A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Points of great divergence

It's been an interesting few weeks leading up to the launch of the Incarnate system, in no small part because it's all been secret knowledge up until now. Yes, you all saw my writeup on the new task force and a quick interview regarding Issue 19 just a couple of days ago, but it happened before then, and I've been sitting on my hands with some knowledge about just what the next evolution would mean for City of Heroes. As a result, I didn't want to talk about it too much -- speculation was pointless, since I knew what the Alpha Slot actually did, and I wasn't allowed to just say it.

So what do I think about the Incarnate system? I'm excited about it, obviously -- I'm excited about anything that really takes a new idea and runs with it, and I have a lot of faith in the team doing the development. But at the same time, I can see more than one future lying ahead for the post-Issue 19 City of Heroes, one good, one bad. Armed with the knowledge of the first slot and a loose overview of what's coming, I think now is a time to look at what I see as the two possible outcomes.
Good: Beyond the impossible

Leveling is an experience in City of Heroes, maybe more so than any other game. You have so many choices to make along the way, so many different powers and abilities and buffs and so forth. It's only fitting that the new endgame systems return you to the joy of leveling, of finding and exploring new ability setups while pushing yourself to the upper tiers of power.

Up until now, level 50 characters would happily go up or down as groups warranted. Now there's some incentive for players to stick to being level 50 -- but there's no restriction on what level 50 content they'd like to run. Suddenly old forgotten task forces are seen as more enjoyable, paper/radio missions are desirable, and tip/alignment missions become ever more valuable. It's already fairly easy to hit the level cap in CoH, and this just makes the path all the more rewarding.

If anything gets sidelined, it's the general omnipresence of IO sets. Fully stacked Incarnates are far more powerful than a non-Incarnate with purple sets, and the path to getting all of your abilities means running a lot of high-level content, which in turn gets you a whole lot of Influence/Infamy and a lot of Merits, making sets that much easier to purchase. The market is going to drop out on the one-time moneymakers, but the net effect is that players at the top get to enjoy a heretofore unknown level of power.

This also means that the pick-up-and-play nature of the game is only improved. Before, you would pick up and just jump into a paper mission that you could run solo, but groups and task forces were a bit more structured. Non-Incarnate forces at 50, however, become a breeze for people even partway through the Incarnate tracks, and that means that party structures get far looser even by the already flexible standards of the game. I would be surprised if some arguments don't arise suggesting that Tankers and Brutes are essentially obsolete compared to pseudo-tanking Scrappers with good backup and good area damage.

PvP will, however, still be pretty unbalanced and of minimal developer importance.

The bad: A spat of gods

I idly mentioned as a part of my task force writeup that it was possible we'd go back to the old days, when you could have Hasten perpetually active. And there was at least one cry that such an event wasn't possible, that clearly I was just doing my math wrong, and that no one would really expect something like that.

Unfortunately, the problem here is that we are already closer to perma-Hasten than most players would like to admit, at least for certain archetypes and specs. And if you don't remember the days before enhancement diversification, when you could stack slots into Hasten and just keep it running at all times... you have come into the game at a better time, because I do remember having six slots eaten by a power as a mandatory part of your spec. People would do that, because having everything always recharging that much faster was well worth it. And we are not so far away from it coming back.

Imagine if you couldn't run task forces because you didn't have yourself leveled up to the point that you can keep a buff on yourself at all times. This is the endgame specter of so many games, a haunting reminder of what City of Heroes has been designed away from time and again -- the point at which a game eats itself in a cycle of escalating rewards and encounters which force you to have the previous tier of rewards in order to even survive.

Some players would rejoice to hear that they could essentially treat the game like EverQuest with capes and superhuman abilities. But the vast majority of players who still play CoH do so because they specifically dislike that style of gameplay. If it turns out that getting decent Incarnate abilities is on par with the work expected for purple IO sets? If the only way to move to the next tier of Incarnate abilities is to have the previous tier and run the newest, hardest task force over and over? People will not be happy. The players who want options for content won't be happy; the players who want to just do things and level their characters won't be happy; and the players who want a robust progression endgame along those lines will already be back to World of Warcraft and jockeying for raid spots, because if you haven't cleared Dungeon 1 you won't have the gear needed for Dungeon 2.

This is the sort of thing that I've never liked in endgame progression. If I find out that the only way to get my second Incarnate slot powered up is to run the newest Incarnate task force until my eyes bleed, I will devolve into curse words. And the haunting visage of an endgame will have claimed CoH now and forever.

PvP will, however, still be pretty unbalanced and of minimal developer importance.

The future is ours to see

So which way are we going? I couldn't tell you. My money and hope is for the former; my paranoia and general distrust endgame cycles points toward the latter. I guess we'll see how all this shakes down over the next couple of months, but for now I'll just lie back and enjoy the ride with some baseline Stamina.

Let me know in the comments what you think is in the cards in a post-Issue 19 world, or just mail your thoughts to eliot@massively.com. (And I'm still accepting any MA suggestions winged my way, for whatever that's worth.) Next week is a community funchest, so you can also pass along any particularly interesting threads you've found in what I assume is a daily perusal of the official boards.
By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.

This article was originally published on Massively.