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Thursday, April 22, 2004
10:32 am EDT @Creator MightyE City of Heroes Sneak Peek
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I know the other day I promised some of you I'd give you my impressions of Lineage 2, but honestly I'm more inclined today to give you my impressions of City of Heroes from having played it a grand total of 3 hours last night.

For those who don't know, City of Heroes is an MMO where you get to play a comic book style super hero, in a crime infested city. Why so many villains choose to perpetrate their crimes in a city with a 3:1 super hero to civilian ratio, I won't know, but then if they were smart, they would probably be a super villain.

The day before last, I received an email:
Subject: City of Heroes Beta Invitation!
From: beta@coh.com
Date: 4/20/2004 5:17 AM

Enclosed within the email, as the subject suggested, was an invitation to join the CoH beta, along with a CoH beta key. Only, I hadn't signed up for the beta to the best of my recollection. Perhaps I wandered to my computer in a somnambulistic trance and requested a beta key, or perhaps I was elected for the role by the powers that be for my editorial eloquence. More likely though is that someone, possibly in a drunken stupor, accidentally put MY email address into the sign up form when they intended to put their own. In any event, I got a beta key, and figured I might as well give it a try.

I didn't have an opportunity to download the game on the day I got the email, which is a shame because beta ends today, and I imagine the servers will be down tonight if I try to play then. So that leaves me with only last evening to try out CoH.

About the first thing you do (as with most or all MMO's) is of course create a character. You get to choose your origin and archetype. Origin defines why your avatar is able to be a super hero over an ordinary citizen. The origins available are Mutant, Science, Technology, Natural, and Magic. To read up about the differences between these, head here. Those options pretty much run the gamut of comic book super heroes that I can think of. Then you get to choose your archetype, which in other games would be called your class. The archetypes are Blaster, Controller, Defender, Scrapper, and Tanker. The details for these are here.

Depending on what archetype you chose, you now get to choose a primary and secondary power school and ability. For example, you might be a Mutant Blaster in the Fire school with secondary abilities in electricity. Getting to the definition of what your class is is a pretty involved process, but it couldn't be simpler for how many options you are presented with. There's just tons and tons of options.

Next you get to choose your appearance. There's base options, Female, Male, and Huge (which is just a really butch guy, either insanely muscular or very fat, depending on how you adjust the sliders). If I thought that the origin and archetype options were intensive, the character appearance options are an order of magnitude more intensive. If you want to see every single type of appearance you can have, you'd better set aside an hour just to go through all of the options. I kid you not. Unique appearance is something that appeals to me a lot in an MMO game, and I would be very very surprised if I saw any two people with exactly the same appearance.

I'm not talking about subtle differences as in other games, where perhaps your chin juts out some more, or maybe you have puffy cheeks, or a shade darker eyes. These are honest to goodness feature changes. There's maybe 6 types of head for each of the 3 base options. For each of those heads, there's up to 4 sets of decoration to apply to it. Each of these decorations includes maybe 15 or 20 different options, some have more. Even some of the decorations have additional sub options. None of the options are subtle differences with each other, they are major feature altering changes. This same pattern is seen for the rest of the body, you can control head, torso, upper legs, and lower legs. If you want your character to look exactly like some known comic book hero, you will almost certainly be able to pull it off, minus signature logos (but don't worry, they have a pile of probably 60 or more distinct logos you can apply to your character). Hellboy, yes, Incredible Hulk, yes, Superman (minus big red S diamond) yes, Wonder Woman, yes, and on and on. Please don't do this. Be original in how you create your character, try to think of some background or history that might make your character look like he or she does. Four giant muscular green skinned, purple pantsed guys, named "The Mighty Hulk," "The Huge Hulk," "The Amazing Hulk," and "THe Crazy Hulk" having tea and biscuits under the statue of Atlas is a little over the top. It might take you 30 minutes to get all of the options lined up correctly though.

Because many of the options are only available with certain other options, if you're looking to see every possible bit of flaire you can add to your character, you're going to have a tough time of it. I've never been a big fan of the "Random Features" button in most games when choosing appearance, but I recommend you mash it a couple of dozen times, chances are not bad that you'll see something you really like.

Enough talk of character creation (though I had a great time just doing that). You enter the world in a decent tutorial which introduces you to the way the world works, how to engage in combat, how to use your abilities, and such like that. As your character advances, you can unlock new abilities, and use "Enhancements" (the closest thing to inventory in the game) to make your existing powers more powerful.

Once past the tutorial, the game plays not unlike a single player game. Now keep in mind that I only played for 3 hours total, and probably exhausted a full hour of that by playing with the character creation. The UI is fairly intuitive, though I must say, game developers are way too addicted to translucency. Text is hard to read when it's laid over other text that's 50% opaque, which is laid over other text that's 25% opaque. It could be there's options to control this, but I didn't really look, I was too busy kicking street thug butt. CoH is also not the only game guilty of this design error, and in fact, it's not as bad here as it is in some other games I've recently played, the text is larger and more clear in CoH than in those games.

Going back to the single player feel, the game provides you the ability to go out and just kick random street thug butt. You might see some citizens running from an area with their arms held skyward, and declare, "My science derived blaster electric ice powers are tingling." Running the opposite direction of the citizens, you could see a thug or three holding an old woman or a tourist at gun point. Given that the thugs are the same level as you, you've got a good chance to take them out and rescue the old lady, earning super hero influence as you do so. Influence is used to purchase augmentations for your powers, and not unlike money in this regard. The game takes a "Me vs A Mob of Badguys" approach to encounters. It's uncommon to find an evil NPC by itself. If that's what you find, chances are someone already laid down the law on the thug's comrade(s), and either turned tail and ran after that, or got unlucky to the thug's guns. I've seen up to 6 or 7 thugs standing around in a group.

The thugs speak to you, hurling insults and the like in balloon captions which appear above their heads just like in a comic book, which I felt was a nice touch because they do a good job of keeping them from overlapping or looking cookie cutter. So in a typical encounter, you dive in to the midst of various badguys, and laying down some smack all around.

You also have the option of heading to city hall, and speaking with the person in charge of your origin, who will assign you missions which will run you all around the city defeating various clusters of wrongdoers, and often taking you in to instanced buildings. Instancing, for those who don't know, is when a part of the game world is duplicated and isolated for you and any super friends you have with you. This keeps others from interfering with your mission, and guarantees that you experience the content the way it's designed to be experienced, sans any griefing from 13 year old boys controlling the avatar of a female character wearing the smallest amount of flesh colored cloth possible.

The missions are some times single step missions, "Go here, and stomp out these crooks" sort of dealies, and some times more complex. "Go talk to Police Chief Johnson and find out about the Hellians recent activities," which sends you on a multiple step mission taking you across the city from building to building, collecting clues and vanquishing foes until you finally discover that they've got a new nerve gas that they're planning on releasing over Atlas Park, which you inevitably foil just in the nick of time, earning the respect of your peers, which is exchangeable of course for super power enhancements.

For being a game I would not have played had it not sought me out, I had quite a lot more fun with it than I expected to. I'm a little MMO burned out at the moment, so I'm not sure if I'll buy the retail version of the game, but only for personal gaming overload reasons, and being subscribed to too many MMO's can get very costly, putting a strain on my already overloaded gaming budget. CoH is supposed to cost $14.95 a month, which is slightly higher than average for most MMO's, but right in line with Lineage 2, which is also from PlayNC, and also scheduled to come out in the immediate future.

If you're in to comic books and/or super heroes, I recommend you check this game out.

MightyE
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