Pre-Release 2002-2003

A shop known as Cryptic Studios has been developing City of Heroes for about a year now, and recently has been noted at this year's E3 for an incredibly strong showing in the MMORPG arena. The game's premise is pretty simple. Instead of playing your regular fantasy character in a fantasy world, you get to play a superhero in a modern comic book setting. Besides being a breath of fresh air, Cryptic Studios has made some pretty big strides in the MMORPG genre. Of course, everything is pre-beta right now, so everything I write is subject to wild, amazing changes.

06/30/2003

And change things have! A lot of design decisions were made in 2002 that pretty much changed the vision of City of Heroes, for better or worse. Read on.


Character Design

When you start the game, you progress in the standard manner of picking a name and "race" called an origin. Then you pick a "class" called an archetype. I use the terms loosely because they're not quite the same.

Origins

Everything about character origin has changed since 2002. Now, origin most closely resembles character race. There are five origins, as a few have been consolidated: Mutant (no change), Science (originally Altered Human), Technology (originally Gadgeteer and Cyberware), Natural (originally Superior Human), and Magic (originally Magical Hero and Mystic Artifact). Now origin only dictates a character's costume (a limited number of costume options will be unique to certain origins) and inspirations. Think of inspirations as power-ups from a shmup. You get them during combat, and they give your character temporary boosts according to your origin. Since origins no longer affect powers...

Archetypes

archetypes do. There are five archetypes as of now: Blaster (ranged/melee), Tanker (personal defense/melee), Scrapper (melee/personal defense), Defender (buff+debuff/ranged), and Controller](control/buff+debuff). Yes, this is much, much more restrictive than the original anything-goes system. This was done for two key reasons:

  1. Playtesters were gimping themselves with horrible combinations of powers. In order for the game to remain commercially viable, even MMORPG newbies have to be able to create working characters. Even if a template were optional, people would probably still gimp themselves. In short, it proved to be more trouble than it was worth.
  2. Powergamers could make characters that actually suffered from teaming. They could simply work better and faster alone than with a group. No one should ever be forced to team, but making teaming worthless removes a huge chunk of the game.

So everyone has a set role. It limits choice but adds focus. Personally, I see this as a Good Thing (tm). Yes, it does prevent people from making characters exactly how they wanted them (then again, other design issues limited these perfect characters, such as no web-slinging or size-changing), it also introduces a new level of cohesion. City of Heroes has no trade skills, so it relies almost exclusively on combat. Thus, combat must be very good and very engaging. Since there is no open PVP, the only interaction between players is grouping. The new system makes grouping easier and more profitable.

Costumes

What's a superhero without a costume? City of Heroes boasts a staggering 2.24EE24 distinct costumes with its unique costume creation engine. Distinct apparentely means having three or more differences between each costume type. As of July 12th, the guys at Cryptic are still adding options, so that initial figure could grow. The system divides the body into three parts: head, upper body, and lower body. Virtually everything you can think of can be changed. I highly advise that you read the elaborate description on the web site (under Gameplay). Obviously, some costume options will only be available to certain characters. Mutants will get exotic skin options, while Technology heroes will get power armor and cybernetic limb options.

Powers

Powers have changed a considerable amount, too. As mentioned above, now your archetype determines your powers. At character creation, you have two power slots: a primary and secondary. However, instead of choosing just two powers, you choose two power sets.

The power set idea is radically different from the previous design. You can only choose one primary and one secondary power set; you get no more primary or secondary power sets after that. A power set contains 7-9 individual powers, only one of which you can choose at creation. All powers have entirely different functions with varying stamina costs. For instance, Super Strength contains Punch, Haymaker, Hand Clap, Rage, Flail, Knockout Blow, Taunt, and Jab. Every odd level you can choose a new power from one of your power sets, or from one of your power pool power sets. The power pool is accessible at level 3 and contains power sets which are not found in any archetype. Generally these are movement powers (flight, super leap, super speed) and powers that were formerly skills.

Also, every even level you can choose a specialization. You gain specialization chips that increase properties of your powers (speed, range, damage, etc) when placed in a specialization slot. Since characters are limited to two unique power sets (the power pool and its power sets are open to all characters), specializations should encourage variation.

Other Changes

A lot of the game was simplified considerably. Now, there are no attributes or skills. There are no items. There is no money. Instead, you buy everything (not very much!) with influence.


Gameplay

The game will focus on a personalized mission system. You get missions from contacts now. As you gain influence, you get better missions from existing contacts, as well as new contacts altogether. This makes much more sense than the original mission terminal concept. The same "pocket universe" idea is still around. The mission zones are created especially for you and can only be accessed by you and group members.

