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Waiting for the end of the world: City of Heroes retrospective

Hero today, gone tomorrow.

City of Heroes wasn't even close to the first MMORPG I ever played, but it was the first that understood that even Level 1 can feel awesome. It didn't simply let you play as a superhero. It let you feel like a superhero, hurling fire, swinging swords, controlling the minds of lesser men and more. Best of all, with a character creation system no MMORPG has ever beaten, it was your superhero. Other people might have the same powers. None would be quite like you.

Unless you'd just copied Batman, obviously. Then all bets were off.

Sadly, all things come to an end. This Friday, night falls on the City of Heroes for the last time. The servers are being switched off. Never again will Frostfire glance out of his base and shake his head at the sight of heroes skiing around on his ice-ramps instead of coming to fight him. No more will Perez Park confuse the hell out of newcomers, or anything secretly turn out to be a Nemesis plot.

At least from the outside, it seems like odd timing. City of Heroes' free-to-play switch seemed to go reasonably well, and by all accounts it was still making money. Publisher NCSoft has never been shy about pulling the switch on games it didn't see a future in though, most notably Ultima creator Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa, and has shown no interest in the petitions and campaigns set up to keep the game alive. Fans looked up and shouted 'Save it!". NCSoft looked down and whispered 'No'.

Even if you agree that City of Heroes has had its day though, it's still a loss - not least because it's rare to see a MMORPG so willing to take such risks, and to keep reinventing itself. City of Heroes' 24 issues (big patches) weren't without their faults, but they still brought a steady stream of new ideas - time travel, alien invasions, jobs for characters to do while you were off living a less heroic life, an expansion devoted to villainy - albeit not one that made it feel good to be bad, especially when Westin Phipps showed up - and new ways to tell stories.

Its Sidekick and Exemplar systems knocked down many barriers between high and low level players. While it didn't invent the idea of free-to-play, it was also one of the games that first set the standard of what to expect from once-subscription MMORPGs that made the leap.

Most importantly though, it bet on creativity, right down to becoming one of the only MMORPGs to integrate support for player created stories and missions, and offering few limitations on what kind of hero you could be from the start - at least unless you wanted to be a copyrighted one, or a female character capable of seeing her feet without a mirror.

Dashing Welsh swordsman Dai Katana for instance wouldn't have to spend 30 hours poking people with daggers to acquire a proper warrior's blade. Pyromaniac plant girl Burnthyme could opt to back up her fireballs with a few devices, like caltrops, or for the heck of it, ice. Champions Online (made by the same developers) would later take this to even more freeform levels. 2011's DC Universe Online is much more restricted by lore.

City of Heroes bet on creativity, right down to becoming one of the only MMORPGs to integrate support for player created stories and missions, and offering few limitations on what kind of hero you could be from the start

When everyone's special, nobody is. Luckily, civilians aren't, so you are. And get reminded of it all the time.

This freedom led to arguably City of Heroes' greatest asset - its community. Like any MMORPG, it had its share of jerks and silent psychopaths grinding through content. I've never played one with more grouping requests though, or had such cheery killing sprees with strangers - teams of mismatched heroes coming together to fight crime simply seeming more thematically appropriate than worrying about things like the 'holy trinity' or 'combat efficiency' or 'basic common sense'.

Still, it's the creative side that I remember most fondly - from peoples' costumes, and regular costume contests in Atlas Park, to the fine puns on display, the amusement of wandering into a new area and seeing Catapilla the Hun run past with a gag of insane mutants in hot pursuit, or Ascendant's infamous phone calls.

"I was bored, waiting on my SG to assemble, and on a whim started playing a Bob Newhart-like skit at the phone booth," remembers Ascendant, via secret identity Tre Chipman. "What would a superhero say on a payphone? It was my first introduction to the idea that mundane hassles + superheroes = hilarity. Tell me the idea of Batman waiting in line at the DMV doesn't make you smile."

Unlike most jokes though, this one caught on and became an official part of City of Heroes lore. "A few years later, after random passer-byers in the tram started chanting into their cellphones 'Ascendant who? I'm sorry, you have the wrong number,' I was contacted by a Paragon employee to meet them in-game. I forget the reason, but about a month later, I got a ton of emails from people congratulating me on being in the official comic book. Turns out they needed a valid costume file to work from, those sneaky bastards"

Unlocking Flight back in 2004 was the most liberating moment in MMO history. No matter what those teleporting people thought.

Things didn't need the official nod of approval to add to the world though, and with the GMs typically leaving people to their own devices unless forced to do otherwise, players could take things in whatever directions they wanted. "I play City of Heroes because it allows me to express creativity in ways I'd not considered - and I've considered a LOT," said Dark Respite, also known as Michelle when not beating up criminals. "Character biographies, costumes, stories, and videos - it's been an outlet for me in so many forms. It rescued me from writer's block and stifled creativity that was slowly killing my spirit."

On a goofier level, Simon N remembers his - mostly straight - guild's attempt to set up an impromptu gay pride parade. "It began with one of our number creating a pink and yellow monstrosity named Dance Commander," he said, adding that screenshots are available if anyone wants to see.

"It began with the most stereotypical characters we could create, and the moral of the story could have simply ended with the fact that, at heart, we were all children with an unintentionally homoerotic playset. Then, people started to report us for being offensive, for violating the T&Cs, or just being generally nasty. At the same time a small number of genuinely gay players began to join in, and a number of us got whispers asking if we were serious, or just congratulating us. Faced with this contrast, we began to play it up even more. None of the reports were upheld by the way."

Not everything will vanish when the servers switch off though. The Cape for example is a user-run radio station originally based on CoH's Virtue server. Now, it's shifting dimensions to serve Champions Online and The Secret World instead, but continuing its basic goal of entertaining players while they quest.

"It may not have changed the world forever, but it will be fondly remembered for a long time - and sorely missed when it's gone."

Die! And thanks for setting your evil scheme here instead of that bloody cave map. Much appreciated, scumbag.

"While not all CoH players played it exclusively, you often run into people who wanted to get away from the traditional sword and sorcery MMO theme, as well as space/sci-fi themes," explains DJ Templar, aka station owner Eric Hedlung. "Since we're in the 'real' world," cultural references work, which helps us playact as DJs for an actual radio station.

But The Cape is as much about community building as it is about playing music. We've formed relationships with the players, and with their super-groups and villain-groups, and that's really what has kept us going. We all wanted to be part of the greater whole, to have that sense of belonging. It's hard to overplay the community aspect, and the closeness between players. Heck, we've seen real marriages, even amongst the DJs."

Hopefully some of that closeness will survive the migration to other games, even if there aren't many that offer City of Heroes' setting and flexibility. Not everyone has given up on literally saving the world yet though, with one final attempt currently underway to to get Disney to pick up the pieces. It's unlikely, not least because Disney owns Marvel and has plenty of its own properties. It's not absolutely impossible though, even if it was just a case of running some servers. After all, Pirates of the Caribbean Online is still on the go, and it's a rare player who knows it even exists.

Even if a reprieve does come, it won't be before Friday, when City of Heroes is set to go dark - and if you've been meaning to take one last patrol, assume that this is the last chance. Unfortunately, new sign-ups are no longer available. Servers willing, we'll be there at the end to report on the final hours and its hopefully heroic send-off from players. It may not have changed the world forever, but it will be fondly remembered for a long time - and sorely missed when it's gone.

It probably wasn't a Nemesis plot. But you never can be quite sure.