I lived for level 14. Before level 14 was torture — after was bliss.
I speak, of course, of City of Heroes “back in the day,” not as it is at present. In its first years, level gain took a significant amount of time, and those first dozen-plus levels were excruciating because you’d be largely limited to jogging around like a health-conscious yet cash-poor vigilante.
But at level 14? That was the moment when the whole game changed. It was as if City of Heroes was your parent, calling you into the kitchen and handing you the keys to the car for the first time. But instead, you were granted the powers of super-speed, flight, teleportation, or (best of all) super-jump.
The city then went from a massive place that took forever to traverse to your own personal playground. Thanks to these outrageous abilities, you could fly up to the top of the highest skyscraper, zip across maps in seconds, and bound from rooftop to rooftop without breaking a sweat.
We got many other abilities and powers in that MMORPG, but for my money, there was nothing as exciting and game-changing as those travel powers. Those represented a threshold that separated superhero MMOs from the rest of the genre. If you squinted, your powers could be yet more magic spells in a fantasy title. But it’s hard to deny that you were in a different world entirely when you could, on demand, launch yourself hundreds of meters up into the air or scream past packs of mobs at Mach 2.
Sure, many MMOs since have introduced flight to a degree, but it’s usually with limitations — mounts, restrictions, off-limit areas. City of Heroes? You could use super-jump inside an office building if you felt insane (and skilled) enough to do so.
I don’t want this whole column to be about City of Heroes; it’s only that this was the MMO that first introduced me to the joy and potential of travel powers in online games. Since then, I’ve had fun with other ways to navigate maps — web-slinging in Marvel Heroes was kind of a blast — and I still want to try out all of the bizarre ways that you can travel in Champions Online.
Most MMOs want to keep you focused on your immediate surroundings. This works well for a certain type of adventuring and mental roleplaying, where you’re on a journey overcoming odds and carefully exploring strange new places.
But that’s not how superhero MMOs approach things. Their worlds are more expansive with a focus on getting to a hotspot as fast as possible and dealing with a threat. Between those conflicts, the map is there to be the your personal playground, offering opportunities to explore rather than restrict and confine you.
When developers decide to include extreme travel abilities, they have to design the MMO from the ground-up to allow for that freedom of movement. I’m sure it’s challenging to do that, but the end result is very much worth it: A player grinning and saying “wHEEeee!” while soaring over the landscape, feeling every bit the fantasy of a powered-up comic book hero.
It’s what I enjoy the most when I return to old favorite superhero MMOs — and what I hope that upcoming titles will get right.