It’s amazing to find a game which operates using all the common MMO conventions, yet doesn’t feel like one. (At least, not at first.) City of Heroes is a game which lets you feel powerful right from the start. Unlike games where your first job is to kill declawed kittens or brain damaged rats or whatever, in City of Heroes you can jump right in and start punching out pipe-wielding thugs and purse snatchers. (The fact that thirty levels later you’ll still be fighting thugs and purse snatchers is a different problem.)
|Ha ha! Loitering villains are no match for Fullmetal Jackie! Die, misanthropes!|
You start off with just a couple of powers, and gain a new one at every even level. (Edit: As someone else points out below, this only holds true until level 30 or so.) Which means by level 50 you’ll have
over 25 a crapload of powers! Thankfully, some of those will be always-on “passive” powers, and some of those will be travel powers, and some of those will be annoying prerequisites that you took simply to gain access to the powers you were interested in. (For example, “Hover” is astoundingly useless once you have “Fly”.) So, you won’t actually have to hot-key 25 powers. (Whew!)
Early in the game you’ll spend lots of time waiting for one of your two or three powers to recover so you can fire it off again. Battles are simple and the only thing you have to worry about is not doing anything obviously foolish with them. (As in: Don’t squander your big explosive attack on the guy who’s a sneeze away from death.) As you climb the leveling ladder, using your powers becomes more complex. You’ll likely have many more powers than you could put to use at any given time, and so instead of waiting for cooldowns you’ll be managing endurance use, prioritizing threats, supporting your teammates, and looking for opportune moments to use your big guns. There will be a bigger difference in power between your regular-use attacks and your expensive show-stopper ones. You’ll probably have some area-of-effect powers and a few esoteric special-use ones.
If you can pry your eyes away from your hotkey bar, your chat window, your health meter, and the on-screen damage outputs, you’ll notice that behind the interface there is a pretty spectacular superhero battle going on. People are leaping, flying, punching, and energy blasting while combatants are tossed around the room in a show of superhero excess and ragdoll physics.
|Bottom right: The inspiration palette. This thing works a lot like the Diablo II belt. It holds stacks of consumable boosts and healing, and it gets bigger over time. Top right: Me-ow!|
Sometimes you’ll gain an inspiration when you beat down a foe. Players generally refer to them by color: Green for replenish health, blue for replenish stamina, yellow for boosting aim, purple for boosting defense, red for boosting damage, etc. The only exception are the cyan-colored ones used to revive you if you get knocked out, which players call a “wakie”.
You can convert any three inspirations into a single inspiration of another type. Early in the game teams will have to play a round of “what have you got?” whenever a member goes down, figuring out what the victim has and what they need to make a wakie. I got two blues and a yellow. Crud – I got a green and and a yellow. I got a purple.
At level 1 you can hold just 3 inspirations, and every few levels you’re given another few slots in which to hold them. Collecting and converting inspirations is a minor resource management activity that lets you deal with sudden challenges and the occasional boss fight.
But the best part of this system is the way it maps familiar gameplay mechanics to common comic book conventions.
|Great, the eight of us will cram ourselves into this dark tight corridor and start a fight with the big crowd of guys in the adjacent cave-room. The result is going to look something like the “sparkly blobs of light” screensaver.|
A mission will send you to a semi-random location in the city where you will fight your way through a warehouse, sewer, office, or cave. These spaces are instanced, so you won’t see anyone else inside besides your fellow team members and your assigned costumed punching bags of villainy. The path to follow is mostly linear, and at the end you usually have to rescue a person, recover a McGuffin, or pummel a boss. The areas can get very repetitive after a few hours. The game pads the number of foes to be suitable for the number of heroes. If you go in alone, the guys inside will be in little two and three man groups. If you go in with a full team, you’ll be facing dozens at a time.
Individual missions usually take about twenty minutes. The custom is that team members should leave and join the group between missions. (Leaving mid-mission is considered a little rude, and the remaining people will sometimes harrumph a bit once the deserter has logged out.) These missions break the game into nice bite-sized portions so that you can stop whenever you need to, without worrying that you’ll be stuck in the depths of some murderous hellhole the next time you log on. (If you do log out from inside a mission area, you’ll be standing outside once you come back.)
Cave missions are the most dreaded and reviled, mostly because they’re ugly, monocolor, confusing to navigate, and they work hell on the third-person camera. Fights often take place in very tight tunnels where all the action is reduced to a hopeless blur of particle effects and you can’t see what you’re doing. Ugh. The blue and purple texture on the walls is dark and muddy, and doesn’t look anything like rocks to me. (Personally, I like the office missions the best.)
The group leader can adjust the mission difficulty, which controls the level of the foes you’ll face. Generally, you’ll want to nudge the difficulty upwards as the group gets larger. The question of how much is up for debate. Generally, anyone on your team who is five levels below the bad guys is probably making such a small contribution to the fight that they’re almost irrelevant. Anyone on your team who is more than a level above the bad guys is going to get a pittance for XP and may be annoyed that you invited them.
But some people insist that higher level guys = more XP and is therefore always best, and they will push a group until you’re all fighting to the limit of your abilites and you’ve got someone getting knocked out in every fight. (Thus earning the victim a little XP debt.) This is the classic risk vs. reward tradeoff, and some people insist on maximum risk and maximum reward, even if you can prove to them on the chalkboard that in the long run they’d do better and level faster and die less if they took the difficulty down a notch.
The nicest thing about grouping is that it’s not very volatile. Unless you’re pushing the very limits of the group, you can have someone disconnect or leave without crippling the team. If you have an idiot on your team, they can’t get everyone killed nearly as easily as they can in other MMO’s. (Assuming they’re not the leader, but for the most part you can spot an idiot leader right away. See also: The preceding paragraph.) While a group of smart mature people will always do better than a group of spastic idiots, it’s nice to know that you can still make progress with the idiots if that’s all you have to work with.
The magic is that teamwork happens more or less automatically. The other players don’t need to be hotkey experts and masters of aggro management to do their jobs. If you have a variety of character types and if everyone just spams the place with whatever they’ve got, the “working together” part just sort of happens. Again, it’s not foolproof and nothing beats a group of smart people, but I’ve never had to endure one of those groups where a veteran has to stop and explain to a newbie how to do their job so that we don’t all die. I was able to blunder through the newbie growing pains myself without feeling like I was hurting the team.
For me, the quality of a group is dominated not by their skill at the game, but by their attitude towards it. The best groups are the ones where people make jokes, toss out catchphrases, and cheer our individual victories. It’s a stretch to call this “roleplaying”, but it falls in a similar behavioral space. Like insult swordfighting, what you say is far more important that what you do. For me, missions are a venue for a very particular brand of text and emote-based performance art.
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