City of Heroes Review

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Publisher: NCsoft
Developer: Cryptic Studios


Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium III or Athlon 800 MHz, 256 MB RAM, GeForce 2 or Radeon 8500 or more recent video card, 2 GB HD space, 4x CD ROM drive, DirectX 9, internet connection, Windows 98 or more recent operating system

Okay. You've got some downtime. What would you like to do?

  1. read comic books and enjoy the cool art
  2. play computer games and enjoy nifty graphics and fun strategy
  3. instant message or email friends to chat about random stuff with them
If you wish there was a "4) all of the above at the same time" option, Cryptic Studios and NCsoft have the perfect solution for you: City of Heroes, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) set in Paragon City, a gigantic world of superheroes. They do a remarkable job. The game is a bit expensive for the casual gamer (at almost $15 per month) and you need to have a high-end computer to play it effectively, but it is both exquisitely rendered and extremely fun to play.

Rating:
Charles King


Despite "Comic Book Guy" stereotypes, graphic novel (a.k.a. "comic book" a.k.a. "drawn book") fans fill as wide a spectrum as movie fans or fiction fans. So the expectations of this "genre" of fans are difficult to characterize. In broad terms, the appeal of City of Heroes (COH) is more like that of the Teen Titans than that of The Watchmen in its approach to character development, plot, and good old-fashioned bad-guy whomping. In movie terms, it's more X-Men than Superman (ignoring, as one should, all sequels). Don't expect wonderful things from the text dialogue with NPCs ("Your superhero name is Trogdor? Wow, that's pretty original!"), but brace yourself for some rip-roaring fun in image, action and sound.

The best part of a superhero graphic novel story is often the discovery of superpowers. Spiderman is my favorite example of this; no matter how well we know Peter Parker's story, it's fun to hear it retold with rehashings and flashbacks in graphic novels, television cartoons, live-action TV shows, movies, Japanese comics, etc. It's fun to tell a little kid how Spiderman got his powers. It's part of our cultural iconography at this point. Overcoming some sort of adversity (scientific experiment gone horribly wrong, parents/planet killed at early age, etc.) is what brings us into the story with the protagonists and makes us feel they're regular guys like us. I had my doubts if COH could put any substance behind the style of the superhero story here, but I was pleasantly surprised. The moods, perspectives, and image framing of the comic book are captured vividly, and the experiences of superheroes are presented entertainingly and convincingly.

There are no secret identities in COH, per se. That would probably be a difficult thing to implement. Quest: file for 4 hours; go on photo shoot with Jimmy and Lois next 2 hours; return and finish report on Mr. Luthor's investment portfolio by EOD – do not jump out window or approach phone booth during that time – go. (Timer reads 8:00:00. Timer reads 7:59:59. 7:59:58. Yawn.) The conceit is that you the player are the secret identity, if that's important to you. Go to work, take the garbage out and seem like an ordinary citizen. Then log into COH and secretly protect your neighborhood from effete-aristocratic-vomiting-undead-Nazi-magician-corporate-executive-alien-cultist-druglords.

Character Crafting


Your personal investment in the game begins with the creation of your character. COH offers an astounding level of customization within the three body types (female, male, huge) which each have sliders for the spectrum of short to tall and athletic to muscular. It's possible to create an attractive, realistic character, sort of a super-Sim with expertise in running, jumping and swimming (strafing while swimming is one of the most beautiful sequences in the game). Oh, yes: plus some superpowers... more and more superpowers as you play the game. You can't change clothes later, so take your time to create an attractive character. Many options exist for each article of clothing, skin color (lip color, even), robotic body parts if you're a cyborg, boots of all sizes, and so forth. Hitting the "random" button can be really, really fun (I did it for like 45 minutes when I first played) and can serve as a starting point for crafting a character, but take care to turn your character around, do close-ups, and make sure you don't have a rat tail on your butt and horns coming out of the back of your head (unless you want that). Unless you play in truly first person (invisible self) mode, you'll spend a lot of time looking at your character's back.

