Defenders in a nutshell
It's hard to point to a single comic-based archetypical Defender simply because it's not one that gets a great deal of emphasis. You don't go to a superhero film to watch a whole bunch of people not get shot to death; you go to watch people hurling cars and breaking buildings in half and all that fun stuff. As a result, the archetype only creeps in for teams, and even then it gets downplayed.
But it does exist, and you recognize the type when you start looking closely. Defenders don't do a lot on their own, but they make the entire team work better through their actions. Someone has to be giving the team direction, erecting forcefields and keeping lines of communication active, mitigating all of the incoming harm aimed at the usually less-than-invulnerable members of the team. In simplest terms, you can always just look for the team member who seems remarkably uninvolved in any punching antics.
To be fair, in comics it always seems like the least interesting part to play, and there's something to be said for that, but support is notably more interesting in CoH. Only one powerset really focuses on active healing; most of them focus on buffing allies and debuffing enemies to mitigate incoming damage. (Since health regeneration is constant in CoH, taking less damage can have a roughly equivalent effect to healing it outright in other games.) A good Defender makes it easy for a team to keep running and smashing through wave after wave of minion, because the team can just steamroll everyone.
Vigilance, the inherent archetype ability, grants a scaling damage buff for the fewer party members the Defender has and a scaling Endurance discount as the Defender's party gets injured. Obviously, the two are mutually exclusive, with both activating automatically as the Defender either fights solo or has a more-injured party. Also note that your own health doesn't affect this ability, thus giving you even more incentive to get a decent meat shield in front.
Defender primaries are meant to help buff teammates, debuff enemies, and in extreme situations, help the Blaster shovel her entrails back into her abdomen so she can make with the fiery death bit again. Note that several of these powers -- especially the ones you would really like to use on yourself while soloing -- are specifically marked to only be usable on allies, which is worth being very angry about when you decide to run a map solo and a heal would be really cool.
Cold Domination: A slowing set with a couple of shields, a Health buff, and a toggled Defense buff with a few energy resistances tacked on. It's a good set for mitigating incoming damage, as the slows will dramatically reduce enemy output, but its only real healing is with Heat Loss and Frostwork. The shields, naturally, cannot target you. A pretty good set all around.
Dark Miasma: Tar Patch is kind of a wash, but the set as a whole is not a bad pick -- you get a heal, a toggled enemy debuff, a toggled party buff, and even a pet. The primary weakness of the set is simply that it's all over the map from a thematic standpoint; it has no real coherent focus of healing or debuffing or anything. It's a good pick for soloing purposes, though, as you have a wide toolbox that's useful at all times.
Empathy: This would be "the healing set." It's a straightforward set with a lot of targeted healing, debuff removal, and some resistance buffs here and there. On the plus side, if you want to play a very traditional healer, there is no finer option. On the down side, the set really doesn't offer anything other than a lot of direct heals, with no real buffs to speak of outside of everyone staying up. (There are a few static effects, but nothing beyond health buffs and status immunities.)
Force Field: Insulation Shield and Deflection Shield combined provide a nice boost to Defense across the board, and Dispersion Field helps further buff Defense for the team. It's a bit more of an offensive set on a whole, with no direct healing and a lot of abilities that control positioning. Not the greatest set for straight-up group support, but definitely not bad, either. (It really shines in conjunction with another Archetype, but that's another week.)
Kinetics: Kinetics is almost too darned good. Transference and Transfusion are astonishingly good at healing everyone, buffing Endurance, and draining your target of all Endurance. Siphon Speed is a great snare and self-boost, Increase Speed turns an ally into a machine as long as it's active, and Siphon Power/Fulcrum Shift cripple your enemies and buff your team substantially. Also, you get a free travel power in the set. If the set had a raise, it would be straight-up overpowered. As it is... it's still pretty overpowered.
Radiation Emission: Not quite as overpowered as Kinetics, but still a really powerful set. You still get some healing potency, but instead of buffing the heck out of your team, you get a number of crippling status ailments to inflict on enemies while using Accelerate Metabolism on your team. Also, this time you do get a resurrection ability.
Sonic Resonance: Eh. There are some debuffs in here, certainly, and some Resistance buffs, but nothing to wholeheartedly recommend the set compared to some of its more overwhelming cousins. It's about as scattershot in its focus as Dark Miasma, but the debuffs and buffs it collects leave me much colder.
