City of Heroes Preview

In NCSoft's upcoming online game, being a superhero is mandatory--but the cape and tights are optional.

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Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...wait...no, it's just a plane. On an unrelated note, the upcoming online game City of Heroes, from publisher NCSoft and developer Cryptic Studios, will let you create your very own superhero character so that you can attempt to defend truth, justice, and the innocent civilians of Paragon City from a host of evil supervillains. You could say that the game is similar to other massively multiplayer role-playing games that let you create a character, explore a persistent online world, and fight enemies and gain treasures with other like-minded players. Then again, other such games don't let you scale buildings, fly through the air, or wear spandex tights.

Take that, evildoers!
Take that, evildoers!

You'll start a new game by creating a superhero from one of five different archetypes and from one of five different backgrounds. The archetypes are: the blaster, a damaging ranged-ability hero; the scrapper, a damaging melee hero; the tanker, a tough melee hero; the controller, a manipulative hero who can stun or confuse enemies; and the defender, a support hero. These heroes can come from one of five different backgrounds, including: mutant, science, technology, magic, or natural. A hero's starting background determines the source of his or her power, whether it be from inborn mutant abilities, superior physical conditioning, or ties to the occult. Background also determines the basis of a new hero's starting "track." That is, background determines what sort of missions will be available to you at the outset of the game, and it also determines what sort of villains you'll face at the beginning. However, you won't be stuck facing the same villains for the rest of your career, since you can change your hero's "track" so that you can face off against different villains and missions later on.

You can then choose your character's stature (by selecting a male hero, a female hero, or a hulking male giant). You can change your character's appearance by toggling one of thousands of different combinations of facial features, masks, tights, capes, accessories, decals, and color schemes. And finally, you'll choose your hero's power set, which includes both a primary set of powers and a secondary set, each of which will be appropriate to your character's archetype. Over the course of your character's career, you'll be able to unlock new power sets that broaden your character's arsenal rather than simply boosting versions of already-existing powers. You can even choose a battle cry for your character (which is pulled up by using a hotkey), and later on in your career you can add a title to the beginning of your character's name--starting with "The" and later moving on to something more exciting, like "The Amazing..." or "The Incredible..."

Once your character is created, you'll be able to explore the streets of Paragon City. Here you can get missions from "contacts," who are characters like police officers, detectives, and city officials, that will ask for your help in various ways. For instance, your contacts may ask you to perform such tasks as thwarting a band of evildoers, rescuing a hostage, or simply patrolling the city streets. As you perform more missions for specific contacts, you'll establish a greater rapport with them so that they'll be more accessible (for instance, you'll be able to reach them on their cellular phones without having to run back to them). Consequently, they'll refer you to other contacts for different missions. As your hero gains levels, so will your original contacts. This means that they can assign more-challenging missions to you. In many cases, the obvious rewards for your mission are experience points that can increase your character's level, though you may also recover influence, the game's currency; inspirations, which are one-use items that temporarily boost your abilities; or (even rarer) enhancements, which help you modify your existing powers into a more desirable form.

Winning these prizes usually requires you to put some bad guys out of commission. The game has multiple tiers of villains, from minions, who can be defeated in small groups by a single, determined hero; to the tougher lieutenants, who are comparable in power to single heroes; to (finally) the bosses, who are formidable enemies that may require two or more heroes working in unison to defeat. Your enemies may be armed with just their fists, or they may wield baseball bats or even guns. Thankfully, fighting in City of Heroes is extremely easy to pick up since the game currently has an intuitive iconic interface that lets you quickly access your various powers and any inspirations you may be carrying. Additionally you can quickly access the "brawl" feature, which is a standard punch attack. As a result of the starting tutorial mission, your hero will learn the brawl, sprint (a brief and temporary burst of running speed), and rest (an ability that renders your character vulnerable but lets him or her rapidly recover from injuries and fatigue) abilities.

Once you're out of the tutorial, you'll have the option to go it alone or in a group in Paragon City. The city will offer plenty of missions for you to undertake, as well as "hot zones," which are essentially random encounters on the city streets (in which you may, for instance, rescue a little old lady from some mean old thugs). Furthermore, there are "hazard zones," which act as hunting grounds where large groups of bad guys spawn continuously, for those times when you don't want to commit to a mission or can't due to time constraints. You'll be able to take on these challenges alone--at least until your hero reaches level 10 (and even afterwards you'll still have plenty of options). Developer Cryptic Studios knows that players don't always have the time to play for hours or to look for teammates.

Single superhero seeks companions for crimefighting and casual conversation.
Single superhero seeks companions for crimefighting and casual conversation.

The game will automatically create a Web page for every superhero character you create, and you can use this page to create a profile for your character that lists your own personal interests and those times of the day when you're available to play. This way you can actually seek out and find regular teammates. In addition, the developer is promoting teamplay and a sense of community--among both casual and hardcore players--by implementing three levels of player grouping. Teams will act as temporary adventuring parties; supergroups will be permanent player associations of up to 75 people who may have their own costume color schemes and chat channels; and task forces, which are intended for expert players, will be the only groups capable of taking on "trial zones," which are extremely challenging group missions that take about 10 hours to complete from start to finish.

It's clear that NCSoft and Cryptic Studios have carefully observed other online games of this kind, so they're attempting to avoid all the mistakes and problems that are so common to them. City of Heroes is an impressive-looking online game with a lot of variety and the potential to be very addictive. The game is scheduled to launch this April. For now, be sure to sign up to enter the City of Heroes beta test. And also check out our exclusive video interview with Michael Lewis, CEO of developer Cryptic Studios.

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