My favourite genre of games, and where some of my fondest gaming memories come from, is Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). I am going to take you down my memory lane as I explore my origins playing MMORPGs from the late 90’s through to today in a multi-part series. In Part 12 I will be revisiting the first superhero MMO, City of Heroes.
Catch up on previous entries in this series:
Part 1 – Ultima Online 1997
Part 2 – EverQuest 1999
Part 3 – Asheron’s Call 1999
Part 4 – Anarchy Online 2001
Part 5 – Dark Age of Camelot 2001
Part 6 – Star Wars Galaxies 2003
Part 7 – EverQuest II 2004
Part 8.1 – World of Warcraft 2004-05
Part 8.2 – World of Warcraft 2005-06
Part 8.3 – World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade 2007
Part 9 – Wildstar 2014
Part 10 – Guild Wars 2005
Part 11 – Dungeons & Dragons Online 2006
When I started planning this MMORPG Memory Lane series, I wrote down every MMORPG that I have played and the dates they were released. You can see above the spread of years that each game was released from what I’ve covered so far. If you’re as big a fan of MMORPG’s as I am then you’ll also notice, there’s a few missing from the list that should probably be up there. Games such as Meridian 59, Lineage I & II, Asheron’s Call 2 and Shadowbane aren’t in the list. I will be writing an ‘honorable mentions’ article when I finish the MMO’s released in 2007, as this will have covered the first decade of MMORPG’s.
One game that hasn’t been mentioned yet is City of Heroes. I loved this game when it released in April 2004 and played it heaps, but it was shut down in November 2012, and since that day there hasn’t been a proper emulator released to the public for me to have a play on for this series of articles. There has been a server that you could login to and make a character and run around the starter zone but there were no quests or anything else to do, so I didn’t bother with it or writing about it. However, over the past month there has been a flurry of excitement and multiple stories reported by Massively OP regarding City of Heroes emulated servers, starting with this article on April 15. One excerpt reads:
“Some members of the City of Heroes community acquired the game’s original code from a former Paragon Studios employee and have been running it in absolute secrecy, under threat of ban, for the last six years.”
For those that are diehard City of Heroes fans and have been itching for an emulator to come out… to read that there has indeed been an emulated server running in secret for 6 years is bizarre. There are many out there on the internet that were furious that it was kept secret squirrels stuff. I personally don’t have an issue with what has happened in the past, it’s what happened next that’s great news for gamers. Long story short, coincidentally on the 15th anniversary of the game’s original release on April 27, 2004, there is a fully playable emulated City of Heroes server that is available to everyone. At the time of writing this article, they have even had to open a second server as there are reportedly over 22,000 players that have created accounts to jump back into the game.
There are ongoing discussions between the player-developers of these emulated servers and NCSoft, the original publishers of City of Heroes, so there’s still the threat of NCSoft swinging the ban hammer. But for now, it’s great to be back in the game reminiscing the many amazing gameplay elements that this game had. If you want to play on these servers, the info to download the client files can be found here. Let me tell you a little bit about my experiences with the game with one of my best mates Adam “Gerkin” Grootveld.
City of Heroes was released on April 27, 2004, developed by Cryptic Studios (Paragon Studios from 2009) and published by NCSoft. This was the first superhero MMORPG to hit the market and to this day, has one of the most customisable character creation systems in any game I’ve played. You initially need to choose an origin for your hero from science, mutation, magic, technology or natural abilities, a playstyle such as tank, melee damage, ranged damage, crowd control, support or pets. Next you need to choose an archetype within those playstyles along with its starting powers. For my latest character, Inferno Darkness is a ranged assault rifle poison corruptor, unleashing ranged attacks with a rifle and adding poison damage, which can also be used to heal allies. There are several primary and secondary powers that you get to choose from, so you can definitely sink some time in this section.
However, the next step is the time consuming one – how cool can you make your character look! Your imagination is your limit on what you could make your superhero look like. Adam and I would have spent 30-45 minutes easily on every new character we made, customising every detail the way I wanted trying to make something I had yet seen in the game. There are a heap of costume sets that you can browse, but then you can go into so much detail with each body section and go as nuts as you want with it. You can even customise the spell effects for your weapon parries, hacks and slashes and your shield blocks, it’s just insanely detailed.
