Monday, December 11, 2006

Issue 8 is here, and it is good.

So, the fine folks at Cryptic Studios and NCSoft have sent out their latest expansion of City of Heroes, titled "To Protect and Serve." Now, you're sitting there thinking "Well, yeah, that's what superheroes are supposed to do." Here's where there needs to be a disconnect between the real world and City of Heroes game. Usually, anyone who tries taking the law into their own hands in the real world, especially while wearing a mask and cape, is going to be taken into police custody and asked about their activities. For the heroes in the fictional setting, the police and the heroes really haven't interacted too much. I could see how this might make the Paragon Police Department a mite suspicious in terms of whether or not it wants to work with or investigate the doings of the heroes.

Well, Issue 8 has made it abundantly clear that the PPD wants to work more closely with the local superpowered community. By going to one of the detectives added to your contact list, you're given a handy-dandy police radio. Well, it's a bit more than a normal police radio, as it has a holographic projector, allowing the hero to get a map and other visual data on the crime in progress. The animation for it is rather cool-looking. Now you have an opportunity to take random rescue and arrest missions generated for your level and zone. If you're too high of a level for the zone, you won't get any missions. A Level 45 Hero is not going to answer any calls in a zone that's designed to be a threat to Level 8 Heroes. Anyway, much like the Newspaper missions in the City of Villains expansions, performing enough missions that you accepted through your police radio will give you an opportunity to run a special mission. In City of Villains, you have the Mayhem Mission, where you rob a Paragon City bank and go around causing huge amounts of property damage. The Heroic version of this is where you're called to stop a robbery in progress (complete with a non-faction supervillain) and prevent any property damage caused by the villain or the gangs that frequent the neighborhood. These Safeguard missions are perhaps some of the most fun missions in the game. You have a time limit of five minutes when you start the mission. Within five minutes, you have to capture the villain who's robbing the bank as well as the local gang assisting him. Your best bet is to fight the villain first, then the gang leader, then mop up their pals who are causing all the trouble with the bank's tellers and patrons.

Once the robbery is stopped, you're given fifteen minutes to explore the neighborhood and put a stop to any crimes going on there. Your main job will be to stop vandals who are destroying local property, such as parked cars, lamp posts, parking meters, newspaper vending boxes, even trash. As you run around the neighborhood you'll be able to find an exploration badge and unlock side missions, such as preventing break-ins, weapons deals, bombings, and arson. If you stop these things from happening, you get additional time to fight crime in the neighborhood.

This addition of Newspaper missions made City of Villains a lot of fun, and changing them around to a more Heroic bent is a definite winner.

The other addition to Issue 8 is the complete revamping of the Trial Zone known as Faultline. Faultline was originally supposed to have a Team Trial where you would gather your friends and save the Paragon City Dam from being destroyed, and you'd receive a dual-purpose power enhancement in return. This Trial never made it past the beta-testing period. So, Faultline really never had much reason to exist other than to reinforce the fact that you really need to have a team of heroes with you when you go to Faultline. The groups of enemies that spawn there are murderous for single heroes. About the only reason anyone went to Faultline once the Trial was scrapped was either because they'd been assigned a case to hunt down x number of Dr. Vahzilok's Frankenstein-esque creations, or Circle of Thorns cultists, or perhaps even some of the Clockwork King's metal minions. Once those missions were complete, the only other reason to go was to find any plaques needed to get history badges or find the exploration badges there. As a result, Faultline was one of the most desolate zones in the game. You might be lucky to see maybe two or three more heroes in the zone while you were there, and that's on one of the busier servers.

Issue 8 changed Faultline's problems with getting people to show up. It's now a regular zone, so it's no longer level-restricted. The villains are geared for levels 15 through 25, so there's more low-level fun available. In addition, the new storyline has been added that due to the funding of Proposition X, the neighborhood of Overbrook (Faultline's original name) can now be rebuilt. As a result, construction crews are flowing into the ruined area and rehabilitating it. This doesn't sit well with the local villains, who resent the gentrification process, I suppose. The Vahzilok and Circle of Thorns have been replaced with the Lost (a gang of well-armed and heavily-mutated homeless people) and the Sky Raiders (high-tech mercenaries whose flight capabilities give them great mobility). The Clockwork are still there. In addition, the agents of Arachnos (Lord Recluse's organization of evil nastiness) have used the resulting chaos the rehab work brings to infiltrate Paragon City. His agents have been digging through the places that have not yet been reclaimed, looking for old supergroup bases and any lost technology therein. So, yes, there's plenty to do in the new zone when it comes to stopping street crime.

