We haven't talked about City of Heroes for a while now. Even with an MMO in development stasis, that leaves whole stories untold. If you don't change the game, the players and their interactions alter. But when we're talking about a living game, which is expanding the content and providing new skills for players to experiment with, there's a whole story being left untold.
So, just shy of a year since our last visit, with their latest update ("Issue") now live, this seems as good a time as any to dust off the spandex and reintroduce the fist of justice to the malevolent mobs of Paragon City.
There are changes. I notice the first one immediately, coo at it for a few seconds, then call up an AIM window to tell John Walker about it.
He takes a break from getting a bit teary over the end of Dreamfall and working out how he is going to maintain his position as World's Worst Healer to enthusiastically beg confirmation from me. Twice. And one of them was in capitals.
I tell him that, yes, it is true.
"OMG!" he yelps in text form.
"YES" I confirm.
"OMG!" he repeats breathlessly.
(It's worth noting that Eurogamer writers can type breathlessly. We're so unfit, it genuinely does tire us out.)
What probably says more about the parts of our mentalities to which City of Heroes appeals, though, is the stuff that didn't provoke yelping.
For example, girlish squeals didn't incarnate thanks to the biggest update in Issue 9 of City of Heroes, and probably the most significant addition since the introduction of Player Versus Combat in Issue 4 (in fact, for players who've never wandered into the City of Heroes/Villains confrontations, arguably this more significant). It's the salvage system.
A traditional weak-spot of City of Heroes is the lack of a fully developed equipment system, instead having "enhancements" which are applied to individual powers to give percentage bonuses. Oh, and you can get other temporary powers, which count as their own slots. It's not exactly a coherent system, and the game only got away with it because superheroes aren't exactly the sort of people who go worrying about getting better equipment. Green Lantern doesn't go dumping his power ring every ten minutes, after all.
However, the new system is based around something suitably superheroey. That is, Inventions. Opponents can drop scrap and recipes. Get the bits of scrap listed on the recipe (exactly the sort of esoteric experimental gubbins that you imagine scatters superheroic battlegrounds post-battle) and you can combine them into whatever the recipe states. This can be enhancements, temporary powers or new bits of costume (and you know how costume-conscious the average metahuman is). Rarer recipes allow increasingly fancy results, including enhancements that boost multiple aspects of powers and bits of costume which are very fancy indeed. Finally, City of Heroes has something akin to crafting. While it's causing economic chaos as everyone trades for desirable items, it's probably overdue. [Hang on. "Superheroey"? -Ed]
The economy aspect is made more workable due to the other major economic change. That is, the consignment market - a rough equivalent to an Auction House in certain other games. The villains, stylish as always, ignore "consignments" in favour of the considerably more glamorous "Black Market". Since the Invention system demands locating these oddball items, it's an essential addition. In its early stages, it also seems to be causing people lucky enough to get a rare drop to receive an influence windfall. It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out - I can't think of an MMO which has added such a large economic element this late in its development. Genre watchers will probably be playing close attention, and stroking their beards thoughtfully.
Meanwhile, we'll be punching the hell out of things in interesting ways. While I'd played the Mayhem missions before, Issue 8's Safeguard tasks were new to me. They're considerably more freeform than the traditional City of Heroes level. While Mayhem missions involve you entering a city-wide area and abstractly robbing a bank, there's distractions along the way, not least generally destroying things. Safeguard ones flip the equation, rushing you to part of the city that's under siege by invading forces. Rushing against a timer, there's a primary task for you to stop - preventing a bank robbery - but once you've done that, you've got fifteen minutes to try and put a stop to other devilry. Stop troops trashing the zone, discovering explosive plots and taking them out - and failing, watching buildings explode... it's a lot more hectic than the traditional mission. Both Mayhem and Safeguard missions come at the end of the game's random arcs, where instead of the planned story you do random raids (for villains) or tune into trouble on the police radio (for heroes).
All of which are tremendous additions to the game, but none were responsible for the squeaking of Britain's foremost point-and-click adventure critic. Neither was the addition of the high-level Task Force for heroes, if only because not possessing a level 45+ means it's not going to be the place for us. It wasn't the renewal of Faultline, which renovated one of the most unpopular zones into a non-Hazard zone with a load of new content (though, to be fair, we always quite liked its sheer desolation - the initial flight in there is one of my favourite memories of the first months in Paragon). It wasn't the veteran reward system, which allowed special gifts for players depending on how long they'd had an account, giving badges, powers, custom costumes and so on.
Actually, that's a lie. It's part of that. The system actually backdates, so as long as you had an account active for so long, you'd open up the options. Have six months on your account, get the Greek alphabet emblems. Nine months, get slutty belly-shirts for ladies and (er) slutty kilts for men. A year and it's a choice between a couple of permanent powers, as well as the sprintings which were previously only used on pre-order accounts. Three full years? Then you've got a choice between a variety of ultra-cute tiny clockworks, demons, recaps and stuff.
And, relevantly, if you've got 15 months on your account you can get...
"WINGZZ!" screeched John Walker.
"Also, trenchcoats," I explained, though I didn't add that you only needed three months of play to get that. Or that a lot of equipment can also be got through the Invention system, apparently.
"Man alive," he sighed, "I need to awaken my account."
Not a bad idea at all.