Some Things City of Heroes Did/Does Right

coh[City of Heroes] Cast your eyes upon Paragon City, a place devastated by interdimensional war but filled with the hope of a thousand heroes. The strange magic and science of the place have birthed a collection of heroes and villains, and others from around the world flock there to conquer or protect this seat of superheroic power.

I started blogging at Kill Ten Rats with City of Heroes, and you may have noticed it as my most frequent topic. It has been my usual game these past two years, although my account lapses today so I will be on break. What is it about City of Heroes that has brought me so much entertainment?

[edit: added comments on the sidekick/exemplar system below the break]

Be a Hero!

The second thing you notice about City of Heroes is that it does effectively capture the superhero setting. Even as it uses the standard MMO conventions like the Kill Ten Rats quest, it feels different.

The balance vision is that three even-con minions are a fair fight, or one minion and a lieutenant, and a lone boss should be a fairly easy target for a duo. Instead of fighting green-con rats one at a time, you take on groups of multiple gang members the instant you arrive. Things do not scale evenly, so at higher levels you might jump into a large group and go berserk on the evildoers. Color matters, and when your group is consistently doing well against orange through purple-con enemies, you really do feel mighty.

The assorted conventions and trappings of superheroic life are there. You can get a cape or set yourself on fire. You have villains trying to assemble their doomsday devices or emerging from the underground to plague the city. You can tear chunks out of the ground and throw them at people. You taunt the oversized werewolves as their claws barely scratch your iron hide. You form servants out of ice or fire to assist you, or wrap the elements around you as a shield. You leap hundreds of yards or fly.

Did I mention that you fly? You can fly. There is a flight ceiling, but you can fly all the way there. The game is in 3D, and you can use all that space. Most sky is empty sky, but PvP fights happen hundreds of feet up, you can position yourself just out of the robots’ reach (watch for the lasers!), and you can teleport your enemies up up and away. True full three-dimensional control of your character’s movement: finally!

The Best Character Creation System Anywhere

Yes, I started with the second thing. The first thing you notice is the character creation system. It is, literally and with no real competitors, the best character creation process anywhere.

The first step is a series of choices to set your path in powers. Archetype (pick one of five), Origin (one of five), Primary Power Pool (about a half-dozen per archetype) and first power (one of two), Secondary Power Pool (about a half-dozen per archetype) and its default power (one of one). You cannot nerf yourself at this point, except by picking a weak combination; some options are stronger, but very few completely suck (another nice thing). Personally, I do enjoy having lots of options and complexity available, but this is a nice, simple system: you have options, but they are not overwhelming. I get my complexity buzz from considering all the options from every possible character at once, and then I end up picking something mostly at random when someone says, “Hey, why don’t we make some new guys on Justice tonight and get to level six. My fault, and it is still fun.

Okay, now that that is out of the way, we get to the real fun: costumes. There are enough costume options for you to be different from every other character in some way. You can create almost any bipedal look you want.

You have three body areas. Each area has up to a half-dozen options. Each option can have dozens of varieties, and some have over 100. You can set two colors for each option in each area, a primary and a secondary; there is a command to keep it all color coordinated, or you can turn that off and set a different color for anything or everything. The color pallete takes up a large chunk of the screen, so you can get just the right shade of green with lavender highlights. There are sliders for the dimensions of your physique or face, with some default options available. Does Super Power Man have a long nose and high cheekbones? We can do that.

If all this fashion and costume stuff is too much for you, there is a random button. A convenient way to get an original look is to hit random a few times until something you like comes along then alter it in whatever ways make you happy.

If you have not seen the character creation tool for City of Heroes, you really want to. The next time a free trial is available, try it just to play with the paper dolls. You could do so for hours. Or go buy the game — you can find it for $20, including your first month.

Scaling Powers

Do you remember those passages in the stories of Camelot where King Arthur keeps trading up his sword, until he eventually gets to Excalibur? Or that issue of Superman when he stopped “punching” people in favor of “hyper punch”? And how cool it was when Spiderman started traveling faster with his “Web Spinner III”? No, no you don’t.

