A Mild-Mannered Reporter header by A. Fienemann
If you like playing a few hundred different characters, City of Heroes definitely supports your terminal fear of the endgame. Unfortunately for me and my dreams of seeing that endgame with any reliability, I do indeed like playing dozens upon dozens of characters, meaning that my character select screen is an array of dozens of characters in carefully crafted outfits, many of which characters are not yet eligible for capes. It's one of those habits that I would dearly like to break, and so I'd eschewed making a new character despite the promise of a new starter experience for heroes and villains alike.

Unfortunately, I am also a recidivist. When I talked about the latest update, more than a few commenters called me out, rightly, on the fact that I hadn't really played through much of the new content that the issue had to offer. So I decided that now was the time. I was going to make myself two new characters -- one hero, one villain -- and I was going to see what the new experience was like. And I was going to do so while smoking because it seemed somehow appropriate.

Even with my best efforts, half of my costumes look like technological marvels no matter the character.  I like gadgets, can't help it.A note on philosophy

Before I go any further in my discussion of the starter experiences, I want to note that they don't matter at all. Returning and subscribing players do not care and will not care, and even if you are one of the above and think you care, you do not.

Now, it's worth noting that this is coming from the same person who has gone on record multiple times saying that we desperately needed new starter zones and an updated game experience for kicking off at level 1. Heck, I even cast a bit of an eye toward Going Rogue for solving the issue by shunting you off into a different dimension. And since I've been a subscriber for quite some time, you'd think that I would be the last person to argue that it's totally irrelevant to have that new starter experience, right?

The problem is, in the same breath (metaphorically), I usually noted that this made the biggest difference for new players. Those of us who have already slogged through the starter experience usually don't care. We might play the tutorial for the heck of it, but the fact is that we know how the game works, know what we're doing, and just classically let our eyes glaze over until we finished getting our introductory Inspirations and such. We're the converted. New or old, the start of the game probably won't keep us from rolling another character.

So looking at this particular change puts me in two different mindsets. On the one hand, how good is the new experience at keeping a long-time player engaged and interested? On the other hand, how good is it at actually introducing new players to the game, seeing as how that's it's primary purpose?

The good

You can rail against the comic book loading screen sequence if you want -- and there's some reason to do so, being as it's too short to tell a good story and isn't really all that well paced. (Positron shows up in one panel with a line of dialogue then completely vanishes from the comic and the starting zone.) But it succeeds in doing something even the Villain starting area didn't really manage: It gets you in the mindset of something happening right away. You aren't idly milling about during the tamest prison riot on record or waiting for a bunch of poorly dressed folks with glowing eyes to get moving. You are in the middle of a crisis zone, and the time to act is now.

A lot of the tutorial elements have been trimmed from the opening zone, which is one of those things that at first glance seems problematic but makes perfect sense when you think about it. The old tutorial, especially for heroes, was all about bludgeoning you to death with concepts that most gamers can guess on their own. This one covers the big parts you might not be familiar with and assumes that from that point, you can pick up the gist. The pop-up tips that came with Going Rogue certainly help this work, since there's a little extra help available if something isn't clear.

Hellions - still the butt monkeys of Paragon City.
While it might be a minor thing, I found that making the villainous choice wound up being a really cool effect. Not only does your screen flash with the red overlay and the Arachnos symbol, but your windows all immediately bleed to red. It gives the sense that you've become infected by your choice, a bit of flair that I really appreciate.

Once you get out of the tutorial zone, though, you start in on a first story arc that actually manages to do what early missions were never good at doing before. Yeah, there's a street-sweeping mission early on, but it points you to an area with a high spawn rate of exactly what you need to fight. There are disguise missions, missions that change after you complete certain objectives, a microcosm of what you can expect from the game all within the early part of the game. And you still get your choice of contacts, just like always. Both sides seem to have been designed to give choices beyond the usual idealistic hero/reporter/researcher for Heroes and the self-serving villain/criminal/Arachnos member for Villains.

Okay, not all my costumes are winners.The bad

I hate to say it, but the tutorial seems to be designed to emulate Champions Online's tutorial without getting the point.

If it needs to be said again, I am not a Champions Online fan. The game is probably the only game I have opted out of because the beta was so searingly disappointing, and I had been gung-ho enough to pre-order the game just to get in. As it happened, it just wasn't for me. But for all its flaws, the opening tutorial was done cleverly. You swung in, and you were in the middle of a crisis, but the tutorial was both involved enough to explain everything and active enough that you felt as if this was a real problem where the "main" heroes needed your backup.

Not so in the tutorial experience here. Yes, Back Alley Brawler and Sister Psyche are there. You aren't there to help them; you're there to evacuate, and the only reason you fight anything is because the Freedom Phalanx is doing its usual bang-up job. Your interaction with Longbow and Arachnos alike involves watching them run around the area, with no information having been given about either group or what they mean in the larger context of the game.

And then you make one choice before bam, you're a hero or a villain now. The choice itself is even of doubtful relevance -- you have a few seconds of activity, then you're forced to make a choice that could go either way, and then you're working with one group or the other. There's no chance for you to make a choice, work with the group for a little while in the ruined city, and then make your real choice for the long term.

The hero-side arc finally introduces Arachnos, but for some reason they're using the Hellions as a duck blind. That doesn't really seem like an Arachnos plot so much as a Nemesis plot, but that's more nitpicky than anything. Meanwhile, over in the Rogue Isles, Longbow continues to act as a bunch of terrorists, which makes it really hard to sell that the villains are, well, villainous. Respecting the local laws would mean working with Recluse, honestly. He's in charge there.

The verdict

It's definitely better than what it replaced. But I think we could have really benefited from taking a page from Going Rogue here and give both heroes and villains a single zone for the first six levels or so, enough time to make your first choice of alignment and possibly change your mind a bit later. As it stands, though, it has a few failings that the original didn't, but for the most part the experience is a lot cleaner and more fun.

As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Next week, I think it's time to take our first look at a villainous group that extends beyond just Paragon City, beyond just the Rogue Isles, across a wide variety of locations with a whole lot of influence. Not to mention some great official style, to boot.

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.
Massively Speaking Episode 169