It's also possible to give yourself the "huge" body type, make yourself as muscular and cube-like as possible, but then only make yourself three feet tall. Dress yourself in a bright blue rice farmer's hat, a pink business jacket and vest, and a kimono bottom with giant boots. Enter the game and fight with claws (think Tiny Toon Kingpin crossed with Muppet Baby Wolverine and Power Puff Mr. Miyagi). It's extremely funny. Your appearance in the game has little to do with your powers or the game's mechanics (you're sort of a super-cool cursor in that respect), so playing the tiny guy is actually really fun. Your vertical leap is so much more impressive than the 9-foot-tall guy's.

After you've created your character's look (and there are Avogadro's numbers of possibilities for your appearance), you choose your archetype (five character classes balancing melee combat, ranged combat, party spells, offensive and defensive spells). Within each archetype are three skills trees (you choose two for specialization), and each skill tree has about a dozen skills and extensive room for manipulation and customization of each through upgrades called "enhancements." Basic skills like running, punching and resting (kneel for a minute to recover energy or health) are automatic to everyone. As you gain levels, you get access to a fourth cross-discipline skill-set, such as flying (which is not so fast or powerful as to give a huge advantage), increased speed, or leadership auras. A nice touch is that once you've improved a particular skill with a valuable "enhancement" (that you fought for or bought from one of the game's many merchants), if you don't like the enhancement or outgrow it over time, you can replace it with something better. There's a degree of rigidity, and a degree of flexibility, that feels just about right. You need to commit to some choices that become permanent, but not too many. You have a race (an origin as a mutant, super-natural, techno, etc.), as well as a class, but it doesn't become an important play factor until the endgame.

The Early Game


Now comes the process of self-discovery. The challenge I had to overcome was myself. The keyboard controls on QWE and ASD are hell to an ergo-board touch-typist such as myself, but I was able to easily customize my experience by assigning everything to the number pad in the familiar, classic Doom configuration I've used for the last decade. Figuring out how your left hand and right hand are going to approach the game is a little tricky, especially for those of us with dyslexia, but with some easy customization and patience, you're all set. The mouse is used for some door-opening, item-choosing, and so forth, but is not heavily relied upon (you can use the same hand for both basic movement and the mouse, using the other for superpowers and one-time spellcasting). I found that I like the sound effects in the game but that the music can be mind-numbingly repetitive and droning; fortunately, like the keyboard, it was also easy to customize my audio experience to fit my style of play.

Next come some battles against some of the street thug goons who are always out there, menacing the civilians (who are by turns totally pathetic and extraordinarily funny in their raving/frolicking fear). Comic-style speech bubbles and thought bubbles pop up from NPCs and PCs alike alerting you to the action ("I'm going to steal your purse now, lady!"), and nearby heroes chat through bubbles above their heads (as well as in the chat window). The initial confrontations are so slow you can almost hear the d20s rolling in the background and even take time to wonder if some of the dice have chipped edges and favor the number 12. This is a good thing; you want to start the game slow to get used to the controls. You admire the cool different-colored effects your powers have, and you start to be astounded by all the other heroes who race around, jumping over cars, walls, small trees, leaving trails of dust behind them more or less like The Flash, depending on how fast they are. With 200+ different superpowers in the game, and about 20 in the initial levels, with different combinations for each character, there are maybe 400 different kinds of superheroes at the very beginning and the complexity grows exponentially from there – not only in terms of the skills practiced but in terms of other power-ups, single-use spell powers or superpowers. For example, you can make your ranged attack a short-distance, ultra-power knockout or you can make it a long-distance sniper attack.

Random exploration has its rewards, and climbing fire escapes is a fun way to test your maneuverability, jump around on the tops of buildings and trees like they did in Crouching Tiger, and fight battles with similarly vertically adept pickup teams. As the game progresses, you will discover if you can tolerate the somewhat repetitive 3D running problems (climbing circular stairs, fire escapes, getting out of that [bleeping] aqueduct in King's Row)... from either a manual dexterity or a "this annoys the hell out of me" point of view. If you can't stand the climbing tasks or have a hard time keeping your sense of direction, you need to be able to fly and/or teleport; choose that skill tree as your fourth when you reach level 6. It might give you a slight disadvantage in the indoor quest spaces, but it's going to save you a lot of time and aggravation overall.

