A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Stricken pack

It's been a while since the Incarnate system went live, and we've had a little time to get used to the ideas that the Issue 19 Strike Pack brought to the table. Not a full shakedown, mind you, but enough to make it clear what the fairly minor addition actually does for the nascent endgame. Whether or not it brings anything positive to City of Heroes is still up for debate. Depending on whom you're talking to, it either nicely handles a few weaknesses of the current Incarnate design or it's a step in a bad direction.

As usual, I don't think the answer is anywhere near that simple. The Strike Pack is a good thing in many ways, and not just because of the addition of the higher tiers of Incarnate abilities. I love giving people more reason to run Task Forces, definitely, but if there's a serious problem introduced by this it goes right back to the same endgame problems that City of Heroes has always had, problems that I'm not completely sure even Issue 20 will fix.

Folks with long memories will probably remember that my third column was all about the issue of working with the endgame in CoH, which is an odd beast at the best of times. The Incarnate system, in spite of my minor reservations, is probably the best possible implementation of a strong endgame that we could get. If it has a flaw, it's that the system is still a bit touch-and-go when it comes to balancing solo vs. group rewards.

I'm frequently a solo player, which I've discussed in the past. It's not for lack of willingness to group; I'll join pickups whenever they're available, and I've probably had more fun just grouping with random folks in the City than I have in any other game. But when your schedule is wonky and you don't always know exactly when you'll be active, you tend to default to the assumption that you'll be playing solo. CoH has always been very friendly to the solo crowd; almost anything can be done solo if you accept that it'll take more time.

That's not quite the case with the Incarnate system yet. But for whatever reason, I'm currently fine with that. The system is still in its early stages of implementation, with a lot of permutations yet to be explored. I'll be up in arms if this trend toward group-locked activities continues, but as it stands there's a very small portion of content sealed behind a group barrier which is not terribly hard to overcome -- a barrier that has been lowered notably by the introduction of weekly targets into the rotation.

Therein seems to come the majority of discomfort with the Strike Pack: the idea that you have a once-a-week task force on demand for everyone to run. It's a good idea and a great way to get people grouping for a combination of greed and enjoyment, and it's worked well in other games. And yes, the first thing that springs to mind is World of Warcraft's very similar dungeon quests, later replaced by the random dungeon finder.

Of course, there are two differences here. The first is that the targets are weekly, not daily... and the second is that a task force is a much bigger time commitment than a dungeon. You can't clear the vast majority of task forces in half an hour or so -- they require a larger time investment, involve more mission changes, and generally take a bigger effort from players to successfully complete.

And as a result of both that and the fact that they haven't been traditionally required, there have always been fewer of them.

By itself, this isn't a problem. Doing a task force once a week isn't an unbearable burden by any means. The problem is you have about a dozen possible options for the weekly target, less when you figure in that hero-specific and villain-specific options will need to have an equivalent on the other side. And with the exception of the Issue 19 additions, all of these have been in the game for quite some time.

People have run them. They know the layouts, they know the bosses, and they probably have already had plenty of time to approach being sick of the content. What we're seeing here is not really an attempt to get people to see content that isn't familiar or has long since dropped off their radars. (If that were the case, we'd be getting Hamidon raids pushed again.) This is making use of existing content as an element of a new system, trying to retrofit old elements to serve a new master.

But even at once a week, this is the sort of thing that could start to wear thin. Reward merits don't require you to run through a Task Force, even though you can net them faster that way. Right now, the Incarnate system really does require it, and as a result it's much less comfortable. And I suspect most of the mumbling has less to do with the fact that you're expected to group and more to do with the fact that you don't have other options. You have to find people to do the force with, hope they haven't done it already -- the badges are nice, but they're a consolation prize -- and start devoting more of your time toward running this content.

(Edit: It's been pointed out to me that the majority of doubled rewards apply to everyone, even if they've already completed the force in question. So it's inaccurate to say that the badges are the big carrot in this situation, and that's my bad.)

More options for Task Forces will help, but I think at the end of the day, we're going to need other ways to access the rarest slots. I think the weekly targets are a great idea, a motivation for players to get involved and experience some favored content -- but there needs to be a safety valve, some nod toward this being optional. It isn't there just yet, and if it doesn't emerge, players are going to find themselves squeezed against a need to clear task forces to enjoy the game.

Of course, I don't doubt for a second that a lot of people have different opinions on this matter, so I'm looking forward to seeing what others have to say in both the comments and via mail to eliot@massively.com. Next week we're going to take a look at another archetype, the progression of which will be obvious if your brain works like mine. As an addendum, since I was asked this week, I will be at PAX East in March, so if anyone else is planning to attend for CoH goodness, you'll have a chance to throw things at me.

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.