Thursday, April 29, 2004

City of Heroes (PC, *****)

I'm recovering from staying up till 12:30 AM playing City of Heroes, then got up to play it again from 7:00 to 8:30. What can I say? I'm hooked.

I hooked up with my friend Jeff, who was in the beta and plays "Captain Liberal". (Basically his origin story is nearly identical to that of Captain America, except that he was created in the 50's to fight McCarthyism rather than Nazis in the 40's.) As the newly created character "Seculo", I spent a tremendous amount of time designing my cosume, then went through the tutorial, and finally hooked up with Captain Liberal to fight bad guys in the neo-Nazi district.

If you have the chance, it's definitely a good idea to start playing the game with a higher level friend who can show you the ropes. Your first few levels will probably go more smoothly.

Costume creation

Before you start playing, you get to build your character, starting with height and build (a slider from "burly" to "athletic" - meaning "skinny"). You will also be choosing what kind of origin your powers have: magic, mutation, science, technology, or natural. Seculo is recovering from being an evil lawyer, so I chose a natural origin -- meaning he wasn't born or mutated into powers, but trained himself up like Batman. I made him kind of short and wiry, with glasses and a goatee. Then I gave him a blue and gray themed costume, with a "scales of justice" symbol on the front. The only major flourish I put on his costume was a striping style on his boots that the game described as "tiger", but since they're mostly gray, they just look like slightly funky boots.

My future heroes may have a wilder style, and there's lots of variation to choose from. You can be enormous and lumbering, like the Hulk. You can be bare chested, or your clothes can have all sorts of crazy patterns on them, or fins, or whatever. Your skin can be any color; and it can have blood veins all over, or robotic circuitry, etc. Your face can have features like a cat, or goth eye makeup, or even clown makeup. (Super Gene Simmons to the rescue!) I even saw some superheroes running around who looked like nebulous glowy things. Think of, I don't know, Electro after he lights up.

You can make all kinds of changes to your costume and body, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that you can be absolutely anything you can imagine. The logos are chosen from a list, and although there are a whole lot of them, I was disappointed that you can't design and import your own from Photoshop or something. Also, there didn't seem to be very much variation between face styles, though of course you can customize your hair (mohawks! bald guys!), facial hair, helmets, and glasses or visors. You can also choose to have a permanent grin or grimace plastered on you.


I'll describe how the power and levelling systems work after I tell you about how my game went.

After finishing a quick tutorial and customizing my character's powers (more about that later) I left the training area and went to meet my first "contact". This guy is your Commissioner Gordon, if you will. He says "Hi Seculo, can you go beat up five 5th Column bad guys?" or "Seculo! We need you to investigate this old abandoned warehouse and get some information off the computers!"

Your contact and your preferred enemies depends on which origin you chose. As a "natural", I met with a plainclothes crimefighter who is most interested in having me fight the 5th Column, which I mentioned is a neo-Nazi group. There is one gang of villains for each origin, so magic heroes will be fighting "hellions", which are a demon gang, and science heroes will be fighting robots, etc. At least at first, the contact will usually tell you to go to an area where there are a lot of enemies to match your origin, although you are also free to go wherever you want.

But before I even talked to my guy, I messaged Captain Liberal to let him know I was ready to join him. He said "I'm on a mission, I'll be with you in a few minutes." I waited and familiarized myself with the area. Then he messaged me: "I'm out... I'll come join you." I wondered how, so I right clicked on his name and I got a menu that included the command "follow". Even though CL was halfway across the map, when I clicked follow my guy started running in the right direction and a little arrow appeared indicating that CL is 800 feet in the direction I'm going.

The homing interface is really handy. You can pick your own target on the city map and the target will always be shown on the main screen, and so will the current mission. The game has many different zones where you can go, and you'll only see a target or friend if it's on the same map as you.

Anyway, meeting up with CL was really easy, and we immediately joined up to form a team. Then he led me to meet my contact and get a mission. This then became the team's mission, and he could see my current mission as well as his own. The mission led us to another area of the city, so the Cap'n showed me the way to a subway system. All you have to do is click the subway, choose which zone you want to go to, and your character will hop on the next available train and poof, you're there.

Because there are lots of different servers and many zones within the server, you usually won't randomly meet a lot of other players unless you're specifically trying to find them. Champion City is populated with tons of NPCs, most of them just walking down the street going about their business. But as we travelled toward the mission, we would occasionally see little word balloons appear near us saying things like "Help! I'm being mugged!" or "Quick, finish da job before some heroes show up!" Helping out is optional. You can run toward the sound and fight the bad guys. When you start attacking, the victim will run away. But once you finish off all the guys in a group, the victim will return and say "Thanks!" or "Wow, you saved me!" or "Nice costume!" When that happens, you win influence points, which I'll talk about later.

When you fight somebody, the game automatically targets one of the bad guys and all your attacks are directed at him. You can switch targets by clicking on someone or hit tab to cycle through nearby baddies. Once you have targeted someone, you press number keys to throw a punch or use a superpower. Every action takes some time, and also has a cooldown time, so after you punch somebody you can't punch again for a couple of seconds, but you CAN use a different power right away.

Seculo specializes in mentally blasting people. Currently I have two types of mental attacks, so I switch back and forth between them when I fight, or occasionally punch people if both my blasts are in cooldown. Captain Liberal is a melee brawler and Seculo is mostly a long range supporter, so we complement each other pretty well in a fight.

