I started playing massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) during the beta of Star Wars Galaxies in 2003. And while SWG had mee hooked for over a year, it couldn’t compare to City of Heroes. Make your own superhero? It’s like they made the game just for me. But there are other reasons why I considered CoH the best MMO yet.
While working at a cyber cafe, I walked behind someone who was decorating his wookiee’s house, and I thought “they made a Star Wars SIMs?” Once he explained to me what I was looking at, I got onboard in a big way. Within a week, half of the cyber cafe – and all of the staff – were running through the Tattooine desert on our way to Jabba’s Palace (thank God for auto-run during those days before speeders).
And I still hold that Jump to Lightspeed was the best video game expansion of all time – nothing since has even come close to that (and it blew EVE Online away, even a decade after it was released). Once I was able to get into space in an excellent first-person space simulator, I never touched the ground game again.
It was a great year, one in which I gained a solid ten pounds of soda and chips around my midsection.
Then I Became a Hero
When City of Heroes launched in 2004, I happily bid the galaxy far, far away a fond farewell. After growing up on comic books, this game was a dream come true. I got to create my own superhero and go to town on villains in a way I had only managed in my imagination in the front yard or (much safer) at the dinner table playing roleplaying games.
CoH’s graphics blew SWG’s away – though both are nearly 8-bit pixels by today’s standards – and the combat system was top notch. Unfortunately for me, I expected the same level of quality from future Cryptic Studios games, which resulted in several instances of buyer’s remorse.
But it wasn’t just the combat system or graphics that made CoH better than even World of Warcraft, which also launched that year (and which I played for about eight years). It was the level of customization.
Everyone in SWG and WoW looked the same, fought the same, and had the same skills – pretty much whatever was “OP” at the time was picked up by everyone. But CoH, at least at launch, only had six types of consumables, and that was the only gear you got. There were zero “gear raids” and even superheroes with the same power sets looked drastically different.
And even within those power sets, heroes were often different. In CoH, you got to pick two primary power sets that determined how you fought, and then secondary power sets that could customize your character further, and included things like travel powers. (Flying is way cooler than riding a speeder through pixelated terrain or having a griffon take you on a predetermined route.)
Even DC Universe Online failed to offer the same level of customization – though they got close with their costume design, they failed miserably in power design (and their custom powers were atrocious and practically unusable).
DCUO could have been great if they had given the fans what they wanted and were not beholden to the whims of a particular game developer (“super strength isn’t a superpower” puh-leeze!). The fact that you couldn’t mimic almost any of the Justice League characters with your power sets (Flash with fire powers? sure. Superman with…ice? You got it.) was bad enough, but then you throw in the fact that you are second stringers in the universe, acting as “support crew” for the big heroes, and you have a recipe for a mass player exodus, which happened, just not as quickly as I suspected it would (I even held out far longer than I should have because I wanted to like the game).
Champions Online, created by the same studio that designed CoH, tried to step up to the plate after CoH started to show its age. It promised a lot and did give me many hours of fun, but it was launched, like so many other Cryptic Studios games, in an incredibly unfinished state. They knew that PvP was a big deal to CoH players, who had to wait years before it was implemented, but Champions launched it too quickly, with far too many unbalances (anyone recall katana bleeding?).
The level of customization was top notch, though you had to pay for most of the good stuff (consumers of the industry had not cozied up to the idea of microtransactions yet). But the real let down for this game, which had an incredible setting (probably because it came from a tabletop RPG), was the lack of finish at launch. It didn’t get its legs until the mass exodus had already happened.
And both DCUO and Champions had a similar problem: the entire game was practically solo-able. If you can play it by yourself, then you don’t need the moniker “MMO” do you? CoH, on the other hand, had incredible team and role mechanics, with an incredibly innovative sidekick system that allowed for low-level heroes to play with their more super friends in high-level content. The game thrived on group play and had the population (for most of its years) to capitalize on it. Only WoW had almost as good of group mechanics with a population to support it for so long (but even WoW raids can’t match the elated feeling one got while playing on a team with a tank, blaster, controller, and healer who knew what they were doing).
Just as it is unlikely that there will ever be another game with a crafting system that can rival SWGs, there is likely never again going to be a superhero MMO that can rival City of Heroes. I consider it a great travesty that so many other games are supported by their game design fans through mods, but CoH was left in its digital grave. A Kickstarter was launched that promised to create a similar experience, and I did back it…years ago. Nothing yet, unless you count an amount of lore that suggests the designers should have been novelists instead. And with the speed that they’re moving, it’s probably best to wait for Marvel to bankroll a real MMO and not the MOBA game they’re passing off as one.
There were some runners up for my favorite games, Guild Wars 1 and 2 were both fantastic, and I greatly enjoyed the level of customization in Black Desert (maybe too much customization?), but they still didn’t compare to CoH.
What about you? What was your favorite MMO? (If I trashed it above, please realize that this is an Op-Ed piece based on my experiences.)