Monday, May 10, 2004

Looking To The Stars: City Of Heroes

It’s the dream of everyone who ever picked up a comic book to be a superhero themselves. To have powers far beyond those of mortal man… or mortal woman for that matter. To be able to throw on a costume and fly out the window. To be able to make things a little more right in this world with a wide smile and a one-two punch.

While it may not ever be possible for us to have these kinds of thrills in real life, a few million people this past week discovered a new way to play pretend; a new and exciting game called City of Heroes.

City of Heroes (henceforth referred to as CoH) is an on-line RPG, similar in scope to Everquest or Final Fantasy XI. Each player in the game creates their own superhero, who patrols the streets of Paragon City fighting crime in all its forms. Purse-snatchings, car-jackings, drug-deals, muggings and more are performed by all manner of grisly gangs.

This is brilliantly handled, the city full of all manner of NPC civilians walking around, enjoying their lives until they are terrorized by one of the NPC villains. It is then your job to step in and take a stand for justice. Rest assured though, that even if the civilian runs in terror when the thugs pull guns and start shooting at you, they will almost always run back to thank you for a job well done.

While it might be easy for whole areas of the map to get fished out this way, it very rarely happens. In two weeks of playing the game I have only ever had trouble finding crime to fight as I ran around the city “patrolling” once… and that was because I found out later I was following in the path of a team of six heroes who had teamed together.

Yes, in true Marvel fashion, you may join forces with any hero who you meet on the street. When “grouped” in such a fashion, everyone on the team shares experience points for every enemy defeated. While this does result in getting less experience than if you were fighting solo, there is a small experience point boost for being a member of a team. Coupled with the fact that you’ll plow through the enemies faster when you are working with another hero and the simple fact that it’s always good to have someone watching your back, there are no drawbacks to teaming up with other heroes.

At higher levels, a character may join a formal superhero team, which creates a group of heroes who can always stay in touch via a supergroup channel in the chat system. Heroes can also get “sidekicks”, granting less experience heroes a temporary boost in their level so that they can follow alongside their mentor into the heavy danger zones without fear of getting “the Bucky treatment.”

Character creation is simple. Players chose from one of five powers origins, which determine which hero organization they report to at the start as well as what criminal organizations you are most likely to face off against. Magical heroes, for example, are likely to spend their early missions facing off against the Circle of Thorns: a Lovecraftian cult that kidnaps people off the street for use in bizarre and twisted rituals. The five power origins are Magic, Science (like a lab accident), Mutant, Technology and Natural (i.e. the well-trained).

As you pick an origin, you must also pick a class. Classes determine what type of hero you are as well as what super power sets you may chose to start out with. The five classes are…

· Blaster- The ranged combat master. No slouch in up-close fighting either, but doesn’t have much in the way of defense or hit-points. Can chose from several forms of energy to “blast” with.

· Defender- The support master. Healing others, force-fields and weather control all fall within the realm of defender. Not always the most capable offensively, but there’s no one better at watching your back.

· Controller- The subtle combat masters. Gravity, illusions and the very elements are at the command of a Controller. Like defenders, they don’t do much offensively but are a bit more combat geared, using their powers on specific enemies rather than on allies or on general areas.

· Scrapper- The close combat master. They can dish it out, and they can take it to a degree. But they have trouble dealing with waves of enemies and lack any ranged attacks at all. Still, nobody can deal out the pain faster or more efficiently.

· Tanker- The damage absorbing master. High on defense and not too bad an attacker, Tankers suffer from not having any ranged attacks, like Scrappers. Unlike scrappers, Tankers are built to take abuse and can deal with large numbers of enemies surrounding them for a short time.

There are a wide variety of powers and it is possible to create a wide variety of characters. The game also allows for custom costume designs, but it is very important that you are happy with what you make during character creation. Once you are out of it, you can never redesign your costume without starting your character over. This makes little sense from the perspective of a comics fan. After all, how many superheroes changed their costumes over the years as they refined their armored suits or just got bored with the old design? I suspect this was done to prevent identity spoofing, but it this is one of the very few annoyances of the game.

Another one of the few complaints, and I know this is petty, but there are no capes in the game. That is, there is no way to design your costume with a cape at the present time. This is a minor thing, but nothing quite so symbolizes the idea of superheroes as the cape. So much so that one of the warnings street criminals will yell as they spot you is “Look out! There are capes coming!” Reportedly this will be fixed in the upcoming expansion along with the other major complaint about the game: a lack of certain powers.

While the game rules prohibit you from creating characters with the same name as a copyrighted character, the temptation is too great for some to attempt to recreate their favorite hero. If not in name, than at least in appearance or powers. In the past two weeks I have seen countless Hulks, Superman sans cape (and yes, it does look weird), Wonder Woman, Invisible Woman and even a few Ticks under various aliases. The problem comes when your favorite superhero’s powers are not easily replicated. Spider-Man, for example. There are no wall-crawling powers nor web-swinging. And while there is a “webbing” attack for subduing enemies, it comes in the form of a web grenade instead of a spray of webbing. There is also nothing akin to a sixth sense to warn you of enemies behind you.

Still, it seems silly to hold a game up for what it is not. And realistically, I can see that programming sixth senses and web-swinging is probably impossible within the game’s engine. Still, the Spidey-fan in me demands to be able to crawl walls and fight villains with robotic arms.

Speaking of fighting, the upcoming expansion City of Villains, promises players the chance to play as a super villain as well as engage in player duels. Thankfully, this will be completely voluntary and there is no way that supervillains will be allowed to wait for unsuspecting Level 1 heroes to come into the game and then performing the digital equivalent of beating up the first graders for your lunch money.

Still, the game is addicting. And for those of us with a streak of actor in our blood, it is a very easy game to role-play in. More, it is a very easy game to truly play the hero in. This past week, I saw a newbie blaster becoming overwhelmed by a thug. I jumped in with my Scrapper and gave Mr. Thug a large distraction in the form of a quick jab. This gave blaster boy enough time to step back, power up and throw an electrical blast that put the thug’s lights out long enough for him to be arrested. I stopped just long enough for a thank you before saying some words of encouragement and disappearing into the night from whence I’d come.

Yeah. I love this game. And if you ever put a towel around your neck as a kid and pretended to fly, you will too.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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