The first era of massively multi-player gaming is drawing to an end. A stretch of genre history dominated by games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call is being left behind as the next iteration of these games launch themselves onto a new world of faster computers, greater bandwidth, and greater competition. Naturally, certain things will improve with this new generation of games. Graphics will become more beautiful; the wrinkles in game design that were discovered by the first generation will be ironed out. Camping will become more rare, if not vanish entirely. Yet there are also the unexpected improvements evolving under the glossy shrink-wrap, changes in game play and style that will ultimately separate one world from the flood of others set to wash the market. No company is as actively prepared to tackle that changing environment as NCsoft, makers of Lineage, the most successful massively multiplayer game in the world. Based out of South Korea, NCsoft has been largely ignored by the US market, yet Lineage has a user base of four million, possibly double the user base of all other online games in the world combined (at it's height, EverQuest fell far short of a million). NCsoft's lineup of online games looks fabulous, not the least of which is a game called City of Heroes, developed by Cryptic Studios.
City of Heroes represents at least two fundamental shifts in the online market's thinking. Where as most games in the past have focused on player vs. player combat, City of Heroes aims to have us fighting side by side against a common enemy: super villains as demented as any of those in the comic book industry. Secondly, welcome to the real world. OK, not really, but welcome to Paragon City, the first massively multiplayer landscape I've seen that looks enough like New York to be mistaken as modern day. Instead of the thatched huts that grace the graphic set of at least six others in the genre I can name off hand, the city of heroes has 36 square miles worth of towering steel structures, dark subways, and sinister evils ripe for the combating. And get this: you're a super hero (bet you didn't see that one coming, eh?). No swords and sorcery in the traditional manner. No orcs and goblins. Think jumping tall buildings in a single bound, super strength, and control of the elements. NCsoft has promised that they've tried hard to include all the standard powers, and then outdone themselves including ones we've never seen before. So how many are there? Try 2.44 x 1024 combinations of attributes. Translation?
2, 440, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 unique superheroes flying, running, or jumping about the city on their way to battle evil. After you create your avatar, it is very possible that you will be the only character to be configured exactly that way. The number was so outrageous that I had to check it twice, but the fellow from NCsoft repeated it for me number by number. I just drooled (something I tended to do a lot at E3).
As a superhero, you come to Paragon City in the aftermath of an alien invasion. At least at the beginning, you belong to an organization of superheroes that hands out assignments, keeps track of what needs to be done, and carries you off to the hospital whenever you get your heroic butt kicked. Unlike other massively multiplayer games, there is a high focus on the individual experience. You are assigned a mission (based upon your experience, attributes, etc), so you might, for example, be given a mission that only you and your friends have the ability to complete. No one else can steal your glory. As you succeed at your assignments, you'll gain fame, money, and experience – these allow you access to more advanced equipment, stores, powers, and missions. Death, of course, costs you a little in fame, since nobody likes a loser superhero, and money for your medical bills (the assessed risk on a superhero is just too high for most insurance carriers).
Of course, what good would a superhero be without super villains? "We didn't want to create a game that actively promoted the player to murder or rape, or many of the things normally associated with a villain," one of the developers from Cryptic said during the interview, "So players can't be the bad guys yet. We're looking into that down the road maybe." Instead, they've loaded City of Heroes with a number of personable enemies. There's the evil corporation allegedly involved in cloning an army from the ranks of expired superheroes, or the artificially enhanced street gang that prowls the city, and let us not forget the aliens who remain from the invasion that originally destroyed most of Paragon City. NCsoft promises a dynamic universe in which the enemy organizations, twelve of them so far, respond based upon the success of the players. If missions against Crey Industries succeed, then Crey's tactics will change, become subtler, possibly go into hiding for a while. Conversely, if missions fail, they will become more bold, more daring, more willing to cast shadows during the day. In quick combat, non-mission driven areas of the game, enemies will be generated in random locations, eliminating camping, and for those not interested in computer bad guys there's the player vs. player arena.
Possibly even more exciting is what may lie in the pipeline for further development. With the ability to update the system live, placing and removing objects in real time while people are playing the game, City of Heroes may be well on the way to being one of the more interesting and expandable MMORPG on the market. At a time when comic book heroes are gracing the silver screen, climbing on walls and throwing out webs, NCsoft couldn't have picked a better product. I'm already building my mental powers -- doing math problems in my head, staring at matches in hopes they'll burst into flame – so I'll be prepared come the release date in 2003. Heck, I'm already designing my costume. All that remains is my name. Maybe GamesFirst Man? Hmmm...