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Ambre's blogroom on

A place to share my ideas, expectations, thoughts and impressions about my favorite gaming genre : MMORPGs. I plan to write articles about the games I play, the new MMO releases, but also some meta-theory about MMO design and virtual worlds.

Author: Ambre

City of Heroes : an underrated gem

Posted by Ambre Thursday August 12 2010 at 7:48PM
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City of Heroes is a Super-Hero comic genre MMORPG that was launched in 2004, and which is about to release its second major expansion, Going Rogue. Even if it's considered by many an old game by now, it has proven that in MMORPGs quality, depth and content can easily withstand the test of time.

City of Heroes has pretty decent graphics, even if they're not the most shiny and up-to-date ones, they should not prevent any MMO fan to still enjoy the game today. It has unique mechanics, a huge character building system, tons of content, and a pretty friendly community. As every game it has its strong and weaker points, and as every game it's definitely not for everybody. But considering the uniqueness and the depth of this MMO in a genre where too many games look dangerously the same nowadays, it's not something a true MMO fan should pass on lightly. I'll try in this article to summarize both its qualities as its flaws, so every player should be able to make his own opinion and see if it's worth giving it a try or not.


Customization and character building

If you love customization, if you want your character to look unique, to feel unique, to actually perform in a unique way, then this is your game. I cannot insist enough on this aspect of the game. A true CoH player, most of the time will find other MMO games pretty lackluster in terms of the narrow corridors they want your character to stick in : pick a race, a class, an hair color and a few talents and that's it. Well not in City of Heroes.

In CoH, not only you're character will have its unique apparence (and after having leveled tons of different characters I still have to find someone who make similar costumes as mine). But the creation system allow you to pretty much create your own class, choosing an archetype, a primary powerset, a secondary powerset, only that resulting in more than 500 hundred different possibilities. Of course a Fire/Regen scrapper and a Spines/Invulnerability one will both deal damage mostly in the melee range, but believe me they do not play the same at all. And even when you've made this choice of your primary and secondary powers, it's still up to you which powers you'll pick and how you will enhance each of them. At the end the build customization is almost infinite... well not completely, but believe me you can play this game several years without having the feeling you've gone through all of it.


(In CoH, you can also customize the appearance of your powers)


Games like WoW have popularized a certain aspect of building a character, that is mainly picking talents and choosing the right gear for a maximum efficiency. Eventually you will not have to really think about it, it's simpler to just look on the forums and copy what is considered the best min/max build of the moment. In CoH building a character is not only a science, it's also an art. There are so many possibilities for just one character, noone can tell you which one you should pick, or what exactly you have to do. It's also something you can put alot of time and thought in, and still learn new things constantly year after year. Even if one year ago, I thought I had a solid grasp on how to build my toons, right now with more experience I would choose completely different approaches in many cases.

It can be confusing at the beginning, and it's not always easy to understand if you're making the right choice or you're gimping your character, but the player community in CoH is one of the most informative and helpful I've ever seen in any game so far. Just ask your questions in game, or even better on the boards, they will answer.


(An example of an enhancement build in CoH)


Team dynamics and instanced missions

City of Heroes is a true team based MMO, and that does not mean you cannot solo : you can, and you can even solo most of the content. But it's so much better with a team (it makes the leveling most of the time faster too), that City of Heroes players mostly level in teams. Also CoH has the most unique team dynamics I have yet to see in any MMORPG. It blows out of the water the holy trinity of tank/dps/healer allowing so many other possibilities. You can freely mix tanking, dpsing, controls, debuffs, buffs & healing to create the most efficient team. In some situations a pure debuff team will manage to achieve things a classic tank, dps, heal one would really struggle to : controls and debuffs are very strong roles in CoH, they can make the most scaring enemy packs pretty much harmless.

