City of Heroes Review
The MMORPG market is currently packed with titles, and it's becoming a very strange genre - the behemoth of publishers, EA, can't seem to find a hit massive multiplayer game, and the little independent studios are finding moderate to great success with their own titles. One such developer like this is Cryptic Studios, who have delivered us the first massive multiplayer superhero game ever: City of Heroes.
This game diverts from many trends in recent MMORPGs, and includes a very unique style and atmosphere that can appeal to more players than one might think. I'm not that big of a superhero or comic book fan, and when I first heard of CoH, I just shrugged. But now that I've played the game, I have to say I'm impressed with the character creation, combat, and other aspects that really help the game differ from every other MMORPG.
City of Heroes runs on a custom engine that can do a pretty good job maintaining frame rates with plenty of polygons going at once. That and the game's excellent stability are about its strongest points; the engine boasts no really major graphics features, nor does it support any snazzy DirectX 9 special effects.
Still, a massive multiplayer game needs to run on a stable, versatile engine, and that's what CoH's engine delivers. The game behaves well with other programs, and it can be run in a window with almost no issues. The only thing I'd like to see is a way to quickly get out of the game - short of doing Ctrl-Alt-Del and ending the task, there's no instant quit (just the 30 second wait that takes you back to the character select screen).
City of Heroes has a very streamlined, intuitive interface that just about any gamer can use and enjoy - novice or expert. When your hero gains new powers, buttons are automatically set up so that you just press a number key to activate them. Every zone has an automap, including the indoor "instanced" missions you set out on. The game also includes a special interface for working with Enhancements (which is the closest thing to items you'll get in CoH), and buying and selling works great.
One thing I dislike is that I can't fully bind all controls to how I want. For example, if I wanted to mimic EverQuest's controls in CoH, I wouldn't be able to set the strafe keys to turn my character when mouselook is turned off, nor can I use the left mouse button to walk forwards as long as mouselook is on. While the controls are smooth and easy to get used to, a few more options would have been even better. At least this game includes a well-behaving first person mode; many games nowadays either have no first person perspective or one that hardly works. I still find that third person is better for this game, considering that you need to watch your character's power usage closely, but I'm always glad to see the option there.
While City of Heroes includes a pretty decent friends list to allow you to track your buddies who are playing, it doesn't seem to include any way to message people that are offline. I've always wondered why so few games can do this right (to date, only Star Wars Galaxies did it in a way I found useful and intuitive). I really hope that sooner or later this becomes a standard thing for MMORPGs to have, as well as fully customizable interfaces.
The chat system works fairly well, with a two-pane window that allows you to split up the combat text and other messages. Everything is fairly well configurable, and the complicated bind system can be used to create some basic macros. A great interface is something that I consider more and more important in a MMORPG as they evolve, and City of Heroes passes the test.
I have to give Cryptic Studios credit for creating a huge game world that feels familiar as a superhero world without actually licensing any major hero franchises. Modern day Paragon City feels alive, and its atmosphere is excellent. The textures look great, and it's not just all cityscape that you'll traverse either; we also get forest-type areas, old abandoned offices, a ghost town, and some other sci-fi-style zones. You'll have to gain quite a few levels to see these places, but they're generally worth the effort.
The selection of enemies you fight is diverse, and they all belong to specific factions that you will be battling with. Here, you won't fight any diseased rats or bunnies - you jump right into fighting gangs, the undead, clockwork robots, and more. At the same time, Cryptic has created enough monsters inside each faction that you won't consistently fight the same looking guy all the way up through level 40.
Let's move onto the heroes themselves. First, Cryptic's character creation system gives you more options to customize your character's look than any other game I've seen. Since you'll never be equipping new armor or weapons, it's important to pick a look that you won't mind staring at for hours on end, and there are enough options here that just about everyone can make a character they're happy with. The massive amount of armor, gloves, masks, helmets, boots, extra patterns and other accessories means that pretty much no two characters will look exactly alike - and that's something few MMORPG developers can truly boast about.
City of Heroes starts you out in a tutorial section which allows you to get the hang of talking to your "contacts" to get quests, fighting enemies, and moving around the game world with little risk. You'll enter a short mission and be able to move into the normal game afterwards - this tutorial is one of the best I've seen, because it really does prep you for the game without overloading you with tons of information at once.
In fact, the whole game does a great job of making sure you don't ever have to commit to too many things for your character at any one time. The biggest single choice you'll make is your base archetype (also known as class in other MMORPGs) at the start - Blaster, Controller, Defender, Scrapper, or Tanker. Blasters do damage from a distance, Controllers can manipulate enemies and even heal friends, Defenders buff and heal friends while dishing out some damage, Scrappers damage enemies with melee attacks, and Tankers are there to take damage from enemies while doing their own bit of damage.
It may not seem like there's a wide range of characters, but the game also includes a multitude of "power sets" - which any character can pick two of - that they will stick with throughout that character's life. Each archetype has its own selection of power sets with only a couple of overlaps, which means you could get fifteen Defenders together and each will have their own strategy for dealing with enemies as well as healing their buddies.
