City of Heroes

A little over a month ago I submitted my impressions on this new entry to the MMO genre. It was my first serious foray into this brave new online world, as I had never really understood what all the hoopla was about. In fact, I was a rather staunch supporter of the view that all those that dwelled within these persistent cyber-worlds were a bit looney. Well, I now have my very own straight jacket because I'm absolutely stupefied at how addicted I am to City of Heroes. It frankly, and quite alarmingly, consumes my every gaming thought.

CoH is the MMOG that we mild-mannered Clark Kent's have been waiting for because it's stripped of the detailed minutia that has weighed down the genre for so long. This is an action-oriented role-playing game that's heavy on the action and light on the role-playing stats. It allows you to easily create a superhero and kick the snot out of the bad guy - pure and simple.

After installing the game you dive right into creating your first superhero. I say "first" because you will create more... many more. In fact, the character generator is perhaps the most robust and varied in existence, and it is so intrinsically fun that you will spend hours fiddling around creating that perfect hero. I have actually become addicted to this portion of the game so much so that at last count I had created 38 superheroes. Each of the (currently) 11 servers allows you to create 8 different characters. If you get sick of one character, make another... and another... and another. There is virtually no end to the amount of replayable gaming goodness you can have here.

You start off creating your character by choosing their Origin (Science, Mutation, Technology, Magic or Natural) and Archetype (Blaster, Controller, Defender, Scrapper and Tanker). In a nutshell, Origin describes how your character obtained his powers, while Archetype defines the type of powers he/she will have. For instance, a Mutation Tanker is a hero who was born a mutant and has the ability to stand toe-to-toe with virtually any foe while taking insane amounts of damage. A Tanker is limited to dishing out pain with his fists, unlike a Scrapper who can use various hand-held weapons. On the flipside, a Controller or Blaster has to hang back and use their ranged attacks (ice, fire, energy bolts, etc.) because they can't take nearly as much punishment. Finally, Defenders are most vital to teams and Supergroups, because they are your healers. Without them... you will not last long.

From there you move on to the look of your hero. Every detail from the gender to their body size, hairstyle, facial features, and shirts are all there for the picking, and it's only limited by your imagination. Truthfully, there has to be millions of different combinations. You can even write up your character's background and battle cry! Being a writer (and lover of comics), that was great, great fun!

With your hero appropriately outfitted and named, entering Paragon City is now just a mouse click away. So up, up and awaaaaay you go to your first taste of crime fighting: a "training mission" titled "Outbreak." Here you learn how to use your Contacts - folks like policemen, doctors and reporters - who give you missions. As you complete them, they'll give you more and at times introduce you to other Contacts who'll have more important and challenging missions. All in all, the phenomenal tutorial gets you accustomed to how everything works in CoH, so be sure to spend some time in here.

After that initial phase of training, you are sent to either Atlas Park or Galaxy City to "train up" to the next Security Level by one of the eight remaining original Superheroes. These are the two lowest level zones of the 16 enormous, fleshed out city areas, where you can continue to learn how to utilize your powers the best way possible. Additionally, this is where you meet with your first contact based on the Origin your character hails from. If you have a magical background, you report to M.A.G.I. (Modern Arcane Guild of Investigation), mutants report to G.I.F.T. (Genetic Investigation and Facilitation Team)... so on and so forth. As you can see, this wonderful world of superheroes is very detailed!

The crux of the game is to level up your superhero by performing a myriad of missions and fighting the bad guys that roam the street. This not only increases your eXperience Points, but earns you "Inspirations," "Enhancements," and "Influence." Inspirations add a slight, temporary increase to your power set while Enhancements are permanent increases. Influence is considered cash in game, and allows you to buy Inspirations and Enhancements. Enemies come in all makes and models: the Skulls, the Hellions, the 5th Column, the Lost, zombies, and the Tsoo... each with their own low level thugs, lieutenants, and bosses. The first 7 or 8 Levels are pretty smooth sailing and allow you to play solo, but around Level 9 things start to get difficult and it's time to find someone to team up with. There are a few ways to go about this.