There are many situations when a healer or a tank is not needed at all. And this is one of the most interesting point in this game : you usually play in teams up to 8 players to go through most of the content, and each time it's a different experience. At lower levels you often see new players thinking the classic way : 'well before we start this mission, we need a tank, and a healer'. Now you don't, because you have no idea for example what the Dark defender in your team will be able to do to those enemies, and you'd better take a few more blasters to burn mobs even faster ! The fact is you have ways of dealing with enemies in this game that do not exist at all elsewhere. It's not just about tanking their attacks, dpsing them and healing their damage. You don't believe me ? Well try a Mind/Kinetics controller for example : you'll be surprised !

Most of the content in the game is instanced, and you run it with your team. But it still keeps a real sense of freedom, because the game possess many large open zones, you can fly, super-run or super-jump through, go talk to your contacts, and you can also hunt mobs outside when you want. Yet it's not the new popularized model of leveling you're going to find in most recent games : solo questing in an open world. Never will any contact ask you to bring him 10 wolf tails or 10 bad guys watches. Instead, you run through many different instanced missions, and usually in 8 man teams for getting the best of it.

Do not worry, finding other people to play with is relatively easy. The community there is very friendly, really like to team, just be sure to choose a very active server like Freedom or Virtue, so you'll be able to find PuGs almost 24/7, whatever level or build you are.


(A CoH team in action...)


Player generated content & unique mechanics

CoH is one of the only MMO around that allows players to generate their own content and entirely level through it with their friends if they want, or run the content of other people. It's called the 'Mission Architect', or 'Architect Entertainment', most often abbreviated as AE. It's your choice if you prefer to run the developpers content ,or missions created by other players. Almost each zone of the game contains an 'AE' building that allows you to do that, create your own stories, run other players stories.

PS : Note that this has been the subject for quite a controversy when it was first introduced, because many players exploited the system to get the maximum rewards for a minimum effort. The devs did not very well handle the situation either, while tolerating it at the beginning, they suddenly went to punish some of their players very harshly, going as far as to delete characters, which was very badly received by the community, and never completely stopped the exploiters. It created quite an uproar, many arguments, and even today the question of the liberty of players to generate their own content is not completely answered. Still this feature is totally unique to the MMORPG genre as far as I know, and despite all its turbulent history, it's really worth checking.

Also City of Heroes has been the first MMO to introduce other very innovative game mechanics many years ago, that have slowly begun to get integrated in more recent games.

Achievements who were introduced in World of Warcraft Wrath of the Lich King expansion, have actually been an integrant part of CoH since its beginning, where they're called badges.

Another example is the sidekicking option which automatically scales the level of your teamates to the level of your team leader. You play with a friend who has double the playtime of yours and he always outlevels you in MMOs ? No problem, not only you'll always be able to play and enjoy the game with him, run the same content as him, but also each of you will keep on leveling at their own speed.

The auto-scaling instance system also makes sure that the difficulty, the size of the mob spawn is always up to your team size. You started a mission alone, but suddently a few friends join you and enter the mission : the pack of mobs you'll fight will grow at the same time, accordingly to your new team size. All those mechanics look so obvious when you already know them, you sometime do not understand how they cannot have become mainstream yet. But here they are, and they've been working in CoH for many years already.


But this game has no loot, inventory or craft ?

It's often a critic we can read from people who do not really know the game (or knew it at an early stage), but it's not true. There is some loot, items and craft, they are just not like in most of the other games. The loot system in CoH is not based on items that will change your appareance, because you entirely control your appearance from the costume creator, and believe me it's so much better. It's based around enhancements that modify the way your powers work. Imagine your hero can cast a Fireball for example, well you can decide if you want to slot an enhancement that will boost the damage of your Fireball, or its accuracy, its range, its recharge... That is the enhancement system. And some of those enhancements at higher levels can be extremely powerful, as well as extremely rare and expensive.

The crafting system is related to how you create specific enhancements (called Invention Origin or IOs) and it adds another huge amount of depth to character building. Invention Origin sets allow you to tweak almost everything on a character, his accuracy, the recharge cooldowns of its powers, his running speed, his defense... etc, not only power by power but also on a global level.

