popped up. Even through 2012, farms persisted, and a whole 'generation' of players were going from level one to the level cap purely on this content, faster than they ever could have before. The farm 'content' dominated the Mission Architect system, driving the creatively inclined players away from it, and crippling the player's customization capabilities as more and more farm methods were removed or roadblocked.
High-level players became frustrated by the large amount of max-level players who knew next to nothing about the game, and it became difficult to find a team outside of the Architect Farms. The game eventually recovered from it, by making the Mission Architect less rewarding and more difficult to abuse, but for a lot of players the damage was done at that point.
After the Mission Architect came a slew of other additions to the game, though. Power customization, which allowed players to alter the color and animations used by their powers, was a pretty big deal to the playerbase. Microtransaction-style content was experimented with, by way of a number of costume part packs made available to players, some of which brought extra travel powers or special abilities along with those costume bits. New emotes, new zones, new social areas, the game was still relatively well-supported. Players wanted something like City of Villains, however, a huge add-on to give them something new to do. What they got was something interesting and new, the game's first true expansion, but ultimately... not quite as much as they were hoping for.
2010: Going Rogue. Or Vigilante, or Hero, or Villain.
In 2010, City of Heroes: Going Rogue was released. As an expansion to both City of Heroes and City of Villains, it offered two major features, a number of new powersets, tons of mission content, and the ability to play hero archetypes in the Rogue Isles and villain archetypes in Paragon City.
There were two ways to get the archetypes into their "opposite" allignment city- the first, and most demanded way, was via the Allignment mechanic that Going Rogue introduced. By doing a series of special missions, players in either city area were able to shift their character's allignment from Hero or Villain to a sort of neutral in-between, and eventually, to the polar opposite allignment. The 'grey' allignment allows for players to retain their hero or villain status but work with either side of players, in either Paragon or the Rogue Isles, something that a lot of players had asked for, but was ultimately implented in a sort of confusing way- there were two different 'Grey' allignment types, Rogues and Vigilantes, and the only difference between the two was that Vigilantes were 'technically' heroes, and Rogues were 'technically' villains, and so they were still hindered by being leashed to some remnants of their original allignment, such as not being able to join supergroups of the opposite faction. The other way to switch sides was tied more heavily into the expansion's mission content, and by far the easier method.
Going Rogue introduced a sort of 'third faction' to the game, the Praetorians. Allowing players to select Praetorian Earth at character creation, this new tutorial and level 1-20 content took place in an alternate universe, and didn't restrict players to hero or villain, but rather, offered a much more grey sort of choice of either supporting the Resistance or becoming a Loyalist to Emperor Cole. The storyline played out over the course of the player's first twenty levels, offering a variety of dialogue options, opportunities to make meaningful choices that would affect the game's storyline, and even the chance to switch sides as they progress along through everything. Ultimately, however, the player is dumped into Paragon City or the Rogue Isles rather unceremoniously, and the rest of their experience is just the same as it ever was before- and very rarely did any NPCs or enemies even recognize that these characters were hailing from another universe.
With Going Rogue came a substantial increase to the high-end graphics of the game, something that had been slowly improved over time. The zones introduced as parts of Praetoria were on par with any other modern MMO in terms of appearance, but unfortunately other portions of the game were showing their age by this point.
The game also finally managed to get an end-game progression system, which gave level capped players ways to make themselves more powerful and do weird things like summon ghosts of robots or harness the power of the gods. However, the system was implemented slowly, piece by piece, and ultimately would never be fully completed.
2011-2012: Forever Isn't Long Enough
In 2011, City of Heroes went free to play, a move that was handled pretty well both in terms of making existing players happy and bringing in new ones. With that came an in-game cash shop, which not only brought new costume pieces to the game more frequently like the small-scalle packs had previously done, but resulted in enough of a cash influx for the developers to add new powersets and content to the game on a much more frequent basis. Long-demanded powersets such as Staff Fighting and Water Blast were finally able to be created and implemented, and the VIP system provided some pretty reasonable bonuses to players that worked even better than the original Veteran system had, as it gave them more choice in what to get when.
The end, however, came quickly and unexpectedly. Just after a major content addition began getting thoroughly tested on the game's beta servers by players, the announcement came that the game was to be shut down in December. All progress was halted, the development team was fired, and the game was slowly brought to a close amidst the community's outcry and attempts to rally against it. The reason behind the shutdown wasn't ever made terribly clear to the playerbase, but business decisions are rarely rationalized to outsiders. On December 1st, 2012, City of Heroes ended it's eight year lifespan, and was brought to a close.
As of April 2013, no efforts to start up private servers have borne fruit yet, nor has any other publisher or game studio managed to swoop in and bring City of Heroes back from the dead. In a world where plenty of other MMOs continue to live on and skate by on life support, it's sad to see something as unique and interesting as City of Heroes get taken offline without much hope to see it alive and supported again. Nothing else has offered the combination of character customization, mission creation, and modern superhero setting that City of Heroes offers, and it's becoming increasingly likely that there won't be another game like this for a long, long time.
Overall, while City of Heroes certainly had moments of disappointment, and some long-term issues, it was still a great game, one where players could create exactly the sort of character they wanted to play, make the sorts of missions they wanted to encounter, and even explore the world in ways no other games have really let players do in an MMO environment. It wasn't a perfect game, really, but for someone who was into superheroes, for someone who values creativity and opportunities to create your own content and characters above all else, it was the perfect MMO.
And maybe, some day, someone will bring it back.