Storm Summoning: Traditionally among the more jokeworthy sets (at least in the circles I've run with), Storm Summoning isn't the worst set in the game, but its only real buffing aspect is O2 Boost as a targeted heal and Steamy Mist as a stealth-boosting defense field. You do get a pet, though, if you really feel the need for one... which isn't really a Defender's operating mode, but hey.
Traps: Some decent debuffs, and you can pick up Force Field Drone and Triage Beacon for group support. The variety of bombs you have can definitely help at controlling group placement and enemy flow within more constrained maps (such as most mission maps, honestly), but at the same time you lack much direct punch or many options if the enemies steer clear of your mines.
Trick Arrow: Just like Empathy is a pure healing set, this is a pure debuff set. The main difference between this and the other debuff-focused sets, however, is that pretty much every Trick Arrow shot is an AoE, allowing you to fire arrows and selectively disable large groups of enemies. While the lack of a direct support power is definitely felt and it can't knock such off the table, it's just behind Force Field in overall utility. (That's good, I'll note.)
The secondary sets for Defenders are designed to serve two purposes. The first is to give them some source of damage to make soloing at least somewhat possible and so there's something to do when the team isn't half-dead. However, the more attack-oriented powers also serve the purpose of helping to debuff the enemy, making it that much easier for the team to continue cutting a path of destruction through hapless minions.
Archery: A thematic cousin to Trick Arrow without much to recommend it as a debuffing set. There are some AoEs, which is OK, and Burning Arrow can work nicely with Trick Arrow's Oil Slick, but... well, that's really all.
Assault Rifle: Several powers to knock foes around are nice in theory, but this is a pure damage power, make no mistake. As such, it's still not quite fulfilling a good group role, especially with all the knockbacks hurling things around.
Dark Blast: Tenebrous Tentacles is a snare, and most of the powers in this set offer a nice to-hit debuff. Dark Pit is also a great way of cutting down incoming damage via shutting down the enemies. Not a bad option.
Dual Pistols: Your Ammo Swap abilities make this set pretty darn good for Defenders, allowing you to select between a variety of different debuffs based on the situation. Cryo Ammunition and Chemical Ammunition are generally going to work best in a group, with the normal ammunition or Incendiary Ammunition in a solo setup.
Electrical Blast: Enemies without Endurance aren't doing anything. Enemies with debuffed Recovery are going to say at lower Endurance to boot. Some selective zapping is certainly a good option, especially if your primary set is more about damage mitigation than direct heals.
Energy Blast: Knockback city, we sell knockbacks and that's all. It's not awesome for a Defender, really.
Ice Blast: A hold and a Recharge debuff are both good options for mitigating the incoming damage. Needless to say, it stacks up decently with Cold Domination, with your enemies doubly slowed.
Psychic Blast: Some Disorients and slow effects, combined with a few knockbacks... it's OK. There are better options available from a non-thematic standpoint, but this set is... solid, I guess, is the word I'm looking for.
Radiation Blast: Reducing a target's Defense is nice, especially when the set thematically matches up to Radiation Emission. It's not going to reduce incoming damage, but it is going to do wonders for increasing the damage heading out.
Sonic Attack: Probably a smidge better than Radiation Blast, as the Resistance debuffs help more against targets who have high Resistance but only moderate Defense (which seems to be just a bit more common than high-Defense targets). And there's a Disorient in there, which never hurts.
As for me...
There's an uneasy balance with Defenders, since they're probably the least engaging archetype from a superhero perspective. As if that weren't weird enough, they're also saddled with a lot of powersets in their primary that really don't help them provide much group support -- which is their marquee ability anyway.
But there are also several excellent sets, and the class as a whole has always hung together very nicely. I've probably started more Defenders than any other Archetype, and while most of them have languished at lower levels, that's mostly my fault for being a flighty sort. Your choices might be a little more limited than they seem at first pale, but the feel of keeping a whole group running and killing in overtime more than makes up for it.
Let me know what you think in the comments or of course via mail to email@example.com. I'm sure that there will be debates over my evaluation of each set -- there always is, and I look forward to differing opinions. Next week, we're either going to continue along the archetype path with one that's remarkably similar, or we're going to hop back in time to a couple of older topics that deserve another look.
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.