The fact that enhancements are not bound to your character creates also a very active economy based on the exchange of rare IO sets and recipes, and marketeering in CoH is a strong part of the game for most veteran players.


(Playing a Claws/Dark Armor scrapper in a mission...)


Perfect ? Nothing is...

Most of the things I've written so far could give the impression that CoH is a perfect game, that has absolutely no flaw. Of course it's not true. The game has its problems, and although they're in some way subjective (what could be a very annoying problem for one person, might be nothing for another one), most people will agree the game has some weak points :

  • Lack of endgame : endgame is actually a relatively recent concept in MMOs (it was not that common before World of Warcraft introduced it). And not every MMO has chosen to go through the level cap raise every year. I really prefer the way CoH has been sticking with its 50 levels until today : in CoH you can actually really finish a character, its gear will not get outdated every 3 months. But it's also true than once your character is 50, and well slotted with the best enhancements available, there is not much left to do. The new player might find there are quite some things, but for the veteran player it's really not that much. Also many players got recently disappointed when they anounced that the new expansion Going Rogue will not add much for the high level characters, but its main new zones will be level 1-20.

  • It's not a PvP game : the PvP is pretty much dead in CoH nowadays. It used to be kind of special, very fast paced, unbalanced, hardcore, with odd mechanics, and it definitely had its fans. But they tried in a catastrophic patch (Issue 13) to make it more casual and more similar to the other games : it utterly failed. Most of the PvP community has quit, and what is left of the PvP system is nowadays barely playable due to much too heavy diminishing returns and counter-intuitive mechanics. And unfortunately, they never had the courage (it takes some...) to revert their changes to the old PvP format.

  • The beginning of the game is not the most fun part, and unfortunately many new players never pass this barrier. When your super-hero is low level (below 20) you do not always feel super. You have weak enhancements at your disposal that do not make much of a difference when you try to tweak your powers, and you often run into annoying endurance problems... The game is so much better past levels 20-30. Also note that their free trial is really limited, it does not allow you to level past level 14 and it will never show you the best side of the game, that's really too bad. It's almost certain however that Going Rogue with its new level 1-20 zones will improve the early game experience. Although I'm not sure if it will be available for trial players, most likely not.

  • The content can feel repetitive for some players : it's highly subjective, but in some ways you could say that most of the missions look the same : enter a building, kill baddies, find and click a glowing item. It's a point where a game like Dungeons & Dragons Online got really original designing unique kind of instances, but that's less the case in CoH. For some players it will not be a problem : Diablo used to have repetitive and randomly generated content and was still highly addictive, for others it will be an issue. You'll have to try it to judge by yourself.


(A Fire/Kinetics Controller is one of the most popular combination in the game...)


Summary (TL;DR)


You should definitely try this game if :

  • You're looking for something new and original, different from the more recent mainstream games.

  • You like customization, and you do not mind spending some time tweaking your character, thinking about your build, studying original and sometime complex game mechanics.

  • You want a team based MMO, and you do not mind repeating similar kind of instanced missions as long as the team dynamics are fun and varied.

  • You like to level many different kind of characters, you also like the idea that you can actually 'finish' a character and move on to another one.


However this game might not be your cup of tea if :

  • You do not like instanced missions, you want an open world and solo quests.

  • You're a 'one character' player, you do not like to reroll and you expect alot of endgame content to keep on playing your main.

  • You're a PvP player, and for you leveling a toon and tweaking it is only a step before competing with other players.

  • You don't want to invest any money in the game and plan to use the free trial only : in this case unfortunately you will not see the best side of the game.

The Fragmentation of MMO communities

Posted by Ambre Tuesday August 10 2010 at 1:12PM
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MMOs have changed. The kind of game we used to play more than 5 years ago is not anymore. Mainly because the players themselves have changed. MMO games have developped a much more casual side and have attracted a whole new population that would not have played the older games. Players more than 5 years ago used to be passionate gamers, and they formed very tight communities. Right now in a MMO there is a whole range of different players not looking at all for the same kind of gaming experience : casual, hardcores, PvErs, PvPers, very young players, older ones, newbies, veterans, couples or families playing together... etc. And all those kind of players don't always mesh well together, they tend to regroup with the people they already know and form smaller closed groups inside a bigger anonymous community.

