So this is it. After eight-and-a-half years, one of the best and most underrated MMOs ever finally shuts its doors, and I have to admit: it took me a while to find it in myself to type this.
I first started playing City of Heroes on launch day, almost by chance, really. I’d read an interesting-sounding article about it in PC Gamer a year or two earlier, and then, curious about the burgeoning MMO scene, I had decided to give Planetside a whirl – but the weekend I decided taht, a friend on a comic book forum mentioned that some new superhero MMO was coming out, and it looked interesting. It seemed worth a shot, so that Tuesday I headed out to Electronics Boutique (remember them?) and picked up a copy. I’d never played an MMO, so everything – everything – was new to me, from the concept of class balance and aggro to the punishing level grind.
But I was hooked. Crimson Archon rolled out onto Atlas Park on the Guardian server, and within two hours I was on the phone to Dutch, begging him to come over and see this amazing thing I had brought home. The rest of the night was spent making one character after another, from straightforward spandex superheroes to robots to samurai to elves…the possibilities seemed limitless.
Over the ensuing years, we dipped into and out of the game over and over again, sometimes for months at a time, other times for just a few weeks. I made new friends, met a future girlfriend and fiancée – and while I left, the game was always there in the background, just in case I ever wanted to come back.
And it grew. That’s the thing about City of Heroes: even starting off with a tiny dev team, something like under 30 people, they made a commitment to players to keep a steady stream of new content coming out. Content is the holy grail of MMOs, and something that many games have promised, but only deep-pocketed Blizzard and a handful of other games have ever had any success at supplying. And yet, despite being the MMO equivalent of a garage band, CoH’s developers – first Cryptic, then Paragon Studios – delivered. Every few months, a new installment in the game’s ongoing story dropped, and brought real – not just cosmetic – changes to the gameworld.
New zones and factions were added; CoH in 2012 is something like three times larger than it was at launch. The power and costume options multiplied beyond belief; to this day, no other game, online or off, has even begun to approach City of Heroes for sheer variety of possible characters. The story and gameworld got deeper and smarter; what began as an experience not unlike WoW orEverquest turned into something more like a Bioware game, with a rich mythology and the ability to make choices of real significance.
But most importantly, the game got more fun. The CoH devs learned from the MMO world around them; they flattened the leveling curve, turning the journey to level 50 into an adventure instead of a grind. They added global friends lists, global chat channels, an auction and crafting system that made sense, and the Architect System, which gave players a powerful suite of tolls with which to design their own missions and campaigns – features that ostensible triple-A releases like The Old Republic couldn’t be bothered to include in 2011. Think about that: the little 100,000-player game from the no-name studio was doing stuff in 2005 that the big releases of the last two years still haven’t done to this day. It’s a sad testament to what an inbred, dead-end field MMO development is, and why I probably won’t be playing any for the foreseeable future.
I count myself lucky: my friends and I came back earlier this year, and got to experience City of Heroes at its peak. And what we found was, for my money, still the best game on the market in terms of story, of the friendliness and helpfulness of its community, and for the level of involvement and enthusiasm displayed by the game’s developers. After nine years, City of Heroes was more fun than ever, and as the game’s overarching story built to a climax that had been hinted at for six years, I eagerly awaited what came next.
What came next, of course, was…well, this. NCSoft, having bet and lost tens of millions of dollars on games like Aion, decided to shed its excess baggage, and that included Paragon Studios and City of Heroes. We can only speculate about the degree to which this made business sense or not, but I can say with certainty that letting Paragon go instead of giving them a new project is the height of stupidity. These guys made a nine-year-old engine from the era of Everquest keep pace with the best RPG experiences of the 2010s. I hope someone notices.
So goodbye, Paragon City. Goodbye, all my little characters with their lovingly-written backstories and their painstakingly-assembled superteam bases. In a gaming genre that so often invites invidious comparisons with slot machines and hardcore drug use, here was one game that I kind of wish I’d spent more time playing, instead of less.
As I sit here writing this, I’ve got a stack of DC Comics from a few years ago sitting next to me, waiting to be organized and boxed up. There’s an advertisement on the back of one for the Final Crisis crossover. It’s a picture of Superman and Batman with the tagline “Heroes die. Legends live forever.” It seems appropriate.