How City of Heroes Broke Me (Or Why I Haven’t Been Able to Get Into MMOs since it went offline in 2012)
By and large I do not game much on a computer. They require far too much upgrading and maintenance in order to adequately enjoy the gaming experience over any kind of reasonable length of time. I far more enjoy the simplicity of console gaming, as the gaming system works as it is expected to with no upgrades needed, just the purchase of a newer console every 7 to 10 years or so. However, there was once a time when I played a handful of games on PC and I really enjoyed them. Starcraft (still my favorite strategy game ever), The Movies (I truly miss Lionhead Studios), Leisure Suit Larry (don’t judge me, the original Sierra games were hilarious), and Starship Titanic (you just can’t go wrong with Douglas Adams) were some of my favorite PC exclusive games way back in the day. I know these game titles are dating me in a huge way and I don’t care. I’m old. I accept this. Moving on… As online gaming became more prevalent in the mid 2000’s, it gave rise to the MMO (massive multiplayer online) game, which could host thousands of players in the same game at the same time all playing together. I tried a ton of MMOs at the time, but the only one that kept my attention after a month or so was City of Heroes, a superhero based MMO created by Cryptic Studios (later updated and maintained by Paragon Studios) and distributed by NC Soft. City of Heroes allowed you to create your own hero and go on an epic adventure to help save Paragon City. The premise was simple enough, but the hook came in the large amount of customization available and the surprisingly deep power system that allowed you to fine tune your character’s abilities to be exactly what you wanted them to be. It is no small secret that I love superhero comics, so City of Heroes was right up my (crime infested) alley, so to speak.
How Did City of Heroes Break Me?
The simple answer: City of Heroes was too good. The best customization in an MMO at the time, total flexibility in how your progressed your character’s traits and abilities, great online team ups, and a deep narrative that seemingly went on forever. That’s the quick version, but I don’t believe that this does the game justice. Let’s drill down and get specific about why City of Heroes (in my humble opinion) was the greatest MMO that ever existed.
- Customization – You could easily spend hours in the character creation tools fine tuning the look of your character from hair styles, body shape, power sets, facial features, costume types, custom symbols, and custom colors for everything (hair, skin, costume, everything). This level of customization was so deep that you could precisely set each individual body feature: the size of your cranium, the shape of your hips, whether you were ripped or mildly athletic build, your height, the size of your brow, and so much more. It was an extraordinary character creator, and one that has not been done better in any other video game I have played since. Here’s a brief video that shows some of the depth of the character creator tools.
- Power Sets – If you spent hours setting up your perfectly designed character, you likely spent as much time planning out the skills and power sets for your hero (or villain). Initially you could choose from the following archetypes: Blaster, Controller, Defender, Blaster, and Tanker. There were inherent pros and cons for each archetype, and selecting one that matched your style of play was key in ensuring that you would enjoy your character in the long run. After hitting level 20, you could also create a character with the epic archetypes Peacebringer and Warshade. Upon selecting your archetype, you then selected the basis of your origin which could be Science, Mutation, Magic, Technology, or Natural. Each origin gave you access to a unique set of skills, tools, and advantages. If you wanted to be more like Batman, choose technology to get access to cool gadgets. If you wanted to be more like Wolverine, choose mutation to gain access genetic alterations and secondary mutations. Bottom line, choosing your origin was as equally as important as your archetype. After your archetype and origin were selected, then it was time to select your primary and secondary powers. I won’t even attempt to list all of the choices for powers, but rest assured if it sounded remotely comic book-like, you could probably arrange it in City of Heroes. Super strength, super speed, telekinesis, flight, teleportation, invulnerability, fire, electricity, weapons master, martial arts, and so much more were available to chosen from in some capacity throughout your time playing the game. The level of power customization was deep, and it only got deeper as the game added new content. There was even an update that allowed you to custom merge and make power sets. Again, the systems in City of Heroes were crazy deep and absolutely engaging in all the best ways.