At release, you could only play City of Heroes and therefore only create ‘the good guys’ heroes in Paragon City. It wasn’t until October 31, 2005, that City of Villains was released as a standalone sequel which also added PvP arenas. If you didn’t own City of Heroes, you could buy City of Villians and create the ultimate villain character playing in the Rogue Isles. An extra purchase was required if you wanted to play in both lands and utilise heroes and villians.
Once in-game, you play as you would in any other MMORPG at the time by speaking to NPCs and gaining quests, though they are called missions in this game. Like in Guild Wars and Dungeons & Dragons Online, most missions are instanced, aside from some kill ‘x’ mobs over in this precinct, which often are precursors to story-based instanced missions. Every character had their starting skills as chosen at character creation, as well as some standard skills such as rest and sprint. Rest made your character crouch down to regenerate your health, while sprint allowed your character to move around slightly faster than walking. As your character gains levels, you will unlock better modes of transportation and these are one of the highlights of City of Heroes. You could choose from Teleportation, Super Speed, Super Jumping, and Flight and these were far and above some of the coolest ways to get around a game map. My favourites were super jumping and flight, and transitioning flight was seamless. When grouped with other players level 14 or higher, you could get a skill called group flight which enabled everyone in your group to fly with you, even if they didn’t have the flying skill themselves. Majority of the game could be played solo, but as is the case with most MMORPGs, you’ll have way more fun in a group.
Completing missions was the main form of earning XP, though you could grind mobs as you travelled between quests, saving normal people from gangs of villains if you felt like it. One big difference here is that npcs didn’t drop regular items like weapons and armour – instead they dropped enhancements and inspirations. There was also no traditional gold as currency, instead the currency was called influence. Inspirations were usable temporary buffs for your character and enhancements were slottable bonuses for your skills which you could change out-of-combat. You could also combine enhancements to try make a higher bonus of that enhancement type, so this meant that you could upgrade your lower levelled enhancements if you didn’t want to sell them. This gave you the ability to further customise your skills to suit your playstyle as you levelled up and faced tougher foes, and be able to swap and change whenever you wanted.
In later updates to the game, an Invention system utilising crafting stations was added which allowed you to combine other dropped items you salvaged and recipes to create various goods. Invented enhancements could provide better bonuses than normal enhancements, including set bonuses for slotting invented enhancements from the same set into the same power. Costume pieces and limited-use temporary powers could also be invented. Guilds in City of Heroes were called Supergroups and City of Villians added the ability for Supergroups to have Bases which were like guild halls.
When teaming up with mates in a group, a fantastic gameplay feature was invented with City of Heroes which was the sidekick system. Sidekicks allowed a low-level character to group with a higher-level character and play the same content together. This had been a gameplay system that my mates and I had been longing for as that was one of the biggest downfalls with MMORPGs. If your mates were significantly higher or lower level than you, you couldn’t play together unless you made specific characters and you had to keep up with their levelling pace which was getting impossible with our busy lives. Whereas this sidekick system allowed us to group together no matter what the level difference between us. A sidekick’s experience level would be temporarily risen to be close to the higher player’s level, and their health and strength would be scaled to their new raised level, while any experience or Influence they gained was scaled to their original level.
City of Heroes/Villians made your character feel more powerful as you levelled up, moreso than any other game in that time. That’s not the same as in other MMORPG’s where levelling up means taking on bigger and harder things to get better loot. Given you have the ability to add enhancements to your skills/powers and continually upgrade and change them as you go, it gave you complete control and flexibility with your character without locking it into a set cookie-cutter build that everyone else had via a google search. Every player’s character build would have been different in some way and you would rarely see any two players look the same, and that was one of the great things about this game. Aside from skills-based games like Ultima Online and most recently Legends of Aria, not many MMORPG’s give players that level of customisability for their one main character without forcing them to make alternate characters.
Adam and I and some of our other guildies played City of Heroes off and on over the years depending on what we felt like playing at the time. As of June 2008, NCSoft had reported only 137k monthly subscribers to the game. Compare that to World of Warcraft’s 10 million subscribers and it was really a niche product in the market at that time, though it had a loyal following of fans. In September 2011, the game went free-to-play with limitations on what Free players could access. However the servers were unfortunately shut down by NCSoft at the end of November 2012. I’m so glad that there’s an emulator out for City of Heroes/Villains today and emulators for many other older MMORPG’s so that players can revisit them and experience what they bought to the table for the genre.
If you have memories of playing City of Heroes/Villians, I’d love to hear about them! Join the Game on AUS – God Mode closed Facebook group where you’ll be welcomed, and we can reminisce the old days.