City of Heroes
When I first sampled City of Heroes, I was just recovering from a nasty break-up with Star Wars Galaxies and looking for a new roleplaying paradise. What I found after a month was that I had a lot more fun planning my next character using the little booklet that came with the box than I actually did grinding my way up through the levels. That early version of the game... was not good.

Fast-forward a few years to the Paragon Studios takeover and the implementation of the Mission Architect. I fell in love all over again. It took several years (and all the improved content those years enabled), but the game eventually became something I wanted to play.

And I'm going to tell you why.

We cover City of Heroes on a weekly basis in A Mild-Mannered Reporter, and I'm loath to tread the same ground Eliot does, but I think we attack the game from two different angles. For starters, he's a fan of superheroes, and I'll shock you and admit that I'm merely indifferent to spandex-clad superpowered folk. The fact that CoH sports a superheroic theme neither attracted nor repelled me except inasmuch as the genre (usually) comes with the best part of MMOs baked right in: customization.

Theater Popcorn Man, winner of a recent City of Heroes costume contestI've never tallied up the number of costume parts in CoH, but I think it's safe to say that we'll never run out of unique power set combos, concepts, and costumes for our characters. There's nothing I can't make. If I want to make a werewolf-cyborg-vampire-cheerleader who shoots hot-pink laser beams out of her eyes and can jump tall buildings in a single bound, I can do that. If I want to play a drowned pirate-zombie who floats around in a cloud of sparkling smoke and has a hula-hoop made out of wind and rain, I can do that. If I want to play a character who looks like a number two pencil, rides around on a hoverboard, and smacks people in the face with a baseball bat, I can do that. The clever winners of the recent costume contest prove how malleable the system can be: Theater Popcorn Man. Corn on the Macabre. Ghenghis Convict.

I can even roll a character who's not really a superhero. Better yet, I can play all of those characters and then some. Alts are a way of life for many CoH players, and a number of game mechanics combine to make alt-heavy play a real option. The game's leveling and powerset curve is pitched such that I have access to all of my primary skills by level 32, which is a very achievable level even without hardcore play, high-end enhancements, or power-grinding shenanigans. After all these years of play, I've got two 50s... and countless 20s and 30s. I could sit at level 50 and grind Incarnate content, CoH's relatively recent endgame, but... why? It hasn't got to be the kind of game that totally reinvents itself at level 50 and expects you to do the same. It's a game that truly sparkles in the midgame. And when I stop having fun with a character, I shrug and roll a new one with a new costume and new power sets. Why not! It's a game friendly to dabblers -- hardcore dabblers, but dabblers nonetheless.

And that's a good thing. My mates and I have things like jobs and families and hobbies that don't involve lovely glowing screens, which means that inevitably, we're scattered across the levels. Never mind all that, says City of Heroes. Just scoot on over to your bros using a flashy travel power, then use the sidekick system to lower or raise your level to match theirs so you can all group together. The absence of equivalent systems in other MMOs continually baffles me. It's become a critical gameplay mechanic to me, that ability to team regardless of level. Inflexible leveling paradigms seem very dated to me now; it's just not that hard to implement an improvement. Surely player retention soars if the game makes it incredibly easy for gamers to join their friends, whatever their levels!

Of course, if my guildies are offline, I can just use the team-up teleporter (LFG/dungeon-finder) or solo; most of the game's content is completable by a single hero or villain, even the weaker ones. If my Defender is getting trounced by Nemesis goons, I can just drop my difficulty sliders and muddle through. I'm not a fan of forced teaming, but I'm happy to report that teaming in City of Heroes is lucrative for both its in-game rewards and the sheer joy of smashing swarms of minions. Chaos ensues when you're grouped with seven other players all flinging fire and radiation and ice around like madmen. It's wild and pretty, and the particle effects hold up surprisingly well for a game that's almost eight years old (though client overhauls in the last few years have something to do with that).

City of Heroes - One o' my favorite maps
When the game launched in 2004, I'd have called CoH a themepark, but nowadays it's dominated by so many sandbox elements that I'd slot it in sandpark territory without hesitation. While housing isn't a feature the game can boast, it does offer customizable supergroup and villaingroup bases that surpass housing in most other MMOs. You can select everything from wallpaper and flooring to lighting and the basic layout, room by room. There's also a cross-server, cross-faction consignment-style auction hall with a unique secret bid system. Roleplaying, at least on Virtue, is a common sight in gathering spots like the VIP lounge; there are hundreds of displayable titles and badges to collect; and don't forget the Mission Architect, a pioneering player-generated content system now emulated in games from EverQuest II to Star Trek Online. The creativity potential of the MA enticed me back to the game and kept me there.

Crafting is a relatively new addition to CoH's feature roster as well. The game has what I consider to be the pre-eminent cosmetic system in that your gear (i.e., enhancements) is completely separate from your costume. Elite enhancements are "invented" (crafted) by players using drops and slotted into powers in a system that seems simple but quickly ramps up into one of the most challenging (but still optional) "gear" systems in an MMO. That "hardcore is optional" theme runs throughout the game, right into the Incarnate-flavored endgame, which just yesterday opened up to solo players in yet another push to make content accessible but not brainlessly easy.

City of Heroes is not a perfect game. It's plagued by a borky player economy, PvP inadequacies, and the usual cash-shop woes that accompany all Western games that transition to a hybrid free-to-play/free-to-try model. But CoH stands apart because it borrows and blends the best qualities of other MMOs, which is most welcome when the days are too short for me to fully explore the deepest levels of pure sandboxes and themeparks. City of Heroes scratches all the right sandbox and themepark itches without making me do the make-work and chores required in those games, and it does so while letting me wander around as whomever and whatever I choose, on precisely my own terms.

And that's why I play.

There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.

This article was originally published on Massively.