There is also a new set of contacts who are zone-specific, starting with Jim Temblor and ending with Agent G. Finishing Jim's missions will unlock the next contact, whose completed missions will unlock the next contact, and so on. If you go through all of the contacts, not only will you get access to something pretty neat, you'll also get a detailed history of what happened to Faultine to make it such a terrible place.

Note to Cryptic: If you want to immerse the players in the history of the zones and help make the city seem more real, make more contact groups like this. It worked pretty well with Striga Isle and Croatoa, and the Faultine story is the best so far. Add them as options for the heroes from Level 1 and give the players even more ways to reach Level 50. This will increase replay value by making it tougher to exhaust all of your contacts and thus run out of level-specific missions.

Issue 8 also sees the beginning of the Veteran's Rewards program, where your total amounts of time spent as a paid customer get you certain perks. This includes reward badges, new costume pieces such as kilts, wings and trenchcoats, new decorative bits for your group bases, free costume changes and respecs (where you can change the order in which you took your powers and how you allot your available enhancement slots), and even the opportunity to get some temporary powers as permanent ones. As you keep playing, more rewards are unlocked over time. I'm waiting for the 36-month rewards: some of my characters really do need a little robot to follow them around if only to look cool. The trenchcoats are pretty nice, even if they're not able to wrap completely around. The wings are also very nice-looking, and yes, they flap when you fly. As a non-Veteran costume update, Female characters also finally got some more costume pieces, allowing them to dress a little more modestly.

There were some problems with Issue 8, though. The only real problem is that many of the costume pieces are either kind of lame, or accessible only through the Veteran's Rewards system. In one case, the new costume pieces which you get through Veteran's rewards are lame. I'm looking at you, Greek Letters. I suppose if I need to make The Amazing Frat-Boy and his sidekick The Pledge, it works. Otherwise, it's not so hot.

The one-shoulder cape thing is also pretty lame. It looks like you've got a spit-up towel pinned to your shoulder in case you get a mission to burp 20 fussy babies in Kings Row. We were also supposed to get new flight poses, but the player complaints about not being able to choose what pose you got were enough to make the developers take them off the table for reworking.

In addition, while there are some more modest-looking costume pieces for women, the majority of them reveal a lot more skin. Thankfully, a lot of the pieces are available as patterns to use on top of other outfits, so you can use them a bit more appropriately. The Angelic pattern looks great on long tights, but rather slutty on bare skin. Same thing goes with the Assassin pattern. I'd also like to see the athletic shorts option added for something to wear underneath skirts for women, if only to add another way to stop guys from looking up said skirts. Yeah, we get all kinds in the game, even the weirdoes.

Now, let's talk about the kilts given out as a Veteran's Reward. The kilts... gah. I know that there is a vocal faction of "proud to be Scottish, even if only a distant ancestor" players as well as "Scotland Stuff= cool" players, but kilts? Oy gevalt, or at least its Latin equivalent. I may have some Scottish ancestry, but this kilt thing is too much. Do we really need our heroes to look like an army of ugly schoolgirls? No, no we don't. Take Jackie McBagpipes, Hero of McParagon McCity and send him back to Idealized Glasgow with his sporran in tow. Kilts are lame for anyone who is not born and raised in places where kilts are more common. You know, like Scotland. This is the United States, where our people left Scotland for the right to wear trousers and the right to laugh at kilt-wearing throwbacks. As a person of primarily German and Polish ancestry, perhaps I should demand lederhosen for the men, dirndl corsets and dresses for the women, as well as the kielbasa emote.

I have a similar problem with the samurai armor, even though I use an entire set of it for one of my characters. There was an old thread stating that thanks to Captain America being white, you couldn't make patriotic-themed minority heroes with any chance at credibility. I wound up making a set of of red-white-and-blue samurai armor to create Uncle Samurai, a California native and American citizen of Japanese ancestry. Silly? Very. The point was disproved, though.

If we're going to go with theme-oriented costume pieces, we might as well add the plumed chapeau for our Knights of Columbus-based heroes and our Napoleonic-era sea captains, and add the fez for our Shriner-based Heroes and the requisite Moroccans.

All told, Issue 8 is a lot better than I expected. It was worth the extra few weeks between the promised release and the actual release. Even though Issue 9 is worrying people about adding a "loot"-based economy with Inventions, I'm looking forward to seeing what the developers have come up with to make the system work. I'm also looking forward to the Winter Event this year, which seems to be saving the timestream by saving the spirit of the New Year. There will also be skiing and snowball fights.

It's a great time to be a hero, heroes. Let's have some fun with this.

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