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City of Heroes and Villains: the Rebirth of an MMORPG

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I've been thinking of typing something up for a few days about the recent developments and news surrounding one of the first MMO genre games I ever played, but have either been too busy working, spending hours disconnecting from overtaxed private servers or just completely enraptured by the sights and sounds of a game that was closed down back in 2012, taking with it many jobs and a beloved pastime with thousands of active players up to the day of shutdown. NCsoft made a business decision at the time to focus on their new IP, Guild Wars 2, and many of us came to accept that all things come to an end. However, it was a bizarre decision to be sure; the superhero genre was (and still is) a huge bubble, and City of Heroes cornered the massively online aspect of it very early on, offering many things that have either proven to be successful features in other games, or not really been done since, at least to the extent we would love to see. 

I am currently in a queue in position of 500 something out of 700 - the other three servers (two of those have just became available tonight) range from queues of 300 all the way up to 1500 waiting to get a chance to log in. It has been a similar story, with frequent disconnects, rubberbanding and crashes all this week with two servers. Take into consideration that this weekend we have had Avengers Endgame release at cinemas - something very much CoX players would watch - and the latest episode of Game of Thrones final season tonight, as well as it being a work and school day tomorrow. I just got disconnected from the server after waiting 30 minutes and I'm not even mad. I'm just so happy to see the game come back, grateful to the people who are working on ensuring we have stable servers and dealing with decades old code and how busy it is. 

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This was yesterday, info from one of the guys who help run Excelsior (Saturday 27/4) 

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A USA based player shows his queue on Saturday evening for Torchbearer, the first server that opened. 

So what's going on? Basically, there has been a private server for quite some time (the current game build I play on is using code based on that), along with numerous spiritual successors in the works, and the game itself never really went away. It didn't take long before there was a bare bones app thrown together to help players recreate their saved character creations and socialise in the game with each other in the game world, but no missions, npcs or abilities to speak of.  Then the code was widely released to the public, and after an initial server that launched for everyone and some back and forth internal drama for a couple of days, we found ourselves with a fully playable game, just the way we remembered it, but with various additions, and all the content that was previously behind microtransactions unlocked from the word go.  

As many players have put it, we are home.

Creating a Cape

When you first pick a server shard to play on and enter the game, you are faced with a multi tiered character creation tool, arguably the best feature in the entire game. You start off by choosing between Freedom or the Going Rogue expansion and then character origins. Freedom is essentially the base game, allowing you to start off in one of three zones, one for heroes, one for villains and a neutral one that is slightly faster that allows the player to pick whether they will start off as a hero or villain during the introduction. Going Rogue was an expansion that introduced Praetoria, an alternate dimension with mirror counterparts to many of the main npcs and groups, where the player could choose to be a Loyalist or a Resistance fighter, playing through a unique introduction and story until level 20, where they would join either the Blue (hero) or Red (villain) side and then carry on with the game as normal for those affiliations. 

The origin selection merely determines what your powers are derived from at a glance and how you may have obtained them, as well as initial introductory story missions. Later in the game, they determine which kind of Enhancements (basically the game's equivalent of gear upgrades) you will be able to use, thus providing the basis of a server economy by giving players an incentive and a commodity to trade with each other. 

Next, you will be able to pick which kind of playstyle, or Archtype (class) and  primary and secondary powers you want for your character, the most important choices you will make are here. There are 14 different ATs to choose from, with the restrictions that there originally in place no longer in effect, so you can play the more villainous choices such as Masterminds as a hero or the more virtuous types such as a Defender as a baddie. Choosing your initial powers to form the basic concept of your character is next, and there's literally hundreds of different combinations and somehow, things just work. From the outset, the game is throwing freedom at you.  

I recently spruced up some of my alts in WoW at the mog and barbers, before the CoX servers became available. I didn't change too much, as we're still quite restricted with what we can do. My gnome, for example, still has barely half a dozen hair cuts, at least two of which are variations of balding, so when I was back in front of all the options available to me in one of my all time favourite games, despite the ageing graphics, I was more than content to spend hours recreating characters from memory and creating new or silly concepts. This is one of the reasons CoX was so far ahead of its time, but also reinforced a major point for RPGs; if you want players to invest heavily into the game, give them a whole bunch of reasons to do so, as anybody can slap grinds into a game and call it a day. You want to create a tiny fairy girl who can tank dozens of gangsters at the same time? Go right ahead. You want to recreate your D&D character? Not a problem. Got an obscure anime, manga or book character that you love and feel lucky about being renamed to GenericNumber for breaching copyright? Risk it for a biscuit! One of the first things I tried to do was recreate Genji, called Genju obviously, probably one of the most meta breaking concepts in recent gaming history for the genre he is in, and I got pretty close. He can ninja run and climb over walls with ease and has a fancy blade, and despite being melee, I can pick Shurikens for him later in the game if I so desire. Exploding shurikens too. 

