Nowadays the distinction is almost wholy meaningless. Every archetype can be played on either side, and swapping sides is relatively simple. But part of the reason you can hop factions so easily is that the game has never been structured as a straight two-faction game. There's no reason to care about legions of players hopping to one side or the other; faction balance isn't an issue; and so forth.
Is it because PvP is dead in the water? Well, that's certainly part of it, but I think that's more of a symptom than a cause. There's a definite sense of factional conflict in most games that have two separate factions at war with one another. If you've ever played through any game of this sort, you're constantly getting reminders through both PvP and PvE content that you're at war with the other side.
But not so in CoH. And that's largely because the two factions don't intersect in any meaningful way.
If you ignore all of the mission text and replace all of the enemy models with placeholders, would you be able to tell at a glance whether you were playing a villain or a hero? Probably, but it would be through context clues, starting with the areas you were occupying. Heroic areas look cleaner but a bit less fancy, while villainous areas have a sense of fancy decorations plastering over a decayed structure. And that's just the interiors. It's impossible to mistake the atmosphere of the Rogue Isles for that of Paragon City, like mistaking Gotham for Metropolis. They're completely different places with different styles and different feels.
You don't run into villains while leveling your hero. The closest you get is running into resistance members while leveling as a loyalist in Praetoria, and even then there's no easy way to tell at a glance. Nor is there any meaningful way to interact with the other faction if you do happen to meet representatives on the street or find their various hideouts.
In most two-faction games, after the starter area, you're usually in the same area as members of the other faction with some frequency. Not so in CoH. The only places you find the other faction are in special cooperative zones, places where the whole idea of a factional conflict is suspended while you're present. Compare that to any number of other games, where you're frequently running into players of the other faction, quest hubs for the other side, and so forth. Even if your character believes there could be peace, the game is quick to disabuse you of that notion.
This is kind of odd because if there was ever a genre in which the two factions have every reason to keep fighting, this would be it. Heroes and villains are natural enemies within the comic book ecology, even more so in the vaguely Silver Age-ish moral setting that CoH uses. The idea of having both factions at one another's throat constantly really leads to a sort of bitter rivalry. Oddly, I don't think factional switching would hurt that too much, at least not from a thematic point of view.
However, all of this does have a very positive effect on CoH compared to other games with two factions -- namely, there's an almost complete lack of factional pride. There are traces here and there, but for the most part, players do not self-identify as being villains or heroes. We're all in the same big game together, and we can all enjoy making our alts and playing the same game at our own pace.
I do realize the magnificent strangeness in a game of heroes and villains having a fanbase with a blasé attitude toward different factions, but I'm choosing to momentarily ignore it.
It seems clear that when CoV went live at first, the developers were aiming for a more traditional two-faction environment, at least if you consider how the PvP zones were clearly meant to be rather lively places. But far more than the mechanics of the game, the simple reality of that factional divide screwed any hope of a rivalry. Players weren't ever getting stymied by opposite numbers; they were getting stymied by most of the same groups on either side. The result is that the game feels less like a factionalized game and more like a game with two distinct leveling paths.
Is that a bad thing? No. But it does mean that the game is technically one with two factions at war that really feels like something else entirely, which is kind of a strange feeling when you think about it.
Feedback can be left in the comments below, as always, or mailed along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, to spin off of this discussion, I'm going to throw my remarkably unqualified hat into the ring and ask whether there's anything that can be done to save CoH's PvP at this point.
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.