Monday, October 10, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of Your Freedom!

With apologies to the Soup Dragons..

City of Heroes has now gone completely free to play, and with the new release and game overhaul (and it is nothing short of just that), is now calling itself City of Heroes Freedom.  I took the plunge this weekend, trying the game out both as a new, free player, and as a returning veteran.  And this morning I've got the goods on what's new, not-so-new, and completely and utterly different in this seven year old MMO.  Carry on past the break to find out if City of Heroes Freedom has what it takes to either bring you back to the streets of Paragon City, or to take a bite out of crime for the first time.



To say that City of Heroes' presentation has had a complete overhaul would be an understatement.  Just about every aspect of how the game presents itself to the player, especially during the initial, opinion-setting moments, has been reviewed, revised, and refined.  If you tried CoH before and left because of the quirky way it handled missions and contacts, or thought player creation was confusing, or in general just weren't happy with how the first ten levels played, it's time to take a second look, because just about every aspect of it has changed.  So let's start at the beginning, and talk about every portion of the new player experience.

Member Tiers, Accounts & Installation
So we know the process is pretty seamless if you're a brand new player with no previous account, because that is the scenario in which Paragon Studios has built the entire experience around - drawing in the new player to play for free.  But what's the process like for the returning vet, whom played City of Heroes once, for about six months, 4 years ago, and wants to give it a try again?

For myself, the process was actually pretty painless.  The key I think, is to start with your NCSoft master account.  Once you find your password for your master account and remember how to log in to it, you're golden.  If you're on a machine that has no installation of CoH on it, you can find a link to install the game client directly from the NCSoft master account.  Click that link.  It will download and patch the launcher, and the launcher will in turn install the game.  In fact it will install it in such a way that you can begin creating your character, and even start going through the tutorial before the game has finished downloading.

You can also patch up an existing installation.  On one of my other machines, I had an installation that was at least 5 months out of date.  If you launch the old City of Heroes launcher, the first thing it does is tell you that you can't use that launcher anymore. It then installs the NCSoft launcher.  The NCSoft launcher will detect your installed game, but will tell you that it needs to "repair" your installation before it can continue.  The choice of verbage here is poor.  It just wants to patch your game, and this is what it's doing.  Also, the patching process does not allow you to do the ordered thing where you can jump in after it's half way done.  You have to wait for your entire game image to be "repaired", and then verified, and then you can get in. For me, this was about an hour and a half process running between 800 to 1MB per sec download speed.  YMMV, of course.

After having gone both routes, I highly recommend that if you're a returning player, if you have an old installation on the hard disk - you're not going to be saving any time by trying to patch it.  Just uninstall it, (save your old screenshots first of course!) and then start with a fresh installation. One final note - remember that your City of Heroes password is different than your NCSoft password.  So if you can access your NCSoft master account, but still can't log into the game itself, you can use the NCSoft master account to reset your City of Heroes login password.  I had to do this for one of my many accounts.

City of Heroes memberships break down into three tiers, and they're relatively straight forward.  If you're a brand new player, you a straight up "Free to Play" member.  If you once had a City of Heroes account, but you disconnected it some time ago, you can come back, and use that old account.  That is called a "Premium" player, and essentially you're an FTP player, but you get to keep all of the old stuff that you already had, including all your existing characters - even if some of those items and perks are not typically granted to the FTP player.  And finally, if you activate a subscription, old school style, you are a VIP member.  There are quite a few of not inconsiderable perks granted to VIP members only, including a special VIP-only server.  Let the elitism begin! If you want to get a more detailed look at the differences between the packages, there is a handy comparison here.

Amongst the CoH proletariat, I am a VIP god among men, as I've had a continuously running subscription since the game launched in 2004.  However,  I wanted to see what it was like for the new player, so I created a brand new account, and started a brand new hero.

Character Creation
So I mentioned earlier how the presentation for CoH has undergone a complete transformation, and you'll see this right away.  The game has a fresh, bright look for its login screen, and the character creator has also been completely revamped.  The flow is much more logical now, and progression makes more sense.  You can check for the availability of your character name on the first screen (yes they've had this for awhile, but the redesign makes it much more prevalent), and it will reserve your name if it's available for the duration of creating your character.

A big change is that they now ask you what role you want to play at the very beginning, giving great descriptions of the kinds of roles that you will fulfill, and then presenting archetypes (classes) that serve those roles.

It should be mentioned here that the notion of City of Heroes and City of Villains as separate but related games has pretty much finally been obliterated in this release.  It's now just City of Heroes, and you can select from all of the archetypes at creation time, and then choose to play that character as a hero or villain.  Want to be a stalker in Atlas Park?  Or a defender in Mercy Island? No problem. So there are more archetypes than ever available to you at character creation, which makes the role question being the first question much more important.