While there are certainly examples of Iron Man upgrading his armor or your favorite wizard learning a new spell, those are usually differences of kind rather than degree. It is an artifact of the game that we move from Minor Firebolt to Lesser Firebolt to Firebolt to Greater Firebolt to Devastating Firebolt to Overwhelming Firebolt to Cataclysmic Firebolt to whatever new name they think of calling the level 70 version in the next expansion. It is not really better than calling it Sinister Strive V or something like that.

Frankly, it only gets more annoying when they try to make cute ways around it, so the progression is Fire Wisp to Flametongue to Burst of Flame and so on. My Teamspeak would fill up with “Do I get Aura of Flame or Aura of Fire at level 12? Oh, it’s Burn Aura?”

City of Heroes solved this issue by just giving you the power and letting it scale along with you. The damage your attacks do depends on your level, but Ice Blast will always be Ice Blast. You do not need to overhaul your hotkeys every five levels. You do not need to go buy your skills again every ten levels. You never out-level your pants. This works brilliantly with the sidekick and examplar systems, and it makes sense. It also prevents those levels where your favorite powers are at their weakest, because you are about to level up; if you level and your powers do not, even-con enemies become harder until you can replace your powers.

Powers, Enhancements, Inspirations

I do not like item-centric play. In Asheron’s Call, I liked being able to run with just a robe, magic potato, and spell components. I did have my favorite armor and accessories, but I could do almost as well with cheap store-bought equipment. I liked that.

In City of Heroes, you power comes from your powers. You do not need to quest or shop for your spells; you get your new powers when you level. If you need a sword or gun, you get it at character creation. It’s just that easy.

On the other hand, we do have enhancements. Enhancements serve the same purpose as equipment, but in a more elegant fashion. You can add enhancement slots to your powers as you level, and you pick what sort of enhancement to put in each. Do you want your powers to be more accurate, longer range, cheaper to use, faster to recharge, more damaging, or what? Frankly, you want as much damage as possible and can fill in the rest. Having options is good.

How is this elegant? When you buy or receive an endurance reduction enhancement, you can put it in any power that costs endurance. Repeat for range in ranged powers, accuracy in powers that have a to-hit roll, resistance or defense in defensive powers, heal in healing powers, etc. You do not throw away the task force reward because you already have a better helmet; instead, you improve something else. If you are at a crunch level where you cannot afford to improve everything, you can pick what is most important to you. You can pick which powers need the most slots. One simple mechanic guides all the enhancements, rather than many pre-defined items.

Our one raid is against the Hamidon, where your reward is a random double-enhancement. This is our weaker version of repeatedly questing for blue, green, and purple equipment. The difference is that everyone in the zone can get a Hami-O when Hami falls, so >100 people will win at the end of every raid. If you did not get the one you want, 100 other people in the zone just got a similar reward, so see if anyone wants to swap.

Inspirations are like potions. Munch a bit of candy and you get a heal, a buff, or a rez. If you keep moving, they can fall faster than you can use them. I use them just to use them, since more will appear in a moment and I can use the extra bit of damage for 30 seconds anyway. You can always use an extra damage buff. On a good team, the health and endurance inspirations can really pile up, since none of your bars are falling all that quickly. When everything goes pear-shaped, against an archvillain or a room where you accidentally pulled four groups, pop a dozen pieces of candy and go nuts. Eat 3 purples and 3 yellows: for 30 seconds or so, you can hardly miss or be hit; by the time they wear off, the fight should be a bit more manageable.

It is a quick and easy system in a quick and easy game.

My Loyal Ward and I…

City of Heroes has a great system of sidekicking and exemplaring. You can boost a friend up to effectively be one level lower than you, or drop down to his level. Half of your friends are the wrong level? No problem, sidekick them up! Want to play your main while the rest of the SG is on their alts? No problem, drop down to their level!

Those lovely powers and enhancements that scale with level? Wow, what a perfect system for letting you change your level and stay with your friends.

