Free to play is the new trend in MMORPGs. Just yesterday, plans were announced to make DC Universe Online a free to play MMO this October. Meanwhile, the oldest superhero MMO, City of Heroes is proceeding with free-to-play plans, though no official launch date has been set.
Since I still have an active City of Heroes account, I got “VIP” access this week to the preview launch of City of Heroes Freedom, which is the game’s new free-to-play revamp. You might be curious to know what it’s like, and what you should expect when the game goes free to play later this year. Is it worth the download for you? I’ll try to help.
An Overview for the Uninitiated
If you don’t have any experience at all with City of Heroes, you may discover it to be slightly different from other MMOs that you’ve played. I can’t make any comparisons to World of Warcraft because I’ve never played World of Warcraft. I can say that, after playing a few other games, like Warhammer and even Champions, I always come back to City because other MMOs feel sluggish to me. Combat, by far the most frequent activity in the game, is fast and crazy, with tons of particle effects flying across the screen and mobs dying in huge ragdoll puddles at your feet. It’s still the same sort of combat you find in most MMOs, with target-and-queue style attacks, but City’s combat allows you to queue up attacks before you’re in range to use them, and most power cooldown times are small. There’s not much penalty for dying, and gear doesn’t degrade. The tools to find a group are fast and easy to use, and it’s really easy to form a team around any level. There are also the travel powers, which make it a lot easier to travel from one area to another on the map, and can occasionally be fun in and of themselves. In short, there’s a lot to like about the core experience.
You have the ability to cross the city fast using super speed or flight, but you’re typically travelling with a destination in mind. Travel powers or not, the developers seem to have gotten the message that players would rather travel around as little as possible. Old quest chains (called Story Arcs) would often force you to travel between different districts to complete them, but, the newer the missions are with regard to the game’s development cycle, the closer they are geographically to minimize downtime between instances. The game has also added several trials and raids that are available just by clicking the “LFG” button to queue up.
There’s some incentive to participate in these events, since City of Heroes has an Achievement system called Badges. (City of Heroes always seemed to me to be ahead of the development curve in a lot of regards, since it had this kind of system a long time before World of Warcraft did.) Slaying certain monsters, doing certain missions, or just going to particular places on the map may earn you a Badge. Other players can check out your personal info to see which Badges you have.
Building Your Hero
However, you still can’t “mix and match” powers like you can in Champions, which may be a disappointment to some. Free to play players will have access to eight of the different Archetypes (what the game calls Classes) in the game, while paid players can access 14, and your Archetype (or AT) determines which powers you may choose. Broadly, there’s two types of character builds in City of Heroes – a build that solos well, allowing you to check out the content of the game at your own pace, or a build that works better in teams. An all-new client setup will help you decide which AT may be the best choice for you. The advantage of a soloing build is it allows you to experience all the dialog and mission text, which can really be quite good, especially in the newer content (more on that later). The advantage of a teaming build is that teaming allows for much faster leveling. But the faster you level, the more the missions start to look pretty repetitive.
You may find yourself asking if there is such a thing as a PVP build, and I would have to answer in the affirmative, as even I played around with the possibility of PVP back in the dark ages. But I’d say City of Heroes’ PVP culture is in the minority of its players. The game does allow you to have multiple different active builds on the same character, so it’s totally possible to have one setup used for exploring PVE content, and another used for PVP. I’ve just always been on the “carebear” servers and haven’t seen a lot of heavy PVP in my day. There is some PVP, but if that’s your bread and butter you probably won’t find what you’re looking for in the City games. It’s not really very well-supported, and the newer areas all tend toward cooperative PVE play.
The FTP PVE Experience
So for the rest of this Impressions preview, I’m going to concentrate on what the average new player will see when the game launches for free. Please note that there are some spoilers for early missions in this part of the article.
To check out the revamp, I rolled up a Blaster and took him through the first dozen levels of the game. The only way my experience might be different from a free player’s is I chose the new, paid-content only power set, the Beam Rifle. I was able to afford the paid-content power set because, as a VIP, I got access to some of the new real-money currency, called Paragon Points, as a loyalty reward. However, a lot of excellent power sets will still be available to the free players. What they’ll apparently be missing out on are the “epic” character archetypes (which are frankly skippable), and the pet-based standard ATs (admittedly powerful, but possibly locked for technical reasons).
