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.
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.
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.
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.