Monday, December 12, 2005

City of Heroes

Had our company Christmas party last week, and I won a camera, so I may have to start posting pics here like a normal person. Funny thing: I've always thought I had a pretty good visual sense, a composer's eye. and yet I rarely take pictures. The Wife has always thought it curious that I wanted to be a filmmaker and yet I never wanted to run the video camera during holidays or family events.

When I was talking to mtreiten last weekend, the subject of City of Heroes came up, and he asked how I liked the game. I attempted to take a shot at the answer, but I'm not sure I made much sense, so I'll try again here. Please note that I've never played a multiplayer game online before, so some of what I'm saying may be freaking obvious to people experienced in the genre.

My reaction is mixed, but mostly positive. They handle hero creation really well. I was an avid Champions player years ago (Champions is a pen-and-paper RPG about superheroes). Champions enabled you to create exactly the hero you wanted by giving you a wide variety of powers and allowing you to combine them any way you pleased. However, they also identified several iconic types of heroes (the Brick, the Energy Projector, the Mentalist, the Martial Artist) and gave you helpful tips on constructing the type you wanted to play. The problem with Champions was that it was very time-consuming to construct a character out of raw materials like that, and in a group, you would invariably have one or two people who were much better at finding loopholes that allowed them to create much more powerful characters than the others.

City of Heroes balances things by using an Archetype system that limits your power flexibility, but makes it easier to construct a character and keep it in balance. You choose an Archetype (Blaster, Tank, Scrapper, Controller, Defender), and within that Archetype, you choose power subtypes (Blasters can use Energy, Fire, Ice, or others, for example). Once you've chosen your powers, you create a costume, and that's one of the best features of the game. The costume creation system is very flexible and allows you to get a wide variety of looks.

Once your character is created, you can play that character in two ways. You can be sent on missions by contacts you meet within the game, or you can simply patrol the streets. There is always criminal activity on the streets, but just patrolling randomly gets boring pretty quickly. The missions are more fun and more versatile. You can play solo (as I usually do) or in teams, but there are some missions that you can only take on as part of a team. Some missions link together to form a story arc; once youve completed the story arc, you receive rewards in the form of a power enhancement and a souvenir. Other accomplishments in the game yield badges, which you can use to give yourself a title. If you want to ignore Edna Mole's advice and wear a cape, you can do so, but only as a reward after attaining level 20. Gameplay is almost exclusively combat or traveling between combats.

The world you travel through is gorgeous. This is another thing the game's makers got just right. Paragon City is full of towering skyscrapers and looming statues and monuments, and it's especially fun to fly around in. One of my more juvenile pleasures in the game during a badge-hunting run was to fly up to the top of a particularly large statue honoring some female hero and literally stand on the shelf of her breasts. It was childish, but cool.

So what don't I like about the game? For one thing, although the heroes have a very comic-bookish feel, the enemies don't. I understand why you're not fighting individual super-villains for most of the game, but it gets pretty boring sometimes flying around and fighting the same generic street gangs all the time. Some of the villain groups are colorful and interesting (like the Tsoo or the Freakshow or the Sky Raiders), but most are bland and dull (the Outcasts, the Warriors, the Trolls). My least favorite group is the Family, a generic Mafia clone. I burned out on the whole Mafia thing years ago (odd since I wrote a sort of Mafia story a few months back), so the charm of thugs in suits with names like "Johnny One-Eye" is lost on me. The heroes feel like comic book heroes and the world looks like a comic book world, but the villains you fight just don't feel like comic book villains.

Still, I enjoy playing. I like completing story arcs. I like collecting badges and souvenirs. I like gaining ever more spectacular powers. I love just flying free and exploring the city. I'll be doing this for a while longer, at least. I may post some screenshots soon.

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