Thursday 29 September 2011

My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.

“It’s just the beginning, it’s not the end. Things will never be the same again.” so sayeth the Melanie C, and so sayeth we all; starting afresh in City of Heroes has been a strange experience.

City of Heroes holds a special place in the hareem of my mind: a voluminous plump cushion where it rests with all the grapes that it can love and eunuchs it can eat. Although CoH wasn’t my first, it was the one which showed me exciting new ways of thinking about MMOing. It looked upon the standard MMO missionary position which I’d performed with Dark Age of Camleot for some time, and laughed, then MMOed me in ways which blew my mind. At the time, CoH was the Kama Sutra of MMO, providing such flexibility and originality that you’d watch someone else MMOing in CoH and have to turn your head on its side, one way then the other, and repeat this several times before you managed to work out which bit of the player was going where, and what that extra thing was, and… can one of those do that? There? I mean, doesn’t that hurt? At the time, it didn’t hurt; it was the most free MMO love I have ever experienced, and although other games have since come along and offered reflections of this pleasure, it was never quite as pure, as though you’d filmed yourself MMOing with CoH and were watching it back while MMOing with that other game.

The problem with returning to CoH and starting a new character is that the game insists in instructing you about MMOing all over again. And I know quite a lot about MMOing now. In fact I think I could teach CoH a thing or two, but of course it won’t let me. So where before, when I first played the game, a level one superhero seemed a force to be reckoned with, because they could leap over high walls and thock ne’er-do-wells into submission in less time than it took for one power to activate in DAoC, I now feel frustrated by the fact that I’m forced to play a ‘low power’ superhero and have to wait for almost forty levels before my character blossoms into awesomeness (blawesomes?). It’s the eternal bane of the Levelling Game: a low level character only seems great and powerful that first time. Every alt and re-roll is diminished for the player who has a character which has reached the level cap, and these sapling characters forever sit in the shade of the tremendous canopy of power that full grown characters enjoy. Levels, like tree rings, reflect age, strength and success, and those without them will always be comparatively delicate; yet those young trees which haven’t had to sit within the giant shadow of their peers must surely seem as gods to the flowers and shrubs upon which they gaze down.

It’s not really any wonder that World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm revamp didn’t tempt the majority of players into re-rolling.

A low power hero seems strange as soon as the comparison is made with an end-game hero, rather than the equal level NPCs that currently surround the low level character. And what is a low power hero anyway? Or an end-game hero? Surely an end-game hero is really a superhero proper, in which case how do we define the low power hero? Perhaps there exists a scale of heroism:

NoobHero -> Middlinghero -> Finehero -> Splendidhero -> Goshhero -> Superhero

And if not… well, it exists now. A noobhero starts with a couple of powers, both of which miss with alarming frequency, and thus there are many occasions where I find my character standing around waiting for his powers to recharge while a group of thugs beat him with baseball bats, and I imagine him whimpering “not the face!” as they pummel him. It’s a curious situation, like reading a comic where Dr David Banner is exposed to a massive overdose of gamma radiation whereupon he develops the ability to grow abnormally huge, but only develops super strength much later. Thus his entire first year of fighting crime involves explosively growing in size in the hope that, as his trousers disintegrate, a stray fly button might ping off and hit a criminal in the eye.

Of course when you start to gather noobheroes into a group, which, let’s face it, is the Way It’s Meant To Be Played, the whole affair becomes a lot less jarring. At a basic level, while your abilities are on cooldown after having entirely missed every attack, someone else can at least be attacking in the meantime! It’s a bit Captain Planet at the lower levels, in that eight noobheroes, with their powers combined, can form the slightly out of the ordinary Moderately Threatening Man! Nevertheless there’s a chaotic freedom to the way CoH empowers group play, and I find myself being reminded that MMOing with a group of friends can be a lot less regimented, a lot more wild and free, and isn’t free MMOing what it’s all about, man?

City of Heroes has been free to play for many years. So very free with its play. And now that it no longer requires a subscription, there’s really no excuse not to play. To paraphrase Lazarus Long, however, do remember:

MMOing solo is cheap, clean, convenient, and free of any possibility of wrongdoing — and you don’t have to go home in the cold.

But it’s lonely.

City of Heroes has once again reminded me that MMOs are still at their very best when you bring friends.

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