The cities are richly rendered, architecturally interesting, and well-landscaped. Otherwise boring city buildings with repetitive windows are usually broken up with signs, air conditioning units, fire escapes, etc. One area is sort of an idyllic Athens crossed with the gigantic and unquestionably impressive Washington DC as you might have seen it on a field trip in the third grade: all lofty grandeur and impressiveness. The developers have done an excellent job reviewing what might be visually boring textures and breaking them up with something 3D or random that adds to the style and realism.

Vistas


There are some beautifully crafted spaces in this game. The urban spaces range from scary and shadowy to elegant and refined. Indoor spaces capture corporate settings, sewers, warehouses, etc. Outside, daylight has different effects, and dawn and dusk play attractively on players and landscape alike. It's not all city; the parks allow you to become completely lost in the idyllic woods, bogs, or other spaces. There are caves with 3D mazes of tunnels reminiscent of sword and sorcery games, especially when inhabited by the mage-like "Circle of Thorns" bad guys. This reminds us of a fun fact: you can set a superhero story anywhere.

Cars and trucks move about the streets and it is delightful to be able to outrun them. It's a little silly that they can't run into you or hurt you, but you don't need to try to get hit by a car on every adventure. Unless it makes you happy.

Where fantasy games and military games tend to have certain color schemes and styles they need to adhere to in order to please fans, City of Heroes is set in a genre where color schemes are simply as bright and crazy as you want them to be. Part of the appeal of comics is how colorful they are. COH does not let you down; your costume's colors, the colors of different superpowers, the colors of bad guys and their powers, are vibrant and rich. They change with morning, midday, dusk, and night lighting. Computer games can be evil when they add too many colors to the visual stories implicit in a genre. Making a bright lavender sword in a fantasy game is somehow traitorous to that genre, no matter how useful it is. Not in COH. Here, the color capabilities of modern games and the genre of the superhero come into a unique and wonderful harmonic climax. You know how Teletubbies and the old Pink Panther cartoon appeal to babies because of all the unapologetically bright colors? COH is a teenager/grownup version of this, and I'd go on and on about the color therapy of this game making me happy if I knew what I was talking about. Suffice it to say it's fun and feels good to watch what you're playing.

Team Play


The real fun begins, however, when you join a team. If there's a moral of the story in COH, it's that "teamwork is golden." You can switch a "seek team" button on that allows you show up on a list to others nearby who are seeking a team. Invites pop up if someone needs your character class and level in their party. If someone remembers your name, he or she can invite you from far away. Suddenly, your self-enhancement spells like healing, defense, accuracy and speed-gain are benefiting everyone and there's sort of a communal euphoria. Your melee attacks are not only effective against the front ranks, but the fragile little guy in the back row of your party with the easily-interrupted-but-massively-powerful ranged attack is taking out the big guys in the second rank you were fearing terribly a minute ago. Special quest spaces ("pocket quests" or "door quests" because they often begin at a city door) outside the general world are limited to just you and your team, so you're not in danger of having someone rush in and complete the quest before you. This is all to say that while solo play can be fun for some of the classes, the more gregarious players take part in something dozens of times more complex and interesting. Get the team working just right, get the requisite number of heroes at the right levels and you can register as a supergroup in the town. Teams only last for as long as you're playing that day. Supergroups hold over from session to session. While conversation around NPCs in town is often recruitment-oriented and the "seek team" toggle is a good way to pick up a quick team, simply showing your stuff on the battlefield and getting a quick invite/join is also well managed by the in-game system. There are times when you're around a hundred other players and someone can rush in and ruin your carefully executed attack, but most of the quest sequences take place in those isolated quest spaces (often a building, sewer, or other indoor structure) where only you and your party are allowed to adventure.

The difference between solo play and party play is significant. While monsters are added to quest spaces with a bigger party and made a little tougher, it's still night and day. I tried three times to complete a simple quest in one of the first cities and died every time, even when it was far beneath my level. The boss was simply too powerful. Joined a team of four and did it again – it was way easy. The fastest-XP-gaining party I played with was a party of eight that had a couple melee fighters, a couple controllers, a couple defenders, and a couple ranged fighters. More than the fighting skill, they were all witty and used the speech bubble/thought bubble feature in funny ways. A guy fell. Knowing full well that he was going to be revived in a minute, we all stood over him and composed purple prose replete with ellipses: "We will... mourn him." or "She was... my... best... friend. ." Obviously, these were people who enjoyed comics and were happy celebrating them in a fun way. If I could go back in time, I'd try to get them to register with me as a supergroup. Team chemistry is the highest and best goal of this game, and it takes a while to figure out how it works.

