October 30th, 2005


So. City of Villains.

Just to get something hopefully unrelated out of the way, first: I sincerely hope that nobody makes a big deal out of the fact that City of Villains opened to the people who pre-ordered just a few hours before. If this kid played a couple of hours of CoV and then went out and shot up his neighborhood in an improvised supervillain costume, I don't want to know about it.

So, how is it? Pretty damned cool, or I wouldn't have given up nearly all sleep and skipped a couple of meals to do almost nothing but play it for the last slightly over 24 hours. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, City of Villains is the sequel, and add-on pack, to the massively multi-player online role-playing game City of Heroes. It provides (or if you have both, adds) the ability to play a supervillain, the ability for groups to finance and build trap-laden super-villain lairs, and both player versus environment (PvE) and player versus player (PvP) in separate zones. It's set on a small archipelago of islands in the northwestern Atlantic where the world's deadliest supervillain had staged a coup d'etat, and just sprung you, and a whole crapload of other very low level supervillains, out of Zigursky Maximum Security Penitentiary in Paragon City, Rhode Island, because his mystics are telling him that out of all of us, a few have the potential to become very powerful minions of his, almost allies, eventually. So basically he wants us to train up, practice our supervillainy, and then be used as semi-disposable cattle fodder against his arch-enemy The Statesman, the protector of Paragon City, leader of Freedom Phalanx, and role model to the thousands of federally registered super-heroes who've flocked to Paragon City to mop up after the inter-dimensional alien invasion that gave all these thousands and thousands of people their powers. Lord Recluse, the commander in chief of the Rogue Isles, knew The Statesman back before they both got their powers, back when they were practically the only super-powered humans in the world, back in the 1920s. He hates Statesman with a fiery passion, would give anything to humiliate and then kill him, and thinks he's a jerk. (Having read the comic books, I agree with him on that last part. Statesman is a jerk.)

Enough back story, let's talk about the game. First, let's get the bad part out of the way. Compared to City of Heroes, it's awfully small and cramped. City of Heroes has 30 widely varied zones to run missions and level up in, not counting the three shared PvP zones. Not counting the shared PvP zones, City of Villains has ... seven. Ouch. I realize that CoH didn't have all 30 zones at roll-out, and that Cryptic Software has a long history of cranking out a steady stream of free expansions every month or two, but wow, after being in Paragon City, that's cramped. There also isn't as much variety in missions or task forces, or story lines either, apparently ... although it looks like they make up for it a little by having a lot more enemy types, some of which are seriously creepy. And truthfully, that's about all I can find to complain about.

