Coded blue.

Wednesday 18 April 2007

Screenshot City of Heroes I9

Pic of the day: Upscale Heroine dabbling with the energy matrix to create a new super-power enhancement.

CoH I9

This means, of course, City of Heroes Issue 9. ("Issues" is a word that has a lot more positive connotations in comics than in relationships.) Each "issue" is a free expansion to the game, not much smaller than some of the expansion packs you can buy in the shop for classic MMORPGs like EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot.. And this is issue number nine, which means there is a lot of content in the game by now. And, some would say, it was about time.

When City of Heroes first came out, it got glowing reviews for being original, easy to get started with, fun to play and not requiring much commitment. While competing games often required a very particular team composition to play well, and then "camping" (waiting for monsters) for an hour or more, City of Heroes let you play in your lunch break. Just jumped in, playing alone or hook up with a friend regardless of which level each of you are. Most of the missions (quests) were generated specifically for your team, and could not be disturbed by anyone else. This was pretty revolutionary at its time. But as much fun as the game was to most reviewers, there was always one consideration at the end: A worry about the longevity of the game. After all, wasn't it too simple? With no loot, no crafting or other non-combat skills, and no player economy... the game seemed to lack depth.

We never got to know whether this would have been a problem. Few months later World of Warcraft was released, and most MMORPG players went there. WoW had it all: Easy to get started with, play in the lunch break, or spend your entire life online in a world more complex than some small towns. The people who stayed behind (or, in many cases, returned) were those who took a particular liking to comics. And this may well be for the best. There are fewer gamers on the servers than there were during the first couple months, but there is a special atmosphere that you won't find in medieval games. It is hard to describe, but perhaps I could say that it is lighthearted without being stupid. There are a lot of smart adults goofing off, including me obviously...

Even so, after nearly 3 years you get pretty close to having seen it all. Oh, the various issues have added many new zones and many new missions, but the basic gameplay has not changed much unless you are interested in player vs. player combat (added starting with issue 4 and later with the evil twin game, City of Villains, which shares some zones where combat may take place). Two new archetypes were added for players who had reached level 50 (the highest level), but that's about it. Otherwise it was just the same gameplay in new environments. Until now.


It is not quite correct to say that CoH doesn't have loot. But the loot is very abstract. When you overcome an enemy or finish a mission, there is a chance of getting a reward in addition to experience points and influence (the "money" of the game). You can get a one-off inspiration, a quick power-up, like a potion. It is not a potion though, it is just a colored symbol, each color showing what kind of effect it has. Likewise there are enhancements, of which there are even more types. These last much longer, approximately five levels, but are assigned each to a specific power. You have a limited number of "slots", and dividing them among your powers is an important strategic choice. Again this loot is very abstract, just colored circles, and they represent the improvement by specialization that a hero can achieve over time. There are no actual swords, helmets and such loot that you can pick up in other games.

With issue 9, the enhancements are still colored circles, but you can now make your own with new properties. You cannot quite unleash your creativity: You need a recipe to make anything, but there are a lot of these. In addition to the recipe you need salvage, which are components used in the enhancements. Again, there are a lot of different types of salvage, and your inventory is limited. This means it can be hard to get the salvage that fits the recipes, or the other way around. That's where the player economy comes in.

You could of course just sell your recipes and salvage to the in-game shops, but the price is not impressive. In the case of the rare items at least, you might get much better paid by a fellow player... if only they knew how to contact you. And that's where the consignment houses come in. These are scattered throughout the city, and they connect not just everyone on the server, but also other servers on the same continent. Possibly more. (CoH has separate sets of servers on each continent, currently America, Europe and Korea. I play on the American servers.) With thousands of potential buyers or sellers, trading suddenly looks a lot more attractive.

There is a small fee, of course, but the system is fair and straightforward. You want to sell something, you put it up for sale and say what you want for it. Potential buyers don't see the price, they just say what they are willing to give. If the two overlap, the trade goes through with the buyer's price. Simple as that. It is not really worth the trouble for small, cheap things, but later in the game you can craft pretty powerful stuff and some people will be quite desperate to get some of it. We have known this feature was coming for a while, so some have probably saved up lots of "influence" by now. The first days after the system goes live will be crazy.

Unlike competing games, there are no crafting skills as such. If you have the recipe and the right salvage, you will always succeed. In fact, for common recipes you only need the salvage, and can buy the recipe at the workbench. But if you make a common enchantment often enough, you will eventually memorize it so you don't need to find or buy the recipe. I guess this counts as a trade skill of sorts... but we will definitely not see a class of "blacksmiths" that hang around the forge day after day, like I used to see (and sometimes be) in Dark Age of Camelot. Rather, making enhancements is something every hero can do, and there is a simple live tutorial at the University where you are sent from one teacher to another showing you each step of the process.

Already at level 10 you start finding your first recipe, and salvage even earlier. I made the mistake at first to sell the cheap salvage to make room in my inventory for the more expensive. But of course the cheap salvage is the one used in the most common recipes, so when I started to find those, I no longer had the salvage to make them. No big deal: The new enhancements are not mandatory. You can play through the whole game and never use any of it. But you will be slightly less effective. And who wants to be that? My worry is that the next expansion of the game will contain harder content, because the developers assume (rightly, in most cases) that people are now tougher. This would be a blow for those who just want to play, not pore over tomes of special effects available through the "invention system" as it is called.

The invention system also lets you create costume pieces and temporary powers. The way you go about this is the same as for the enhancements, so I won't go into these separately. Besides, I have not tested them.


In conclusion, I am warily pleased with the new direction of the game. It allows even more individual characters, something that has been a strong point of the game from the very start. It adds more "mind work" for those who are willing, in exchange for a slightly more efficient character. It gives the easily bored players new objectives and greatly increases the ways players can be useful to other players. My one fear is that the game may be made harder to compensate for the slightly improved powers of those who use the new features to the fullest. But perhaps not: Now that there is more to do after you reach level 50, there may be less reason to delay that moment as long as possible.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Fast forward
Two years ago: Slow spring
Three years ago: CoH review 5
Four years ago: Cynical dreamer
Five years ago: Health care stalinism
Six years ago: It's the economy, stupid
Seven years ago: The cry that made us human
Eight years ago: Slice of life

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