Into the Super-verse: Getting to know City of Heroes all over again

    
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It has been well over a decade since I played City of Heroes with any regularity, and yet when I saw that familiar loading screen come up this past weekend, it was as if no time had passed whatsoever. Some memories only need the smallest of keys to unlock all of the familiar sights, sounds, and experiences that your brain built up from years of play.

Here I was in 2019 playing my first great MMORPG love all over again, and as the full thing, not a mere chat shell. It’s hard to explain the mixture of nostalgia, delight, and sheer joy I felt in those first few return sessions, only to say that it was like being able to step through a doorway back to a fond childhood vacation spot or to see a friend who fell out of touch a long time ago.

No matter how this “rogue server” situation ends up resolving, in the right here-and-now, I’m able to indulge in my favorite superhero MMO once more. Even better, I’m able to share this title with my children, a couple of whom weren’t even alive when NCsoft closed down the game in 2012. So join me on a journey today as I get to know City of Heroes all over again.

The familiar

Even though I had stepped away from City of Heroes prior to its free-to-play and Paragon Studios days and wasn’t there for the last 10 or so issues, so much of the game remains familiar to me. The interface, for example, remains as customizable and intuitive as ever, while also slightly annoying me with its inability to remember a setup between alts.

The character creator, well, we’ve written a small novel here on MOP over the years about how robust and deep it is. I’ll just add that even today, I spend upwards of 45 minutes just fine-tuning the looks and setup of each hero, even the ones based around a silly pun. It’s still one of the very few games in the MMO space where if you envision a character in your head, chances are that you can probably make it. Yes, even the tacky Marvel and DC rip-offs.

And while there are certainly many new people coming to these servers, curious about this title after hearing us yammer on about it for years now, it feels as though the bulk of the current playerbase has returned to their old stomping grounds. Seeing crowds of people who are also intimately familiar with the game changes the situation from a fresh start to a fresh continuation. Players were chatting up the intricacies of builds, sharing strategies, and grouping up for specific experiences right from the get-go.

I’m a simple gamer at heart, and when it comes to City of Heroes, the min-maxing stuff never interested me so much as just feeling like a superhero. And so there shouldn’t be any surprise that I spent plenty of mindless time flying around the place, testing my powers on severely underleveled thugs who didn’t have a chance at fighting back, and enjoying the bursts of serotonin that my brain produced every time my powers produced one of those all-too-familiar noises.

Even the unique rhythm of the game’s combat — which may look busy and action-packed but is quite measured to play — came back to me soon enough. It’s not the kind of action RPG that Champions and DCUO players would recognize, but rather a coordinated ballet of superheroic gestures and actions that send bad guys flying and flopping.

The unfamiliar

Of course, not everything jolted my memory — or even was known to me, period. It’s been a good long while since City of Heroes was in operation, and the active development that took place up to the MMO’s final days under Paragon meant that it’s not quite the same beast that I knew in 2004.

I think that the most unfamiliar element is that of what to do. As we talked about on the podcast, there is no shortage of activities for budding heroes and villains to enjoy, but it’s not always as clear as it became in the World of Warcraft era. Those looking for exclamation marks and hand-holding might be a little confused and lost — as I was in the first play session or two — until the system of contacts, trials, LFG, and the rest becomes apparent.

There’s the temptation to go with the crowd and jump into the most efficient and streamlined leveling farms that are in the game, but part of me wants to eschew that to actually go through the quest lines and story arcs that I may not have touched in years — if ever at all. There’s a wealth of story and landscape content in CoH, and by doing nothing but sewer missions and task forces and mission architect, one could miss out on the full-featured MMORPG while chasing a more arcade-like experience.

The future

There’s also the question of how all of this will shake out in the long run. Right now, everyone’s rushing in to power level and run combat content, which has left the more social activities on the sideline. I suppose that since we had that for years with Paragon Chat, people might feel as if costume contests and the like can be put off for a while as we get our stable of characters up to 50.

But will these servers still be around? Will NCsoft ever legitimize them, and if so, how will that change things? Will supergroups and the community form enough to stabilize the game for the long haul once the excitement of returning wears off? I am optimistic for the future, but I do not claim clairvoyance about it.