From the movie that came out of E3 (2002), combat appears to be fast and furious. Superheroes can easily take out low-level thugs will only a few blows. Stronger villains will prove to be a challenge, especially if they are immune to your more powerful attacks. Although most combat will take place in mission zones, there are also hazard zones where thugs randomly spawn. Also, there is a special PvP arena where heroes can face off against each other. The arena will have parameters that both sides will agree upon, much like an X-Menish danger room (though the Arena might not make it into the initial game now).


Release. 2004-


I've categorized everything you need to know about the "final" product here.

Logon and Character Creation

When you logon to your account, you get to choose from one of eleven servers: Freedom, Justice, Pinnacle, Virtue, Liberty, Guardian, Infinity, Protector, Victory, Champion, and Triumph. A "traffic" indicator will tell you how much load each server's under. It's best to check out the loads when you'll be playing most of the time and pick a server based on that, unless you have another specific reason to pick a different server, friends being the big one. You get eight slots per server, so you can have quite a few characters if you're really ambitious. The first thing that you'll be asked to do is to pick what Origin your character is. Currently, there are Science, Mutant, Natural, Magic, and Technology heroes. Your Origin determines what villain group you'll start out fighting, as well as what Enhancements you can use.

Archetype

Then, you get to choose your Archetype, the real definition of your character. Your Archetype determines which powers you can choose, as well as how effective Power Pool powers are. Tankers have high hp/medium damage, have Defense as their Primary type, and Melee as their Secondary. Scrappers have medium hp/high damage, have Melee as their Primary, and Defense as their Secondary. Blasters are low hp/high damage, have Ranged Primary, and Support Secondary. Defenders have low hp/medium damage, have Buff/Debuff Primary, Ranged Secondary. Finally, Controllers have low hp/low damage, have Control Primary, and Buff/Debuff Secondary. Their names are pretty self-explanatory; Tankers tank, Scrappers scrap at melee, Blasters blast at ranged, Defenders defend (through healing, by buffing allies, or debuffing foes), and Controllers do crowd control with a bit of buffing. Of course, this brings us to...

Powers

Depending on your Archetype, you get access to different power sets at the beginning of the game, such as Super Strength for Tankers, or Illusions for Controllers. You choose which two power sets you're going to take at the very beginning (one Primary, one Secondary), and you can't choose a different one afterwards, so choose wisely. Each power set contains nine powers, and you get to choose between the first two for your Primary, and you're required to take the first power of your Secondary. At level 2, you get access to your third Primary, as well as your second Secondary. The schedule goes like this (from the manual):

Primary: 1, 1, 2, 6, 8, 12, 18, 26, 32

Secondary: 1, 2, 4, 10, 16, 20, 28, 35, 38

You don't outgrow your low-level powers, as they grow in power with you as you level. In fact, your lower level powers tend to be more general, while your higher-level powers tend to be more specialized. This isn't always true, but it holds for most power sets.

Enhancements

Then there are Enhancements. Every power starts with one Enhancement slot. Every odd level until 31, you receive 2 slots to add to your powers as you see fit. You can add Enhancements to increase damage, improve accuracy, reduce recharge time, increase healing, increase defense buffs, etc. There are dozens of Enhancement types that you can use to improve your powers, but they all come in three basic varieties: Training, Dual Origin, and Single Origin. Training are the weakest and provide an 8.33% bonus (note: 5% for Defense powers), DO provide a 16.67% bonus (10% Defense), and SO provide a 33.33% bonus (20% Defense). Also, Enhancements have a level that's relative to yours which determines the bonus. You can slot in any Enhancement that are within three levels of your combat level; Enhancements higher than your level provide a 5% bonus per level over, and Enhancements lower than your level provide a 5% penalty per level under. For example, a Training Enhancement 3 levels over yours will provide 8.33% * (1 + 0.05 * 3), or 9.58%.

Every step up in Enhancement "class" doubles its effectiveness. However, anyone can use a Training, while only those who match one of the Origins for a DO can use them, and a SO requires a user who is of that Enhancement's specific Origin. You can buy Enhancements in stores, and they increase rapidly in price as you move from Training to DO to SO. Note: Training are available in levels ranging 1-15, DO from 15-25, and SO from 25-40.

You can combine Enhancements of the same type to form an Enhancement one level greater than the highest of two Enhancements. For example, combining an 8 and a 6, if successful (success is 100% for even-level, and drops off from there) will give you an 8+. An 8+ is equal in bonus to a 9, but it can be combined only one more time; an 8++ Enhancement can be combined only with an Enhancement with the effective level of 10 or higher, assuming it also isn't a ++. You can combine Training with Training, DO with DO (provided they share one Origin type), and SO with SO (provided that they're the same Origin type).

Costume Creation

This is the last step of character creation. You can choose one of three body types: Male, Female, and Huge. Then adjust two sliders to determine your hero's height and muscle definition (no fat or skinny characters yet). Then you go on to the costume creation engine. The engine is amazing. Although there are three key areas (head, upper body, lower body), you can customize virtually everything. There are glasses, bug eyes, afros, antennae, rock skin, chitin, pointy ears, third eyes, and tons more. You really have to see the generator to believe it.

Gameplay

Currently, City of Heroes is all about combat. Virtually all of your interaction with the game will come through combat (you do get to click on boxes to open them once a while), but the engine is really nice. All attack powers have a damage, accuracy, recharge rate, and endurance use score. You have two bars in the game: health and endurance. If you run out of health, you get teleported to the hospital/get revived by a friend, and if you run out of endurance, you can't use any of your powers. Villains play by the same rules, though they're much more judicious with their endurance. With a lot of attacks/constant drain powers (personal shields tend to drain a small amount of endurance per second), you can run dry pretty quickly, and only a very few abilities can recover endurance. You need Inspirations to recover endurance quickly.

Inspirations

Inspirations are basically power-ups. They can increase attack power, accuracy, and defense, as well as heal damage and recover endurance. You get a tray that holds 6 when you start, and you get progressively more and more. These are vital to winning tough fights.

Missions, Story Arcs, and Task Forces

Although everything's based on combat, City of Heroes does a nice job of giving you secondary awards other than experience, Enhancements, and money (called Influence). Although you can fight on the streets, or in special Hazard Zones which are especially dangerous, there's a really nice mission system. You get missions from your ever-growing network of contacts. You don't have to accept all missions from all contacts, so if you don't like "Arrest XX Villain Type" missions, you can skip them. Don't like fighting against Vahzilok zombies? You don't have to.

If you take certain missions from contacts, you might uncover a story arc. Story arcs are strings of closely-related missions which culminate in massive battles, sometimes in battles with Archvillains. You get a large experience bonus, a valuable Enhancement, and a Souvenir, which will give you a brief recap of how the entire arc unfolded. The stories themselves are very good.

Task Forces are like Story Arcs, but they're a group undertaking. They're very detailed, and usually very challenging. You can't work on any other missions while you're on a Task Force, and you can't add members to the team once it has started. A TF can last upwards of 4-5 hours, but they're worth it if you can muster the time.

To add to Pantsless Bob's excellent chronological writeup above, City of Heroes has a number of additional interesting features.

Characters ("toons") are able along the way to become more distinguishable from each other in a number of ways.

Titles
At level 15 and 25, a character can choose a title. There is a common pool for level 15, and an origin-specific set for level 25. You get the choice of adding "The" before your name and title as well.

Costume and appearance
At level 20 and 30, your character can visit the City Representative in Atlas Park to get a very special mission arc. At level 20, it is an arc to retrace the history of one of the greatest (posthumous) heroes, Hero 1, starting out by talking to those people who knew him, culminating in a fight to protect a time capsule he and his team have made. Your reward for this is the ability to wear a CAPE! These come in long, short and insect wing varieties, and make a superhero REALLY spiffy! These can have a huge variety of patterns on them, making the choices for your look to be almost endless.

At level 30, you again are set a story arc, the successful resolution of which results in the ability to select an AURA. There are far more initial choices of aura, but they are un-customisable. Being surrounded by sparkles, mist, a glow, having perpetually glowing hands, glowing eyes - all add to the mystique of your character. The biggest downside to an aura is that it is quite graphically intense, so that most players with low-spec PCs turn them off.

Costume slots
At levels 20, 30 and 40, you can do a story arc for Serge, the owner of the superhero tailor "Icon" in Steel Canyon. Generally fighting off the local ruffians, your reward is a new costume slot. By customising it (a VERY expensive process) you can easily switch between up to 4 costumes (5, if you see Supergroups, below).

Body Scaling
With the release of Issue 4, players have been able to scale their body shapes to a degree. Fat, thin, big-hipped, big-boobed, long or stumpy legged, big/small heads, you name it, you can do it. The three body types (Male, Female and Huge) all have aspects that make them even MORE customisable.

Enhancements
One enhancement type was left out above - Hamidon enhancements. Only awared on defeat of that super villain, these enhancements count not only as Single Origin (+33%) enhancements, but apply that bonus to TWO aspects of the skill - +Accuracy and +Defence, for example.

