A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The freedom to travel

The issue under discussion today is not something that will make or break City of Heroes. It is not a massive problem or a huge threat to the game's continued operation. But it is an issue, and in many ways it's the same sort of issue that led to the development team finally granting us the Fitness set as an inherent power set more than six months ago.

And just like that, it requires a bit of a history lesson, some conceptual nattering, and an understanding of what relevance gameplay restrictions had in the past and have in the present.

See, today I'm talking about travel powers. The fact of the matter is that we've gone from having travel powers as an important milestone at level 14 to having those powers be more or less irrelevant in their restrictions. There are arguably bigger issues that have to be attended, more pressing areas of the game in need of updates or cleanup... but it's important to look at these issues as well. In the wake of the (singularly awesome) Steampunk Pack, it's as good a time as any to look at what the game is doing now and ask whether there are pieces of complexity that aren't really necessary.

Let's start with a brief overview of Fitness, although I imagine most people reading this are relatively familiar with it. For those who aren't, however: Fitness was one of the optional power pools that was included with the game at launch (which is true of every pool, but we'll get to that in a bit). It was optional only in the sense that wearing clothes is optional, however -- if you wanted to seriously interact with the game, you were going to need Fitness, specifically, the final power in the pool, which increased your regeneration of Endurance. The power itself wasn't broken, per se -- it was just miles better than any other level 20 offering because of the overall gameplay impact. And if you had a set with a similar power built in, well, you took both and never looked at your blue bar again.

Players started asking for this to be baseline in some way. This went on for a very long time, with Positron famously stating that he was more likely to remove Endurance as a mechanic altogether. Finally, not too long after War Witch took over the lead position, it was announced that Fitness was going baseline because -- and I can't stress this enough -- it was already baseline.

That's the important takeaway here. There was never a question of whether or not a player would pick up Fitness. Three power choices were already made at character creation for every single character, and tossing the set over to baseline just meant more player freedom in choosing powers. All that the baseline change did was acknowledge the state of affairs and give you back the power choices that you could actually, you know, choose.

So what does this have to do with travel powers? Let's start with the basics -- what's the minimum level required for travel powers? If you blurted out "14," well, you're wrong, and you also have an unfortunate habit of talking to the computer screen. If you've been playing for five years or more and said level 6, well, you're still wrong. The minimum level is 4, and it won't require you to use up a power slot.

Ninja Run and Beast Run both function as travel powers, and Steam Jump winds up as a close cousin as well. You can argue quite defensibly that Beast Run is only really appropriate for bestial characters and so forth; you can argue that these powers don't allow you to slot in improved movement speed; and you can even argue that these powers aren't travel powers in the strictest sense. But it doesn't really matter, does it? Drop 10 bucks on a booster pack and suddenly your travel issues are set for the remainder of the game.

Am I upset about this? Definitely not. These powers are cool additions to the game, and it's really nice not to be stuck walking everywhere for the first 14 levels of the game. But it does mean that these three powers are deforming the landscape of travel powers (something that's been helped in several ways by the fact that every character has access to Hurdle and Swift). Still, the whole thing is exacerbated by the nature of these "free" travel abilities. Put simply, the limitations that these powers used to offer are no longer in place.

When the game launched, you had to choose one travel power and stick with it. Your choices of powers were tight enough that you didn't really have the option of picking up Flight and Super Speed on a single character. That led to meaningful differences of ability, since not every character could reach every point on a map with equal ease. Now, however... well, not everyone can teleport at will, but that's never been a particularly loved travel option. Everyone has little problem running at top speed, jumping or hovering wherever they need, and in short behaving as if mobility were not an issue.

So why are we still pretending that mobility is an issue?

The fact of the matter is that as they exist currently in the game, the travel powers are outdated. They're relics of a time when you had to wait for a while before you could zip through the city at top speed. Leaving them in place as another power choice for characters is... well, not precisely irresponsible, but it's not letting the game's design expand in the direction it wants. We need a different system in place, something to make travel powers relevant again in any fashion.

Personally, I think Champions Online had the right idea. Your travel power is, essentially, a free selection that doesn't count against your many other power options. The result is that not only do players get to treat their travel power as the necessity it really is, but they get a wider range of choice, including powers that are functionally similar but conceptually different. That's an excellent implementation, and in light of the increasing dearth of reasons for travel powers in City of Heroes to be the way they are, it's a lesson worth taking to heart.

Agree? Disagree? Or is this something no one else in the world even thinks is an issue? As always, feedback is welcome at eliot@massively.com or in the comments below. Next week, it's time to take on the last archetype, one so screamingly obvious that it's almost surprising I haven't taken it yet.

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.