Into the Super-Verse: What’s wrong with City of Heroes’ Incarnate system?

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It hasn’t been all that long since I said that what City of Heroes needs to focus on right now is not endgame content, and I stand by that. In fact, there’s arguably a whole other column to be written about where the game really does need more content and more stuff to do, although you can just stick a big asterisk by “everything blueside post-Night Ward” for the moment. But I also have been holding onto these columns for a bit, and so I think it’s time to start addressing them.

Before we can talk about the Incarnate system moving forward, we have to talk about the Incarnate system as a concept and in its execution, and it’s important to start by noting that the system was entirely separate from the current Homecoming crew. When I point out the problems, please remember these are not problems created by the current stewards of the game, but rather from the development team prior to its shutdown. And while there are problems here, I think it’s also important to note that these problems are a result of addressing a real issue: What do you do in CoH once you’re 50?

The obvious answer is that well, there has been an answer to that question for a very long time now. What do you do at 50? Well, you get your enhancement sets in order and fully power up. It’s a good answer… but it is also definitionally a fixed one. Once you’ve earned the money and/or resources needed to do that, you’re done. What is there for players to keep doing once you have that full set of power?

My calling it an issue instead of a problem isn’t accidental, either. On some level you could argue that this is just the nature of the game. You reach a point where your character is functionally done. But that also sort of sucks because a character you leveled to cap and kitted out in enhancements is almost by definition a character you like playing. Yet suddenly you… don’t have anything more to do here. You can earn influence you don’t need to buy things you don’t want. Maybe you can kit out your alts, but is that easier than kitting them out via playing them?

Lots of games solve this problem through ascending levels and cycles, a functional reset every couple of years or so. This works, but the window for it working had already passed. CoH had already stuck with its level cap for ages. So what’s to be done?


The obvious and most straightforward answer was to just add in more and more powerful IO sets, so let’s all breathe a sigh of relief that this was not the route the Paragon Studios peeps went with. No, instead the idea was the Incarnate system. And on paper, Incarnates makes sense because it means that your hero gets to step into the ranks of power of Statesman and Recluse. These hugely powerful forces are now peers. That’s a big deal!

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. And a big part of why is that Incarnates, right from the start, don’t so much break the game’s mechanics with more of a vertical climb as they break the whole premise of how you build your character in CoH.

I think the perfect example is the Lore power slot. The Lore power allows you to summon pets from a variety of different groups. All of the pets work slightly differently and there are a lot of options here, and Homecoming has added even more. There are very few enemies in the game that are not represented here somewhere, and that’s cool!

If, you know… you want pets. If you don’t? Too bad.

There are a lot of archetypes in the game that have pet powers among their options. Most of the Patron Power Pools let you summon a pet. VEATs can summon pets. Controllers pretty much always have pet powers. But the difference is that in all of these cases, you don’t actually have to pick those pet powers. If you want to pick them, they’re there. Most of the time, CoH‘s power sets are arranged with the most vital powers at the lowest levels and the most optional ones at the highest. These are options you can say do not fit your playstyle, and you can eschew them if you want.

But not the Lore slot. You need your dang pet power whether you like it or not, and suddenly this isn’t a power you can choose or not. This is the power you’re getting. Oh, sure, you have tons of choices about which pet you pick up, but you are going to pick a pet.

The only Incarnate power that’s free of this is the Alpha slot, which functions as a meta-enhancement that allows you to focus on something past the game’s usual enhancement limits. That’s actually cool and different. But it’s the only one, and everything else is just “here’s a new power whether or not that actually fits the way you want your character to play.” Which makes the whole thing feel like borrowed power… especially when partying at a lower level makes most of these powers just completely vanish all over again.


What makes this even worse is that these changes don’t actually fix the fundamental issue. They just delay it. Now you have content to grind on for a while longer before you’re done, but eventually you are still going to reach a point of being done. It’s kicking the can down the road by adding a largely irrelevant grind to the end without actually adding anything interesting to that end of the road.

Yes, with a full set of Incarnate powers, you are actually going to tear the heck out of content at level 50, but aside from helping make the endgame content even easier, it only helps in that particular arena. And as soon as you help someone lower level, you’re going to be just the same as anyone else. No powerful extra enhancements, no sign that you’ve gotten something good, and no real reward. It’s the same goal to work toward until you’re done.

The reason I initially framed this as an issue rather than a problem is just because I do believe the idea “I am done with this character” is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not inherently bad design that you can reach a point of having nothing else you really need to do within the game beyond badge-hunting. This is an alt-heavy game, after all. You’re meant to keep rolling new heroes.

But it does kind of suck that your favorite character can be done and not have any more rewards to learn or any more challenges to undertake. The trouble isn’t that Incarnates as a system exist in order to provide that; the trouble is that they basically add another grind to delay that issue rather than actually creating new stuff to do at the top end. And in doing so it forces all of your characters into a narrow channel of content that doesn’t even match what made the actual Incarnates cool in the first place.

All right, I know, Statesman was never cool. What made him theoretically cool.

Having said all of this, I know we can’t uncross a river. Next week, I want to talk about what here can be salvaged, addressed, and manipulated moving forward.

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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