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City of Heroes: a Requiem


Friends, we’re gathered here to mourn City of Heroes. A game that gave us so much joy. A friend that brought spandex pants to millions. A hero that dared to drag us from 2D planes into a crawling 3D comic book world.

If this was inside the comic books that City of Heroes loved so, it would only stay dead until the next writer took over, before being mysteriously resurrected by a Lazarus Pool or the Phoenix Force. But this isn’t comic books – and we have to accept that City of Heroes is as dead as Bruce Wayne’s parents, Bucky and Uncle Ben.

Many of us didn’t know CoH particularly well, but for those who did it was a staunch, fun friend. In its later years, it wasn’t a particularly popular game, hidden away with a few loyal sidekicks still ploughing away. But I first encountered City of Heroes playing with the team that now makes up rockpapershotgun.com, back when we all worked for PC Gamer and PC Format. In those days, City of Heroes was the Sky Masterson of games, all slick-backed hair and big smiles. It looked beautiful, we all wanted to be with it, and it did amazing things for the MMO space.

It’s hard now to depict how that game changed the MMO as we knew it, but it did certain key things that differentiated it from the hundreds of EverQuest clones that were hitting the shelves at that time, World of Warcraftincluded. Beyond just comic book setting, that it treated with love and reverence, even after Marvel tried to sue them.

Its character design system was fantastic – and, arguably, has never been bettered. With huge flexibility of modelling, a cartoony sense of genders (male, female and huge), and thousands of costume pieces to build your hero, its character builder was the most fun part of the game. I went back to the game several times just to make a new character – then get bored within a few hours.

The next two elements go hand-in-hand. To make the world a convincing comic book world, Cryptic built a true 3D world. By modern standards, it wasn’t particularly detailed – but the wide scope felt like a city – a city under attack by villains of all sorts, aliens, monsters, cultists, demons, supervillains. In its canyon-like streets and rolling parks, it had civilian life, muggers to prey on them and heroes to defend them. It was a viable comic book ecosystem.

To cope with the scale of that city, it had special travel powers. Super-jumping, flying, teleportation, super-speed – stripped straight out of the comic books. When you graduated from your starting power to your full travel power, you just gawped. The building I’d spend five minutes slowly climbing with small (but still higher than olympic athlete) jumps, I could leap in a single bound.

And the team thought about MMOs, hard. Their sidekicking system meant that players of nearly all levels could adventure together, a rarity for the time. Their instanced quests developed, had storylines, which linked together properly. Grinding trash was optional – but it was fun, as you were actually saving citizens, who would run up and thank you afterwards.

I’m not pretending CoH didn’t have its problems, that got worse as the years went by: an addiction to the same few interior locations; the heavily level-zoned map design; the slow speed of levelling. But you just gazed into those baby blue eyes and forgave it.

City of Villains was where the game jumped the shark, where Masterson’s handshake lost its sure grip. It had already lost its gloss in the intervening years, but we would have kept playing if the PvP aspects worked. Instead, CoV just showed up the flaws in the game, and changed too little, too late. New costume pieces and new classes didn’t refresh the game enough.

And Cryptic’s own Champions Online was the death knell. Once that came along, though City of Heroes was arguably still the better game, all the old supporters looked hard and asked themselves “Why am I still forking out money for this, after all these years? What am I paying for? Veterans’ rewards and the maintenance of my fading memories?” It wasn’t enough.

The money medics did all they could to keep the game running. They upped their free trial program. They released a new expansion that mixed up the Villains and Heroes in a parallel universe… but no-one played it. They made it free-to-play, following the clever-clever Turbine model… but no-one came back and the old subs fled.

Eventually, the server populations got low enough that the docs just looked at old CoH, lying there, withered and lonely in its bed, and turned off the hype machines, unplugged the money drip.

We can’t blame them. Though we’ll miss City of Heroes, what was left wasn’t the game we knew in our youth. That game lives on, strong-jawed and tightly-built, in our memories. We’ll never forget it.

Now, please… all stand for…