Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to join me for a moment of silence to mourn the passing of City of Heroes.
…It’s hard to represent silence in text without an obnoxious number of line breaks, so I’ll just continue. This past weekend, Paragon Studios announced that they will soon be shutting the servers on City of Heroes, the granddaddy of superhero MMOs. It’s always amazed me that swords-and-sorcery is the standard go-to theme for MMOs, when superhero stylings allow for much greater gameplay and thematic variety – after all, what defines a superhero beyond that he has some form of superpower? In fact, you don’t even need that, as Batman has so ably demonstrated for the last 70-odd years. All it takes to be a superhero is a strong moral compass, and the willingness to take action. Beyond that, the scope is endless: a superhero can be anyone from a blind street brawler to a godlike, spacefaring alien, and anything in between.
Despite the breadth and scope of the genre, we’ve seen comparatively few superhero MMOs – in fact, only three worth mentioning: City of Heroes (which I’m counting as a whole with its successor / expansion, City of Villains), Champions Online and last year’s DC Universe Online. While each has its own unique strengths, none has been perfect, and none has managed to attract the same long-term popularity as the likes of WoW or…errr….WoW. So what would make the perfect superhero MMO? If I could pick and choose individual parts from this “big three” and splice them together to form some kind of super-superhero MMO, which parts would I pick, and why? Read on to find out.
Bitten by a radioactive man, Hugh Mann became…ManMan!
Let’s start at the beginning. Creating your character is a crucial part of any superhero MMO, as it’s the founding point for whatever colourful persona you’ll adopt for the next oh-god-is-it-that-many-seriously hours. You’re not just creating “wood elf ranger #2359″ or “human mage #9447″, you’re breathing life into a unique person with their own backstory, their own turning point which made them don the cape and cowl and start fighting crime.
Though all three games allow a great deal of flexibility in this area, Champions Online is the clear winner. The sheer volume of costume options available to you is staggering, enabling you to create absolutely anything from an ancient Egyptian lion-god-thing to a human pencil. Yes, really:
What’s more, each individual item can be coloured to your preference – those who want to create a somber, Punisher-style brooder can do so, but if you’re more of the “disco hallucination” disposition, you’re just as free to let your imagination run riot.
And the personalisation doesn’t end once you start the game with Champions – but more on that later…
Winner: Champions Online
This was the best screenshot I could get to illustrate DCUO’s “dynamic combat”. It shows a man kicking an anthropomorphised rhino in the chest. Yes.
Like it or not, you’re going to spend the bulk of your time in any MMO either hitting things or blasting them with something. Superhero fights are meant to be fast, dynamic affairs – a mile away from the standard “stand here, twat this until dead” clickfests of most MMOs, and yet only one of our big three has really come close to achieving this.
For all its strengths, battles in City of Heroes are pretty stiff, and fairly close to the traditional MMO model. Movement interrupts power casting, and so fights are fairly static affairs, leaving little room for high-flying theatrics and acrobatics. Champions Online improves on the formula somewhat, but still sticks fairly close to genre norms, and feels oddly lightweight at times.
So by a process of simple elimination, we come to DC Universe Online. At times DCUO feels more like an action game than an MMO: there are no auto attacks, and fights are won through well timed combos rather than simple button presses. The results are suitably spectacular, with your character twirling, swooping and leaping between each hit. You can even fight while using your travel powers (all of them, not just flight / hovering!) which makes PvP battles chaotic in the best sense of the word. It may not have the depth of its competitors, but DCUO’s battles are the closest to the superhero experience you’ll get in an MMO.
Winner: DC Universe Online
Reason #47 Superhero MMOs rule: You can’t run up walls in WoW.
Superman would be nothing without his flight or super-speed, and when you take away his webs, Spider-Man is just a guy with good reactions and bad dress sense. Travel powers are just an iconic a part of a superhero’s repertoire as their x-ray strength or larynx freezing vision. More importantly, they make mounts in fantasy MMOs look very boring indeed – take your skeletal horse and shove it up your hobbit hole.
DCUO gains an early lead here by letting you fly, leap or speed from offset, whereas both Champions and City of Heroes make you slog it on foot for a few levels before you’re granted your travel power. Even then in City of Heroes you’re severely hampered for a while – if you want to fly, you’ll have to make do with the so-slow-as-to-be-useless hover power for quite a while first.
Ultimately though, Champions wins again based on sheer variety, not only practically but also aesthetically. It’s all very good having one flight power, but what if your hero is fire themed and you want to leave a blazing trail behind you? Or a path of ice? What if your magic users wants an arcane platform to zip about on? Champions Online allows for all of these and more.
Plus, it’s the only one that lets me swing around like Spider-Man so, you know, clear winner.
Winner: Champions Online
It’s hard to show character development in a single screenshot, so here’s a guy with a sword.
