I often see myself standing, arms resting dramatically against my hips, watching some sort of wrongdoing. 'Halt. Or you will face my wrath!' I cry, with my best grimace fixed upon my face. I then dive in to sort out these muggers, burglars or other assorted ruffians. It's about this point that I'm rudely awoken by something extremely irritating, such as my alarm, or the girlfriend, into my box-like room. Damn it.
City of Heroes is all your superhero dreams brought to life (except for that one you had about Wonder Woman, you filthy boy). It's an MMORPG, the first to feature superheroes, and is perhaps one of the most accessible games in this genre. Superheroes tend to have more of an everyman appeal, certainly as opposed to Everquest or the like, and CoH has been created to accommodate this.
The first masterstroke of CoH is the character creation. It will seem fairly limited to all the RPG players out there who like to be able to tinker with individual attributes, but it strikes a nice balance, being both accessible yet hugely varied. It works on a path basis, giving you the initial option of choosing what type of character you want, and the origin of their powers. This decision will affect you for the rest of the game, whether you like to get into the thick of it, stay back on support or become an all-rounder with powerful blasting abilities. The range of powers is incredible, and it will take a dedicated player with many different characters to ever see them all. The real joy, though, comes when you are creating your costume. Due to the amount of options, you can literally have exactly what you want (recent legal action by Marvel, against the publisher, may affect this), to the extent that you often see familiar characters wandering about:'Wolverine, is that you?' Fortunately, original costumes are considerably more common.
The game world, known as Paragon City, is immense. It's divided into different areas which tend to contain villains of a certain range in levels. The villains themselves are wonderful, and you can see that Cryptic Studios have taken inspiration from various comic companies. They have painted these bad guys in broad strokes too, enhancing their evil. Be it the Blood Brothers with their gang mentality and demon blood or the Fifth Column's Nazi ways, you'll be in no doubt that every ne of these guys needs a good hiding. In some games this may be considered OTT, but in this comic book universe, it's exactly as it should be.
Basic levelling up is achieved by fighting groups of these villains, whether it's stopping a mugging on a street corner or going into a building on a specific mission. However, the real fun comes from everyone's favourite superhero staple: the team-up. At any point you can either decide to ask people to join a team or make yourself available for any potential recruiters wandering around. Once teamed up you can undertake each other's missions, which will increase in difficulty depending on both the level and number of heroes who have joined you. This is where the game truly captures the fun of being a superhero. By combining different power sets, you can begin to take down far bigger foes or much larger groups of enemies. It really is a special sight to see one person wade into a fight while someone else gives airborne fire support, while another team member hangs back and heals his comrades. It's like a page from a comic book, but it's on your screen, and you are playing it.
The ultimate team up comes from Task Forces. These are special dedicated mission sets that are available to heroes of a certain level. In a lot of ways it's like a story arc. You complete a set of missions leading up to a climactic battle with a powerful foe. It's a great, yet heavily time-consuming experience, which perfectly encapsulates what this game is about: getting a group of people together and trouncing some bad guys. City of Heroes also has a few nice systems in place for keeping in touch with anyone you may meet. Obviously, there is the ever-present friends list, but there's also the Super group option. Once you have reached level 10, you can decide to form your own group and add as many people as you like; another clever move by Cryptic studios, using the rich heritage of comics to create a clever tool for getting people together.
The game itself looks a lot better than it has any right to. It has been made to work on a wide range of systems, yet still manages to look good and convey the scale of the city superbly. The music and sound effects are suitably heroic too, and the bold theme when you approach Freedom Court never fails to raise a smile. The game-world is also extremely stable, and tends to be full of little treats for those who decide to go exploring.
As with any MMORPG, levelling up can be drawn-out and cumbersome, especially when you are running about the city completing missions by yourself. This is the key problem with CoH. It lives or dies by your interaction with other people in the game-world. Playing through by yourself is nothing more than a 3rd person beat'em'up that requires you to travel long distances for each mission. Adding to the problem is the lack of player vs. player combat, though this should be resolved when City of Villains appears next year. Yet the community is very friendly, and there is an incredible amount of fun to be had. It's also a lot more accessible than most MMORPG's.
In the meantime, City of Heroes is an extremely refreshing experience. It's accessible and fun, and to the credit of both players and the developers, it can be an engaging and exciting place. There are a few elements missing, and the long-term haul to gain levels can be a struggle sometimes, but Cryptic studios have created a universe that you will want spend time in. The biggest question mark is how long you'll want to play. At this stage, long-term appeal seems limited. So, although you may not play this for a long time, in the time that you do play, you're going to have a ball.
It is worth noting that the game is not yet available to buy in European stores. It is available to download from the publisher's website, but if you want a nice case in your hands, you will have to wait until the game is officially released in Europe in February 2005.