- On Line Play Was Amazing – This sounds funny to say today, but in 2004 having solid online play was a big deal. This was during the golden age of 56k modem dial up internet and the humble beginnings of 1 MB “high speed” cable internet connections! The servers all ran exceptionally well, and at least 3 of them were always hugely populated with thousands of players. If you wanted a more relaxed environment, you could always hop on a server with less players. Teaming up with friends or random players was easy, and text chatting was simple, effective, and fully customisable (huge shocker there). If you and your friends wanted to become a permanent team, you could create your own super group with a fancy name and a fully customisable headquarters. Gameplay could involve simple missions, super villain boss fights, or massive raids that could take hours to complete. It was simply comic book hero nirvana playing with all of the other heroes and creating your own super hero teams. On top of excellent play, NC Soft was always really good about communicating down times with the players, so you always knew when the servers would be down for maintenance. This practice is commonplace now, but it wasn’t always so back in the mid 2000’s. All in all, it was never difficult to find a group of players to team up with, or to have your friends in your super group help you on your journey through the games huge narrative. Here’s a brief gameplay teaser that shows some of the awesome that City of Heroes offered up:
- City of Heroes Was Freaking Huge, Both in Scope and in the Story– So much content. More than you could possibly imagine. A ton of maps to explore, and all of them were large and full of all sorts of trouble. These maps included cityscapes, tunnels, magical areas, mythological spots, time travel to the past, other dimensions, dilapidated areas, battle arenas, and more. There were unique stories baked into each locale, and some stories that were unique based on decisions that you made. At one point, you could “go rogue,” which allowed you to play as essentially an anti-hero with no definitive alliance to heroes or villains and that opened up even more new missions and story content. Over the years, they added in an unbelievable amount of story updates that included massive wars, alien invasions, and sweeping super villain take overs. All of this was in addition to the content that was already there. City of Heroes was massive, so much so that I never made it to through all of the endgame content. I dropped hundreds of hours into the game with multiple heroes and I made it deep into the game, but never to the point that I ran out of new missions and content to explore. There was so much to do, and it was all amazing.
- There Were Constant Updates And They Were Awesome – Labeled as “Issues” to fit in with the idea that it was a comic book universe, each issue added more content to the game. Issue #1 raised the level cap, introduced new villains, and added a tailor so that you could make custom costumes for your hero. Issue #4 added PvP and a battle arena. Issue #6 completely updated the graphics engine to support higher end PCs and allowed you to create Super Groups with fully customisable bases. Issue #11 added time travel to the game, which allowed for you to redo older missions to get any special items and bonuses for completing them, as well as adding customisable animations for your weapons and powers used. Issue #18 set up a new system for getting different kinds of missions, and it also rolled out the “Going Rogue” changes that allowed the player to take on the roll of anti-hero with no immediate allegiance to the the hero or villain path. Issue #23 ended the Praetorian War (a big story that ran throughout the whole run of the game), killed off some major formative NPC characters, and promised to swing the series in a whole new direction. Unfortunately, Issue #24 never came out and we didn’t get a chance to see what happened in the aftermath of the war that we had all been fighting in for years. Over the 8 years that the game was online, their were 23 total updates, and they all added huge value to the game. Basically, City of Heroes had a huge story that only got bigger as they added new content, and as it expanded more the game just got better and better.
Those points alone are the foundation of why City of Heroes was such a tremendous gaming experience for me. Above and beyond that, there were a ton of great memories, events, and epic battles that occurred with good friends, the minutia of which cannot be easily described in bullet points but were absolutely paramount to why I continually returned to City of Heroes throughout its 8 year run from 2004 to 2012. I tried after City of Heroes to find a new MMO home, but none of the other games that I tried had the depth or community that I had come to love in City of Heroes. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and on 2012 I was there when the servers for City of Heroes went off line on November 30th. Seemingly the game was still making money, at least that is what the journalists were saying at the time, but regardless of the reported success, City of Heroes was shut down. Since then, I have been broken when it comes to MMOs. None of the ones that I have tried have even come remotely close to satisfying me like City of Heroes did. It was too good and set the bar too high. Even to this day, I have not played an MMO that is its match. Maybe one day…
If you’d like to know more in general about City of Heroes, you can watch this series of video by YouTube gamer Lord Tristan. These videos are lengthy, but they cover the game in great detail and help to explain just how huge, expansive, and customisable City of Heroes was. Here is the first one:
Surely There Have Been Other Hero MMOs…
To quote Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China, “There have been others, to be sure. There are always others, are there not?” I dug in deep into a handful of MMOs after City of Heroes, many of them hero based but none of them held my interest for very long.
- DC Universe Online – It is a fun action game that frankly just doesn’t have enough content, unless grinding endlessly for high end gear is your idea of fun. You can complete the main narrative in about 20-ish hours (or less), and then after that it’s all endgame grinding for expensive gear. The game is fun for what it is, and as a free to play game you can’t complain too much. The character create is decent and the powers are limited but effective. If you don’t mind a ton (and I do mean a ton) of repeating the same missions over and over again to get the in game currency needed to buy the gear you want, then you might enjoy DC Universe Online past the core narrative.
- Star Trek Online – I know this game is supposed to be an MMO, but I played it as mostly as a single player game. It’s oddly only an MMO in name only. Sure you can co-op play the game with people online, but you don’t have to. The missions are broken up into “episodes,” which makes story progression feel like the Star Trek TV series. I give this MMO credit for having a fairly robust character creator tool set. The person to person combat is not all that great, but the starship gameplay is quite good. Much like DC Universe, there’s not much to do once you burn through the story missions, which unfortunately doesn’t take very long to do. If you love Star Trek, it’s a good free-to-play dive into the universe, but it just doesn’t have a lot of content to keep you playing for long.