There is a nice mixture of advance and retreat, aggression and stealth. You can play so that you're simply blindly aggressive, but you won't be able to beat as cool a nest of enemies and you won't get as many XP for doing it. Alternately, bad team chemistry is poison; there's nothing more frustrating than spending ten minutes getting a team together in the villain-infested Perez Park and going to a difficult special quest site only to discover that one of your team members is a too-aggressive player who can't type a correctly spelled word to save his life, mobs everyone with monsters, and then blames everyone else "ypou playu bads." The quest is ruined, you've probably died at least once, and you have to play another half hour just to catch up to where you were. The more you play, the higher the level you achieve, the more confident you can be that players of similar level are going to play well. While the visual appearance of a character has little to do with his abilities, you can sometimes spot a poor player by a poorly crafted avatar; e.g., clashing green and blue-green skin-tight camo tights on a flying seven foot soldier who's wearing a veil...

"Defeat" either transports you back to the local hospital or is a difficult and groggy waking-up experience from an awaken spell (a one-time-use spell or another player's special ability). The conceit is that there's no death. Getting back in the action is not super-easy (unless you're really high level or have spent a lot on a fancy one-time spell), nor is getting out of the game easy – you have to stand in place for thirty seconds taking no action as part of the routine to quit the game, preventing situations where one player cruelly calls down the evil hoards and then exits. Rather than simply deducting XP when you die, you lose a few XP and accrue the same amount of XP "debt." You regain XP at half rate and apply half to your debt until you've caught up. This is practically the same as just losing the XP, but you can level up a little faster and it gives you a marker/goal for getting out of XP debt and (visually at least) forgetting those moments of misfortune.

Quirks


The game's 3D setup has some quirks. If you vanquish a bad guy as he's running along the top of the fence, he can fall prone with the tips of his toes on the fence and the rest of his body hanging out in space (sadly, you cannot leap onto this as a stepping stone, tie a swing set under it, or use it as a parasol). Running into walls and turning corners in close quarters sometimes gives you a strange polygonal view of the inside of your head. It's hollow, by the way.

The number of merchants who sell things but don't buy things is unnecessarily frustrating. I have more than a dozen contacts at this point (NPCs from whom I receive quests and buy things) but only one of them will buy things from me, and that's all the way back in the level one neighborhood where I get no experience or rewards for saving little old ladies from muggers. This should flat-out be changed; all vendors should buy your useless inventory at a fair discount; I end up deleting things out of sheer frustration or having to run for ten minutes to return things to this one buyer. "Can't sell this here" should be reserved for endgame race-specific super-enhancements to prevent an accidental deletion.

Your targeting system shows a target as easy or hard before you engage (green is super-easy, blue easy, white normal, yellow hard, red really hard, etc.) and you can usually avoid them if they're the dreaded purple. You soon learn that it's easier to go up against one strong guy by yourself than five weak guys; the teamwork principle applies to the bad guys as well (their teamwork is their strong suit, too). Sometimes, the color system doesn't seem to serve as a good indicator; it is often more useful to look at the level of a monster and the surroundings of a monster than its difficulty color.

Combating Evil


A nice touch is that the behavior of a gang of baddies is not all that predictable. Sometimes a sniper can "pull" just one and fight it. Sometimes they all run at you. Some of them might simply run away. Some might pull out guns. Some might pull out baseball bats and axes and close to striking range. Some might just projectile vomit their radioactive lunch on you (so evil). The randomness of the evil makes the fighting less predictable, less repetitive, and more fun.

As with other MMORPGs, much running is involved. Oh, sweet lord, the running. A very nice mitigating factor in team play is that you can automatically "follow" (rightclick+F) one of your team members, making him/her do the running while you chat a bit with your team, check your email, or whatever. You still need to jump over obstacles in complex cityscapes and it's possible to have the "follow" link broken around a tight corner or something, but this is generally very helpful in terms of keeping the running effort at a tolerable minimum through "cruise control."