I no longer remember how people put up with not having this in other games. Why should everyone need to be the same level to play together? Levels are an unfortunate abstraction in that respect. One lovely thing about Asheron’s Call was that, after a certain point, you could group freely with folks no matter what your levels were, since everyone past level 50 (or whatever) could contribute to the group meaningfully.

Don’t let yourself be cut off from your friends do to differing levels. Don’t overhaul all your equipment, spells, and powers when you want to play with lower-level friends. Settle for nothing less than fully scalable and readily adjustable levels!

Simple Play, Good Tutorial

It really is a quick and easy game. You need not craft a team carefully, because everyone has a use. Some things may work better, some combinations can fail, and some tasks do require a good team, but most of the time you can just run with what you have. Your six-controller team may move somewhat slowly, but what can possibly kill you?

The gameplay is straightforward. There are the bad guys, here is your fire blast. Go to, then. We face Silver Age comic book morality, a clear dualism that has the heroes on one side and the villains on the other. Mission objectives are clear. If you need to click on something, it glows and beeps. If you need to get somewhere, there is an arrow on your screen. I have cited my love of a thinking man’s game, but I also like seeing the gameplay refined to its essentials. Complexity is good, but unnecessary complications are not.

Introducing you to all this, the tutorial is rather good. It does what a tutorial should: it lets you wander around and test things in a consequence-free environment. It adds the aspects of the game sequentially and walks you through them. There is extra space and extra enemies in case you want to keep working to get the hang of it. It does exactly what it needs to do without being condescending, tediously long, or confusing. It does not explain everything, but your trainer will teach you more over the levels, and the game comes with a manual.

Hip-Deep in Evil

And now the required section on content. Luckily, the content is good.

Remember first that you are the main piece of content. Comic books are about the heroes, so the thing at the center of every screen is you, encasing your enemies in stone or blasting them with dark energies. It’s all about you.

Paragon City has an extensive rogue’s gallery, with descriptions and backgrounders on the web site. We have the varieties of gangs, mystic megalomaniacs, robots, foreign oppressors, aliens, zombies, and ninja. You can stop heroes gone rogue, government agencies gone wrong, and nuclear reactors going boom.

Each enemy group has its trademark features, perhaps several if the group is large and diverse. The Skulls and Hellions are more or less the same people, except one group is using drugs to boost itself up and the other is using mystic artifacts; one has dark bosses, the other has flaming bosses. Overdose on those drugs and you can join the Trolls, your super strong freaks on generic-brand meth and PCP. The Trolls come out from under the bridges of Skyway City to rumble with the Outcasts in The Hollows; the Outcast gang specializes in the four elements. The Circle of Thorns is everywhere with almost all the most annoying powers in the game, with a varieties of mages, demons, and ghosts. How about endurance-draining robots or their later cousins, the psychic robots?

The only thing missing that you’d expect is nazis, who were consumed by a different group of fascists (time-traveling Italians, in this case). The Fifth Column will return.

I have stated my love for Striga Isle before. I still have not run through all of Croatoa, which is supposed to be some of the hardest content in the game (it was never re-balanced after all the players were “re-balanced”).

Paragon City is a remarkably diverse place, where the city planners were presumably being mind-controlled by far too many groups at once. One section of the city is dominated almost entirely by a park, where the grass is kept neatly mown despite the mutants, zombies, gangs, robots, and giant alien slime beasts. Next door is a district of skyscrapers, which borders a district of multi-level freeway overpasses. We are just hoping that the ghost-shrouded district off the island neighborhood fixes itself. There are multiple devastated zone and a mystic forest out of Celtic myth. The secret volcano lair is off-shore. Werewolves and aliens walk freely around the upscale neighborhood, which is surrounded by hills filled with nature elementals and mystic sacrifices.

And people live there.