Once you select your role and your archetype, your primary and secondary powersets, you get on to the fun part of character creation - building your character and your costume.  This has been made prettier, but the functionality here is pretty much the same as it ever was.  One thing that's different, of course, is that you'll find costume sets and individual costume pieces locked as a free player.  These are pieces you'll have to buy from the store if you want to access them.  And it very smartly allows you to access the store directly from that choice, so you can buy it right then if you so desire.

The tricky thing here though is that even if the piece is locked, you can equip it to your character. What's not so clear is that if you have a locked piece equipped to your character, they don't give you a warning or an error or anything - they just remove the "Next" button from the character creation.  This creates more confusion I think than anything else.  But it means you need to go back and take off that fancy cape you thought you were going to equip, unless you fork over some moulah.  I think a message of some sort here would have been helpful.

Another qualm about the costume pieces, is that there are about a million ways to unlock costume pieces for your characters.  It's a huge part of the game.  When you unlock a new piece though, it is stuffed at a seemingly arbitrary position into the pre-existing list of pieces for that slot, which may contain dozens upon dozens of other pieces.  Furthermore, that slot may be buried beneath a heirarchy of other selection dependencies.  All of which can combine to make actually finding new pieces you have unlocked damn near impossible.  I would kill or die to have a "recently acquired" tab in the costume creator so as to be able to jump directly to pieces I just was granted to see and equip them.

One final thing about the costume creator.  If you're a returning player, you may find many of your costumes have pieces that are simply now invalid.  The game will happily let you play with these costumes as they are. However, if you wish to modify that costume, you will have to get rid of the invalid pieces before you can change the costume.  And figuring out exactly which pieces are invalid is not always clear.  This is the case, even if you are a VIP member, so just be aware of it. I found that if I had invalid peices, it was easiest just to set the character to the "Bare" costume set, and then rebuild the costume from scratch.

The Tutorial
So in the tutorial, Paragon Studios has formally acknowledged something the player base has known for years.  No one ever used Galaxy City.  So in formal recognition of this fact, they have done what needed to be done.  They have.. blown it up!  That's right, the old Outbreak tutorial is completely gone, and in its place, you are dropped into a Galaxy City that is - wait for it - in the midst of an alien invasion!  This time it's the shivans, though they've received a complete makeover too, and you fight your way through the short tutorial, trying to save police officers and civilians alike from the ravages of the meteor-dropping aliens from a distant plane, or galaxy, or whatever.  If you've played Champions Online and you think the new tutorial feels hauntingly familiar - well I couldn't agree more.  It even culminates in a new "shared public quest" type mission, in which you fight together to take down a really big shivan.  The public quests are new to City of Heroes, but I think they're still implementing them, as I didn't encounter a single other one once I left the tutorial.  However, if you consider the Giant Monster battles that have taken groups of heroes to defeat that CoH has had since day one, this particular mechanic doesn't feel all that new.

Near the end of the tutorial, using the method they perfected in the Going Rogue expansion, you are asked to make a decision.  Depending on what you decide, your character will be a Hero, and you'll go to Atlas Park, or a Villain, and you'll go to Mercy Island.  The ramifications of this choice are made abundantly clear, which I like.

Atlas Park
I didn't do villain side, so I can't comment, but I suspect their are villanous equivalents to the NPC's and mechanics changes I describe here.

Once you get to Atlas Park, there is an NPC directly in front of you, and he has a large friendly, rotating exclamation point over his head, so that you know he has a quest--err.. mission for you.  And he does.  Gone are the various origin-based contacts, and the oddly branching and pseudo-random missions they granted, which made it just about impossible for friends to get the same missions if they had different origins in the old games.  Actually, the contact system and their story arcs are mostly still in place, but you're introduced to them much later in the game.  For now, it's straight and narrow.  You may hate it, but my wife and other players like her that want to know what to do next will love it.

Atlas Park itself will feel like strange alternate universe Atlas Park to returning players.  As if you went back in time and stepped off the trail, crushing a butterfly, and then returned.  It's familiar, yet texture changes, model enhancements, and refinements have been made throughout the zone, creating a more pleasant asthetic.

At level 5, you will be introduced to Twinshot.  Twinshot's story arc is a good one, essentially introducing the player to a small group of NPC heroes, and using the missions within the arc to educate players about many of the game's mechanics, it's concepts, and its villains.  It's a well done, interactive tutorial that takes its time, doesn't try to teach you everything at once, and doesn't beat you about the head and shoulders that its a teaching device.  It's really well done.  One nit I had about Twinshot missions though, is it is clearly intended to be mostly soloed.  If you're in a group, much of the interaction and story progression takes place by talking to NPC's inside the missions.  And only the party leader can perform these interactions - leaving the other players in the group entertaining themselves by making lewd emotes to Flambeaux.  You'll see what I mean.

Death from Below
One other very cool thing that's new to City of Heroes is the Looking for Group tool.  Unfortunately, it's only just barely ready.  As soon as you enter Atlas Park, and pretty much at any point afterwards, you can, if you desire, queue up for the Death From Below trial, using the LFG tool.  This works just as you would expect it too, and in a few moments you'll be beamed into an instance with 4 to 8 other party members (it doesn't take a full group to go), and set about saving the city from a growing menace in the sewers below. You can limit the selection to your group only, so it's easy to pre-form a group if you so desire.  And you can allow it to throw you into groups already in progress, if you don't want to wait for a group to form.

