I’ve never been too enamoured with MMORPG’s, but I have always adored super-heroes. They make no sense, but they’re easily created protagonists that can be molded and crafted in many different ways; stretched in all directions and put into any situation. They’ve endured for somewhere around a century now, and despite the fact that it’s well-trodden ground, we’ve yet to reach the bottom of the murky barrel of sludge that is super-hero narratives. Hell, we’re obsessed with retelling the origin stories of even the most obscure hero ad absurdum; that’s how appealing the archetype is.
So in the summer of 2004, I got in on an early version of Cryptic Studios' City of Heroes. I endured my first tangible scrape with video game addiction, created a super-group with a few strangers from the internet, and then dropped out after accruing a colossal amount of XP debt (ie, debt gained after dying in-game, which halves the amount of XP you gain until the debt is paid off).
This isn’t a story about that, however, it’s about the summer two years later.
The summer of 2006 was the first one I experienced after starting college. I had to say good-bye to my new friends, leave the city, and return to my family home in the rural part of nowhere. In an effort to stay connected with my good college buddy, I agreed to pick up City of Villains, the first expansion to City of Heroes, and connect with them for some heroism and villainy. As it would turn out, villainy would be our preferred method of interaction; diving into some mayhem missions and teaming up as the League of Anti-Justice.
I created Unleaded, the fire-slinging clone of my former hero, Petrol. Being an aspiring writer who was, at the time, in college for writing, I immediately went to work crafting a personality, backstory, and motivations for my villain. Lecherous, self-centered, and sarcastic, he could perhaps be viewed as an exaggerated, gender-swapped version of my actual college persona; a reflection of the faux-narcissism that I had put up to conceal a complete lack of confidence and self-esteem. He lived in the shadow of the hero he was cloned from, always attempting to gain more notoriety to try and raise a higher profile.
My friend and I recruited a third member to the group, and we spent a great deal of the summer hanging out and dishing evil whenever our part-time work schedule allowed. We wise-cracked through sidequests, levelled our characters, and just hung out. The summer heat, the purgatory of a rural town, and the last lingering days of a life with no real responsibilities all stick in my mind, indelibly linked with my heyday in the virtual world of Paragon City and the Rogue Isles.
I spent the bulk of my play time digitally cross-dressing as Unleaded, but when our work schedules didn’t align, I’d work on my alts. One of City of Heroes’ most remarkable features was its incredible character creation engine. Walking around, you’d see a lot of clones of Wolverine, but the more creative players could bring to life almost anything they could imagine, which I took and ran with.
I relished the ability to make new characters, building their backstory as I played as them. My most notable would be the deadly sniper, Exact; the emotionless android, Anne Droid; the malicious Chief Prosecutor and her Legion of Lawyers (who I macro'd to shout Sue! Sue! Sue!); or the walking contradiction of power and absurdity, the Shining Drake. Occasionally I'd even use the character creation system simply to build a character for use in my fiction writing. It was a helpful tool.
For an MMO of such vintage, there was a lot of options, not just in designing your spandex, but also in picking your powers. You were given the option of both a primary and secondary powerset, and almost every super-hero archetype was on display. There are some notable exceptions, such as the absence of a Mr. Fantastic style stretch power, but most of the bases were covered. In later updates, the ability to customize your powers' appearance was even added, further expanding how you could tweak your tights.
For those who are unfamiliar, City of Heroes was an MMORPG that stuck pretty closely to the MMORPG formula; it did come out a few months before World of Warcraft, after all. You beat up mobs, took sidequests, and levelled up to gain more powers. There was no equipment system, but you could slot enhancements on your powers to make them more accurate or do more damage. It was, at times, pretty damned shallow.
The make-up of the missions was rather repetitive. You’d encounter mobs within them that would vary in size depending on how many people you were teamed up with. When you'd max out your team at 8 players, you’d wind up in, like, a warehouse that was literally packed wall-to-wall with gang members. I’d often wonder in amazement at the quality of their recruitment program.
The level design was largely random, with interiors made up of a lot of pre-built rooms stitched together by long corridors. It’s pretty easy to get tired of seeing a bunch of identical office buildings with absurdly long hallways and warehouses with ludicrously inefficient designs. The best ones were the ones that took place in instanced sections of whatever outdoor area you were in, since they felt more varied and less cookie-cutter, but you were still wading through identical baddies, trying to perform whatever role you had taken on in the team.
City of Heroes had a pretty loose and generic overarching plot that saw you go from beating up muggers, to tackling city-wide threats, to taking on interdimensional problems. A lot of the NPC questgivers were interchangeable, but it at least allowed for every character to have a slightly different experience as they progressed through the levels. It played out a bit like issues of a comic book, where each area has different villains and different problems to solve. Villains on the other hand, had a more focused plot that involved rising the ranks in the Arachnos organization before turning on its leader and their Lieutenants. There are less generic NPCs, and you’re only given a chance to choose your path through the main quest every so often. It’s deeper, but after playing through it twice, you’ve basically seen it all.
It was really the character creation and social aspect that I enjoyed most. That, and the world. Paragon City was separated by huge “war walls” that were presented as blue energy fields. Nights would be illuminated by their cobalt glow, and combined with the oddly atmospheric sound design and sparse music that would kick in when you entered a new neighbourhood; it was a pretty chill place to be.
I continued playing City of Heroes/Villains thoughout the Summer and into my second year of college and beyond. My friend and I even attempted to adapt the League of Anti-Justice into a webcomic, but my script output far outpaced his enthusiasm for the project, and things eventually fell through. I’d later revise the approach to be a more standard narrative, less joke-of-the-day format, but that didn’t go anywhere either, and I wouldn’t touch those scripts these days for fear of being exposed to my old, unpolished storytelling approach.
After meandering in and out of the game occasionally for a few more summers, I eventually lost my chance to ever return to it in November 2012. NCSoft shut the servers down for the game, reshuffling their assets to other places. According to a disgruntled developer, the game was still profitable, and the shutdown came as something of a surprise.
Damn, I miss it.
Attempts have been made, and are being made, to resurrect City of Heroes. Parties have approached NCSoft to attempt to acquire the property from them and relaunch it. Some smaller developers have been working on their own MMO’s that are attempting to recreate the mechanics of CoH. There’s also legislation on the table that would force companies to allow third parties to pick up and continue running servers after a game has been abandoned.
I wouldn’t really count on any of those options, sadly. But maybe I’m feeling sorry for myself and that has shifted my perspective to a more pessimistic angle.
Nonetheless, its absence has left a hole in my heart. I’ve tried Champions Online, Cryptic Studios’ other super-hero MMO, but it just isn’t the same. Likewise, I’m skeptical that a small developer will have the resources to make anything approaching CoH’s scope, and even if they did, I really just want to return to Paragon City. Anything else just won’t scratch the same itch.
So, farewell my love. We'll always have the summer.