If you could be a superhero, who would it be? My friends and I could argue over it for days. Superman is clearly one of the most powerful heroes, but his outfit is silly and his alter-ego is a dweeb. Batman is, of course, very cool and unbelievably wealthy to boot; plus, he kicked Superman's ass once. How about Green Lantern? He's practically a god with his ring-derived powers, so long as he doesn't run into anything yellow. Or maybe even Wolverine just because he's so badass.
Well, now you can dump all those losers and build your own superhero thanks to NCsoft's latest Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), City of Heroes. And NCsoft should know what they're doing, because even though you might not know the name offhand, they're the company behind the world's most popular MMORPG, Lineage, which had more than four million subscribers at its peak, mostly in Korea and China.
So slip into your tights, buckle up your utility belt and iron your cape as we go on a tour of Paragon City, an online world simply bursting at the seams with superheroes just itching to pound a little justice into the bad guys.
Someone at NCsoft once asked me why I thought Lineage never took off in the States. I told him it was because you couldn't wear a purple hat. I was referring to the fact that the extremely limited selection of avatars in Lineage all looked exactly the same. Americans, I assured him, wanted to wear purple hats, or pink suits, or yellow tutus. Tacky or not, they like their choices.
Thankfully, City of Heroes takes the concept of avatar design up, up and away with an incredible superhero creation system. There is, in fact, an excellent selection of purple hats, not to mention masks, hoods, cowls, helmets, horns and hairstyles. Want a robotic arm? There are plenty to choose from. Never liked tights? Perhaps you prefer armor, or a nice double breasted suit, or chitinous insect skin, or even just a pair of blue jeans. How tall do you want to be? How fat? Would you like a tail? How long? The options are seemingly endless. It's simply phenomenal and actually really fun.
Next you have to figure out your super-origin. Are you a mutant? A military experiment? Did you find a magical artifact? Or perhaps you just spent your whole life training? There are five possible origins: Mutant, Magic, Technology, Natural, and Science. Your origin will determine which of the game's "enhancements" you'll be able to use.
There are also five character archetypes: the damage-absorbing Tanker, the hand-to-hand fighting Scrapper, the devastating long-range Blaster, the healing Defender, and the mysterious psychic Controller. These help determine your primary and secondary power sets. Ice Blast, for example, will give you a set of different cold beams and freeze rays. Assault Rifle arms you with more conventional weapons. The Tanker's Battle Axe powers are fearsome to behold, or just focus on Martial Arts and kick their asses.
Once you've at last gotten your act together, it's off to Paragon City to prove yourself. Lucky for you, Paragon City is a gorgeous place to live. The graphics are simply top notch and the vibrant 3D city is stunning. Your fellow superheroes look awesome and move about with appropriately heroic style. The details are there as well - litter blows down the street past parked cars while thousands of regular citizens wander around getting mugged, just waiting for your daring rescue. From all angles, City of Heroes looks great.
Its sound is good too, with the proper ambient city noises everywhere. Music and voices are pretty much non-existent, which is just how it should be in a game you might play for months on end. The effects are much stronger; punches and kicks have a satisfying thud, while electricity crackles from your fingertips when you throw a lightning bolt. You'll start getting sick of the sound of your primary attack after you've used it a thousand times, but that's to be expected.
Every superhero needs something to do, and luckily bad guys are plentiful and will fall to your super-justice by the thousands. Taking out criminals will earn you experience, which you use to level up, and "influence," which in any other game would be called "money." Like any good comic book, you can temporarily gang up with other heroes to tackle tougher foes, or you can get yourself a sidekick if you find someone willing. Heck, you can even form your own Justice League and register a Super Group at City Hall. The game just oozes with classic superhero flavor.
If you don't feel like patrolling the streets, there are also plenty of missions for you and your team to undertake. Many of these send you to an office building or a sewer entrance or other bad guy hangout, which will become your own private 'dungeon' until the mission is complete. It's well done, but you'll quickly notice the missions repeating themselves and following the exact same patterns.
And then you level up...and up...and up some more, because there's just not much else to do. Unfortunately, this is where City of Heroes trips over its own cape. There's just very little depth here, especially when compared to any of its MMORPG competition, and the game's longevity will suffer for it.
While you certainly get more powerful as you gain levels, you'll never find a better assault rifle or a cool mind-ray helmet, because there are no items in the game. You'll always have the same assault rifle or battle axe - it just gets more powerful. Plus, you can never switch from a battle axe to a sword; the way you set up your character from the outset is permanent. And of course, no items also means that there's no resources, no crafting system, and no in-game economy.
The only thing you'll ever find in the game are enhancements, which can be dropped into slots in your super-power list to increase damage or range. Even Final Fantasy's materia system was more complex. From the second you create your burly hero, you know exactly how they'll end up. It's just a matter of spending time leveling up to get there.
And since you also cannot use your powers against other players, I'm not sure what goal or inspiration would keep you going for months. City of Heroes could definitely use some super-villains to keep things interesting (which should be addressed in the upcoming expansion, City of Villains). Until then, the game doesn't have much of a point.
It's a shame, because the rest of City of Heroes' presentation is so incredible, and for the launch of a MMORPG, it's amazingly free of both bugs and lag. But underneath its shiny surface, Paragon City turns out to be as paper thin as the comic books that inspired it. It's a really nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.