When you target a bad guy, you can see what level they are. They also have have color coded names, so you can usually tell how you'll do in a fight. A green name means you will beat them handily; red means don't bother fighting them without a huge team.

The Mission

We get to the mission site and go inside. It's some kind of office building, and we're the only ones inside except for lots of bad guys. The game automatically creates a private area for you and your team when you go inside, so you won't be getting in the way of other players to "camp" spots where monsters are supposed to be. The building was a small maze with generous helpings of enemies, some tough and some not. As I've read, the game automatically customizes the enemies in a private zone so that they'll be an appropriate challenge for the level of your team.

I got some levels and items, and then we met the objective and I had to go back to my contact and get credit for winning the mission.

Character building continued

After you create a costume for yourself, the next thing you'll do is choose 1. origin, 2. hero type, 3. skill sets.

The origin does not affect what kind of powers you have, only what kinds of enemies and contacts you tend to meet. The hero type is everything.

There are five classes of hero:
* Scrappers are for players who like to go solo; they have a decent balance of attack, defense, and crowd control. If you made a hero based on Jackie Chan, you would be a scrapper.
* Blasters are ranged, high damage, low defense powerhouses. They can dish it out but can't take it. Guys with guns or energy blasts are blasters.
* Tankers are high defense, high power, but slow. The Hulk would be a tanker. Captain Liberal is a tanker.
* Defenders are your support team. They give buffs and healing to your party, and debuff enemies. In a more traditional game, defenders would be paladins. Seculo is a defender.
* Controllers are heroes who mess with people's minds. Professor X is a controller.

But wait, there's more. Each hero type has six, count 'em, six categories of PRIMARY powers, and six categories of SECONDARY powers. You choose one primary category and one secondary category, and you're stuck with that set of powers for the entire game. Each category has different levels of powers which you can buy after you level up. Presumably no category is useless, or so you'd hope.

A defender's primary powers are mostly about boosting their teammates, and secondary powers are for attacking and debuffing the enemy. Seculo specializes in healing (primary) and psychic powers (secondary). Within each category, there are something like ten powers. So that's five hero types, times six categories, times 10 powers, so I think that's 300 powers in the game, although it's probably a bit less because some types have overlapping skill trees.

Equipment and character advancement
The terminology used in the game is a little bit unusual, but once you get used to it you'll easily see how to make analogies to other RPGs. Here's a quick glossary.

Security level <=> level
Super powers <=> skill points
Super power enhancements <=> equipment (armor, weapons, etc)
Insights <=> potions and scrolls
Influence <=> gold

So here's how it works. By fighting enemies you get experience and influence (money). Get enough experience, and you can level up. On even numbered levels, new powers will be available to you from your primary and secondary trees. On odd numbered levels, you will get enhancement slots for those powers.

Each power has a number of little bubbles below it, like sockets where you can stick enhancements. When you fight, enhancement items will also occasionally pop into your inventory, usually after winning a tough battle. They aren't actually used until you "spend" them by popping them into a socket. Your enhancements can go into any appropriate power; an enhancement that increases flight speed only affects the flight power, and an enhancement that increases healing can only be used on a healing power. There are also all-purpose enhancements that do things like increase a power's damage, decrease cooldown, reduce the amount of energy it takes, and so on. The higher your level, the more powerful are the enhancements you can use.

You can also obtain or buy a limited number of "insights" such as rage, luck, energy recovery, and so forth. They act as potions which give you short term boosts. You can quickly consume them using the F1-F4 keys.

Production quality

As I always point out, this is the very first MMORPG I have played since I quit Ultima Online. So I don't know how this compares to Everquest or Dark Age of Camelot, but I really like the interface and visuals. The game takes place in a fully rendered 3D city, but it isn't a big network of generic identical streets and alleys. The map is very carefully designed and most of the places I've been so far stand out on their own. A short little riff of ambient music will play when you enter a new area, but otherwise there is no background music, just background noises.

There are also gigantic statues of legendary heroes throughout the city. I mean, like, statue of liberty sized. You walk up close to one and you're at eye level with the feet. And they're everywhere.

Sorry, I just have to digress and note something amusing. When you rescue a citizens from being mugged, one of their stock phrases is "Wow thanks, I've never met a real superhero before!" I want to smack them and say "What? The place is called Paragon City, the whole economy seems to revolve around heroes, there are giant freakin' statues of one on every block, there's an entire plaza full of heroes just two streets away, and you've NEVER MET ONE?"

Okay, got that off my chest.

Here's another cool thing: lots of preprogrammed animations you can go through. Bow, cheer, laugh, grovel, sit down and do yoga exercises, flex. There is also a "decision" menu which includes options like rock, paper, scissors, roll dice, flip coin.

Anyhow, I tried going solo a bit in the morning and didn't do so well. I think the game is definitely designed to make it easy on teams and tough on individuals. They give you lots of ways to hook up with people, in fact you can ask the game to automatically search for teammates and then other people who are near your level can find you. So far I'm only playing with Captain Liberal or alone. But this morning I was fighting some tough villains, and suddenly another blast of mind-rays came from behind me. Some midget girl came running up and joined the fight with me. Then I said thanks and healed her. That was neat. I know some people have complained that there isn't any PVP action, but the result of that is that everyone is really friendly and helpful to each other. I can see that it won't be much trouble to hook up with other players just to go for a short spin around the city.

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