And another question I have, and one that is not easily answered, is how City of Heroes’ underground revival will affect and be affected by all of the self-proclaimed spiritual successors to this title. I don’t think Valiance, Titans, or Ship of Heroes figured that they’d be operating games in the same space as City of Heroes. Now, they’ll have to.

If NCsoft’s shutdown taught us anything about the finite nature of MMOs, it’s that it is important to cherish and enjoy them when you have them. And so whatever may come down the road for these rogue servers, I’m simply happy that today I can log in, jump into a group of like-minded heroes, and blast some sewer zombies to my heart’s content.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Eliot Lefebvre and Justin Olivetti covering superhero MMORPGs, past, present, and future! Come along on patrol as Into the Super-verse avenges the night and saves the world… one column at a time.
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Yrys

Justin, regarding the interface, once you have it set up as you like it on a given character, type /wdwsave. Then on a character where you want to use that layout, type /wdwload. You can also do similar for chat settings with /chatsave and /chatload.

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terminallynerdy

This is a life changer :O

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Castagere Shaikura

Right now I have a level 19 mastermind beastmaster and loving it. So far 3 wolves and a lion. And I really forgot how dang fun grouping is in this game. Every time I log in the first thing I do is look for a group. I haven’t done that in an MMO in years.

xpsync
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xpsync

I’m a fraction away from level 30, i’m a MM BM 3 wolves and a dire. Easily 25 of those levels are group. Once i hit 30 i’m hitting alts hard.

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Skoryy

When the original game closed down, I saved all my characters and their costumes in the hope that I’d play them again someday. Then it turns out that once I did get to play the game again, the intervening seven years had changed what I was looking for in alts. So I wound up creating new characters, like Agent Trinity here.

Years of trying to make Brick tanks work in Champions Online kinda dulled my interest in super strength heroes. It wasn’t until I decided to give Super Strength another try that I realized why it just didn’t work over there. The wind ups, the resounding cracks, the stunned animations, the knocking out a mook’s health bar in one blow while sending them flying twenty feet into the air… this was what super strength should feel like. There’s a certain je nais se quois of both the comic book genre that City simply nailed.

And that’s just one part of why I’ve been merrily playing Homecoming for weeks now. I’ll be going back to Tyria eventually, there’s a lot that Guild Wars 2 also does right that I still adore – and all my gaming friends are there too. Also a new mount I’m falling behind on picking up. But a lot of my downtime right now is spent leaping small buildings in a single bound to go save the day again. I missed this, I missed how much fun this was. I’m glad we have it back again.

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Sorenthaz

For me there’s definitely a lot of unfamiliar elements since I only ever really played it srsly before its F2P conversion and before Going Rogue became a thing. Ended up making a character in the Going Rogue starting area just to see what it’s like, and I’m surprised that there’s actually choices and such in it which haven’t really been done much in MMOs until SWTOR and then some gray area choices in ESO and then WoW giving the Horde an option to choose supporting Saurfang or Sylvanas.

I’m really in no rush to play it though since I don’t know the certainty of its future nor do I really feel like I need to hop on and do stuff at any given moment. But I am looking forward to dipping into it here and there to see what I missed out on since I never really got that far into the game in the first place.

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styopa

“There’s the temptation to go with the crowd and jump into the most efficient and streamlined leveling farms that are in the game”

This has baffled me too, and I expect now that we’ll see the same sort of farming groups forming in Classic when it’s out.

I don’t get it at all – I missed CoH, and I’m having a helluva fun time playing it again. Why would I want to join some repetitive grind-mob to pound through the xp and level as fast as possible? IIRC there wasn’t all that much end game available in CoH so the journey really is the game…at least as far as I remember. Then again the ‘get to level cap so I can run the same raid repeatedly’ hasn’t appealed to me for phht, 10-12 years, either.

ihatevnecks
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ihatevnecks

It’s not just a raid mentality.

If I’m playing a level-based game where my ability variety is inherently tied to my level, then yes I’m going to want to get to the high levels quickly, because I want to be able to use all my powers. Doesn’t matter what content I’m doing with them; I just don’t want to sit staring at list of inaccessible powers for 50 hours.

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Castagere Shaikura

You are so right and when I hit level 20 I will stop grouping. But it’s just so fun.

