Friday, April 26, 2019

Slightly Foxed : City of Heroes

I spent this morning playing City of Heroes. Now, there's a sentence I never thought I'd type. Mostly because NCSoft, somewhat infamously, shuttered the game six years ago but also because I never bothered to play the damn thing when it was around, not even after it went Free to Play.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I was in the City of Heroes beta, sometime before the dawn of time. Seems like it, anyway. Looking it up, it seems CoH launched in Europe in February 2004, not opening servers in the U.S. until a couple of months later.

I must have beta'd it in 2003. It was relatively hard to get into betas back then. I do remember, being both a lifelong fan of superhero comics and a burgeoning MMORPG obsessive, I was very excited to get an invite.

Too excited, most likely. I was hoping for far more than the game was able to provide. My interest in superheroes, then and now, rests far more securely on the endless soap opera dramatics, the personal relationships, the emotional upheavals, the endless quotidian trivia, than the explosions and the fighting.

I grew up on a diet of Cary Bates' and Elliot S! Maggin's Superman stories, where the highlight of every issue for me wasn't the set-piece battle but the page or two in Perry White's Daily Planet office or Morgan Edge's WGBS studio, when if we were lucky we might get to learn a little tidbit about one of Clark Kent's co-workers.

I'm currently halfway through Season 2 of the Supergirl TV show, which is basically This Life with more aliens and fewer drugs. It comes pretty close to what I want out of a Superhero show (although not as close as Buffy, but then, what could?). Even so, there's still a tad too much beating people up and not quite enough sharing pizza.

City of Heroes in beta was all about the beatdowns. In my fading memories I picture hordes of gangsters, idling on windblown street corners or deserted corridors, lining up to be knocked down, over and over and over. Not unlike Nar Shadaa, come to think of it. I'm sure there was more to it than that but that's all I remember.

As longtime fans who actually played the game, XyzzySqrl and Jeromai have slightly more nuanced takes. XyzzySqrl also posted a link to the current iteration of the on-again/off-again revival and because the last thing I need right now is yet another new-to-me MMORPG to dive into I immediately followed the link, made an account, downloaded the game and started to play.

Well, actually, the download and install took a while, so I passed the time by patching up the latest version of the Alpha That Must Not Be Named. There'd been a major update and yet another server wipe so I spent a pleasant half-hour or so making yet another character (or rather the same character yet again), runing through the short tutorial and ending up back at the same place I logged out about a month ago. Chances are that'll be the last I see of that character because by the time I remember to log in again there'll have been another wipe.

That's what happens in real alphas, of course. For emulators, even trial versions, you'd hope for a bit more permanence. And maybe it's coming. For a supposedly rushed and ad hoc operation, the current iteration of City of Heroes seems remarkably slick and stable. I had no issues logging in and no issues during the couple of hours I played, other than those of my own making.

CoH famously had (has) an extraordinarily complex character creation system. I tried to whip through it as fast as possible but it still took me half an hour to make my first hero. I noticed that she was 1/1000. That's a lot of slots.

I was able to make something surprisingly close to what I wanted. I wanted to be a fox with a fox as a pet but I had to settle for a wolf with a pet wolf. Close enough. I made her as short as the game allows and in retrospect I may have pushed the "orange" button a tad too hard trying for "fox color", but other than that I was rather pleased with the outcome.

I was especially taken with the particle effects that comprise your character's "Aura" (I chose Fairy Dust) and the option to set an individual color scheme for each of your superheroic abilities. That really is attention to detail.

I opted to take the tutorial.  Heroes and Villains get their own versions. The villains get to start on an island but the Heroic one takes place in, yes, a city street filled with burning rubble, demented gangsters and paper blowing in the wind. Just like beta.

My first few minutes were taken up with fighting the camera settings and keybinds. Fiddling with those I managed to break mouse-turn, setting me back to around 2002, the last time I turned using the keyboard. I can't believe we used to do that. Mind you, Mrs Bhagpuss still does, on occasion.

After re-logging and resetting the defaults I was finally able to play. Naturally I began by running around taking screenshots. The graphics haven't weathered the hiatus terribly well, although it was nice to be prompted to run the game on "Ultra" settings instead of being pushed into default potato mode. Given the state of my hardware, though, that does speak volumes about the aging nature of the game.

