Unfortunately, for all its strengths, City of Heroes isn't all that great as a superhero game.
It's clear that the people working on the game also know a lot about comics, and there's a definite sense that Paragon Studios works overtime at replicating the source material. But there's a lot of stuff that the game can't or won't handle, and as a result it's never felt like a game about superheroes so much as a game inspired by them. Most of the notes are there, but the music isn't, and I think I've finally nailed down a few reasons why.
You have no nemesis in the true sense of the word
I don't mean you have no Nemesis. If anything, we've got too much of that. Nor do I mean that the game needs something along the lines of the Champions Online system that gives you a personal opposite number because I think that misses the point as well.
Regardless of how happy I was or wasn't with my article about nemeses and building bad characters, one of the elements I touched upon in passing was the idea that the nemesis of a hero is not someone he or she can just fight. That's boring. A real nemesis is someone who is frequently the superior of the characters in a one-on-one contest. He's someone with schemes and plots, and when all else fails, the tricks to keep the hero outmatched even when it's just down to a straight confrontation.
The endgame should not include just straight-out fighting your nemesis. That why the end boss of Batman: Arkham Asylum was such a disappointment -- having Batman punch a guy isn't really interesting. Batman punches lots of guys. The Joker is a good villain because all of that punching alone won't unravel what he has planned. Batman's challenge is supposed to come from outsmarting him, from engaging in a battle of wits and will. Arkham Asylum tried to turn all of that into a punching match, and just beating down the boss feels like a hollow victory.
City of Heroes always has you fighting the Big Bad as a boss because it's an MMO. But as a result, Lord Recluse just feels like another mook. Hamidon is clearly meant as a challenge on par with Galactus or Starro or similar threats, but instead he's just a blob for you to pump damage into. Instead of coming about as a result of careful action by the heroes, victory is achieved as a the result of properly repeating a given boss pattern, which winds up feeling like cheating. It's certainly not the triumph of will you expect at the end of a superhero tale, that's for sure.
There's no supporting cast
Along with what seems like half of the comic-reading internet, I've fallen completely in love with Adam Warren's Empowered. There's material to dissect for yards in the books, but one of the elements that I find fascinating is that despite Empowered's status as technically a team member, her actual teammates aren't really involved with the plot. Most of it has to do with the supporting cast around her: Thugboy, Ninjette, the Demonwolf, and so forth. Even the other superheroes she does interact with are usually just foils for her personality, rather than being someone else to kick around villains with.
This might sound a bit odd until you think about how much of comics is built around the supporting cast. Superman isn't the same without Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane at the minimum, usually expanding to include a variety of other non-combatants. Spider-Man is surrounded by troubles that have more to do with his editor and his aunt and his wife. Other superheroes are usually not what the stories and characters focus on unless you're in the middle of a long-form team series. Even then, usually it's more about the interactions amidst the team rather than just a plethora of heroes beating things up.
Contacts in CoH were clearly meant to evoke some of that feel of being supporting cast members. The problem is that they wind up coming across as lifeless, especially since half of them are meant to be heroes or villains with or without you around. There's very little sense with many of these people that you're dealing with a bosom buddy. You don't have Kingfisher's Pal Barry Gosford as a contact and consistent source of trouble. He just gives you some missions and then sends you on your way.
This ties into the complete lack of any alter-ego system. Your character never has times when he or she isn't punching aliens or street thugs or the mentally ill. Being a superhero is portrayed as, essentially, doing a job, which is the other big problem.
Superheroics are treated like a job
This is probably the one part that bugs me the most about CoH's setting. The fact of the matter is that neither heroes nor villains are really given a reason to be heroes or villains. Instead, both states are treated as more or less your source of employment. There's room for you to define your powers but no room given for you to feel as if your character has a deep-seated need to do something.
Again, that's one of the issues at the heart of comics. The most iconic characters have a need to be either a hero or a villain, a burning necessity to persist even when alternatives arise. In Paragon City, you just fill out an application and register as a hero, and that's the last anyone asks you about your motivation. Aside from taking part in alignment missions, there's nothing that even indicates how you feel about your role as a more-or-less sanctioned part of the law enforcement system within the city.
A lot of this might be forgiven as limitations of the game engine or of the time period when the game was made. But when you put everything together, you're left with a setup in which you get all of the big fights but none of the context that makes those fights interesting. I've felt pretty cool many times in CoH, but I've rarely felt like I'm actually playing a character with more than a nominal connection to superheroes. That's kind of a missed opportunity.
As always, feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I want to look at the proliferation of powersets and whether or not it's helping the game. (No, it's not powerset proliferation. Different concept.)
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.