There are multiple story arcs per level, each of which has a story to tell. These are where you learn all about the backstory. One contact helps you delve into the origins of the Sky Raiders. Another sends you against the local leader of the Council and the to which he has subordinated himself. Why is the Banished Pantheon so keen on getting that scroll, and what pantheon is that? Where are all these robots coming from? What is the Rikti, really? There is much to learn about the forces at play.

And then there are task forces, giant monsters, historical plaques, and all the hand-designed tidbits that designers love to add. If you need to add spawns all around this zone, why not have some of them be special things, where you can get an idea of why these villains are here and doing something. Or there are a lot of enemies just wandering around, waiting for your heroics.

Have you crushed the forces of evil lately?

: Zubon

(Please remember, comments may be moderated for Shiny Happy Week posts. This is a festival of joy, not complaints.)

9 thoughts on “Some Things City of Heroes Did/Does Right”

  1. While I have my own axes to grind with the game, I will keep this positive by listing the things I liked.

    The graphics were pretty. Some places were down right stunning to look at. And movement felt pretty fluid, as well as intuitive. I’ve tried all the travel powers available, and each one is fun in it’s own right.

    Combat was fun. It was fast, furious, and engaging.

    This was the first game where I played a support character, and had a good time at it too. Nothing like healing your tank up in the blink of an eye.

    The missions, they got repetitious at times. However there were so many ones available, of completely different types, that it was not really that noticed.

  2. Biggest thing I enjoy –

    Doesn’t get stuck on the “healer/tank/damage” concept. Sure, you can build such a Holy Trinity group, but you don’t need to – and may not even want to. One class that’s normally considered a ‘protecting’ class (heals, accuracy debuffs, defense debuffs) has an option or two which focuses mainly on boosting team speed and damage.

    It’s a very, very nice change.

  3. Sidekicking / Exemplaring == one of the best MMO features ever. PLAY WITH YOUR FRIENDS! LEVELS ARE NOT MORE IMPORTANT THAN FRIENDS!

  4. I too have an axe to grind with this game, but I’ll try and keep it positive.

    I’m curious about one thing you said as it seems to contradict what I remember…. do enhancements now scale with you so that you have no weak levels just before you buy new ones (level 31, 36, 41, 46 were the weak levels)?

    Character creation is good. Sidekicking/Exemplar is excellent. Those two are the only positives for my mind.

  5. Also, extra double-plus agreed on both the ‘horde of enemies’ approach to NPC opposition and the minion/lt./boss level division. Frankly, both of these techniques should be viewed as signifcant refinements to the overall scheme of this sort of MMO design and deserve to be widely stolen^H^H^H^Himitated.

  6. Enhancement Diversification changed that. Outside of unique builds that benefit from very varied enhancements, you only see a five or six percent difference, instead of the massive difference it used to be.

  7. You do still have weaker levels, although as blue says, that is a smaller difference now that you are not six-slotting for damage. Relative to other games, though, they are not terribly weak levels, and they only seem especially weak compared to the levels where you get your bonus. That is, level+3 enhancements are not easily accessible at every level, and the times when that is the case should probably be viewed as a bonus, rather than as a penalty the rest of the time.

    Provided that you have money, there is no reason why levels 31, 36, etc. should be rather weak. You can buy level 30, 35, etc. enhancements in the shops. It is just that you plan to upgrade to 35s at 32, so you suffer instead of spending; characters past the first need not so suffer. (Personally, my weak level comes at 32, 37, etc. because I buy and combine rather than buying and replacing.)

    There are two things that reduce this problem further: new slots and found enhancements. If you fill new slots with the best you can buy at the time, you have 6-12 enhancements that are still good when upgrade time comes. Also, as you play, enemies drop SOs, along with every AV. I once had four characters filled with level+4 enhancements, waiting for me to level so that I could plug them in (Croatoa TF, Barracuda farming).

  8. COH is a decent game you just have to get into the challenges. Often I find as a runner of an SG it takes coordinating a lot of people with no patience and placating them like little school kids because we have to wait 15 minutes to beat up the big bad guy.

    Otherwise it’s all good and know my group will take on the worst of it and get the impossible done. YAR! The Arcanum!

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