At level 14 you will get a chance to use your first travel power. There are four of them: Super Jump, Super Speed, Fly, and Teleport. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, but it's safe to say that they're all great and really make this game fun. Sure, you can't exactly use these powers to kill enemies with, but they're still really cool to use - few MMORPGs can produce the kind of sensation that these abilities can.
Cryptic Studios boldly decided to skip out on "loot" in this game - never do you touch an enemy's corpse to grab any items. That's not to say you don't get anything from them, though. Influence is the game's money, and you'll automatically get some of it whenever you finish a quest or kill an enemy. There are other types of items, though, which are totally unique in the MMO world: Inspirations and Enhancements. Inspirations are temporary powerups that you can store and use, and they'll do things like increase your damage output, your accuracy, or your defense for a short period. They're a must-have in City of Heroes, and a good player will know how to ration out their Inspirations wisely. These can't be traded or sold, but they can be bought from vendors.
Enhancements are the other type of items you'll get, and these you can buy from vendors, or trade or sell them to other players. They can be installed into "slots" into specific powers your character has. Enhancements can increase the damage of an attack, make a travel power even more effective by moving you faster, or allow you to disorient or disable enemies for a longer period. While Cryptic has taken a risk in making a game that has no equippable items, they've substituted for this with a fun, robust system that allows you to customize your character in ways most players haven't ever thought of.
My favorite thing about City of Heroes is that the combat is a blast. In this game, every ounce of damage you do is from a power that you activated, so you must use your brains in order to efficiently kill enemies in numbers. There's none of this "turn on autoattack, go get a drink, come back to see enemy dead" crap here, as you'll have to manage your powers and use them wisely. On top of that, most of the game's powers look great and are truly a joy to use - and since you can customize and upgrade all of them in many ways, it feels like you're really doing something unique with your character. Even your lowest-level powers are useful at high levels, as the Enhancements that you install make sure they keep up with the monsters you fight. Downtime is also generally pretty well-managed, with a minute or two wait usually being tops. Get into a team, and downtime is mostly eliminated completely.
As you gain levels, you can start taking on Task Force missions. These have a central plot, and take far longer than a normal mission to finish - from six to ten hours, actually. There have been some bugs involved in these, but as of June 3rd Cryptic has fixed all known bugs involving them. Overall, the game is surprisingly bug free, and the developers have done an admirable job squashing every bug they know of. Those of you who played Shadowbane for a few months will know that not every MMORPG developer is capable of this. They've also played with a few of the basic game statistics, and players were generally pretty unhappy with the change - Cryptic decided to take the heat and admit their mistake, explain everything out, and they now have a new fix planned that seems much more equitable. It's this kind of pragmatic sense of reason and customer satisfaction that the MMO industry needs more of.
The launch went very smooth, especially considering what we've seen from the rest of the genre so far. The servers so far seem to have a great community of players, and the game is designed in such a way that "bots", or automated scripts people set up to play the game for them, are really not too useful. Players are generally helpful and pleasant, which is a nice change from other games I've been playing recently.
I understand that things like the community's overall disposition aren't directly under Cryptic's control, and you might ask why I would include this in a game review. Some other recent games I've played promote a more hostile environment, which seems to bring out the immaturity and idiocy in people. It's not just the non-PvP environment that contributes to the general pleasant attitude I've seen from players in this game; that attitude also comes from the community of people playing. If someone starts being a moron in open chat, rare do I see several others joining in and making it a whole party of idiots shouting through zones. I couldn't have cared less about this kind of thing in a MMORPG two years ago, but now I find it's a pretty big deal.
The biggest problem I see with City of Heroes is the endgame. While your character can advance a plot through the game's many missions, the fact that it's a massive multiplayer game means that you'll have little lasting effect on the game world. The instanced dungeons are fun to go through as a team or as a supergroup (otherwise known as a guild), but once you've hit the game's max level - 40 - there doesn't seem to be anything at all to do other than make a new character or complete more missions for little gain.
We're promised something of a high-level game with the upcoming City of Villains expansion, which includes PvP, but players might not be into buying a new expansion just to keep the game even remotely fun at the end. Plus, not all players are necessarily into killing each other for fun, and the game seems to offer little in the way of "epic" encounters. Cryptic does have some tricks up their sleeves, as some new enemies were unveiled at the end of the beta test and other content is promised in the next few weeks. Let's hope that by the time a good number of players reach the higher ranks, there'll be more for them to do than just sit around.
While City of Heroes includes little in the way of voice work, the game does wind up sounding great. Many of the powers have unique visual and sound effects, and the ambient sounds for the game's indoor and outdoor areas are rich and layered.
I can't stand the music though. As you enter new areas in each zone, the game plays a short bit of music - sort of a "signature" of that area. The problem is, I just plain hate the music. To me, much of it sounds like it was made by a couple of amateurs over a few days, as it just doesn't catch me at all. I tried to like it, but I just couldn't.
City of Heroes is a great MMORPG with solid, fun gameplay and a style all its own. It doesn't seem like high level players have much to look forward to, but time will tell if new and exciting stuff will open up for them. While CoH seems a little less ambitious than other MMO games, but it just means that Cryptic has spent the time to really make their game work right.