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Ncsoft's superhero-themed massively multiplayer online roleplaying game "City of Heroes" just released its 18th expansion, its second paid expansion, "City of Heroes: Going Rogue." They managed to come up with something quite a bit more sophisticated, and thus interesting, than I was expecting of them.

After their first paid expansion, "City of Villains," came out, City of Heroes' politics of super-poweredness were cast in stone. There are good guys, and there are bad guys. Since it's a "theme park" MMO where you can't take any actions that aren't scripted (although you do get to pick which scripts to run with each character), they're the ones who decided who the good and bad guys are and what your character is "really like" if he or she is a hero or a villain. In City of Heroes, a super hero is someone with super powers who is a loyal American, law abiding, willing to work under the license and loose supervision of a federal agency, who plays well with others, who stays out of politics, doesn't engage in personal vendetta, only uses his or her super powers against other super powered individuals, and who agrees to "tag and bag" defeated super villains (or whatever is left of them) for teleport to the hospital of a (privatized) prison for supers for resuscitation, questioning, booking, and hopefully trial. In City of Villains, a villain is anybody with super powers who uses them for any other purpose; a player character super villain is one who stays free only by accepting at least a modicum of support from Arachnos, the villain group cum political party that rules a former American colony, now enemy nation, called the Etoile Islands.

City of Heroes: Going Rogue adds an interesting subdivision on top of that: good heroes, bad heroes, good villains, bad villains.

The story starts in an alternate timeline called Praetorian Earth, where one particular super villain, determined to exterminate all sentient life on Earth, came way, way closer to success than he did in the timeline of the original game. Marcus Cole, Earth's mightiest superhero, the man who accidentally brought super powers to the world in 1930 (in both timelines), managed to cobble together an army out of the wreckage of the world, an army of both supers and of regular military, and fought the monster to a standstill ... and then he went into retirement, and told the supers and the non-super-powered to work out what kind of government they wanted. Each super and each warlord carved out their own little enclave, and those enclaves quickly went to war on each other. The only person they were all willing to be ruled by was Marcus Cole, the hero who'd lead them to victory against the Hamidon. He turned them down. They assembled an improvised United Nations and voted him in anyway. So he grudgingly accepted, on his own terms. He recruited two powerful psychics to coerce all the rest of humanity's psychics into a vast mind-controlling planet-wide net, aimed at making sure that there would never be another super villain, ever. But about a year ago, several people separately discovered ways to get around this network of mind-wiping psychic spies, and now his global capital, Nova Praetoria, is under attack by super villains again.

So when you create a new Praetorian Earth super-powered character, the first question you're asked at the end of the first mission of the tutorial is: Loyalist, or Resistance? Support Emperor Cole against the Resistance, or join the Resistance against Emperor Cole. Several quick missions later, at about level 4, only after you've made that choice, are you asked: hero, or villain? Loyalist heroes (path of Responsibility) are super-powered honest cops; to them, super-powered terrorism is a law enforcement problem, to be dealt with within the law. Loyalist villains (path of Power) believe that the only way to deal with rising super-crime is to go out there and crack heads; guilty heads if possible, but if no guilty heads are available, innocent ones -- make people afraid to resist Emperor Cole's forces. A similar political split exists within the Resistance. One resistance group, the self-proclaimed Wardens, are the Resistance heroes who believe in using their powers to protect those who are working within the law, within politics, within the press to discredit the Loyalists and the Emperor, in hopes the public will demand that Cole step down. The other resistance group, the Crusaders, are Resistance terrorists who believe that the only way to topple a regime as entrenched as the Cole regime is to convince the public that Cole's loyalists cannot keep them safe, that only by accepting Resistance rule can they be safe, by killing a holy heck of a lot of innocent people (as well as the guilty ones, when convenient). And by the way, about every four or five missions in Praetoria you're confronted with the temptation to switch sides; there is no penalty for doing so, you just see a different story for your character.

Praetorians join the main game (via interdimensional one-way teleport) at level 20, and at level 20 a very similar political choice confronts any player character who bought the Going Rogue expansion, whether they originated on Praetorian Earth or in the main timeline: good hero, bad hero, good villain, or bad villain?

Heroes face a series of threats to Paragon City where they get to choose between two ways to deal with it: stick to principles, save innocents, obey the law, even if it means risking the bad guys getting away? or deal with the problem the most direct and overpowering way, with however much brutality and callousness the situation requires? Choosing the second route consistently enough runs the risk of costing you your Federal Bureau of Superpowered Affairs license, and you go from being a Hero to a Vigilante. In the meantime, villains face a series of opportunities for profitable mayhem where the caper could be approached with one of two ultimate goals in mind. In most cases, it's a choice between whether you're fighting to maximize your own freedom, safety, and profit, or if you're fighting to maximize your own power over the world and or to ingratiate yourself with the world's most evil super villains. Take the first path often enough, and other villains stop trusting you quite so much, and you get labeled a Rogue.

