City of Heroes Diary #3

The magic word this week has been "Sidekick".

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Well, it's been my magic word, which is all that counts. Were you to take a straw poll of people across the worlds of Paragon City, you'd have different results. Most common would be "Issue 4! Issue 4!" Probably followed by "Where have the Winter Lords gone?" and "I have way too much debt." Well... if you let people expand "Magic Word" into "Magic phrase" anyway.

The latter two are obvious - the winter event has drawn to a close, with every lake in the city having frozen solid. This has added impromptu ice-skating to the various non-supercrime-fighting activities for the metahuman massive. And everyone worries about their debt, because they keep on dying because they are weak while the forces of crime are strong. Or that may just be me.

The Issue 4 is a little more interesting. Cryptic, being impressively open about their continuing development of City of Heroes, post previews of their forthcoming updates to the game. It's a smart decision: saying what's coming next leads to everyone having something to look forward to. Issue 4 sounds like the most single biggest change to the world since inception. While aspects like body-scaling (Prediction: If possible with the system, expect the average Paragon City-dweller's bustline to jump at least a couple of cup-sizes) are welcome enough, the promise of player-versus-player battles in the Colosseum is where things get interesting.

There have been relatively few details leaked yet, leading to rampant speculation among the understandably excited players. After all, it's a frankly monolithic task altering a pure Player Versus Environment game to work as a Player Versus Player game in a relatively balanced fashion. And...

Well, I could ramble on forever about that, but as I said, it isn't what I've been thinking about. My Magic Word's been "Sidekick".

Now, City of Heroes has innovated in a number of ways, but the one which literally every one of the next generation of combat-based MMOs will rip-off (or end up being harshly critiqued for) is the Sidekicking system. It fundamentally alters who can play the game, and how.

It's especially important this week. Since I've been playing more regularly, assorted friends of mine have been lured back to continue their patrols of the crime-filled (or at least regularly respawned) streets. And the Sidekicking allows us to actually play together rather than just play in the same world.

Take three assorted friends - De Fenestrator, Y'gor and The Entomologist. Upon returning, they were levels 17, 11 and 20 respectively. Since I was level 24, if City of Heroes worked like any traditional MMO, then we'd be in separate worlds. Taking on a baddie more than a couple of levels above you is a recipe for bleeding knees. The Entomologist might just scrape it if he was careful, but De Fenestrator and Y'gor would be about as much use on a mission as The Incredible Captain Got-no-Powers. Conversely, if I went on one of their missions, I'd annihilate everyone who'd be an acceptable challenge for their lesser abilities.

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In City of Heroes, it doesn't really matter thanks to Sidekicks. And more than anything else, it's that which has made everyone wander back into City of Heroes. Simply, a higher level can "sidekick" with a lower level colleague. They gain a brevet level of one beneath their friend's so they can fight alongside them. They don't get any more powers, but what they do have will hit with more punch. While level 11 Y'gor would be no use, level 23 Y'gor is a useful man to have around.

A later addition was acting as an Exemplar to a lower level player. Here the more experienced character has their level artificially lowered to that of his partner, meaning they can chip in on their humble tasks. While they don't earn XP, it's ideal for burning off the XP debt you accumulate from deaths.

Now, as much as I love World of Warcraft, arriving in the world to find my friends a good dozen levels ahead of me isn't fun in any way. They might as well be playing a different game to me for as much adventures we'll have together. Even if you start together, it's not much better. It puts a limit on how much everyone can play. If you want to continue hopping around the world together, you all have to put similar amounts of hours in. If you don't, one races ahead or another drags behind. And since we're all adults, who has time to organise their entire life around an MMO?

That's what I love most about City Of Heroes. It makes everything easy for me to drop in and out of it... but because that's so easy, it makes me want to stay there. Since it doesn't make demands that I don't want to make, I can stay.

Or, to put it another way, I leave girlfriends that make ultimatums. I stay with the ones who don't.

Of course, it's not that the system hasn't got its challenges. If a sidekick wanders too far from their mentor - or vice-versa - they revert to their normal abilities. If this happens in the middle of an area that's well out of the sidekick's capabilities, they're going to be reduced to a thin red mist before they have a chance to swear.

It happened this week to fighting colleague Dark-controller Nitefall, when she sidekicked to a level 40 character in a team, who proceeded to immediately bound away leaving her defenceless. And an oblivious sidekick is just as damaging. Being badly treated by a mentor has turned Nitefall into the most conscientious of masters, carefully sticking to her charge like an even more homoerotic Dynamic Duo. But when the group has to retreat and the inexperienced Sidekick doesn't realise it, she's stuck with them, leaving the rest of the retreating party without Nitefall's healing powers. And when you're as fragile as my Warwych is... well, she can end up resuming her regular examining-floor duties with embarrassing speed.

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(Oh - regular readers will be pleased to hear the Respec went incredibly well. After a few dry runs, I settled on a particularly vicious Stamina six-slotted Haste combo, which makes her brutal beyond the belief of her peers. But - er - we don't want to reduce this diary to statistic talk, do we?)

But that it can be used inexpertly is really no different from any part of the game. The fact you can sidekick well or sidekick badly means it's just another thing to consider in your strategies. If it was transparently easy to do... well, what would be the point. If there wasn't the chance to fail, there would be no chance to really succeed.

And if it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have got one of my highest moments of the week. I'd just stomped away from a death involving sidekick abuse, only to be invited to go take a trip to another dimension (Pay close attention! - The Prodigy, circa 1992) by Lloytron 4.0, who's a level so high I can barely see past his knees.

I was introduced to this group of demi-godly Titans via chum Mark Stephenson (who plays - er - "Mark Stephenson". Which makes you wonder if there are conversations in Paragon's City offices along the lines of "My That Mark Stephenson is so wonderful" "Yes... hey, Mark Stephenson is never in the office when Mark Stephenson is saving the world. Could they be the same man?" "Don't be stupid! Mark Stephenson wears glasses and Mark Stephenson doesn't wear glasses"), and jump at the chance.

I mean, every superhero's got to make at least one trip to the antimatter universe, right?

(And a bonus imaginary badge will be rewarded to whoever first recognises the sneaky quote. No, really. I haven't got it right here on my desk, not waiting for you.)

So at the side of the patient Blue Atom, I head off to try and be as trusty a sidekick as a homicidal blaster can manage. Apart from a little aura-envy - since Warwych is the only person in the room not surrounded by rampant cosmic forces beyond mere man's understanding - I do fine. It feels a little like being in the The Authority, but with less people's heads coming right off when someone punches them. Well... maybe the B-list substitute member of the Authority who's only wheeled out when one of the major players are feeling a little poorly in the stomach, but that's close enough for me.

I finally get to meet the Rikti, the transdimensional alien warriors who terrorise the multiverse, and fire an energy blast off in their faces. From a safe distance, because I'm not stupid.

Saving the universe with Bigger Boys, thanks to my Magic Word. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

This is a publisher-sponsored feature brought to you in conjunction with NCsoft. However, this serialised diary account of City Of Heroes has been given full editorial independence.

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