City of Heroes Update
Well CoH has launched and I've been playing for a few weeks. Here's my rundown of the game so far.
I have to say I'm very impressed with CoH. Although it has some pretty severe limits they've done an awful lot of things right.
One of the first things you notice on entering CoH is the vast array of choices for your character's look. I really have yet to see 2 players that look exactly the same. Between costume choices, body choices, and a very complete coloring system everyone can real;ly look quite different. Certain choices are limited to certain character origins, for instance only Mutants can have tails. Similarly in game certain visual effects are limited to certain character types (called Archetypes.) Only those with the Rifle power get a gun. Only the pugilist type of flame powered hero (Scrapper) get a whole body burning penumbra. This is a little restricting on conception but has a pay-off in game in that you can kind of recognize what sort of super-hero and what sort of powers you are dealing with. All in all it makes Origins and Archetypes really mean something in game and so
was a good decision.
The second thing you notice very quickly once you start to play is the existence of a true third dimension. Characters run and jump on top of and over things and the cityscapes are built almost like an open-ended 3D platform game with tons of ways to run up and down embankments, run across roof-tops and generally use the whole city as a giant jungle-gym. Higher level characters can actually get hovering or true flight and use that third dimension strategically in combat. Compare this to all of the fantasy games to date which, while 3D environments, restrict players to always having their feet on the ground.
Even here though care has been placed in making sure that you don't have to be a jumping whiz. I'm not great at that sort of timing but before I got my hover power I had already discovered that, not far from any hard jump, was an easier way around. I contrast this to Tomb Raider where I gave up as soon as I hit a frustratingly difficult (for me) and required jump sequence. This game is designed to keep me playing, and they've done that very well.
Frustration in general can kill the enjoyment in an online game and lose the game subscribers. The CoH team has gone out of their way to make it hard to get too frustrated with this game. By the time you finish the tutorial, you've already reached level 2 so you start the game already with some differentiating choices in power and abilities. The next 3 or so levels can be done solo and relatively quickly, though it may take multiple tries and passes through the hospital to complete some of the later missions. This is good as it hooks you in. By the end of your first play session your at at least level 3 or 4.
Speaking of the hospital, again I have to give the developers top marks on this. Going to the hospital is your defeated event. In many games, when you die you lose experience points. This can be incredibly frustrating as you can end a session feeling further behind then when you started. The CoH solution borders on brilliance. First, at low levels, dying is free. About the time you hit 5th or 6th it starts costing you BUT the experience cost is not subtracted from what you have. Rather, a debt is added that some of your future experience goes to paying off. When you accrue new experience points those points are split between your debt and continuing to go up. Now numerically in the long run this is no different from losing experience points but it feels very different because (a) you never de-level (lose levels you already gained and thus lose abilities) and (b) you continue to move your level forward, albeit at a temporarily slower rate. This is ground-breaking game design and I expect to see it copied a lot in future OLRPGs
Solo-play though is not what on line is really about. The developers have covered this as well. Around level 5 the missions it starts to give you are too tough to do alone. It recommends you find a team and there are a variety of ways to do it. There is a built in mechanism for advertising and recruiting members. Many people simply broadcast over the chat what kind of character they are and what sort of team they are looking for. This team-orientation of the game is another thing that makes it really work. Players may start by teaming at random but those with similar play styles and goals will start to look for each other and form regular groups. This is assisted by a buddy list system (called "friends" in the game)
Once you form a team a whole new side of the game opens up. Teams can chat directly with each other enhancing the group experience. (Such "party" channels aren't new but CoH does a nice job with integrating them into the chat GUI.) Characters of level 10 or higher can "sidekick" lower level characters. This gives them a temporary boost in level in combat (though no new powers or hit points) and thus allows them to play effectively together. This really helps eliminate the "newbie" feelings of inferiority when playing with much older and more experienced characters.
Additionally, when you reach 10th level you can declare an official "Superhero Group". The declarer of the group can define group colors and insignia and invite others into the group. When you join a group you can create a second "group costume'" based on your primary costume but using the group's colors and carrying the group's insignia Again this enhances the group play experience and really makes you want to play more with your friends in your Superhero Group.
All of this individually sounds kind of neat but what really counts is what it adds up to. CoH hits a magic spot where your primary play is group oriented and involves people you've chosen to be with while still allowing you to participate in a world full of Superheroes and periodically meet and make new friends. When we first heard about the CoH project a lot of us asked 'How in the heck is a world full of Superheroes going to work. How is it going to make you feel like a hero?' The answer is, surprisingly well. Better, in my opinion, then any of the Fantasy games to date.
My hat's off to the CoH team. While they may or may not be one of those quantum leaps in games that I talked about in my last blog and that are always easier to see in hindsight, they have definitely gone new places with this game and done a great job. By eliminating all of the things that frustrate casual players and lead to feelings of inferiority when weighed against the hard core players, they may have finally opened up this genre of game for the general public.
Bottom line, the game is fun regardless of whether you are a casual game or a 15 hour a day addict.