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styopa

Hey if it’s fun, why stop?

Just because I don’t get it or find it fun, in my view if YOU are having fun doing what you’re doing, then you’re “doing it right” – you be you. :)

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Zero_1_Zerum

I’m not sure if I ever got a chance to play City of Heroes. I have a vague memory of wanting to play it, but my family didn’t have good enough internet at the time, so I couldn’t play MMOs. And…by the time we did get the snazzy new fast internet connection, City of Heroes was gone.

I’d still like to play it. But, I think I’ll hold off until we hear something official. I’d hate to get into a game, just to have it shutdown by a COD.

Also wondering how this will effect City of Titans, which I was looking forward to playing. I’m assuming that it wouldn’t be impacted by a COD because it’s a new game. But, if the OG game that inspired it comes back officially, would they still make the game?

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JohnnySilver

I’ve played a character to level 10 and I’m starting to lose interest. I think this is similar to what happened when I played it previously. Initially I was drawn in by the character creation and customisation but I quickly grew tired of the uninspiring environments. Maybe it picks up later? Or maybe it’s just not for me.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

The environs change but its still a 2004 game. Have you tried joining a full team mish? Max difficulty full teams can be a blast.

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JohnnySilver

No I’ve not grouped at all actually! I should probably give it a go. I might be rubbish though.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

Happily COH can be forgiving to the players who aren’t maximally outfitted.

I highly recommend it and just a few rules will take care of most things.
1. Let the puller pull, may not be the tank, usually is.
2. Some powers have specialized usage, like Hurricane, it pushes people away from you. Not everyone wants the bad guys all spread apart but if the bad guys are all over the Terra Volta core or a downed teammate, pop Hurricane and never apologize.
3. If you aren’t sure, ask. COH got a pretty good community.

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Bryan Correll

4. Play an Energy/Energy blaster. Groups love those!

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

One of the wildest duos my husband and I played on live was a thugs/storm MM and grav/energy dom team. We just let ’em fly. All the knockback, baby! :D

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JohnnySilver

I have an ice/ice blaster called Raart Chilleh as my main. It helps if you say it with a Yorkshire accent!

xpsync
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xpsync

I know you can target through tank, but is there an option to view targets target?

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

Dat character creator…loving my water/storm defender.

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terminallynerdy

Looking good!

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Roger Christie

It’s fascinating, even now, how much more ‘modern’ MMOs could learn from CoH.

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Natalyia

City of Heroes has eaten the lion’s share of my online gaming time since I could play it again. I’m honestly a bit surprised that this is the case, but I’m just having a ball. Again. So. Many. Alts. :)

Would I like characters with actual fingers? You bet. Would I love a game with the visuals we’ve seen teases of from Valiance or Titans, or actually seen gameplay of in Ship of Heroes? Yep.

However – to succeed those games are going to have to capture the fun Cryptic stumbled upon in City of Heroes, and somehow utterly lost in Champions Online. Or people will just keep having fun in Paragon City, for as long as it – like Brigadoon – has come back from the mists.

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styopa

That’s what makes me wonder if they even KNEW what the secret sauce was, or was it just a fortuitous combination of time-to-kill, animation speed, leveling speed, good “enough” graphics, etc that the odds of randomly hitting again are infinitesimal?

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Natalyia

Oh, it was an accident – a happy one, but an accident. There was never ever going to be a way to “balance” CoH combat in the way that MMOs typically want to do – as a game. They made a couple of early attempts to do so but soon figured out it wasn’t going to happen.

The variety of modifications players can make to powers, and synergies between powers and characters is impossible to cope with from a design standpoint. But CoH was able to let the players tune the difficulty to suit their preferences.

So if you want to run solo with a petless Mastermind because the whip attacks are cool but you don’t like any of the pets? That can work. And if you want to run with a full team of Set IO-optimized 50+3 Incarnates? There’s stuff to do there, too.

But nobody would ever set out to design a game like that sight-unseen. Hopefully having a live version of the game will provide something other than rose-colored glasses for the successor projects to look through to validate their gameplay choices.

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Crowe

No, if Cryptic knew what made CoH work, they would have repeated it with Champions or Neverwinter. STO flopped hard at launch as well but they were able to get some degree of success with it later.