I was not that long ago excited about Aion's release. Paradoxically I was less excited by the game itself, as I knew it would not be really innovative, but more by being a part of something new : a server community. On older games, people leveled together, used to know each other by chatting and then formed guilds according to their preferences and friendships that were made inside the game. Each new game starting, or new server starting was the opportunity of taking part in something new and meeting other people. There was excitement not only for the game, but also for the community aspects.


(A MMO crowd...)


Those times have changed however, and it's no more what it used to be. Now we see things that would not have made sense at all a few years ago. Guilds recruiting months before the game has even started, not even caring to know who they recruit. Guilds spamming the general chat the first evening on the pre-release to recruit anyone willing to join, just in order to grow fast. Most guildies or group of friends playing together on Teamspeak or Ventrilo totally ignoring the chat or the other players around. What used to be something really open with people eager to meet and know each other has become closed and narrow. If you form a team to complete some group quest nowadays and try to chat with other people you most of the time hit a wall. They just do not care. I'm not talking about the people who cannot write, spell or play decently, they are another issue, but even the most serious and competent players are already at the same time on Teamspeak or Ventrilo talking with their friends or their guild and will just communicate with the rest of the server in a very minimalistic way: 'Hi' and 'bye'.


That's what we can call a fragmentation of the MMO communities. Players tend to regroup with other players of the same kind (playtimes/age/PvE or PvP/old friends... etc), and avoid other interactions. It's the same thing in our modern societies, and there is absolutely nothing you can do against that. I have noticed that most of my good MMO friends also act this way : they're not really interested in meeting other people or interacting with them, they're already happy with our little group of players on Teamspeak where we have a great atmosphere. Still, I feel we miss alot.


There has been those last years such a terrible drop in the MMO communities quality, politeness, helpfulness, generosity having been totally dropped off for much lower quality behaviour standings, you cannot totally blame players for avoiding interactions with random players they do not know. Still, I think it's a mistake. The more you go in that direction, the more fragmented MMO communities become.  We may all end up playing with only 2 or 3 friends when they are online, and alone when they're not, or in guilds where basically noone cares about each other, but just participate in order to get the best gear possible. Feeling alone in a crowd when noone is going to talk to you, but asking for your money, and therefore you're not going to answer to anyone, isn't it what our modern towns have become ? That's not what MMO environments used to be a few years ago, but that is what they're changing into. Anonymous crowds of players running around pursuing their own little interest, only talking to a few already known people.


(An anonymous crowd...)


That's definitely not something we can be happy with. Most of the older players have this syndrom of their 'first MMO where everything looked so shiny and magic', and that they cannot find back. Of course this can be explained as a 'first time' syndrom, that is before things used to get known by heart. And even if it's probably the main reason, it's not the only one in my opinion. Communities used to be more friendly, more eager to communicate, to share things, to experience and play together, to meet other people and make new friends. Each new start, server or game launch was a start from zero, and everything was possible. This played a large part in making the older games full of excitement and adventure, even if they had rough and flawed mechanics compared to our standards today.


I do not see a solution to this change on a global scale, and I do not think there is any. However there is always a solution on a personnal level : sometime unplug your Teamspeak, use your fingers to write, invite players you do not know to party with you and talk to them while partying. I do it often. It's disappointing a large part of the time, I will not lie to you. But for the few very good people I have met this way those last 2 or 3 years, I would do it again if I had to. I will keep on writing to other people in MMO games. Will you too ?


PS : This article was written one year ago, and was never published. Unfortunately I don't think it has become really dated in any way. I just edited a few things before publishing. And to be completely honest I must notice that this last year I've myself become a bit more anonymous and distant  in MMOs with players I do not know already...