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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Freedom

Eliot Lefebvre

I know, I promised you all Stalkers today. But in case you haven't noticed, something sort of trumped the last archetype under discussion. Something like City of Heroes making one of the biggest announcements in the history of the game. And the weirdest part is, I'm writing this before most of the world knows about it, after being on the phone with Paragon Studios and talking about all of the cool stuff that's coming along with City of Heroes Freedom.

Working in game journalism means knowing about what's coming up before other people much of the time. I knew that there was something big en route when I sat down on the call, but honestly I had expected another expansion pack. And that's really what we're getting here, albeit not quite in the format that most players would expect. This is another major expansion to the game, one that will open up the playerbase as well as offering new content to existing players. So this is one of those times when it's almost difficult to sit down and focus clearly enough to write about what's coming, just because the net effects are so far-reaching.

But let's all get the obvious bit out of our systems -- you know, the doomsaying and wailing and loud pronouncement that this is the death of City of Heroes and it's on the end of its rope -- because that's just plain silly, especially when you consider that the company currently in charge of the game has a long history of forecasting a game's death by, um, killing the game. (Tabula Rasa, anyone?) This is a switchover to a hybrid business model that's worked quite well for both Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, except that it looks like the outlay for what subscribers will get is a fair bit nicer than what you get for either of the previous games. And if you're already playing, you're going to start noticing all the stuff you get on the day Freedom goes live.

Seriously. It's easy to miss, but the monthly stipend of Paragon Points is going to start being credited to current subscribers starting on July 1st, which means that we're going to be walking in with a whole fistful of cash. Plus, there was talk during the conference call of making certain elements of the shop accessible via multiple means, although I may have misunderstood that. Oh, and you're also going to be getting multiple months of veteran rewards awarded back to you -- and that's on a monthly basis now, not quarterly. Go ahead and look back and realize that the current interval has tripled and start figuring out what sort of things might be available.

One of the really cool elements that was shown off was something I inadvertently alluded to a few weeks back: two-handed melee weapons. It turns out that isn't coming in a Super Booster but in the new store. It also promises to change the dynamic of the weapon sets to reward a slightly different playstyle, emphasizing repeated weapon strikes in quick succession. Interesting stuff, to be sure, although I was told that it won't quite be ready for the store's launch. But hey, you have to leave something for further on down the line.

And the funny part is that all of these additions are the incidentals to what's coming in Issue 21. This is the fluff and the bonus that's surrounding a bunch of other cool elements, including stuff that could have far-reaching implications for how the game plays. (Team-wide Inspirations, anyone?)

The big addition to the non-beginning game, of course, is the addition of the new First Ward zone, which shows off a region of Praetoria that was essentially Cole's first attempt at making a functional utopian society. It didn't take, and now the area is overrun with the magical individuals who didn't have a place left in the man's new regime. There's some cool stuff on display and some really interesting elements to the design, but the proof is going to be in the sweet, sweet content-level pudding. Since I wasn't able to get a hands-on for it, all I can do is speculate that it looks like the next step beyond all of the great stuff on display in Praetoria.

I also got a few glimpses of the upcoming revamped tutorial zone, and while I wouldn't have been that keen on the idea that you start off as neutral... the more I think about it, the more I like it. It gives you a reason to be either a resident of Primal Earth or Praetoria, and it gives some important chances for characters early on to get a sense of place and purpose. Plus it ties into the whole signature arc content that's set to launch with Freedom, which is a really cool idea.

I mentioned long ago how I disliked the early game's approach -- how players got to play Sir Not Quite As Good As Sir Statesman, which especially didn't jibe with the fact that all of the supposed real heroes stood in place and told you to go fix everything. The game has already moved away from that, and this is the first step toward giving these signature characters some real face value and resonance with players. This is the sort of thing that really aims straight for the center of mass of DC Universe Online, content that makes the game's signature characters and the game's lore come front and center. Instead of the baroque and codified continuity of DC or the meandering personal introspection of Marvel, the universe of CoH has a distinct superheroic feel and a distinct tradition, and the promise that this will be one of the bigger thrusts of the game from here on out fills me with happiness.

Frankly, everything about Freedom is exciting. There are a couple of potential pitfalls here and there, and I'm sure some players will be bitter over the fact that free players don't get full access to the game since they're cut off from six of the archetypes. But the rewards that subscribers get are huge, the opportunity for anyone to jump in and start playing with no investment is great, and the fact that the game is innovating in a new direction is something worth crowing about. Time will tell how solid the execution is, but Freedom promises to be one heck of an expansion. Even if it's not.

As always, comments are welcome in the comment field below, or you can mail them along to Next week, Stalkers, I promise.

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.

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