A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Seven years of city life, part one

It's the seven-year anniversary for City of Heroes, and that feels just as strange to type as I imagine it feels to read. Seriously, I remember when the game had just launched and was receiving rampant praise as the next big thing in MMOs. In my mind, the game is still part of the new guard of MMOs alongside other games like Ryzom and Guild Wars, games that are trying something different instead of the tired EverQuest-era rehashes. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that the computer I am running the game on now could not have existed when the game launched.

But this isn't about how old I am (or feel); this is about seven years of our favorite superheroic MMO. Last year I had the unenviable task of trying to sum up six years of progress in the game, but this time around we're just looking at the stuff that's changed since April of 2010. But that's still a lot of ground to cover, so for today I'm going to look back at the first two patches City of Heroes received over its past year of operation... because there's a lot to unpack even there.

Issue 17

This is one of those things that just skated the edge of the last anniversary, going live on April 28th and heralding the introduction of Ultra Mode. It also introduced the doppelganger system, which has since found quite a bit of use for understandable reasons, and a few other elements that I'll talk about below, but the centerpiece of this update was always a new batch of graphical shinies.

This is one of those additions that's equal parts spectacular and bad for the game -- yes, it's certainly a lot more attractive when turned up, but players who had previously been able to run the game just fine could easily find themselves left in the dust by the massive visual upheaval. And while all of the toys are nice... well, do we need to mention that a shiny-looking hero with new reflections will still play the same? None of the underlying models or animations has changed, and as a result, the graphical improvements sometimes look like adding very nice reflection on models that are showing their age.

On the other hand, it certainly has added a nice touch of visual flare if your machine can handle it. While the game doesn't look contemporary, it looks better than it ever has.

Two other big changes came around in this issue, as well -- Epic Archetypes were unlocked at level 20 rather than 50, allowing far more players the joy of creating a spider (or a Kheldian, I guess), and Demon Summoning went live. Not coincidentally, we all knew that the not-so-distant Going Rogue would allow us to play a character up to level 20 in Praetoria, which seemed to give an excellent dovetailing of design.

By and large, even though it was released on the game's anniversary, Issue 17 wasn't a blockbuster. It was short on content and long on flash, which is good for players who hadn't devoured everything and kind of a wash for those who had. But in large part it was setting the stage for August's major update.

Going Rogue and Issue 18

Yes, Issue 18 was its own entity in the most technical sense, but did anyone really pay attention to that? Is there anyone still subscribed to City of Heroes who didn't buy Going Rogue prior to launch? If so, please, mail me and let me know what Issue 18 was like on its lonesome, because I seriously haven't the vaguest idea. Issue 18 was the game's first expansion since City of Villains, and that's a pretty big deal -- and it all came about because City of Villains was way too good as an expansion.

The term that was bandied about a lot when CoV first came out was "expandalone." Functionally, it was aiming at the same territory mapped out by Guild Wars, where each new purchase could stand on its own or fit into a larger whole. The thing was that CoV explored the obvious chunk of conceptual space that sat alongside a superhero game, to the point that subsequent expansions essentially had nowhere to go. Not only that, but it was a spectacular expansion and an excellent game that still holds up marvelously well after the march of time.

CoV set the bar high and meant that any subsequent expansion couldn't just be content -- it had to introduce an entirely new way to play the game. We couldn't go into space; we had to be able to make space aliens and space heroes and all of that. So there was a good reason that we didn't get a new expansion until the developers were ready to start rewriting the very principles of the game universe.

Going Rogue has done that. Suddenly, characters aren't heroes or villains; they're superhumans capable of changing allegiances over time. And the change is handled well -- I've been enjoying watching my profit-focused villain keep accidentally doing good deeds in her quest to earn more money, or my vigilante trying to punish evildoers but erratically popping out with a manic laugh. Both sides of content are accessible now; Patrons and Ancillary pools are available for everyone, and there's a brand-new leveling experience for characters that start from level one.

Praetoria itself is beautiful, alien, and changing. There are no real good guys in the entire mix -- there are a number of hard choices to make, and a real effort was made to make memorable NPCs who don't always stay your allies through thick and thin. The early game is fun to play again, something that once seemed to be a nigh-impossible task, and it's in no small part due to the addition of Praetoria.

Of course, players at the endgame were understandably just a mite annoyed by the expansion. It had been an awfully long time since anything new was actually added for characters at level 50, and the patch in April had actually taken something away from max-level characters in a small fashion. That led to some distinct issues about content, retention, and interest... issues that would be addressed with the release of Issue 19 and the start of the Incarnate system.

We'll continue our anniversary tour next week, going over the Incarnate system and the rise of the endgame along with the fall of the unleveled empire. For now, feel free to leave comments in the usual spot or mail them along to eliot@massively.com.

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.