Entertainingly, Vigilantes and Rogues have the developer nickname "tourists," because they gain the freedom to travel freely between the United States and the Etoile Islands. They can still only lead the same heroic or villainous missions they had before, but they can freely join in on anybody's missions, anywhere in the United States or the Etoile Islands. (By contrast, heroes who keep picking the path of protection of innocents and obedience to the law earn the rarest and most powerful enhancements to their powers at a tremendously accelerated rate; villains who keep choosing the path of personal conquest and power do as well.)

Vigilantes get confronted with temptations to benefit personally from their crime fighting; if they fight crime brutally and selfishly enough, they finally end up exiled from the United States as full-fledged Villains. Rogues get confronted with sympathetic victims and even sympathetic heroes sent to thwart them; if they side with the heroes often enough and pass up opportunities to profit in order to protect victims often enough, they get thrown out of the Etoile Islands, escape to the US, and find themselves issued a new or renewed FBSA license as a full-fledged Hero. In game terms, the path is Hero to Vigilante to Villain, Villain to Rogue to Hero. Or as I've come to think of it, Good Hero to Bad Hero to Bad Villain; Bad Villain to Good Villain to Good Hero. Fascinating, I think.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 17th, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
Wow. That's sufficiently ethically complex that I'm almost tempted to play, and I *never* play RPGs.
Aug. 17th, 2010 04:45 pm (UTC)
Oh, you like that, do you? I left out one more level of ethical complexity in the Praetorian Earth story arcs, one that you may find amusing: it also deals with the ethics of working undercover.

If you pick Loyalist as a side, you can approach any Resistance Warden contact and convince them that you're really a Resistance sympathizer. You then take the jobs he gives you, fighting against your own side. Then every 5 to 10 missions, you have to pick: take the Resistance Warden ending to this story arc, or betray your contact to the Loyalists.

If instead you picked Resistance as a side, you can approach any Loyalist path of Responsibility contact and convince him you want to betray the Resistance for moral reasons. You then take the jobs he gives you, fighting against your own side. After 5 to 10 missions, you're confronted with a choice: keep following his orders and defect to the Loyalists, or betray the people you've been working undercover with to your Resistance contact.

So basically, there are SIX different single-player (but you get to bring other people along as your sidekicks) story lines in Nova Praetoria and its suburbs: hero cop, corrupt cop, undercover cop; resistance political organizer, resistance terrorist, or resistance spy.

(Sadly, that extra layer of complexity completely ends at level 20, for now.)
Aug. 17th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC)
Yeah, very much the kind of thing I like. I have a partner who's a forensic psychologist, who finds it odd that I'm so fascinated by moral ambiguity despite being a fairly straightforwardly moral person myself; we haven't quite got to the bottom of why that is.
Aug. 23rd, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)
After recovering from nasty computer problems, I finally got on it post-beta. I'm increasingly pleased with the concepts, to say nothing of the fact that the Praetorian maps are so well rendered and lit, the newer animations are terrific, and the sounds are really good.

I don't feel it was as big of a leap forward as CoV was, at least not in terms of gameplay, and it seems to me that most of the improvements are more "under the hood" type. But I'm considering that a lot of what went into this expansion is groundwork to keep the game going for a few more years, and I'm fine with that.
Aug. 28th, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
I'm enjoying it immensely myself. I've created three praetorians to try and get as much of the six story configurations as possible. I'm torn between making half to most of my characters 'tourists' to get the real world advantage of being able to play them with my Redside/Blueside-forever-and-only friends. Although I have to admit, the vigilante options Blueside really make one feel scummy. For the most part, it's full of 'wow', missions that have interrupt moments, dialogue, even musical cues are a great advance. I have no clue if these things are available in the AE editor yet, but suspect they soon will be, and all of it opens things up for massive storytelling possibilities.

Plus, being stricken with an older machine, I'm quite sensitive to zone loading issues and they've done something with New Praetoria. The zones there open much quicker, even when the server is under heavy use with all the new characters.
Aug. 30th, 2010 09:09 pm (UTC)
Ooo, yes, I just did a tip mission for a hero to move her toward vigilante that involved Freaks inspired by Miss Francine into bettering themselves.

You may recall that NPC from the Westin Phipps (spoilers there) arc in CoV, by far my "favorite" arc in Grandville for the scope of its sheer, petty, dream-breaking, "keep them down" evil. I like the NPC so much because even against all the rampaging "GRaaargh!" scary evil bastards out there, even next to Mako and Black Scorpion, this guy makes me want to scrub myself out from the inside.

For the vigilante option of this alignment mission (spoiler here), you basically go in and indiscriminately beat down all Freakshow in this one base, including those who were trying to better themselves (although, it describes them doing this by stealing from the rich instead of wanton violence, but it doesn't specify stealing from whom).

All of the students ask you, as you "arrest" them, "Why? Why, [hero]? I thought you were one of the good guys!"

Eeeeyuch. *shudder*
Sep. 1st, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC)
If it makes you feel any better, there's a hero tip-mission* where you get to rescue Miss Francine from Arachnos.

* ("You're a mean one, Mister Phipps", and now I have the Grinch's theme-song stuck in my head, AGAIN.)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )