Developer: Cryptic Entertainment
Publisher: NCSoft
Format: PC CD, PC DVD, downloadable
Release (tentative): October 31, 2005
Genre keywords: MMO, superhero, persistent, online

If you are unfamiliar with the City of Heroes, I highly recommend reading that node first.

After over a year of patrolling Paragon City and thwarting various nefarious schemes thought up by the inhabitants thereof, the Heroes of the City have a new threat: the Rogue Isles, a sovereign nation in the Atlantic - or more of a collection of anarchic city-states where various villainous vagabonds make their home. The isles are loosely governed within themselves, city-state like, but anyone attempting to make a larger bid on power will find himself at the mercy of Lord Recluse, the sole (and intending to stay that way) ruler of the Isles.

How Lord Recluse came to such great power, and where he got his loyal followers from remains to be discovered in the game ... but your story starts with him casting a leisurely, yet faintly favorable eye towards you as he springs you out of the superpower-suppressing jail known as the Ziggurat. With this first "Breakout" event (to mirror the far less exciting Outbreak in City of Heroes) you'll re-learn how to use your powers, talk to contacts, and do all the other things needed to function in the game. From then on you're whisked away to the Rogue Isles to claw your way to the top - or as near as you're allowed to.

City of Villains is neither a sequel or an expansion; it is a full-price (this is tentative, but about 99% now) sister game, which will connect with existing City of Heroes servers to provide new features for those gamers who purchase, and subscribe to, both games. Apart from specially designated zones, base raids and mission within the zones, the two cities of Paragon and Rogue Isles exist as separate entities - the designers of the game(s) want a clear delineation between PvP (player vs player gameplay) and PvE (player vs environment) gameplay. Admittedly people who PvP only will have to gain levels via PvE at first, so they're not completely separate, but it's a compromise that should appeal to PvE players.

You can purchase and play only City of Heroes, or City of Villains; however, as the recently announced price to subscribe to both games is $14.99 (so the same as it was for only City of Heroes), this seems a silly decision. For players new to both games, you can find the original game for around 20 bucks - since that includes a month of gameplay which will add on to your total gametime (whichever side you choose to play on), this isn't a huge strain. I suspect Cryptic will also provide some incentives (invite a friend programs) to get entirely new players to subscribe to both games.

Sorry about that long-windedness, but it is a rather unusual situation. Two games, one subscription - weird (but nice)!

On to the Game!

In City of Heroes, you exist in a city of ... heroes. You talk to your official contacts, which may be influential mages, heads of state, secret agents or mystics, and they send you wherever your services are needed. So far, these services consist of defeating rampaging bad guys, thwarting kidnappings, vandalism or theft of anything ranging from valuable paintings to alien technology. You also get to fight baddies intent on mutating the entire city populace, disrupting the time/space continuum with their latest toy, taking over the world or blowing up the city power plant - hero stuff, in short. In between these "missions", you can patrol the dangerous streets of Paragon City and "arrest" (i.e. beat to a pulp) any bad guys you see threatening the peace.

It should be no surprise that City of Villains is remarkably similar to this game mechanic. Except now your contacts are far more shady (and won't even talk to you until you've proven yourself via a series of dynamic missions generated by newspaper articles, a very neat mechanic), your missions are more about wreaking havoc than preventing it (stealing rather than preventing theft, helping bad guys escape rather than taking them down, kidnapping rather than saving hostages, etc.), and your patrolling is now called "prowling". Those expecting a completely new game will be disappointed; those looking for the flipside of City of Heroes will be more on target. It is still a combat-centric, team-oriented beat-em'up with a high degree of customisation and a very immersive world - it's now just a little bit more.

Over the career of City of Heroes we've seen some changes to the design of missions and the twists that the game has been able to throw at us. All of these are incorporated into City of Villains from the start:

  • In-mission ambushes.
  • Waves of enemies.
  • Destructable items, some of which you destroy and some of which you have to protect!
  • Hostages that no longer simply fade away when rescued, but have to be escorted out; these are now kidnappees in CoV.
  • In-mission allies that will fight or defend (or die) along your side.
None of these existed when Heroes came out; they are now in CoV from the start. Chances are, Cryptic will work on more as this game evolves as well.

Cryptic didn't want to develop an entirely new family of powers for the Villains; after all, if they exist in the same universe there should be some overlap. Likewise, they didn't want to completely duplicate the powers from Heroes - so we have a bit of both. In addition, the archetypes (playable classes that constrain players to a certain playstyle) are familiar, yet more offensively (er, that is, offense-based, not foul smelling) warped mirrors of the City of Heroes archetypes (still with the good old primary set/secondary set restriction). They are:

  • Brute
    A cross between a tanker and a scrapper, the Brute exists to SMASH! (in fact, a cult has sprung up on the City of Villains boards, dedicated to proselytising SMASH as a lifestyle). The more a Brute smashes, the more damage he does - if this sounds like a berserker ability, it is. Many a Brute has fallen simply because he's watching his Fury gauge much more than his remaining hit points. The Brute is a pure melee class with strong defenses (and a few surprises) as the secondary set. His hitpoints are the highest of all the villain classes, but the Tanker is superior in both HP and defenses.

  • Stalker
    Fragile scrappers that exist to deliver the killing blow, Stalkers can use their Hide ability to keep out of the fight. Their powerful Assassin Strike ability, when Hidden, delivers a potent 700% of damage to their target. Their weak defenses are not really up to prolonged combat, however. The Stalker is a melee class with defenses as well, but the defenses mostly rely on evading the damage (rather than reducing its effect). In addition, a Stalker's hitpoints are low.

  • Corruptor
    A straight reversal of the Hero Defender, a Corruptor debuffs her enemies first and blasts them second (although her powers are actually primary blast, secondary debuff). Not doing as much straight damage as the Blaster, the Corruptor must rely on her secondary foe-weakening powers to be effective in combat. Some of the Secondaries also provide the ability to buff allies in a shield of ice or fire - this combination of debuff/buff makes a Corruptor a desireable teammate. Finally, the Scourge ability deals additonal damage to enemies that are at low health, another useful team ability (mop up the stragglers).

  • Dominator
    A tricky and very entertaining set, it consists of Hero Controller primaries (albeit weaker versions thereof) and a mix of powered blast/melee secondaries. This makes the Dominator a long range and a short range fighter than can also paralyze, slow, or immobilize his enemies - a jack of all trades. When a Dominator does enough damage, he gets access to the special Domination power, which boosts the potency of all controlling powers' for a limited time.

  • MasterMind
    A completely new class which hardly has any active primary powers! A Mastermind summons completely loyal minions to do his bidding; this gives him a chance to truly focus on the diabolical monologue or evil laughter. With much improved pet (henchmen) controls (well, compared to NONE in City of Heroes), a Mastermind is literally a one-man army. Capable of summoning up to 3 1st-tier minions, 2 2nd-tier minions and 1 3rd-tier minion (and certain secondary power sets may include more summonable toys), a Mastermind is a crowd all on his own. The additional powers consist of upgrading the minions with better skills, and a blast or two for emergencies - some Masterminds skip those entirely. The secondary powerset is support for your minions and yourself. As of now, the Mastermind can summon either soldiers, ninjas, zombies or robots (no pirates yet, although there are pirate costume options (complete with peg leg!) - pirate henchmen are inevitable). The secondary powersets are somewhat matched, allowing you to draw on the powers of darkness, use gadgetry (Traps), create lethal Poisons or protect your minions with forcefields.

Interestingly, all of the classes in Villains feel considerably more self-reliant than those in Heroes; while this works with the Hero/Villain mythos (sure, villains may team up if it suits them at the moment, but they're far more often loners than heroes - psychotic megalomania doesn't work well with groups) it makes me wonder if there won't be some changes in the future to make both sides of the game more approachable to casual players (i.e., solo players). Note that this is from early game though, and it's possible that just like Heroes, CoV players will need to team up to survive in the higher levels.

So what else is new?

Quite a bit. City of Heroes made its claim to fame be a ridiculously elaborate character generator - it should be no surprise that City of Villains once again pushes the limits of customisation. There's another metric tonne of costume elements for almost each part of the body. Being villainous, there's a lot more options involving, well, the less savoury bits of being a supervillain. In other words, you can finally be that rotting zombie, grinning skeleton, or slavering werewolf (complete with reverse-jointed legs).

That's not all. With the flipside of the world of Heroes finally being present, there is now Player vs. Player content. Special zones have been designated for this with their own objectives, extra missions, and of course the hazard of running into your nemesis. One zone, Bloody Bay is in fact a free for all zone, where heroes and villains battle ... everyone else. With PvP and objectives also come ... superhero bases and supervillain lairs.

That's right, you can finally build that sanctum sanctorum or that den of villainy, and it comes with all the customisation options you'd expect from the creators of the Best Character Generator Ever™. Picking out the matching designer counters alone will take you hours ...

The base creator works like a simplified 3D editor, or perhaps a bit like The Sims house constructor. Your villain is represented on the grid for scale, but you can plop down rooms, purchase, rotate and place all sorts of furniture, decor, fluff or functional items. Each room has a designated purpose which determines what sorts of functional items you can put in it, from power generators to teleporters to revival units. There are of course tile patterns for your walls, floors and ceilings, and you can use room-specific lighting and variable height to spiff up your base a bit. As of now, it is still missing things like round (or any other shape than rectangular) rooms, fancy doorways between rooms (just hallways now), and multiple floors - some of these are due to technical limitations, and some to gameplay issues as your base has to be raidable.

An advanced form of PvP content, base raids can be either instant (a friendly fight between supergroups/villaingroups, no permanent losses) or scheduled (a randomized fight at a certain block of time, fought for possession of an Item of Power). In order to become eligible to be raided, one must go through a special Trial mission to obtain an Item of Power - these boost your entire Supergroup's stats while in your base. While this mission hasn't been revealed yet, chances are it's pretty tough, and not always available. Once in possession of an Item of Power (and certain base requirements have to be met for this as well), the supergroup schedules a block of time within which they can be raided. If that block of time and a raiding group's choice coincide, the raid will occur - since this is randomized, griefing is hoped to be kept to a minimum (can't repeatedly pick on someone when the choice is random). A raid has to satisfy one of the objectives (destroy a certain set of items, activate another set of items) to succeed - if it doesn't within 60 minutes, the raid fails.

Since the Arena has proven not quite as popular as Cryptic has hoped (in my opinion mainly due to lack of tangible rewards), it has also gotten a bit of an overhaul. New to the game are Gladiator badges, awarded for (so far) unknown reasons; these bear the mark of certain villain groups along with some cryptic (haha) words referring to this group's supposed combat prowess. In the Arena, these Badges unlock a squad of these villains for your use as gladiators; you cannot use any of your own powers, but instead have to direct your chosen warriors to victory over other players' warriors. It's a more strategic type of fight that may appeal to yet another group of players - the devs appear to be trying to hook all sorts of audiences into the game via diversity.

Other improvements

Cryptic has learned a lot from City of Heroes. Each new zone developed through expansions (called Issues, as in Issues of a comic book) was more coherent and more story-centric than the previous - this really shows in City of Villains. The various Isles exude atmosphere very well-suited to a borderline anarchistic state governed loosely by a technologically advanced military force. It's hard to impart this with words, but it looks gritty, dirty, occasionally ramshackle - yet with an overall looming presence of sheer, clinically spotless, black Arachnos fortifications and structures. It's easy to make a comparison to the architecture of Half Life 2's City 17, where Eastern European-influenced, postwar architecture gives way, or is sometimes invaded and pushed aside by the black, alien shield walls and mutating forts of the oppressive, impersonally efficient Combine forces.

Cryptic put some physics technology into the game - as far as I know, it is the only MMO to do so this far (Second life doesn't count for various reasons) and the results are impressive. In a highly physical game like City of Heroes where characters are flung about by various superhuman powers, this improves immersion quite a bit. No longer will that hoodlum on the staircase hover (canned animations mean that if any portion of the bad guy's body - like his toe - is supported, then all of him is supported) when defeated, he'll actually slump over the railing, topple over, and land in the convenient dumpster below. Good stuff.

With defeating foes you now get access to Salvage; this adds a tab next to your enhancements and inspirations. This is what is usually known as loot, but it can only be used as elements for creating items (crafting) in your base's workshop (unlike other MMOGs, you can't simply wear or wield the loot that you find). So far, these items are limited to base enhancements (while you can buy a simple defensive turret or three, you have to build to gain access to 5x more advanced types), but it is expected that Enhancements and Temporary Powers (you get these now as mission rewards or extra tools for the task you're given, and they always have a limit on usage - still, it's nice to complement your arsenal with something you otherwise don't have access to) will be available for creation at higher levels.

So, in summary City of Villains brings us:

  • Bases
  • Salvage (loot)
  • Item creation (crafting lite)
  • Physics
  • Meaningful PvP
  • More costumes, more power sets, more zones, more villain (and hero, now that you're fighting for the bad guys) groups
  • Somewhat different mission mechanics, new missions
  • Still the familiar, combat-heavy gameplay.

With all of these improvements and enhancements, I'm definitely here for the duration. Call ahead when you visit, I'll be sure to prime my traps.

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