Badges
Badges are one of the coolest aspects in the game. They come in a variety of categories:

  • Exploration: The most easily obtained, you simply have to be near a badge marker in the world to be awarded them. They have no value (other than bragging rights) and varied names, but add a lot of "flavour" to the game, as they often outline big events, famous character history or commentary about a particular area.
  • History: Around Paragon City are plaques which follow a particular theme - be it the formation of superhero governmental support, to following the life of a hero or villain, to the description of a zone and it's evolution. If you collect all of the plaques in the group, usually spread across many zones, you are awarded a named History badge, with a synopsis of the story you have uncovered. Plaques are sometimes notoriously difficult to find (up on a wall down a small alley) and generally only found with an online (cheating) guide. Some of the awarded badges are required for Accolades (see below).
  • Achievements: Awarded for "doing" stuff in the game. Examples include killing 100 bosses of particular mobs, survive a fight in a nuclear reactor, complete a taskforce (see below), being killed/restrained often enough, earning Influence or having a sidekick for a long enough time... Achievements are the TRUE indication of what a hero has done. Some are quite difficult to get straight away, but you can always go back and complete them later, say when the enemies they refer to are far weaker than you.
  • Accolades: The most difficult of badges to get, they involve the obtainment of multiple Exploration, History and Achievement badges. However, these badges actually have a REWARD attached to them - be it a small permanent increase in Endurance or Hit Points, a special attack that can only be executed once every 25 minutes, or a VERY temporary boost to your attributes every half hour, Accolades are to be prized.
Taskforces
Taskforces (TFs) are story arcs that you receive from NPC's in Paragon City. Requiring a minimum number of members on a team, these often gruelling series of missions are a true test of a heroes skills, patience and determination. Often set to be continuously difficult, taskforces can take upwards of 5 hours to complete. To balance this, you can log off and not lose your place in a TF. There is often a reward or rewards - unique badges most of the time, but also Enhancements, all the way to a coveted respec (see below).

Respecs
Not everyone gets their character quite right the first time. The game also changes the required tactics along the way (great for playability!). Occasionally (usually with the release of an Issue) different aspects of the game balance are changed. Whatever the reason, one of the most prized things in the game is a respec - a full respecification of your skills, enhancement slots and enhancements. To get one of these rare things, you either have to a) wait until a major Issue release, b) wait until the developers are feeling generous (unlikely to ever happen again) or c) earn it!

To earn a respec, you have to form a taskforce (see above) to defend one of Paragon City's most valuable (and thus coveted) buildings, the Terra Volta nuclear reactor. A gruelling task that is set to always be 2 levels above the HIGHEST LEVEL character in your TF, it is a challenge for anyone. With unique levels and a battle royale at the end (think waves of enemies!), it is a truly satisfying feeling to complete successfully.

Once you've actually GOT a respec, you cannot change your primary or secondary power pools, but everything else is fair game. You can select the powers (from the same base power pools) but enhancement slots, tertiary powerpools and even enhancements are released from their locked-in status to be re-allocated! If you respec different powers that use different enhancements, or simply don't want them any more, you have the option of automatically selling the true value of the enhancements.

Respecs are great to drop a power that, looking back on it, just wasn't that great. It is also great to re-allocate enhancement slots, if you accidentally over- or under-allocated slots to. With a theoretical maximum number of respecs (about 6) these non-badged rewards are nothing to be sneezed at.

New primary and secondary power sets
With the release of Issue 5, two new power sets have been released - Archery and Sonics. Given to Blasters, Defenders and Controllers, these new sets give some of the most underused archetypes (Blasters), or most OVERUSED powersets (Defender with Radiation/Empathy powers) some choice to encourage experimentation. Having not played them enough, I'll leave the powers as an exercise for the reader.

New Zones, new monsters, new excitement - oh my!
Issue 5 also release a new Zone, something that has been done before. "Croatoa" is an enchanted forested area, filled with new monsters (The Cabal, Fir Bolg, Red Caps and Tuatha de Danaan) and with new possibilities. Connected to the Paragon Transport Authority Green line monorail, it is for levels 25-35.

Supergroups
Not Oasis, a Supergroup (SG) is a collection of heroes which is meant to be a regular "team". Anyone from Level 10 and up can register an SG for free at the Town Hall at Atlas Park, and with it, you get some more information, a message of the day, and an SG-only costume. More like a colour change, the primary and secondary colours of any item of clothing can be changed to one of two SG colours. SGs can form "Coalitions", basically joining two SGs together, allowing large communities to form.

Arena battles
Fairly new is the concept of PvP superhero battles. 3 arenas have been built in Galaxy City, Talos Island and Steel Canyon, allowing superheroes to pit themselves against each other! Some make for exciting battles, and spectators can watch, but the worst part about the arena is the fact that it hasn't been around for as long as it should. If implemented early, a whole arena culture could have developed, but despite being implemented well, even months after it's release, it has a feeling of being "tacked on".


As you can see, City of Heroes is a HUGE game. It is going to continue as a successful MMORPG well into the future. With City of Villains on pre-order as of September 2005, the future looks bright for the superhero world!

Remember: Statesman says: Superheroes don't do Superdyne!


Damodred says: Nice wu; I'd add that Ish 5 also added several fantastic mission tweaks.
Right he is! Issue 5 introduced escort, protection and a variety of other mission styles. These add on top of the "defeat all XXX in base", "find XX captives", "disarm X bomb(s)" missions.

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