- Champions Online – The spiritual successor to City of Heroes. It was developed by Cryptic, and was touted as being an updated hero MMO that would better than its predecessor in all ways. This was unfortunately not apparent in the game that they released. The character create was not as good, the powers were oddly harder to manage, the cel-shaded look cheap and somehow worse than City of Heroes, and ultimately the game was a much smaller experience over all. Frankly, the Champions Online experience was underwhelming and supremely disappointing.
- Marvel Heroes Online – This game is a Diablo clone that’s been around on the PC for a while. I just recently tried it out on PS4. It is fun to play, but there is not much to it in the scheme of things. There is no character create, as you play the game as one of Marvel’s famous super heroes. The game is free-to-play, but with a caveat: you can play any hero up to level 10, but if you want to unlock the full character you have to spend rare in game currency, or outright buy the characters with real money. The economy in the game is terrible. Essentially you’d have to drop way more hours into the game than it is worth to actually earn enough in game currency to unlock many characters, and the cost for unlocking characters with real money averages to about $9 per character. It’s ridiculous, on the PS4 you’d have to pay over $200 to unlock all of the characters. On top of that, if you want to change the appearance of your hero, that can cost real money too (unless you get super lucky and unlock the exact outfit you want via a rare loot box drop… good luck with that). The story is non-existent as it merely exists to get you from point A to point B so you can start up a new character and grind it out all over again. Really it’s just a loot fest where you beat up hordes of bad guys and bosses in order to get gear to make your character more powerful. I’m not a fan of grinding for gear, so I put this game down for awhile after completing the main “story” one time. I pick it up and mess around with it occasionally because I have a friend that still plays it.
I played a few other MMOs along the way, but none for long enough to even write in length about. APB was just terrible, not even fun in the slightest. Final Fantasy XI & XIV were absolute snooze fests that I literally fell asleep while playing… multiple times. Oni Giri on PS4 is an anime inspired free-to-play MMO that didn’t have much of a community and got repetitive in the first 10 hours, so I quit playing it as it progressively diminished in fun rapidly after starting it. Elder Scrolls Online was not my bag either, but to be fair a fantasy based MMO was going to have to be special to keep me interested, and I’d rather play Skyrim again than play watered down Skyrim with other players. I’ve tried folks, I really have tried. I just can’t find another MMO that has the breadth of content, the rich community, and the absolutely mind boggling customization options that City of Heroes had. City of Heroes broke me, because it gave me an MMO that was so good that no other MMO feels as if it is in the same league. All of the other MMOs have felt shallow in comparison.
There is a pirate based MMO coming to the Xbox One that I am interested in checking out: Sea of Thieves. Made by the fine talented folks at Rare, this looks to be an MMO that merges there fun cartoony sensibilities with a wide open tropical world full of danger, wonder, the undead, sea beasties, hidden treasure, puzzles, mystical maps, and a whole lot of other pirates all trying to be the richest of them all. It looks and sounds exciting, and each new video of the game looks better than the one before. As long as it has a robust amount of content up front, and they consistently add to more throughout the year, then I think it has a shot at being a really fun game to play for a good long while. I love pirates, so kind of like how super heroes easily draw me in, Sea of Thieves has my interest by default. Hopefully I can find a handful of friends in Tortuga who are willing to try it out with me when it finally releases in 2018. For now, check out the latest gameplay walkthrough from E3 this year.
What I Would Like To See Happen In The Near Future:
I keep hoping that City of Heroes will return in some meaningful capacity. NC Soft has brought City of Heroes characters to their new MOBA game Master X Master, so there is reason to hope that they might revive the City of Heroes series. You know, the funny thing is I’m not greedy enough to want a brand new City of Heroes 2. I would be supremely happy with a relaunch of the original City of Heroes with new content updates throughout the year. I’d be even more happy if they would port City of Heroes to dedicated gaming consoles. With cross-play between consoles becoming a thing that is happening, players on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and a Windows based PC could all play the game together. It would be a win-win situation for everyone, especially since many console gamers will have likely never have played the game before. A relaunch including consoles could open up all sorts of new revenue streams for NC Soft. Do it NC Soft. Bring back City of Heroes!
If anyone from NC Soft is reading this, just know that there are still a ton of us City of Heroes fans waiting for the game to come back so that we can give you our hard earned money and get back to fighting (or causing) crime again.
And for those of you who were there, here is a brief video of when the servers for City of Heroes finally went off line permanently on November 30th, 2012. A little part of me dies on the inside every time I watch this…