There's some great art design in evidence, age notwithstanding. I spent a good while reading the posters on the front of the Cinema. They were almost up to The Secret World standard. 

I plowed through the tutorial missions until I dinged Level 2, at which point I was deemed ready to travel to Paragon City, meet Miss Liberty, upgrade my powers and start superheroing in earnest.

I think I remember Miss Liberty from Beta. Or perhaps it was Paragon. I'm pretty sure someone stood on those steps giving out upgrades even then.

The server was, not surprisingly, heaving. There were so many heroes I had to join a line to kill gangsters. At one point my wolf got so bored he lay down and went to sleep.

Chat was non-stop and very good-spirited. I imagine everyone is expecting more wipes and re-starts to come. I think most are just happy to be there, no matter briefly; back in a world they most likely thought they'd never see again.

I don't imagine I'll play much. It's still probably not the game for me. I'd certainly wait until some semblance of permanence is promised before putting in more than a token effort. Still, it was fun to pop in for a flying visit. If I can feel a frisson of familiarity just from the few sessions I spent in beta a decade and a half ago, I can only imagine what a thrill it must be for those who spent years living there.

If COH is back for good, though, I wonder how that bodes for its slew of would-be successors?


  1. "If COH is back for good, though, I wonder how that bodes for its slew of would-be successors? "

    For me, making this line is almost an extreme example of burying the real lede. Or, at least it is an obvious tag for another post.

    What the hell does happen to all these other project if actual City of Heroes, possibly with NCsoft's blessing (though I'll believe that when I see it), becomes a reality?

    1. Yes, it's certainly a post-worthy topic. I don't really know enough about the various canditates to make an assessment, though. I played Valliance in its various tech demo outings and thought it had potential. The others I haven't even looked at.

      I think the problem isn't so much whether they wil or won't be good games in themselves; it's that almost all the interest in them seemed to be coming from ex-CoH players. If they're off playing CoH, what's the audience for the new ones?

  2. If completely free-to-play COH stays around, I don't think there's going to be a big enough market for successors to support three of them. However, CoH is a dated game in many ways. I can well imagine that there is a market for something that caters to more modern sensibilities (faster paced combat, deeper single player content, a less dated graphics engine). I can certainly see at least one of the projects getting a decent following.

    1. I thought CoH did look old when I played today. So old it surprised me, but then I had forgotten just how very old it is. It launched well before WoW and EQ2, something I'd completely forgotten. And it closed in 2012. That would make it an old-looking game that at best would have been modernized to standards that are now themselves long out of date.

      On the other hand, most indie MMOs look pretty elderly even when they're new. Look at Project Gorgon - it looks even older than COH and it hasn't even officially released yet! I would think gameplay is going to be the key here and by some accounts CoH always had problems in that area, so maybe that's the way one of the successors can find traction.

  3. There's an option buried under "Experimental Graphics Options" to turn on cel-shading, something they were experimenting with but never made it into the live branch. It certainly makes the game look different, some say better. It's worth a look at least.

    1. Thanks for that. People were talking about the cel shading in chat yesterday, saying how good it looked. I very nearly asked in the Help channel how to switch it on, only I'd already asked one dumb question when I broke mouse turning so I thought I'd better keep quiet.

      I'll give it a go next time I log in, which will be today I imagine.

  4. City of Heroes (and to a lesser extent, Villains) is one of those things which, for me at least, seems best left to the past. I have fond memories of my time with the title even though I never truly went to the 'end game' with it. I think I got to level 30 or so on a martial-artist type hero whose travel power was the super jump.

    I am content in this case to leave my nostalgic memories as they are, rather than risk a repeat of the MacGuyver incident, wherein I attempted to go back and rewatch MacGuyver (the original series) and was horrified at how different the reality was vs. my childhood memory of it.

    CoH/CoV doesn't hold as much sentimental value for me as that show did by any stretch, but nonetheless I think the experience would be paralleled. ;)

    1. Going back to things that you remember fondly but haven't re-visited before is always an interesting experience. I've known people who can barely stand to admit that anything they used to like was ever worth bothering with. I tend to be at the opposite extreme, in that if I ever like something I am pretty likely always to like it. Usually unironically and un-nostalgically, too.

      In the case of CoH, though, I never liked it all that much in the first place! I am curious to find out if I might like it better this time but I'm not sure I have the time to test it.


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