The costume creator is as customizable as ever, but you may notice a change or two if you’ve tried it before. Specifically, every potential costume piece in the game is available for preview up front, but, some of them may have a lock next to them indicating that they require additional purchase. Even though I’m a paid player, I see this on my account because paid-content costume boosters have been available in the game for some time. Choosing any of the game’s paid content will route you to the store experience. Buying stuff, is, of course, as frictionless as possible. They want your money, and part of that is taunting you with shiny things you can’t have.
If you manage to make it through character generation, with or without opening your wallet, you’ll start your play in the new tutorial experience. The game uses the same intro tutorial for all free-to-play players, rather than having split tutorials for Heroes and Villains as it did in the past. During the tutorial, you see a moral choice that gives you the option to choose which side you will fight on. (Free players are going to have to stick with the side they choose, but, it’s possible to switch sides during play, for a price.) The new tutorial also has a voice-over, which startled me a little since I’m not used to hearing voice in the game. However, it seems to be the only voice acting that the game has for now. The graphics for the tutorial are updated and the tutorial experience is also shorter, using up less time before it puts you in the main game.
The new lowbie experience then will gate you pretty carefully through the new content. I sailed up twelve levels fast trying to stick to only new experiences. I haven’t tried the villain side yet, but the new hero side missions have fun writing and characters. Twinshot’s arc, which the game will guide you toward with a pop-up, is a lot of fun for NPC dialog. It also serves as a slower-paced tutorial to different systems in the game. City of Heroes has been updated frequently, and there’s a lot of little things to learn in it, so if you’re a solo or new player and want to know all the ropes in an entertaining way this arc is worth doing.
On the other hand, you can also level out of the low levels pretty fast by doing the new Sewer Trial, “Death from Below.” A traditional method of getting through the low levels quickly was to go down in to the sewers under the city and hunt the bad guys that lurk down there. With this new issue, that activity has been formalized in to a team trial with specific goals and a final boss. It’s nothing too special, but it’s really easy to understand and a fast method to level up… as long as you can figure out how to find it and queue up for it in the tab.
Unfortunately some things in the new experience aren’t as well-documented as they could be. There’s a Help channel to explain new systems to players, which was the only way I figured out how to get involved in the new trial. The new tutorials also seem to gloss over some details like how to con enemies and how to train new levels. I know how to level up in City of Heroes, but in the gated content experience, I actually forgot that I needed to because it does a bad job of reminding you.
The City of Heroes client does some interesting technical things these days. Now, when you join a team, you might get a warning that you are “experiencing a world created by another player’s deeds.” That’s because some sense of permanence has been added to the experience. An example: early on in the new Atlas Park starting zone, you get a mission to rescue the wife of an ally from a band of villains. Knowing how these things go, I was braced for her to either die, or to turn out to be a traitorous villain, so that I never had to see her again and things would be tied up neatly. But I was wrong: once you rescue her, she stays rescued forever, and will be seen standing next to your grateful friend when you pass by.
I feel like I shouldn’t leave that stand on its own without emphasis. You rescue someone in a MMO, and she stays rescued, forever. I am not certain if this is done in other MMOs; I will say that even if it is, I doubt that it’s common. NPCs in City of Heroes seem to know a little about who you are and will talk about your deeds when you pass by, congratulating you on saving that hospital or petitioning to have an action figure made in your image. The game will now also recognize your gender, your archetype, allegiance, and the origin you choose for your superhero/villain and tailor some dialog toward you, so your foes send more customized taunts.
Teaming in City is a very smooth experience. When the game first launched, there was a “sidekicking” system that allowed a player of a lower level to tag along with a higher level player on adventures. This was great if you just wanted to be a duo, but teams of eight players ended up doing a lot of level juggling to find a good balance. So now that system is abandoned in favor of a system that ignores levels almost entirely. Whoever is the leader of the team sets the level balance for the entire team, and people who are on the team will fight at that person’s level, but collect experience points at their own level. The power choices available to you are still gated by level, but a large percentage of the game’s content isn’t, except for special hazard zones or team task forces.