Developing a Personal Style


It is not necessary to the early game, but you can program your own action macros in this game. If you have a sequence you always like to go through, like trapping a target with your stones-and-earth power, saying "target trapped" in bright orange letters over a brown background in your speech bubble, and then jumping to the left and giving a thumbs up, you can program all of that to one action command and hotkey it.

Emotes are plentiful, and you can throw your head back and laugh, play dice with other characters, shadow-box, play rock-paper-scissors, flip a coin, hug, wave, salute, or just speak in a thought bubble instead of a speech bubble. This gives your character some personality in addition to your power and costume. It can be pretty fun.

A New Variation on the MMORPG Theme


Unlike other MMORPGs, there's not a lot of inventory. You have a grand total of eight (and that's it) spaces for permanent things you pick up called "enhancements." These are what you put onto your powers to enhance them and change their effectiveness in some way. They have no physical point of reference (they're not super-masks, super-protractors, or super-handbags) and they don't appear as objects in the game; you only see them on your skill tree "page." Depending on your character level, you'll also have somewhere between three and twenty "inspiration" slots for one-time-use spells. There is some talk of trading in the game ("I need a flight speed enhancement. Got one?") and it's possible to give (or sell) a fallen ally an awaken spell (no death, remember), but accumulation of things is not a big deal here. At first, I found this a little disappointing. It was like I sat down to play an RPG and instead of an inventory sheet, my GM gave me a picture of myself and said "you're a superhero; you don't need any armor or anything." Seemed like a bit of a cop out. But then again, when did you ever see Aquaman wielding a really cool +10 vorpal harpoon of holy aim? Granted, some superheroes in the pantheon have material talismans, but they tend to be historic singularities, not things they fight for and then discard when they get better ones. Wonder Woman isn't constantly trying to craft a slightly better lasso of truth, she's out there constantly doing good deeds with it.

Since there's not stuff as we're used to it, there's not money as we're used to it, either. The currency of COH is "influence," which you gain by vanquishing bad guys and completing quests. It's used pretty much like money, and "buy" and "sell" are actions done at "stores" (sounds like money, yes?) but the idea that you're trading on the fruit of your good deeds is part of the game's/genre's ideals. Not all that distracting. If a quest or bad guy is too easy for you, it will yield no experience and no influence.

Without inventory of significance, there's little camping at spawn sites. Crafting is limited to taking some chances at combining your skill enhancements to make better enhancements. But you can't trade them once you've crafted them; you can only craft them into a place where you're actually using them. You can delete them but you can't remove them and use them elsewhere. So with little obsessive crafting, minimal camping, facilitated running, minimal item-lust, what do you end up with? Wanderlust – fight bad guys, go on quests, and enjoy the game in a pure just play it state. It's actually not a bad tradeoff; the hours you'd spend crafting for a special sword should be spent out on the battlefield learning how to work with others to achieve the best questing party. If Cryptic/NCsoft is committed to keeping the balance in the game to avoid cliche characters from popping up repeatedly in the long term, this could be a really fun enterprise for continual play. So maybe MMORPG is a misnomer here, given the expectations attached to that acronym. Think of it as an intricate, first person plural quest game; it might be more of a really excellent team-based massively multiplayer Superhero Quake than the Superhero version of EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot.

Character levels range from 1 to 40 and advance slowly. You generally get your powers at even levels and your upgrade sockets for them at odd levels. This is a nice way to force you to use your powers and understand them before you start irrevocably upgrading one instead of another. Some upgrades are more important than others. Primary and secondary skill trees open up at different even levels, and your big inter-disciplinary powers like flying and teleporting come at levels 14 and 20. Each level takes longer to break through than the one before. If 40 proves not to be enough, the mathematics of the game are fairly simple and the game engineers should be able to tweak them to any integer (50, 64, 100, 128, whatever) as a maximum level. Even if they save higher levels for an expansion set, if you really like the game, there are years of fun play available if you work through all 5 classes/archetypes (5x40=200 levels) in a comprehensive way.