Now, the first part that more than makes up for it. The basic supervillain templates all very seriously rock. OK, one of them is "only" as good as most of the five hero templates from CoH. First, a note of explanation for those of you who haven't played CoH or played it lately: an archetype is a pair of related superpower sets, primary for the things your archetype is best at, and secondary for things you're not as good at but hopefully will be good enough at to save your bacon when you need them. Once you pick your archetype, you pick one primary power set and one secondary power set, and then you get to pick and choose from those two lists as you level up. (Plus a few "pool" powers that everybody can take, like flight or super speed or teleportation or invisibility.) For example, Defender heroes are, obviously, strongest at assisting, protecting, and healing their team members (and to a lesser extent themselves). They also have almost exactly the same list of ranged attacks that Blasters get. However, for Blasters, the ranged attacks are primary; for defenders, the ranged attacks are secondary. That means that the defender versions of the same powers do half the damage, and level up at about half the rate. In addition to all of the above, since they added/clarified this feature a couple of months ago, each archetype also has one unique power that everybody in the archetype has, that nobody else can take, that are always "on" for free. Here are the five main archetypes in CoH:
  • Tanker. Primary: Defense. Secondary: Melee offense. Special Ability: Gauntlet - every attack, successful or not, has a better than usual chance to make the target and several nearby targets lay off of who they're beating on, out of anger, and switch to beating on the (nearly invulnerable) Tanker.
  • Scrapper. Primary: Melee offense. Secondary: Defense. Special Ability: I forget its name, but Scrappers have a random chance to get in a lucky shot that does double damage.
  • Blaster. Primary: Ranged offense. Secondary: Melee Offense. Special Ability: Defiance - As the blaster gets more and more scared (because of lost hit points), their attacks get more and more powerful out of something like desperation. And it doesn't take much to hurt a Blaster -- notice the conspicuous lack of defenses.
  • Controller. Primary: Making enemies helpless or harmless. Secondary: Defense. Special Ability: I forget its name, but what little damage that Controllers do gets doubled if they're attacking an already immobilized target.
  • Defender. Primary: Ally defense. Secondary: Ranged offense. Special Ability: I forget its name, but as the average hit points of the Defender's team go down, his powers need less and less endurance (energy) to run.
OK, see? Basic super-hero roles. Heck, basic roles for almost every multi-player game ever invented. Now, for City of Villains, in a little more depth:
  • Brute: Primary: Melee Offense. Secondary: Defense. Special Ability: Rage. The more times in the last minute or so that a Brute has been attacked, or attacked someone else, whether successful or not, ticks them off even more, gets them even more into the fight -- and increases their damage output. The longer the fight lasts, the more deadly the Brute's attacks are getting. In the meantime, they've got a ton of hit points and reasonably adequate defense; they probably aren't going anywhere before then.
  • Corrupter: Primary: Ranged offense. Secondary: Team defense (and a little bit for themselves). Special Ability: Corrupters' attacks get more devastating the more confident they get. The more hurt the target already is, the higher the percentage chance that this attack will do double damage. Oh, my god is that fun. In theory, they're no more powerful than blasters. In theory, a smart blaster is better off using their mix of attacks to take targets down fast, and doesn't need the corrupter's trivial defenses. But in practice, corrupters rock because there are hardly any close fights. You get the target down to 1/4 health, and if you have time to get off even 1 more attack, and certainly if you have enough to get off 2 more attacks, that target is going down. If you can't get the target down into that range in time, then you know to run away like a little girl. Very villainous, yes, but also just a whole heck of a lot more fun than being a blaster has been lately. Note, by the way, how well they dove-tail with Stalkers.
  • Dominator: Primary: Making enemies helpless or harmless. Secondary: Ranged offense. Special Ability: After roughly every 100 attacks, they get about a 90 second window where their controls last 75% longer and do double the damage. This one had the potential to be really fun, not least of which because they finally offered Plant Control as a power set. (At level 35, you get a walking Venus Flytrap that looks, I'm told, an awful lot like the Audrey 2. How cool is that?) I don't know, though. Only getting to use your special power about once very four or five missions doesn't feel very fun to me, and that's how long it was for me. They also feel kind of weak, to me -- but then, I'm not entirely crazy about playing Controllers, either.
  • Stalker: Primary: Melee Offense. Secondary: Defense and Stealth. Special Ability: All stalkers get near-perfect invisibility, at least until after their first attack in this fight, at level 1. But that's not the special power. The special power is that if they attack a target that doesn't see them first, while invisible, they are guaranteed double damage if they hit. A Stalker makes a great explorer character in the early game, because you're the only one who can literally go anywhere until everybody else can get Invisibility at level 14. (Most don't. Which boggles my mind. I think it's the most fun power in CoH.) But combine a Stalker with a Corrupter, and what you've got is a potent alpha-strike that knocks half the biggest target's health down in a single attack -- at which point the Corrupter opens fire, because they now have an elevated chance of double damage from now on.
  • Mastermind: Primary: Minions, plus a little bit of ranged offense. Secondary: Ally defense. Special Power: Your minions get an automatic one-level bump on accuracy and damage output from your supervision if you're close to them. Oh, my god. This is even cooler than sliced stupid people on toast. You have an army of disposable minions that you can have teleported to you from your (unseen) office, warehouse, or lair. You start out with one combat minion at a time. Eventually you get three combat minions, two support specialists, and a giant monster. Your choices? Robots, ninjas, mercenaries, or zombies. You heard me: robots, ninjas, and zombies. How seriously cool is that? Oh, but wait, it gets better. You can name them, permanently. Oh, but wait, it gets better than that: you can speak dialog, and perform gestures called "emotes," through them. If you ask me, it's worth the price of the whole game just to have your own army of ninjas, robots, or zombies.
Tomorrow: Oh, yeah, they reworked the costume generator, too. And did I mention PvP? And lairs?