A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Seven years in the city, part two

Welcome back to the second part of our look back through the past year of City of Heroes. The last installment, in case you missed it, discussed the first two issues that went live over the past year, Issue 17 and Issue 18. And here's a quick recap: They were pretty awesome, but they were lacking much for the high-end portion of the game. This time we're turning our gaze forward to the later two issues, the good and the bad.

And there was some bad that came with these updates, a certain level of unavoidable badness. I called this part of the game's history the fall of the unleveled empire, and while I don't think we've quite obtained empire status, there are those among us -- including me -- who either believed that leveling past a certain point would always be an option or believed at least that level-locking was something that happened to other games. Enough meandering about it -- let's finish up our look at City of Heroes in its seventh year of operation.

Issue 19

On some level, I think the brand-new inherent Fitness powers were included with this patch as a sort of misdirection -- because if you ever had a divisive patch, boy, this was it. The endgame cometh after six and a half years, and for a lot of players, it was something that had long been dreaded. Low-level characters were, essentially, non-entities for this update -- this was all about the raw efficiency of the Alpha Slot and the start of a long walk toward becoming a walking deity.

The Incarnate system is, let's face it, a really clever way to add talent-type systems and player endgame growth to the game. In many ways, it reminds me of the Merit Point system in Final Fantasy XI. Also like that system, it essentially shafts lower-level players by giving them glimpses of new toys while locking it away behind levels. But that had been a longstanding feature of Final Fantasy XI, whereas City of Heroes had long allowed characters in the mid-30s to take part in high-level combat without a hitch.

I'm of divided minds on this, as I have been pretty much since we first started seeing that there would be an endgame system put in place. On the one hand, really, we needed this to be implemented in an exclusionary way. There was, and is, no other reasonable way to handle it. City of Heroes has no shortage of characters at the level cap with nothing to do, and this system was designed since the word go to make sure that those characters had meaning. If anything, we've long been spoiled by the idea that level is essentially irrelevant. We should be working toward the cap if we ever want to expand upward instead of laterally.

But it's been six and a half years. That's a hell of a long time for players to get used to level not mattering too much. Maybe it's too late to really start introducing a group-heavy endgame, because the players who wanted that have long since moved on to one of the many, many alternative options. (I don't feel I can stress "many" strongly enough.) Put it another way -- one of the unique elements of City of Heroes that appealed to some players was the lack of a high-level endgame that demanded their attention. The Incarnate system destroys that.

OK, OK, "destroys" is far too harsh. Certainly it's not World of Warcraft's often-tedious Raidapalooza. The Incarnate system is done in such a way that I really don't want to say anything bad about it, because it's the best way such an endgame could be put into place without damaging the game... but it did wind up damaging the game, albeit in a small way.

Still, when you make a big change, you're bound to jostle some contents. And the Alpha Slot is appropriately neat, coupled with two Task Forces that really drive home the start of a new narrative arc. (I still would love to see Nakayama do some cover illustrations for these issues, because dang, I want to see a little "The Praetoria Wars Part 1 of X" starburst when these issues go live. Years of comic crossovers demand it. Crisis on Finite Earths!)

Issue 19.5

You might think I'd have a lot to say about strike targets, but you'd be wrong. The fact of the matter is that they're just solidifying the divide that Issue 19 started. If you didn't like the whole group content and endgame focus of the prior update, you won't like this one. It was a small update, but I think it was also important in no small part for what would be coming with Issue 20, which brings us up to the present state of the game.

Issue 20

Compared to the previous two full issues, Issue 20 feels like a return to form. There's some solid new mid-level content on display alongside a new system to make grouping and going to town even easier for Incarnate players. And surprisingly enough, outside of the expansion of the Incarnate System, there are very few large-scale system changes in this particular patch. The past several patches have all introduced some flashy new feature to the game, but this patch is just adding more content and bulk to what's already there.

It's a good coda to the year because it's what we really needed and because this year has seen a lot of changes and a lot of new systems, shifts that have rewritten several core assumptions about how the game plays. Up until now, no hero forces were balanced with the possible inclusion of spiders or Masterminds, and no villain forces were balanced around Kheldians or rock-solid Tankers. The new forces are. Subsequent content has to take all of the archetypes into account, and what this update needed to provide was a sense that no matter how much gets rewritten, there's a certain bedrock of quality content to fall back upon.

And we've got some interesting additions in place as it stands. After all, players can use the new grouping system to pick up and go faster than ever before. Sure, you might not like the fact that the endgame has become more group-focused, but at least it's screamingly easy now to pick up a team and go run some trials. The fact that players can look to group up for weekly targets alone helps make life easier, but this just goes another step.

Issue 21

Well... it'll exist, in all likelihood. We've seen only a fraction of what's coming with it, including new content, but we've still got some time to kill before we get there. The real direction to look now is the future -- and to what CoH needs to develop and refine over the next year.

That, as is now tradition, is what will be discussed next week. (It's not a tradition until the second time you do it, after all.) Questions and comments may of course be left in the comments field or mailed to eliot@massively.com. The week after next, we're finally getting back to our discussion of archetypes, I promise. (Only three left!)

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.