Hardware


From a hardware standpoint, take the game's minimum requirements seriously. I tried to play the game on a Radeon one step below the one they suggested as minimum and it installed but simply didn't work right. I upgraded my graphics card, and it works fine except for areas where there are zillions of polygons – chip speed, RAM, and the graphics card all come into play if there are a million leafy trees in the forest around you and your party has twenty auras active, and your frame rate can start getting headachy and choppy. The thing is, you need lots of active auras and you need to be able to run fast through the complex graphics areas in order to succeed as a hero, so the more powerful your computer, the more complex and more effective your playing can be. In practical terms, if the computer for which you're buying the game is new since 2002-3 and has a graphics card that exceeds the minimum specifications, it's probably an okay purchase.

This game could end up costing its near-$50 sticker price plus $100 for hardware upgrades, plus $150+ per year in monthly subscription fees (various payment plans). That could make it more of a hardcore comic fan's game and less of a casual game. The other way to look at it is that for the price of 5 movie rentals a month, you get entertained for a lot more than 10 hours a month, plus you interact with other humans in a friendly sort of way which is more than we do in the movies. I realize that $15 a month is becoming the new standard for MMORPGs, but that seems "expensive" compared to games like Quake, Starcraft, and Diablo II which currently allow different degrees of team play and online questing for zero per month.

Your monitor should also be able to comfortably handle 1280x960 or better screen resolution. The game does a good job switching to and from a higher resolution if your system settings are generally something different. It's simply impractical to play at 800x600; you can't see enough status windows. 1024x768 is sort of possible, but you can't really have the mini-map open all the time, even though it's semi-transparent, which is annoying and makes staying with your team very difficult. And teamwork is the thing in this game.

Game Purchasing Decisions


If you're thinking about giving this game as a gift, make sure you know that the computer it will run on can handle it. It's not a terribly violent or bloody game by today's standards, and there's usually a fair enough reason for going out and fighting (somebody's getting mugged, an alien is trying to eat someone's brain, etc.). If you don't like drawing blood, be a ranged-attack specialist who fights with mind powers; you can control to some degree your exposure to outright violence. Your vanquished foes usually simply fall down and disappear in a few minutes. Police officers are good, drug addict gangs are bad, that sort of thing. Swearing is suppressed. Try to say Dick Cheney and your character says @!$#& Cheney. (Wouldn't it be fun if we could apply that filter to Reuters and the AP?)

Taken at face value, the game might seem to support a packaged "family values" socio-political agenda. But then again so does the idea of the superhero protecting the pathetic masses because they can't take care of themselves. The game makes some visual references to the history of the comic book genre, which was big in the 50s and shares some iconography with a conservative worldview. But it also breaks from it in some pleasant ways, and is not heavy-handed at all. Heroes and bad guys come in all different skin colors and hair colors. You can actually be a lot of different things within the genre and within the game, but if you want to succeed, you have to be friendly; you have to take your fellow players seriously and work with them. The "teen" rating is fine. Most kids deserve the benefit of the doubt here, and I didn't see anything that was offensive given the genre or my expectations based on promotions or the box cover. This is a game that can be enjoyed by teenage girls (and women) as well as teenage boys (and men). The lack of truly obsessive repetition, the emphasis on team chemistry, and the rewards for friendliness and good group behavior suggest this is something everyone can enjoy.

Large breasts and shapely hips feature prominently (duh, it's a comic book game) but there's not a fixation on cleavage or wasp-waistedness, and the 3Dness of the game prevents the ridiculous 2D exaggerations common to some comics. Female characters are protagonists, not helpless damsels; they are active and strong and can be sexy or not depending on how players dress them, but not ridiculously so, and they're every bit as powerful as their male (or the little understood third gender, "huge") counterparts.

The game is addictive but not horribly so. It is fun to play and not terribly difficult to stop playing. You quickly learn about how long a team mission is, and can better enjoy the game if you figure out polite ways to let people know you need to quit. Making a daily rule for yourself (or your child) to play no more than two quests, visit no more than two contacts for new quests, and then visit town for leveling up and shopping is not unreasonable. There are a good number of stopping places, and you can play in half hour chunks or four hour marathons, depending on your preference.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on May 9, 2004 5:23 PM.

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