I remember those thronging streets. Towns where you couldn't walk a foot down the sidewalk without bumping into a collection of uber-powered folks, ready to fight crime in all its forms. I remember staring at the vast crowds gathered around Ms Liberty in Atlas Park, a sea of the brightly coloured, winged, robotic, muscular and lithe. Paragon City was a thriving metropolis.
Today, it is a ghost town. Crime runs unhindered, old ladies stuck in perpetual battles with violent thugs over their handbags, no one coming to their aid. Clockwork menaces kick their feet on rooftops, realising the futility of their existence when there's no one to zap. Circles of Thorns fizzle with impotent demonic energy. Where did all the heroes go?
City of Heroes/Villains is getting on a bit. No, the servers aren't empty, but rather the action is nearer the top end, the higher levels. It's four years old now, but in its third year you would still expect to see those starting areas, Atlas Park and Galaxy City, bulging with newbs, fitting themselves out with their first powers, showing off their explosive buffs in public areas. Returning - it's been a while since I fought crime in these streets - was a peculiarly lonely experience.
The Eleventh Hour
Four years and a month on, City of Heroes adds its twelfth expansion, Issue 12: Midnight Hour. So what's new?
The title refers to a new organisation within the game, the Midnight Squad. The city has long been under attack by an alien force known as the Rikti, who have been central characters in previous Issues. The Midnighters claim to possess secrets that could repel the invasion, offering a new collection of threaded missions for levels 10 to 50. There's also a new zone map based around this bunch, for both Heroes and Villains, called the Roman Cimeroran Peninsula, themed around the Midnighters' Ouroboros crystal that allows them to manipulate time (Issue 11 introduced the Ouroboros for its time-travelling missions). Sci-fi hokum ahoy! All perfectly fitting with City of Heroes' comic-book stylings.
For those who've hit level 50, Issue 12 also brings in a couple of new Epic Archetypes on the Villainous side. They be Wolf Spiders, and Blood Widows, which are clearly awesome names. As with previous Epics, this involves new stories and missions, and best of all, ridiculous costumes involving giant spider legs coming out of your back. This is why we play games.
There's also the smattering of tweaks you'd expect to see, mostly making things slightly more user-friendly. At last you can chop up your power trays and put them anywhere you want, along with tidying up the Contact and Chat window. Still, other windows are in desperate need of improvement, and the Missions window still refuses to be resized, maddeningly preventing you from reading the mission info without using the pop-up. More interesting is the Level Up Boost - a very welcome inclusion. Now when your reach a new level it refills your health and endurance bars (I strongly feel this would happen in real life too, if only we could level up so distinctly) as well as buffing you with every Inspiration type. It's a nice touch, making the frustration of levelling midway through a dungeon much more rewarding.
Issue 12's other new feature, which once more favours the Heroic side of things, is a collection of gaming tweaks for The Hollows (which itself first appeared with Issue 2). NPCs have been rebalanced, there's new baddies about, and a brand new contact who offers repeatable missions. But I mention this because of its description in the bumph that accompanied the new expansion, describing it as a "makeover". I first thought they'd improved the graphics in the zone, and was keen to see. But I had misunderstood.
Which brought me to realising how plain the cities look now. They're still often beautifully put together, with places like Boomtown looking majestic in their crafting. But not in textures. Even cranked to the very max, CoX is looking increasingly tired, many areas a wash of grey against grey. A makeover is exactly what this engine needs.
The tone seems quite negative, doesn't it? A quietening, ageing world. But there's a reason City of Heroes has always been my favourite MMO, and it lives on.
Joining a party of enthusiastic players, I set off on a series of level 38 missions, and was immediately delighted by the frantic mayhem of its dungeon battles. The six of us obliterated huge gangs of Lost, Rikti and Thorns in wonderfully explosive battle. City of Heroes may look plain when you're outside in the streets, but once the powers are flying back and forth it becomes astoundingly pretty.
Admittedly, the Midnight Squad mission we set off on was surprisingly anticlimactic, and perhaps it doesn't matter how much story is sandwiched either side of the action - you're still twatting your way through a twisting series of corridors or caves - but City of Heroes offers a fantastically strong sense of teamwork. The sense of role, of specific purpose, is so easily found, and so rewarding to take part in. And most of all, it's an instant, intuitive thing. It doesn't require an experienced Supergroup (guild) to be effective.
Age before beauty
Until Cryptic finishes their forthcoming Champions Online, there's nothing like City of Heroes/Villains. Over the years vast amounts have been added, from the Invention system letting you create your own enhancements, costume pieces, etc, to the Bases, where your Supergroup can set up home and create all sorts of useful bits and bobs for ease of travelling and healing. Of course, adding Villains introduced PvP, and the arenas and extra zones for Hero versus Villain battling. It's swollen, it's taken notice of movements in MMOs, and it has maintained its focus on fun, never taking itself distractingly seriously. So it's unfair that it still feels like something from gaming past.
I still love it. I still have more fun in that City than I ever have in World of Warcraft, or elsewhere. It's just so instant, so immediately satisfying. A new power isn't just a slightly better chopping action, but the ability to fly. Or to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Or to call up purple tentacles from another dimension to bind the enemy to the spot. How can you not love that? It's cartoon, it's comic, it's the gaming form of those brightly coloured words that burst from Batman's TV fighting. But it's also a world that, I suspect, has had its day.
It seems wrong to declare this when there's nothing in place to replace it. It occupies a unique space in the MMO multiverse. Champions will inevitably take its throne, but for now this is the only way to experience the life of the superhero, and despite its age, it's still a fine way to go about it.
7 / 10
If you're curious to try out City of Heroes/Villains for the first time - or a lapsed player interested in taking a look at the new content in Issue 12 - head over to our trial giveaway to grab yourself 14 free days' play.