Preview: City of Heroes (Mac)
by Ian on January 6, 2009

City of Heroes
Genre: MMORPG
Developer: Cryptic Studios, NCsoft NorCal
Publisher: NCsoft
Release Date: Currentlly in Beta as of 12/16/08

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I had positive hopes for when I initially installed City of Heroes. In rapt anticipation, as it slowly counted down the three hours where it installed on my Mac.

I used to be big into comics as a lad. I still have my longboxes full of Spectacular Spiderman, Batman, X-Men, X-Force, Spawn, and more. I have fond memories of the stories, characters, and the jobs I worked to earn the money for them. With all of my personal history, and having played MMOs starting with Ultima Online, Ragnarok Online, and World of Warcraft, I fired up the client and started creating a character. Character development is as simple as picking a type of character, a theme of powers, and an appearance. I picked a veil for modesty, as you can see.

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The variety of character skins vary wildly. If you can imagine it, they likely have something in the game that is close to what you want your character to look like.

Since I was using the OSX client, I was playing on The Training Room server, so there were very few other players with which to interact. This is a preview because it is on a new platform, the Apple operating system, but City of Heroes started way back on April 28, 2004 and has been going strong for many years. Reports show CoH has over 120,000 subscribing members. The OSX client doesn’t feel like a beta client at all. It is stable and seemed to operate perfectly to me.

First Impressions:

The game environment, upon creating a new character, puts you in a tutorial area where various NPCs clue you in to the basic game mechanics in tasks like, “go talk to this guy” and and the Heroes equivalent of, “Go kill some slimes and return to me for more stuff to do.”

The player’s character has little intelligence in itself. For example, if you are attacking something and it starts running away from your character, you will just stand there. Your character will not chase or track them. I think this should at least be configurable based on the type character you’re playing.

All the powers seem to be quite similar with only with slightly different names. The power descriptions are also toned down to appeal to more casual gamers. For example, one attack power might be “Strong” and have a “Short” range where your character smashes the ground. Another might be “Light” and “Far” where you throw a glob of mutagen at whatever you are attacking. Keeping the user experience clear of damage scores until they have chosen their abilities and revealing them when they beat on an enemy was an interesting choice.

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The interface is too free form for my tastes and feels both awkward and dated. My character doesn’t auto-follow something that they are attacking when it decides to run away. Playing this game feels unnecessary busy where the player is always awkwardly adjusting the camera angle, chasing after a NPC, or hammering the number keys doing the same attacks over and over again.

Most of the missions seemed to follow the same general MMO theme. In this case it was:

  • Go to waypoint
  • Beat down everyone at location
  • Click glowing objects for clues
  • Go and get another mission and level up

The world in general strikes me large and open, but free of attraction. I liked the look and feel of the environments with the stylistic inked comic book lines and fairly simple color shading. The typical back alley mugging street tuffs taking the purses of old ladies are here. It is true to form of the generalized comic universe, but lacks depth.

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Game Mechanics:

Your hero or villain jogs about the city making contacts, defeating assorted foes, collecting powerups, and salvaging items that can be used in recipes to construct useful items. The open world and unlimited flexibility in character types are not as real as one might hope. It isn’t very hard to find some invisible walls on your run from waypoint to waypoint. The powers that you can pick up feel to me to be everything that would be in a normal class system without the actual use of the words “class system.”

The enhancements to powers system is pretty interesting. Enhancements are combat drops or can be purchased with influence points that are gained in much the same way experience is in the game. This is important because your powers, and therefore ability to defeat enemies and progress in the game faster, are mostly dependent on these. They also differ from rune-like systems because they can be stacked. Power-ups can be improved with lesser power-ups that would otherwise be sold to vendors or trashed. There is a chance of failure as well which will keep players on their toes about the risks of improvement. An interesting touch!

I did not get to the more advanced and cumulative portions of the game like raids, shared missions, and other World of Warcraft sounding themes as that would have taken a larger time commitment that I was able to give to this title. Likewise, PvP is off by default but is available for players to activate. PvP inside of Heroes vs Villains zones are featured in the game dynamic.

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Nonexistent soundtrack and lackluster, repetitious sounds in this game are a big minus for the experience for me. With the lack of an immersive experience, I was constantly aware of how I wasn’t enjoying myself and was bored with the environment, tasks, and controls.

Since the game has been out for years, they have added a couple more classes of characters or epic classes of both hero and villain as rewards for leveling up a character to the level cap. Since I haven’t been a long time player of the game, I can’t relay any first hand knowledge about them, but new content is always fresh and appreciated.

I think I would be remiss in mentioning that the path of development seems to have split from NCsoft. Cryptic Studios, the same production house that developed City of Heroes, has Champions Online in beta and slated for a Spring release. Champions is said to be a version 2.0 of City of Heroes and is being released for PC and Xbox 360. More so, it seems to have the same features and mechanics of City of Heroes, only with deeper pockets for its production. Perhaps this is why they were acquired by Atari owner and Infogrames CEO David Gardener this December.

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After years of massively budgeted online role playing games, you would think that the smaller players like NCsoft would take note of the lessons learned in interfacing that lends itself to a more intuitive and immersive experience and have the ability to adjust. There will always be fans of the comic book style that will want to create their own character and play with it and other like minded people, so there will be people who will want to play this game. Unfortunately when Champions Online hits Xbox 360 and PC, City of Heroes is going to be under serious pressure as a dated MMO. Rich in lens flair type effects reminiscent of a Voodoo video card demo and facing what appears to be the next generation version of the superheroes online franchise created by the same development team. That being said, with their decent subscriber base and user content authorship scheduled for release in the next update, there may be some lasting appeal in City of Heroes for existing players.

Summary:

If you are new to RPGs, MMOGs, or games in general, this might be a fun game to pick up to play with the thousands of other active players. Because of the lack of any coherent story, sounds, other player interaction (due to the nature of the isolated preview server), I found City of Heroes to be simple and unchallenging.

What will the final verdict be? We’ll give you our final opinions in Diehard GameFAN’s full review when the game releases later this month in January!




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