The LFG tool and this trial are really well done and well executed.  However, there are two things you should probably know.  First, doing the trial will shoot you through the levels.  You'll go from about level 3 to level 9 in about 35 minutes by doing the trial one time. This means you'll grey out the starting story arc if you're in the middle of it.  You'll still be able to start the twinshot content and do it, and it won't hurt, because  most of the instanced missions in that arc will be scaled to your level anyway.  Just don't be surprised to find yourself skipping King's Row altogether and going straight to Steel Canyon.

The other sort of odd drawback to using the LFG tool and doing the trial is that it's almost too good.  Once you go through it, after you get all those levels, and experience all that excitement of taking down a couple of nasty archvillains, when you're dropped back into Atlas Park and expected to return to running solo mission with your contact -- well it's hard not to feel disappointed.  What you want, is to find another trial!  Level me up so I can do another one!

Sadly, this is the other problem with the LFG tool.  Apparently other than the one, low level trial, and the level 50 incarnate trials, there are no other trials yet that actually use the LFG tool.  Yeah.  Obviously, they'll be adding more of these as they go on, and I hear they are even already planning a special Halloween themed one to be launched soon.  But just be aware, currently that low level trial is the only one that actually uses this new mechanic until you get to level 50. Personally I hope they modify all of the task forces that are currently available to be able to make use of the LFG tool.  I might could find a group that could run a TF when I have time if this were the case.

Paragon Points and the Company Store
It wouldn't be free to play if it didn't have a company store, and Paragon Studios has clearly put a lot of time and effort into this.  In fact, one of the last tasks you accomplish in the tutorial is to "purchase" a free badge from the company store, just to walk you through the process and get you comfortable with it.

The company store is very slick, and integrated quite smoothly into the game.  On my veteran account, I had over 1700 paragon points (this is the currency the store uses) available, and I used it to buy a new powerset, and a new rocket sled for my account.  (Because it's a fricken Rocket Sled Yo!) For the most part they are very clear when items are character specific versus account specific.  And items I purchased were granted to my character seamlessly and instantly.  They've done a great job of making the store as painless as possible.  It's also clear that the folks at Paragon Studios have spent quite a bit of time looking at other RMT stores and thinking about pricing structures.  As a VIP member, you will be allocated 400 points a month.  Most of the really interesting things on the store have a price point right around 500 points.  This is not an accident.

Paragon Rewards
One other system that bears mentioning is the Paragon Rewards.  It bears mentioning because, at least for me, it's pretty damn confusing.  But essentially, the Paragon Rewards are what the old veteran rewards system morphed in to.  Now, instead of just getting a reward every 3 months, you get a reward token.  And you can spend those tokens on rewards, that are arranged in a tiered fashion.  Some rewards are consumables, and can be purchased multiple times. But the key is, you can't advance up a tier until you've purchased all the rewards for that tier - whether you actually want them or not. I'm not exactly sure what the reasoning behind this rather convoluted reward system was versus the old straightforward veteran rewards were, but just be aware this is how it works now.

TLDR - Should I Come Back?
It really depends on how long ago it was you left.  It's no exaggeration to say that the presentation of City of Heroes has received a complete overhaul, and by far and large for the better.  This is especially true for the first ten levels or so.  An overhauled character creator, new tutorial, streamlined missions, and queuing LFG system all make for a fresh, interesting, and fun new user experience, or even a returning veteran experience.

And it's also quite likely true that, depending on how long ago it was since you played last, they've quite likely added a ton of new content since you last played.  Ouroboros, Praetoria, the new Faultline - they've added quite a bit of content throughout the game that you probably haven't seen before.

But it's also fair to say that at its heart, it's still City of Heroes.  If the reasons you left the first time weren't because of the content so much, but more due to the play mechanics, the repetitive and simple nature of most of the missions, or just the nature of the game itself - that really hasn't changed.  But if you left because you thought it was pretty good, but not enough to keep a paying subscription - you should definitely check it out.

I will say that I think they've been, overall, pretty generous with what you can do as a free to play player.  You are not limited by level, the vast majority of the archetypes are available to you, and the majority of the zones are available.  It is not an exaggeration to say that you can, realistically, play the game from beginning to end for free.

What else?
Paragon Studios has introduced a ton of new content and features to the game to entice new and old players to return.  And at the mid to high end, there is some cool new story arcs, and the incarnate system - an end game pseudo-raiding style collection of instances that allow you to improve your character in interesting ways beyond level 50.  I haven't even touched on these things yet, so they'll have to wait for a future blog.  But in the mean time, for free, I'd say go take a look.  There's lots to see and do now in Paragon City.

Questions?  Comments? Feel free to post 'em up here or in Google Plus where I link the article.