The superhero, or comic book-based MMO, is a subgenre that simply hasn’t gotten enough love through the years. There are hardly even enough games out there to even populate this list! Still, I thought it would be fun this week to highlight the experiences that are on offer and also talk about my hopes for the future in this area.
#5 Champions Online
After Cryptic Studios sold the City of Heroes IP to NCsoft, Cryptic began work on its next superhero MMORPG, Champions Online. Champions, or CO, was an interesting attempt by to drive the subgenre forward. CO is a lot more action oriented, fitting for a superhero MMO, than City of Heroes was, but the game always felt like it was lacking “soul” to me. The Champions IP is just too generic and campy and I feel the overall experience suffered as a result of this. To make matters worse, balance was a nightmare due to the game’s free-form powers system.
#4 Marvel Heroes
If you follow my writing here at MMORPG.com, you’re probably surprised that Marvel Heroes is only #4 on my list. While I love Marvel Heroes and play it all the time, the game isn’t sufficiently a superhero MMO. Sure, it features Marvel superheroes and villains, but Marvel Heroes isn’t really about being a superhero. It’s a Diablo-style loot game with a ton of Marvel flavor, yes, but it really ends there. Even so, Marvel Heroes is a better overall game than Champions Online and the IP makes a significant impact. Marvel Heroes lets you play your favorite Marvel characters, which is good enough for me on many levels, but I’m still left wanting for a new true superhero MMO to splash onto the scene.
#3 DC Universe Online
Overall, I don’t enjoy DCUO as much as I do Marvel Heroes, but SOE (now Daybreak) really had some great ideas for this game in terms of nailing that superhero (or villain) experience. What I really loved about DCUO was the game’s focus on parallel quest design. Generally, the quests you do in DCUO directly counter what the opposite side is looking to do in the same area. If you’re playing a hero, you may be on a quest to defend S.T.A.R. Labs from an intrusion by a powerful supervillain, while on the flip side, as a villain, you’ll be tasked with helping said supervillain complete his scheme.
This is pretty neat on a narrative level, but it’s even more awesome when playing on a PvP server. This quest design brings hero and villain characters to the same areas of a zone at the same points in their progression, which can make for some awesome PvP encounters. Heroes and villains are meant to fight and DCUO’s quest design is a genius way of making this happen organically in the world.
#2 City of Heroes
It’s truly ironic that City of Heroes, the original superhero MMO, was still the best in its class. DCUO definitely handled PvP a great deal better than City of Heroes did, but there’s just no contest in terms of the overall experience. Many games have tried to replicate or surpass City of Heroes, but none have come close. One could spend hours just playing around in the costume creator, and despite its technical limitations when compared to competitors such as Champions Online, I always felt like I could do more with less to achieve the look and theme that I was going for. Most surprising of all was the strength of City of Heroes’ original IP. The world might seem a bit generic at first, but dig deep into the game’s areas, characters, and quest lines, and you have a rich IP full of characters and locales replete with depth and personality. More than just the gameplay, players grew attached to the characters and storylines throughout the years. City of Heroes was unique and the entire experience held up well over the years as a result. Nothing has replaced City of Heroes for me yet, which brings me to…
That’s right! This game doesn’t exist yet, but I chose to place it at the top of the list because I’m hoping this subgenre still has a better future ahead of it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t waiting with bated breath for any news on a City of Heroes revival, but it’s also true that City of Heroes had some significant flaws holding it back, mostly due to the fact that it was a game originally built for the MMO genre as it existed in 2004.
City of Heroes did a great job of filling your screen with powerful VFX to make you feel like you were truly powerful, but it would still be a tab-target MMO in a genre that is increasingly embracing its capability to deliver action-oriented combat. Given that, no subgenre of MMO benefits from action combat more than a superhero game. Instead of doing an excellent job trying to fake it, a future superhero MMO should make every stride to offer the best action combat experience MMOs can bring to the table.
Another crucial element that needs to be part and parcel of the ultimate superhero MMO is a focus on heroes vs. villains gameplay. As I mentioned earlier, DC Universe Online does a great job of this, but I feel like the ultimate superhero MMO would actually emphasize PvP as a core part of the experience. Stopping (or committing) dastardly acts in PvE is an important part of the experience (City of Villains’ Mayhem Missions were amazing) to be sure, but heroes and villains are meant to fight, and the next superhero MMO should bring that notion to the forefront.
Other than those two things, the overall City of Heroes experience is probably the best template to follow and I wouldn’t change a whole lot there. While everyone tried to copy World of Warcraft over the years to little success, I would suggest that anyone looking to make a new superhero MMO would do well to learn if not outright copy a lot of what City of Heroes did. Cryptic Studios/Paragon Studios got it right the first time and there’s no shame in building off of that excellent foundation.
How would you rank the superhero MMOs out there? What would you like to see from this subgenre in the future?