Character development / levelling up
This one’s a tough call. On the one side, we have Champions Online: its freeform, class-free character development system means you’re free to pick and choose the powers you wanted without restriction. Want to be a fire guy who uses guns but also occasionally controls his opponent’s mind and sometimes summons zombies? Go for it. As with so much of CO, the development system revolves around giving your the power to craft precisely the hero you want. But it comes with a downside: balance is impossible. Players are always going to complain about over- and under-powered abilities, but allowing them to choose freely means they can pick all the former and none of the latter. Freedom becomes confining: you have to pick certain powers or risk being left behind in PvP.
So instead, I’m going to give this one to City of Heroes, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s got more of an emphasis on stats than either of the other two, and long time readers will know there’s little I like more in games than watching some largely arbitrary numbers creep slowly upwards. More importantly, though, City of Heroes lets you choose how to enhance individual powers; if your focus is on striking first then you can spec your attacks for quicker recharge, but if you’d prefer to hit hard and hit once, you can pour upgrades into damage instead. It changes your focus from choosing which powers to use to how.
There’s more that could be done to this system – for instance, why not start with a simple “force blast” power, which can then be upgraded with fire, ice, plasma etc to create a more specialised attack? For now though, City of Heroes is the best of the three, and certainly the strongest starting point.
Winner: City of Heroes
Though it’s definitely not the best Superhero MMO out there, DCUO does let you fight alongside Batman, which earns it serious points. But no-one cares about you, Robin. And you’re not even the good one.
I’m pretty fond of the phrase “playing a game for the story is like eating soup because you like the spoon”, and never is this more true than in MMOs. Come on, hands up if you can tell me any part of the story of any MMO you’ve ever played? Honestly? Exactly. You’re bombarded with reams of text, and it inevitably ends with “Prithee, fetch 3 wolf tongues from the pack that doth gather under ye old oak tree.”
Champions Online has one key difference: it lets your write part of the story yourself. Remember earlier how I said CO’s customisation doesn’t end once you start playing the game? A while into your crimefighting career, you’re directed to create your nemesis, a character who’ll crop up to challenge you repeatedly through the course of the game. The nemesis creation system is even more in-depth than the one for creating your own character: you get to choose their appearance, their powers, their personality and even the type of minions they’ll send after you. From this point on, a slice of the game is truly, undeniably yours: no-one else will ever fight your nemesis, unless they’re teaming up with you at the time.
It’s wonderful, and as far as I’m concerned every single MMO should copy this feature, not just the superhero themed ones. Whether you’re creating a costumed ne’er-do-well or rival ork warlord, creating your own nemesis adds a personal element to the story which is far more compelling than any number of generic threats.
Winner: Champions Online
It’s got to be said, Foxbat is not the most threatening villain ever.
Being a lone hero is fine for a while, but eventually you get bored of the same-old, same old, and you just need to get a gang of superpowered friends together to go and twat some apocalyptic-level evil. Without a shred of research, I’m pretty sure that’s why the Avengers and the Justice League originally formed: boredom. Don’t bother checking, I’m probably right. Plus, of course, we’re talking about MMOs here: the “multiplayer” part is right there in the title.
Teaming up doesn’t have to be structured and pre-planned, though. For a superhero MMO, the reactive, drop what you’re doing and get over here moments are just as important, if not more so: after all, the threat normally comes to the heroes, not the other way around, and supervillains rarely give much notice of their intent to flood the city with radioactive moles.
For the best example of how this is done, we need to look outside of superhero MMOs though, and to the recently released Guild Wars 2. GW2′s world events are brilliantly handled: every now and then, when certain conditions are met, you’ll get a notification on your HUD informing you of a new event nearby, and all players in range will invariably rush to participate. Suddenly you’re fighting alongside people you’ve never seen before, battling odds which would be insurmountable on your own, and as soon as it’s over you all go your separate ways. Sounds like any number of superhero crossover / team-up comics, so let’s see it in our superhero MMOs. “Galactus has arrived! Get to the Baxter Building to stop him!” Yes. Please.
Winner: Guild Wars 2. Which wasn’t even in the running.
Of course, even if could combine all the best bits from the big three superhero MMOs (…and Guild Wars 2), we still wouldn’t have the full superhero experience. None of these games so far have tackled that age old problem of maintaining a civilian identity, and while the idea of going to work at the local newspaper office every in-game day might not be thrilling, the storyline possibilities around having your loved ones in peril could be. We’re also yet to see a superhero MMO which lets you design your own vehicle, and who hasn’t dreamt of driving up walls in the Spider-Mobile? (Just me? OK.) You know what though? By splicing together the DNA from City of Heroes, Champions Online and DC Universe Online, we’d have a damn good game, and certainly one I’d like to play.
Sadly, the chances of my prayers being answered are slim, as the MMO ship seems to be sinking rapidly, with even free-to-play titles struggling to find an audience. The upcoming Marvel Heroes looks interesting in its own way, but geared more towards pick-up-and-play than to a deeper experience. For now, we’ll have to hope for a miracle, not to mention a boatload of funding. Maybe that nice Mr. Wayne can help us out…