It's the last diary entry. We knew we needed some vague climax to our four-week mission into the heart of Paragon City. We thought we'll save the universe. Or something.
And - you know - really save the universe. While you're averting some disaster every third second when playing the game, some challenges are bigger than others. We thought we'd go for the biggest. That is, take on the expanse of a Task Force.
In normal play, you receive your missions from assorted contacts around the city, and take each on in turn. While the tasks set by most form a proper story-arc, they're experienced piecemeal. It's rare you'll zoom through all the missions from one person, as you skip around and perform tasks your friends wish to do ("Okay - first we'll stop the bomb at the dam, and then we'll go and prevent that bomb beneath the City Centre." "No fair! We did your task first last time!"). Taskforces differ, being set by a superhero and played through by a single group - hence "taskforce" - in a single large lump. Once you've committed to one, you're not able to do anything else unless you quit the group.
And they take hours to work through. They're a commitment, not for the fainthearted.
So, on sunny Striga Island, we gather before Moonfire, the Peacebringer hero crackling with azure energy, and decide to get it on and do the Savin' the world dance.
Problem. The taskforce requires a minimum of six people to undertake.
Since Nitefall has to bail to go and fight his nemesis TaxMan, we're left with a core group of perennial Anti-Monster buddy ANDOV, scrappy midget Y'gor, the fearsomely well-turned-out The Entomologist and myself. Four. Four is traditionally less than six. We need more people. We pick up some new friends by randomly advertising on channel. Enter Regicide, Warbird, Crimson Scythe and Master Ping, taking the team to eight. It's probably an important mystical number, I'd imagine. It usually is.
Now, random pick-ups can be dangerous. You have no vetting service, so could pick up an idiot who you'll be hamstrung with, who really doesn't even vaguely understand how to play the game and takes great joy at setting off multiple mobs at once, breaking apart nicely organised groups or drinking the last of your milk you left in the fridge without even thinking of replacing it. It's worse in a taskforce, because you need to stay together for hours. It's all too common for multiple members to drop out along the way, dooming the mission to failure.
There's lots of problems with multiplayer games. The biggest, always, is the players you're multi-ing with.
It's often a problem, but this time it isn't. Everyone in the team is professional, powerful and devilishly effective. To have any chance of making it through a Task Force, you have to be.
A chain of missions tied together by an over-arching plot doesn't special, but it highlights what... well, okay. Last week I said something about Side-kicking being the feature that I most love about City of Heroes. While it's the one which is most representative of the attitude the game presents, it's not the one which contributes most to my enjoyment. It's really the missions, and how they're set up.
While a small number of the missions involve street fighting in the general world, the mass majority of them are specially instanced, far more than any (released, as Guild Wars seems to press the mandate just as far) MMO I've ever played. I've never had to stand in a queue to kill a certain blue-haired orc, which is the single most ludicrous thing to ever come out of the subgenre. Stepping through a door takes you into an area just for you, your team-mates and the hundreds of nefarious bad guys who have taken a dislike to the cut of your jib.
There's an argument that this is entirely contradictory to the spirit of MMOs - that is having a living world where everything is placed contextually. It's a very boring argument made by people who enjoy standing in the aforementioned queues for blue-haired orcs. In an enclosed space, with my chosen friends, with no chance of someone coming along to spoil our fun... well, that's fun. That's atmospheric. That's it.
Where a Task Force starts hurting is that you do one after another after another. As the hours drag on, a sense of tired exhilaration kicks in. There's always needful pace to the missions, if only because you want to complete them before someone has to go. The commitment is both the biggest problem and the entire point. It wouldn't be as exciting if it wasn't such an actual challenge to achieve - nor so frustrating when something goes wrong which causes you to you fail.
The taskforce, with a large group, shows City of Heroes at its best. Rather than a handful of baddies, there are moments when you turn a corner in a cave system, the roof expands upwards and suddenly you're facing off against what looks like fifty odd Werewolves. From my position at the rear of the group - Fragile Blaster, remember - seeing our thin, brightly coloured line before this mass of nature red in tooth and claw, my heart swells.
Man of the match was ANDOV, who performed the role of tanker so well that other members of the group were virtually proposing to him. At one memorable point, the entire line crumbles and the group falls back en masse. Over half the team are dead. I'm standing (or rather, more accurately, flying. Away. Quickly). The Werewolves overrun us and we try to reform near the dungeon's entrance, expecting to be snuffed out any second.
We're not. Inching deeper back into the tunnels we're presented with the magnificent sight of Andov, alone, single-handedly fighting a mob of twenty of so creatures to a standstill. I can't help but think that any one of the group, if I let it get close enough, could turn me into dog-food. My boy ANDOV doesn't break. As my powers kick in and I start thinning the group, I wonder what it would be like in the midst of that slavering pack. I bet it's wonderful. I'm jealous.
The clock ticks past midnight, into the early morning and the Arch Villain reveals herself. It's gone one by the time we pummel Arkahn into unconsciousness, so stopping her devilish plan which would have allowed her to over-run the city.
You all should be grateful. If we had somehow failed, NCsoft would have to close down all the servers, or re-launched it as "City of Arkhan: If Only Warwych's mates weren't so Rubbish".
But we weren't rubbish. We were heroes.
No thanks required. Just part of the job, ladies and gentlemen.
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.