He may be the cape-wearing father of the City of Heroes, but Jack Emmert's actually rather evil. Asked to tell us about his favourite moments in Paragon City, he thinks for a bit and then his eyes twinkle. He was playing late one evening, he says, banded up with a handful of other players and doing alright - only for them to turn on him and try and boot him out. Clearly riled and seeking vengeance, he used his admin-level access privileges to summon an enormous monster to slay them all. "HA! HA! HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT!" Fortunately for the rest of us, he wasn't allowed to do it again - but you can imagine how much fun he's having with City of Villains.
As with CoH, Cryptic Studios has full creative freedom with Villains, and has taken advantage of this by creating a new game that doubles up as an expansion. Its goals were simple: a game that made you feel like a bad guy, took the gameplay in a new direction, and also benefited the Heroes. The result, however, isn't what you might think. You're not going to be able to behave like Emmert and wreak untold havoc on Paragon City. It may be called "Player Versus Environment", but the environment itself doesn't change much in an MMO game, so what we have instead is like a warped mirror of City of Heroes, where supervillains pillage and plunder the Rogue Isles of Lord Recluse in the hope of joining the ranks of his Arachnos organisation - with a few twists on the old dynamic (twisted and otherwise) to liven things up.
Of course Cryptic's aiming for a more chaotic game, but this isn't a world of psychopathic lunatics; it's one of comic supervillains. As such, the archetypes you can choose from on the villainous side are all misbehaving with a purpose rather than lumbering around carving the eyes out of Barbie dolls. The Brute draws strength from the damage he takes; the Stalker lurks in the shadows to protect his fragile body; the Dominator uses mind control; the Corruptor twists the environment to suit his purpose; and the Mastermind, the most obviously interesting of the bunch, summons minions to do his bidding, be they robots, ninjas, the recently deceased or otherwise. Character design is as versatile as ever (Emmert dryly refutes any suggestion that you'll be able to infringe copyrights), with more options and lots of suitably evil costume pieces like skulls, skulls, more skulls and barb wire.
The start of the game sees players breaking out of infamous Paragon City super-prison the Ziggurat, escaping through the sewers. The prison break is being sponsored by Arachnos, it turns out, and following some tutorial-esque fisticuffs and a chance meeting with Leeroy Jenkins (a mini-celebrity in MMO-land) you're loaded onto a plane and transported to the oppressive shantytowns of Mercy Island - one of the Rogue Isles' seven PvE zones. It's probably an idea to talk a little bit about the Rogue Isles before we go any further, actually. The premise is simple: years ago, Lord Recluse's Arachnos legions helped dispense with the Isles' former occupants - who were becoming increasingly uppity - and for this they were given UN recognition and a place to call home. On the Rogue Isles, villains are encouraged to be villainous as long as they don't interfere with the masterplan - and it's here that the next generation of Arachnos agents, e.g. you and your mates, are sent to establish their credentials.
With players (un)safely ensconced on Mercy, it's down to the grind - and if there's one word Cryptic's trying to avoid at this stage it's probably that. The missions in CoH were very popular, Emmert says, but fans wanted more variety. So while you'll rob banks, plant explosives, face off against the virtuous and even tackle the Statesman at some point, you'll have lots of other options. Reading the local rag will give you ideas for crimes to commit, and you'll be able to take on missions generated specifically for you. Meanwhile you'll also have to worry about the various factions, including the mystics, luddites and goldbrickers, and your actions towards them will help shape some of your higher-level abilities through a reputation system.
There are other priorities beside evil missions. Obviously you've got to curry favour with Lord Recluse, and in another zone, the home of Dr Aeon, you've got to worry about the power being channelled to Arachnos and fighting off the pesky gremlins attacking the power lines. If you spend enough time rooting through side-missions, you can uncover more and more about the area's history and the origins of the Rogue Isles, too. Do enough to attract the attention of Arachnos and you may even join up and take advantage of new powers - but as Emmert says, it's the nature of evil to turn on itself, so you won't get there by cosying up the whole way through.
Speaking of which, Player Versus Player is a big deal in City of Villains. There'll be several PvP zones at launch, and each has a specific set-up, as players fight amongst themselves for the code to launch a rocket, for example. You'll even fight in Paragon City. But the really interesting PvP, to our minds, concerned bases. Bases are another new addition to CoV and are effectively your own customisable lairs, which you acquire at a certain level and can then customise to the same degree you would a new character. Before long you'll be able to display trophies based on your group's exploits, and Emmert says that Heroes will be able to take advantage of the base system too through another free release, which should be forthcoming around the time the game comes out. So what's the link to PvP? Well, in short, you can raid each other's bases.
Cryptic's been careful here to avoid what Emmert calls "the 3am stuff" that afflicted EverQuest players, who'd often wake up the next day and discover they'd been rumbled during their sleep. Instead you choose when you're open to raids. Recover certain items from quests and store them in your base for an experience boost and you may be raided, and enemies can teleport directly in to do so. This prompts a struggle between good and evil (and evil and evil) over the items in question.
The game's coming together quite quickly now, and at launch Cryptic aims to have PvE up to level 40 (with an update adding levels 40-50 due for release a couple of months later - for free), and says that the four PvP zones will be unlocked for City of Heroes players in Issue 6. At the moment Villains is in closed beta. Emmert also says to expect an "amazing announcement" on pricing in the near future, chuckling when somebody suggests it might be the amazing suggestion that CoH players end up paying double. It won't be. What's more, die-hard Heroes can look forward to new epic archetypes and an endgame for people at level 50, using something going by the working title of "the Legend system" - and it'll one day be possible for nefarious Heroes to "go rogue". That's not to say they can summon giant beasts to club griefers and then laugh maniacally, but it certainly should guarantee some more memorable moments.
City of Villains is due out in Europe at the end of October. You can find more exclusive screenshots elsewhere on the site.