The combinations of facial features, body types, armour pieces and special details, complete with a colour palette tool similar to GW2's without unlocking dyes would be more than plenty, but you can also customise the very appearance of the powers you use, from colours, to the kinds of weapon you will use and in certain cases, the attack and travel animations. Remember fel fire for Warlocks? This but with basically everything and more. You want to create a character that uses electricity kind of powers, but your concept is of magic origin and shoots cursed red lightning, with shields made of black fire? Done and done. All of this means that it will be extremely unlikely that you will see two characters ever quite the same in the game, even if they share the exact same powers. 

The last thing is coming up with a name (if you didn't put one in right away and reserve it), an optional battlecry (several F buttons are bound chat buttons that exclaim something simple like an early version of pings; run and battlecry for example) and a larger optional field that you can use to describe your avatar, a background story, or fill with jokes, or an inspirational quote, or whatever. 

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Even if the server gods don't let you on, you can save both your costume and customised powers, as well as reserve your chosen name. You will have to reenter your character bio or whatever you choose to enter into the ID field and battlecry, but since they are both optional and can be written at any point within the game world, it's not a huge deal. With a thousand character slots available, it's a pretty handy thing to have, especially if you want to recreate similar themes or concepts across various servers. 

A Superpowered Start

Logging in and breezing through the tutorials, it's hard not to be overwhelmed personally by the nostalgia or let it impede any fair criticisms, but coming back to an old game with years of experience and a fresh perspective makes everything feel different in a fresh and positive way. This game taught me more than a few truths and mantras about online gaming, and I feel like I owe a lot to it, especially when it came to the concept of pvp. 

I grouped up for the first time this weekend while enjoying the double xp. Groups in CoX can reach a maximum size of 8 people; there are no raid size groups, but world bosses and events do exist, and watching several groups working in unison to achieve something like a Hamidon raid (see here for more info on this end game boss https://cityofheroes.fandom.com/wiki/Hamidon) was truly something else. The larger your group is, the more xp you all get and the more crazy the door missions (instanced content) can get. The game never took the holy trinity to heart either, while there is tanks, damage dealing and healing, these roles are typically broken down into an emphasis of cooperation, buffing allies and debuffing enemies. Players can drop in and out of the group without the rest breaking stride. Wiping is more often called faceplanting, and most of the time you pick yourself up, or someone may res you, or you have an item yourself to do it, and keep going forwards. It helps create a positive atmosphere. Other players can jump into your own missions at any time, and the party leaders can change the difficulty at any time, and there is no such thing as one correct build or group composition. and somehow anything thrown together generally just works fine for nearly anything. Things are just crazy good fun once you get going, especially taking into consideration that the currency in the game isn't a hard wall to climb, and autoloot is there from the beginning, with the drops - invention salvage (used in a universal crafting system), inspirations (short term duration personal buffs, heals and energy) and enhancements - all personal autoloot, you never have to fight another player over the same piece of equipment. 

I also got myself the Outbreak badge, something I never bothered with before. Think of badges as an early achievement system, given for exploration, feats and combat, with perks and titles available. And actual player created bases as well as an in game tool for people to create their own missions, story arcs and the like. I didn't experience much of either before the game was shutdown in 2012, but I was always impressed by what little I saw, and both features have been regularly requested in other MMOs.

The Fine Engineering of Punching Bad Guys in the Face

Once there's a few powers on your tray and you start levelling, adding more powers and slotted enhancements, the combat in the game as well as the enemy groups evolves with you, with every corner full of crazy pulls and NPCs as imaginative and varied as the player characters themselves. Earlier groups of enemies are thugs and glorified bullies, later groups involve organised gangsters, mystical Triads and alien invaders, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Combat is just insane in this game at times, I remember starting to play WoW back in 2004/05 and getting fed up of struggling against one or two trash tier enemies because they just kept calling on more allies with some ridiculous range while trying out a cloth class, or go 1vs1 every other pull, or hit a level and AoE everything down mindlessly, where as I could wade into groups of a dozen bad guys in CoX and come out on top after a struggle, or keep ploughing forwards solo or part of a group. Powersets synergy into other powersets, and different archtypes compliment each other or have the unique ability to fulfil a niche. You want mounted combat aye? Been after it for a few years aye? CoX featured fights full of enemies teleporting around or flying, and players could do the same thing, albeit in a suppressed manner. Some ideas in this game were just so inspired it's hard to imagine expecting anything less than a good bit of fun for just a couple of hours. Couple that with the travel powersets themselves giving the players a further choice to gain extra attacks, such as Air Superiority for Flight that smashed annoying flying units into the ground, or utility such as the Stealth set, where you could grant other players some invisibility and then unlock something as powerful like Intangibility for yourself later. 

There's probably a dozen other things I could say, but I just wanted to give some personal insight and share my experience from this game, and I'm still hoping to see other MMOs, hell, other games in general, see why this game has a cult following for years after it's early demise until someone turned the lights back on and spooled the drives up again because it really deserved to be played again, despite it's age. Maybe partly because of its age, like a favoured grandparent turning up for Christmas that always had a card with money inside it for you and knew exactly what a Nintendo 64 was. 

If anyone needs me I'll be having a competition with a small catgirl about who can smash the most evil robots in the whole room. 

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