At any time you can team up with someone else simply by clicking "Seek Team." This brings up a list of everyone else on the server looking for a team. Thankfully there are a lot of other tools built into CoH that makes team play a snap: like being able to add players to a buddy list; a glowing reticule that shows where your buddies at, etc. Selecting and performing missions together is simple and straightforward. Upon reaching Security Level 10, things start to get really fun! If you find yourself playing with the same friends over and over you can form a "Supergroup" and create matching costumes. If pounding baddies with up to 8 other folks isn't your cup o' tea, then get yourself your very own "sidekick." In order for this to happen, the "Sidekick needs to be at least 5 Levels lower than the "Mentor." For instance, a Level 3 can be sidekicked by a Level 10 and fight alongside (literally - there is a 200 foot radius in which this option works) with Level 9 power (or one level lower than whatever the "Mentor" is). Team play is where the majority of the fun lies, and as mentioned, at some point you will have to team up to advance your character. This is an MMO after all.

The city environments are truly stunning in their presentation. Every aspect of a living, breathing city is recreated on every level, on every map. The free roam capabilities are staggering. Here is it, nearly 2 months since I first started playing CoH (I began in the beta tests), and I've only managed to completely search 3 of the 16 zones. Graphically speaking, you will be in awe. The associated special effects for powers are downright Hollywood-esque in their visual splendor. Debris flutters down streets; passing cars and trains make noise; the non-playable citizens all have names, shout for help, and give you praise (which in turn gives you "Influence"); there are alleys, caves, parks, forests, sewers, skyscrapers and everything else in between to explore and seek out evil in all its forms. Along with the majestic settings, the thing that sets CoH apart from all other MMO's is its utter lack of including tedious tasks. You will not have to assemble weapons or mine ore, or hunt down special items. This game is all about laying down the smack on as many scum bags as you can find. Pure and simple! And it's this characteristic that will undoubtedly appeal the masses.

Not everything is perfect in the Big City. As the game becomes more successful, the servers are beginning to bog down during peak hours. This is a common problem with nearly all MMO's, so it's not unique unto CoH, but you would think by now this simply would no longer be an issue. Secondly, when you start playing with your fifth or sixth character, missions start getting redundant. In, particular, those that take place inside buildings, or "door missions" as they're referred to in game. Door missions bring an individual or team into their own enclosed, customized space. What that means is, each mission is tailored to the player's level and number of people within a team or Supergroup. Additionally, those who aren't part of the team can't march in and steal kills. This is revolutionary in the MMO genre, and a very significant feature that will be seen in many upcoming NCsoft games. While this is a great innovation... the flip side is that they get old fast because the same interiors are reused over and over.

Fortunately, this may be fixed soon as the first full-fledged update is due out at any moment, which includes two new city zones, a new "trial room," private outdoor missions, enhanced indoor missions, three new villain groups and ways to tweak your hero's costume during gameplay. Not only that, but the first expansion pack, City of Villains, has already been announced (due out late this year). CoV will let you can play bad guy and offer player versus player gameplay. But that's not all! I just received my first official, real, FREE issue of the comic book in the mail yesterday! It's been promised that player created characters will be making appearances! Obviously, user support and customer service is top priority with Cryptic Studios, and that's certainly a good sign for the future.

If by now I haven't convinced you that this is the greatest videogame since Pong, and you've either collected comic books in the past or ever thought about being a superhero... this is your game and you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. I'll even sidekick you and teach you the ropes! So come look for me (Rock Bottom on Victory server or Airfoil on Triumph) and join us... in the City of Heroes!

The Score:

+ Spectacular "living" world environments with deep, involving histories
+ Character creator can consume hours all by itself
+ Amazing graphics on every level
+ Sound effects and music are stellar
- No voiceover chat ability - it's very hard to type-chat and fight
- Difficult to play alone at higher levels

Bottom Line:

If you've ever wanted to be a superhero, this is your chance! From the visually stunning and insanely varied environments of the areas you can run around in, to the endless varieties available in creating your own hero, to the outlandish fun of teaming up with your friends to bash the baddies... go buy this game now! But be warned: it will consume your life. The term "replayabilty" has a new name, and its name is City of Heroes.

Reviewed by Eli Shayotovich

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