The City of Heroes team against the Apex task force

There are times when working with MMOs can be a bit of a mixed bag. You get some hate-filled feedback, you find that one of your major hobbies is now part of your job, and you're either a shill for the company or you're overly negative. And then there are times when you get to run the newest City of Heroes task force with the development team from Paragon Studios, and suddenly you remember why you got into the field in the first place.

It's one thing to be told over and over that a task force represents a new high-water mark for City of Heroes, and another thing entirely to start playing it and realize that it's pretty much exactly what was advertised. The first phase of fighting off the Praetorian invasion required fancy footwork, careful play, and learning encounters without being overly tedious. And even aside from that, it featured giant robots and the explanation of the flying swords from the Issue 19 trailer -- both things that turned out to be even more awesome than I had dared to hope.
Incarnate system

Of course, before I even started with the task force, I had to take a look at the Incarnate system. The team was kind enough to set me up with a character already pre-slotted with an Alpha Slot power, but I still took a look at the interface and at what the powers actually do. A few people have described the Alpha Slot as "just a big enhancement," which is true, in the sense that an orbital laser is just a big flashlight.

The sad news is that yes, your Alpha Slot powers are not going to allow you to call down an orbital strike, but the effects of each ability are far-reaching. You have four basic categories to choose from -- Cardiac, Musculature, Nerve, and Spiritual -- which each, as a baseline, will offer a 33% bonus to accuracy, damage, recharge time, or endurance cost. That's for every single power you have, and best of all, it stacks with enhancements without that pesky little "enhancement diversification" bugbear rearing its head. A good portion of the buffs will stick around with no regard for how many other enhancements you've stacked in that category.

Yes, this means you could theoretically return to the land of perma-Hasten. Or go even more insane with Quick Recovery and Stamina stacking when every power costs a third less endurance by default. Or deal more damage, and so forth.

There's also a tree of increasingly powerful alpha slot abilities, with each tier up adding more effects to the alpha ability (for example, the second tier of Nerve boosts can improve accuracy by 33% and defense buffs by 20%) and making more of the buffs stack without worrying about enhancement diversification issues. I didn't have enough time to play with the system to discover exactly how to move up the tiers, but suffice it to say that it should provide quite a power boost.

The fall of Kings' Row

Why didn't I have much time to play around with the Incarnate system? Oh, right, the world was coming to an end.

I've always loved big comic crossovers -- sure, a lot of the time they wind up being awful to some degree, but I like the idea of a big shared world with heroes and villains struggling against common threats. The Apex task force feels like that, even with people laughing and joking over Vent. It felt like we were genuinely struggling against a threat that required some truly impressive power levels to fight off. But enough about the feel; let's talk about what happened once our team of heroes and villains accepted the first mission and took off for Kings' Row.

The city is already a mess by the time players arrive, with SWAT forces barely keeping the landing zone clear. Instructions are being radioed in as you fight through the hordes of Clockwork on the roads, allowing everyone to keep up to date on the story going on. You make your way along the street toward a portal, smashing huge numbers of robots, only to find out that the first wrinkle has emerged. It seems that Tyrant was smart enough to plan ahead and figure out what would be necessary to take over Paragon City, and he concluded that he'd need a little help from someone who has done it before.

Yep, it's the Rikti. (I fully expect to see Nemesis make an appearance before the end of the arc, too.) They've set up Hydra in the sewers, as well as some beacons that need to be taken out before things get bad. Worse. You get the idea. So it's back into the sewers to fight some old enemies.

My hat goes off to the devs for this one, in fact. As it was described to me, the thought process was fairly simple on their end -- they started with the premise that Cole was planning an invasion and moved on to ask what it was that a smart invader would do, starting with "find other enemies of your target and enlist them." It also ties in nicely to the recently renewed attack by the Rikti on the live servers, which is both subtle and masterful.

As you're running through the sewer to kill the Hydra and the few Rikti in attendance, your primary targets are the beacons -- which incidentally will kill any Hydra still standing when they're destroyed. It's a multi-tiered strategy, depending on how coordinated and strong your group is, a strategy by which you can either focus on blasting down the beacons or take out the defenders and then the beacons. Either way, it was a fun romp before we emerged from the sewers once again.

That was when we got a new radio message confirming that the Clockwork forces were assaulting the police headquarters, meaning that we had to book it to the central building and stand against them. So after fighting our way up the stairs to Blue Steel's usual camping spot, we were greeted by a sight for sore eyes -- namely, a horde of police drones that had managed to avoid the chaos in the city up until that point. It was our job to defend the building with the help of these drones, complete with a temporary power that would allow us to repair the drones if and when things got dicey.

Of course, that was also the point at which we had to deal with some exceptionally large and angry robots. It was time for the war-walkers to come in.

This article was originally published on Massively.