The new tutorial-flavored missions are fun, but most of (if not all) the old content is still available in the game too. The game isn’t going to gate a new free player toward old content, however, but players can access Ouroboros, the Time Travel Zone, and travel back to phased-out content in the game. Some new content is going to be subscriber-only in the future, but it seems like free players will have access to a lot of the classic content if they want it.
City of Heroes also has user-generated content. If you wanted to, you could get a character to max level without even setting foot in content created by the development team. This does have the usual pitfalls; user-generated content varies heavily in quality and is impossible to actually rate. It can also be challenging at times, not in the fun-fair way but in the thoughtless-broken way… the character creator makes it easy to create tough bosses without any forethought. There’s also user-created content designed for the specific purpose of dropping the most experience points in the shortest amount of time. It’s pretty effective, but, well…
Teaming with a few good friends who were interested in the content is the most fun I’ve had playing this game. On the other hand, pick-up teams are easier to get, but they are hit-or-miss. The most efficient way to get levels and goods in City is to blitz through content as quickly as possible. A lot of players know how to do this, but not how to make it interesting, and it’s very easy to pick mission chains that amount to the same thing over and over again, in the name of efficient level gain. Go to this instance, click that, kill that dude. Chew through a room of guys in blue outfits. Go to this instance, click that, kill that other dude. Chew through a room of guys in red outfits. Ding a level, go back, chew through more guys (this time, they’re robots, or clowns). Repeat until level fifty, wondering what the point of all that really was.
If that was your experience with City of Heroes in the past, I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t interested in a repeat performance. If you can’t really get in to the lore of this particular universe, and you tend to be an achievement-oriented player who likes gear and levels, you’ll probably find the game repetitive, awkwardly balanced, and extremely easy. The new content has some nice flavor in the writing, but there’s not a huge variety in what you’re asked to do as a player. There seems to be an effort in the new content to have more things happening in the open zone and less reliance on instances, which occasionally took me by surprise, but it gets more instance-focused later in. And there are still “Kill Ten Gang Members” style missions, which is just “Kill Ten Rats” with window dressing. City of Heroes does have a small variety of endgame raids that are more challenging, but I’ve found taking advantage of them to be a little confusing, with a brand new learning curve and crafting system for any kind of character advancement at peak level.
I also have one more specific complaint about some of the new content… but this is maybe just me. The new missions give you dialog choices, which are nice, but they’re fairly limited. Twinshot’s story in particular is going to introduce you to a fun cast of characters, but it then defaults to putting you in the role of the straight man, a brand new hero who is a little naive and a bit of a boy scout besides. The dialog choices that you’ll have will enforce that role without much variation. Were you hoping to play a character out of time, like the Almighty Thor? Well, the NPC team has a character like that already, so, you aren’t it. If this interferes with how you imagined roleplaying your character, the effect might be a little jarring.
I’ve written far too many words already for a preview, but hopefully all of this will give you some idea what to expect if you decide to try the free-to-play version of the game. As for me, I enjoy the game a lot, so I’ll probably remain a VIP for a while longer. If you’re “looking for a team,” you can look me up.
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Cool, Amanda, thanks. I’d completely forgotten CoH was going free to play.
Does it still have a fair-sized population? I remember a couple years ago, one friend of mine played it obsessively. My addictive personality means I stay the hell away from MMOs, but that friend always raved about this one.
I’d say the population levels are looking really good right now. It’s still a lot smaller than WoW, but that’s spread over less servers. Players seem to be clustered around the new VIP-only server at the moment but I saw other popular servers go full all weekend. The one thing I’d suggest is to roll Hero rather than Villain. Villain areas always seem to be quiet. PVP areas are quieter.
Amanda! A woman after my own heart! I’m still reeling from you never havin played WOW…
DC Online has just gone F2P, I’d be very curious how they compare. I really enjoyed Champions Online so I might give this a whirl if I get some free time.
I’m coming to this discussion late, but it’s good to see some healthy competition amongst the Superhero MMOs – has to be good for the consumers.