On the main forum which I while away my working hours, there's a thread. It's about City of Heroes, though is currently named "City of Hot Mammas". That'll have inevitably changed by the time this review hits the net-presses; the moderators are taking great joy at changing it randomly whenever boredom strikes, just to keep things interesting. At the time of writing, it's just shy of 1,500 posts. Cute, you may think, but no biggie.
What's interesting is that the forum is nothing whatsoever to do with videogames. Just a standard - if wittier than most - gathering point online, where there are enough people to amass a gargantuan thread full of stories of superheroic adventure.
In other words, City of Heroes is a runaway success, and there's nothing that this review could do to change it. And, y'know... good. Cryptic deserve every single subscriber account they've amassed. Yay them.
But it leaves this piece to be a rare pleasure in the reviewing biz. I've had the pressure of writing the first incisive review of a game, trying to be on the bleeding edge of critical thought. I've - more unusually - had the pleasure of offering the last word on a game, reviewing something which is crossing formats and already a huge success. But City of Heroes, despite being out for months, lives in an eternal limbo of constant improvements and tweaks, with a future major critical re-evaluation scheduled in for its City of Villains expansions. It's not a last word. It's not a first word. It's just... words.
Sit back. Pour yourself a G&T. Relax. We're among friends here. Let's have a chat about why City of Heroes is one of the undisputed games of the year.
Firstly, its theme. We've thankfully come a long way from the days of when every MMO was a choose-your-orc adventure full of burly men with a surfeit of consonants in their names and lithe women with a deficit of fabric in their garments, but even given that, City of Heroes pushed the edges of respectibility. Superhero games can't be done, people said, but they did it. Everyone - at least anyone who ever seriously plays MMOs - has idly sketched out a superhero in the border of a school's notebook... so immediate huge audience, yeah?
Well, yes. But while, in one way, that's the reason why City of Heroes was a success, it also misses the point by a huge margin. It wasn't that Cryptic made a superhero game - it's that they looked at what a superhero game should be and staked it right through the chest. It's a harder task than you may think. Most MMO games haven't had the strength of vision to choose their target, preferring to point ineffectually around a variety of targets. City of Heroes doesn't have complicated trade economies.
City of Heroes is about this: hitting people in the face.
And also this: looking really good.
So, ultimately: hitting people in the face, while looking really good.
It cuts to the chase. None of something like - say - Star Wars Galaxies meandering around trying to find a bar. Within minutes of creating your character, you'll be biffing someone on the nose for justice. And it's immediately fun. "Immediately Fun" is a rare trait in an MMO, and more than anything else has kept an audience. Its accessibility is also its failing - there's a fair chunk of the audience who have burned out within a month, deciding they'd had enough hitting people in the face while looking really good, thankyouverymuch.
But - y'know - so what? It's a videogame, not a spouse. City of Heroes is a game which understands what time it is. There's dozens of MMOs now. In the next six months, count the - hngggghhhh - Triple-A titles arriving. Anyone interested in the genre is going to want to dabble in all of them, but it takes a certain breed of player (i.e. A Very Rich One) to keep accounts open for several games, when the time required to play a MMO means you can never really give satisfactory attention to more than one at once. We're entering a world where people move from game to game, perhaps returning later. Stay for a month or two - come back down the line, to see how things have changed. With Cryptic Studio's determined expansion schedule, you can be sure it will have... but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Combat is based on basic role-playing game tropes (Er... posh word meaning "Things". Sorry. Thought I was posturing in Edge for a second), being based on your characteristics rather than any significant direct player skill. However, everything is fired through the superhero filter. So rather than having magic swords or special training, your powers are enhanced by - er - enhancements, which plug into abilities to give them a tweak, from everything for damage to speed of attack to dozens of others. Powers are gained every few levels, expanding your repertoire. However, they're rarely ultimately "better" than others, meaning that you don't ever stop using your initial abilities.
The choice of power is only limited by your character archetype. That's "Character class", for those who only speak GaryGygaxeese. Five are available currently, from the Blaster (High offence/Low Defence), the Tanker (High Defence/Low Defence), the Scrapper (High offence close up/Medium Defence), the Defender (Provides healing and - hnnngggh - Buffs to others/low defence) and the Controller (Makes sure trains run on time. Dabbles in direct mental attacks on the opposition in their tea breaks).
