A Mild-Mannered Reporter: In praise of City of Heroes' zone revamps

A Mild-Mannered Reporter header by A. Fienemann
If the classic MMO is an open sandbox wthout direction and the modern MMO is a guided ride along the quest railroad, City of Heroes was made on the day in between those two points. Nowhere is that more evident than in classic zones from the earliest days of the game, which featured a large number of contacts who would send you scurrying across a zone to largely random points without any real rhyme or reason. It was a different time then, and I think we all still expected to get most of our rewards via killing random things on the streets.

You knew that they were criminals because they attacked you, see.

These days, MMOs are very different, and not entirely coincidentally, City of Heroes as a game keeps revamping its zones. After the Atlas/Mercy/Galaxy revamp that we all thought would never happen, it seems that the team behind the game is really making an effort to give players some redone and more invigorating zones with coherent plot threads. And for many reasons, this is one of the best things that can happen to the game from start to finish.

Of course, as soon as I move in to Galaxy City, property values drop.  It figures.It gives the game more personality

It took me a couple of tries to get into the lore of CoH. Obviously I succeeded at last because I've written more than a few articles entirely discussing lore (some of which have turned out to be quite popular). But if you got into the game in the old days, you know it certainly didn't make the lore very accessible; it was presented to you in the most dry fashion possible. It was an endless string of unconnected missions in which a justice-loving cop/reporter/doctor/researcher/team mascot asks you to go beat up [ENEMY GROUP NAME HERE] in a warehouse/cave/office building. You have to do this because mumble mumble go beat them up.

Or sometimes the mission was just to wander the streets and beat up thugs that you found there, which was thankfully coded well enough so that you didn't have the issue of not killing the right kinds of Hellions, but it was still pretty boring to rush along the road and not find the gang members you needed. I seem to recall a couple of missions in Kings Row for which I simply couldn't find the last three Lost I needed to clear the mission, even though I'd smacked down every Vahzilok and Skull member in a 10-block radius...

There's a lot of personality in the game and a lot of interesting personalities, several of whom I've barely even mentioned in this column. Unfortunately, the classic version of the game made it really easy to miss the interesting contacts, and often you were introduced to them only at the point that you'd stopped reading the contact dialogue because it was so mind-crushingly boring. You could even miss the interesting overall plot arcs because you were just accepting the mission and not internalizing that now you had reasons to stop these nefarious plots.

Zone revamps, on the other hand, fix many of these issues. Suddenly the zones are given a direct flow of contacts and stories, and reducing the number of potential contacts clears more space for individual contacts to be interesting. The opening arcs for both Mercy Island and Atlas Park give players a good idea of what's going on within both sides of the story, and while the contacts aren't the most fascinating individuals ever, they at least move into the realm of having a hook and a personality.

We never go anywhere nice.  It's always invading ruins.  Recluse never sends us to control a tropical island or something.It makes alts more worthwhile

There's no right or wrong way to play CoH, but there seems to be a group consensus that rolling a metric ton of alts is the way to go. But there's a reason many players have long rolled an alt and then just spammed radio missions as fast as possible until they hit a certain level: The game's lower-level content was particularly unpleasant. The flow was generally one of several dull missions, followed by a selection of a random contact with no real connection to anything that had happened before or would happen afterward. Radio missions are a touch repetitive, but they're at least functionally scripted and require a bit less running around.

Having revamped zones with stories and interesting content means that rolling an alt no longer feels like a chore for the first several levels. It also means that you have a breadth of options as you level; you're not locked into a single path of content in order to level efficiently. You miss an arc here or there on your first pass through the game, but now you can catch it again the way it's meant to be played.

It gives the city more character

I'm the first to defend the visual style of CoH, which managed to make an entire world of skyscrapers and city streets look as visually diverse as possible. At the same time, though, a lot of the game does wind up coming off as not terribly distinct. Skyway City has a different character from Steel Canyon, but it's easy for both of them to fade into a memory of streets, parking lots, buildings, and a generally gray palette.

Compare this to Faultline or the new Dark Astoria or First Ward or all of Praetoria. These are areas with a very distinct visual character, parts of the city that feel very separate from one another. And a lot of this is the result of CoH being as old as it is. If you consider the technology that existed at the time it was first built, you have to admit the city looks amazingly diverse. But that was a very long time ago now, and what was exceedingly novel then doesn't look quite so unique now.

Giving each city zone a more distinct visual character through zone revamps makes the city feel more active. Since the additional bits most often involve a lot of destruction, that also helps remind us that we're talking about a superhero game at heart. After all, you'd expect a city full of superheroes and villains to have a lot of collateral damage normally. The Public Works department is probably finally losing some of its staff.

Just as fun the new time

Last but not least, there's the simple fact that Paragon Studios has made it very clear that it knows how to revamp a zone quite well. There are games that have attempted zone revamps with less success, but the track record on redone CoH zones is pretty stellar. So it's worth betting on further revamps also being good.

As always, your thoughts and opinions can be left down below in the comments or mailed to eliot@massively.com. Next week, as my plans to explore new content in a timely fashion have been repeatedly stymied, I'm going to discuss radio missions -- where they work and where they don't. (So I'll probably wind up finally doing that playthrough I keep planning on.)

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.