A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The story's the thing

A Mild-Mannered Reporter header by A. Fienemann
Story is important in the superhero genre. For most people, stories are what originally makes the genre interesting over the more ubiquitous fantasy or science fiction options. And for every superheroic comic with lackluster execution you can point to, there's something else you can point to that provides some fascinating new takes on the archetypes and ideals.

OK, maybe that correlation isn't quite one for one, but the point is made. Stories are a big deal, and as a result, the way story works in City of Heroes is worth examining, especially since another game has recently come out with an emphasis on storylines. So, doubly relevant.

If you're only going to read the introductory blurb here, though, I can bottom-line it for you without the rest of the column -- the approach is pretty schizophrenic. The game has some moments of brilliance and some moments of idiocy, and there are also some near-choked with a general apathetic vibe. It's kind of what you'd expect from a story told by hundreds of people over seven years. The times when it's on, sadly, are somewhat scattershot, which makes it hard to say, "This is worth playing just for the story."

Alignment: SHOOT.But let's start with praise because there are big chunks of the game that deserve it -- namely, the entirety of the Going Rogue starter experience and most major subsequent arcs. The stories unveiled as you work as a Loyalist or Resistance member are interesting and diverse, and they remain that way even if you're leveling another Loyalist or Resistance member. Even though the choices you make frequently have little in-game benefit, you really feel like you're moving through a story made just for you, with plenty of chances for you to make your own mark on things.

More to the point, the Going Rogue starter experience is especially noteworthy because it reaches that rarest of goals: creating morally ambiguous choices that are actually morally ambiguous. You have to choose, for example, whether to help the terrorists fighting for absolute freedom in service to one man's lost daughter or to help the police apprehending a dangerous criminal with a desperate need to help others. Both sides are good and bad at the same time. The choices, and the stories that result, are engaging.

And that's one of the reasons the starter areas for both heroes and villains desperately needed a revamp: Not only was the presentation of those stories dull as heck, but there was barely a story to be told in the first place.

Huge chunks of City of Heroes sadly follow what I like to call the mission salad formula. A contact has you fighting enemy group X, and then he throws in a certain number of missions involving enemy group X until you move on to a different group. You've got some street sweeper missions, some missions to click glowies, and a "kill everything" mission or two, and you just do these in whatever order until you run out of missions.

Sure, there were hints of a story there. Generally, that story amounted to a restatement of fact mixed with Mad Libs. "THE CIRCLE OF THORNS have taken over AN OFFICE BUILDING where they ARE STASHING ARTIFACTS in order to MAKE PIZZA, so you have to RETRIEVE the ARTIFACTS and SO I CAN JUST TYPE ANYTHING HERE AND IT SHOWS UP." There's no sense of buildup or development; you're just running down missions until you've finished with a given area.

City of Villains got the idea of having a single arc story to work right, but all of the arcs were still completely isolated. Sadly, they remain so even late in the game: There's nothing tying one story arc to any others, and as a result there's still not much sense of your character's having moved through a single story. Nemesis will curse at you if you've been taking missions to fight him non-stop or you've never seen him before in your life. (I know, you're probably just seeing a duplicate, but bear with me.) Elements all exist in isolation.

Darn it, has anyone seen Terry?  He was supposed to be here more than a year ago.Of course, Faultline has the exact opposite problem. It's a zone with a single coherent storyline, but if for whatever reason you outlevel one, you wind up tossed several chapters ahead. So that's a bit problematic.

The thing is, several of these individual arcs are good. Some of them are even downright excellent. And there are questgivers who have a whole lot of personality and really get you engaged in what's happening. Many of the later arcs really do just what they ought to do -- they make you feel like you're building up into a climax. The signature arc has thus far done a great job of ramping up the tension and keeping the player involved the whole way through, making each installment part of a coherent whole.

Ultimately, though, CoH suffers in its story department partly because it just can't replicate its source material. If you think of each character as a superhero, then each character is really in his or her own title -- and there's no sense of that, really. You're running through these messes without the feeling that you're part of an overall story path. Is that something that's really avoidable with the limitations of the medium? Probably not. Is it still a little upsetting? Yeah.

But there's a lot of really good stuff in there. Story, in CoH, is sometimes lacking and often incoherent when viewed up-close. Get a little bit of distance, though, and there's a coherent picture, and there are bits mixed in that are flat-out brilliant.

Comments can be left in the comment field below, like usual, or mailed along to eliot@massively.com. By next week, we'll have nearly moved into the new year, so I'm going to take the opportunity to look back at the previous year for CoH. There were some big changes, after all.

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.