While soloing is possible, especially with the more self-reliant classes, the game really comes into its own in an organised team, supporting each other. The tanker charging in and attracting as much attention as possible, usually last seen disappearing under a pile of bodies, blasters keep their distance, picking off individuals with ludicrously vicious beams, and defenders whine incessantly that people keep on moving before they cast a healing power. As well as the abilities linked to the archetype, other general powers become available to all after the first few levels, giving access to the things that no good metahuman could leave home without, like Flight, superspeed or - for our female characters - a bosom-based immunity to gravity. Essentially, if there's a power in a comic, you can have a close comparison to it.
Except wall-crawling. And a few others. Oh, ptth!
It's more than just random spawning combats. Instead of open dungeons - though sewers and Danger zones act like that - it has instanced missions, gathered from contacts where a hero and chums enter a closed environment to uphold the rule of law and collect as much XP as humanly possible. These provide intense, structured encounters without any chance of you being distracted by a passing eleven year-old with 1eet sp3ak ski11z. Not that all the missions happen in such enclosed spaces - some feature elements running around the city proper, or unexpected ambushes by forces. Or - always entertaining when you see it happen to someone else - an enormous beast attacking the team. Most missions can be played through in an hour - a major contributor to City of Heroes being one of the few MMOs you can play and enjoy with limited available time - and there's the epic Task Forces for the serious players, requiring a serious shift-length commitment.
But in terms of making other games look bad, for this reviewer, one thing towers over all the others. While Side-kicking - the ability for a higher level character to take a lower level character under their metaphorical wing temporarily, so elevating their level to something vaguely comparable, so allowing real-world friends of completely different levels to adventure together - is probably the most game-design-based element that will be seriously influential, it's the integration of the living city into spawning that makes other games look a little embarrassing now.
The game's cityscapes are glorious places, full of cars, soaring skyscrapers and citizens minding their business. However, crime is constant, with districts packed full of bad guys up to nefarious deeds. In terms of pure atmosphere... well, take this entirely standard encounter. You're patrolling. You see a woman having her handbag being wrestled from her by two thugs. She's calling for help. You intervene. The thugs stop to fight you, cursing your name. You let them face stern vigilante action. The victim runs up, thanking you profusely... and you're away.
Of course, in game terms this is identical to just spawning monsters for you to hit. But compared to how it affects atmosphere, going from City of Heroes to the sort of game that deposits you in a field full of monsters which wander around, minding their own business, until you attack them... well, it's not fun and they're shown to be as ridiculous as they clearly are. That isn't adventuring. That's a genocide simulator. What did that orc ever do to you?
So, yes, shallow. But beautiful.
So we approach the latter half of the magical "hitting people in the face, while looking really good" equation, which I'll only deal with in passing, giving it the highest compliment. The character generation passes the Girlfriend test. That is, if presented to my better half, she busily amuses herself accessorising some ludicrous character and spending a good half hour working out whether the Fedora works or not. You look great. Or, alternatively, look stupid as hell. But, most importantly, you'll look like you felt like looking. Sitting in a central plaza in the game, and seeing people stream past - some soaring through the air, others disappearing in a teleporting flash, some just hanging around disco-dancing... and well, it's glorious. Rarely has a game ever had as much personality visible at a glance.
So: focused excellence. Tellingly, Cryptic just won't leave it alone, with regular updates codenamed "Issues" adding new features, expanding the "While Looking Really Good" with aspects such as cloaks and special effects, "hitting people in the face" by giving an ever-increasing array of people to hit in the aforementioned and even basic clever functionality, such as the recent specialist mission which allow higher level characters to reassign their powers, so removing earlier errors in their character development. And, with Player versus Player and character career skills on the horizon, its future looks bright.
Cynics may suspect that all this sounds a little rose-tinted. Cynics probably have a point. But then Cynics probably haven't noticed that its primary faults have been well signposted, just not condemned. Fundamentally, if cynics want an MMO game to be about more than just hitting people in the face and looking great, this isn't the game for them.
Of course, I don't really care what cynics think. Some of us have a planet to save.
For the fourth time today.
City of Heroes is due out in Europe later this year. But if you can't wait that long you can sign up and start playing pretty quickly on the game's official website.