It was the year 2012, and the world was ending. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the clouds above Paragon City parted and the sky was ripped apart. From a fissure that cut across space and time, the warships from the Rikti battle fleet emerged. Armored hulls, smooth and colored like sea weed, cut through the expanse and rained down destructive bolts of energy onto the helpless masses below. The lightning impacted cars and rooftops, igniting everything they touched and incinerating anyone who scrambled desperately to escape. Ground forces were routed, as police and military forces were met by the advanced shock troops that emerged from smaller rifts on the ground. For the people of Paragon City, their only chance of survival came in the form of the Heroes, costumed crime fighters who wielded unimaginable powers to defend the weak.
Ashcroft the Enduring was the first to arrive. With his blood-red broadsword in hand, he pumped his legs to move eighty pounds of black heavy armor across the street towards a young martial artist who had just crane-kicked one of the Rikti across the face. He swung wildly with his sword and severed the shock trooper in two. He stormed across the sidewalk in a mad fury to topple six more soldiers from the stars with a sword forged by archangels with the specific purpose of killing demons.
Behind Ashcroft was Nicholas Tessler, an electrical engineer who fired waves of lightning from the coils on his leather and gold power suit, and Enger, an energy blade wielding mall security guard who got a little too close to a UFO landing site one night and walked away with cyborg augmentations and an advanced power suit of his own.
Patrolman Elijah “Mav” Mavino was the last on the scene. As a member of “QUO,” a task force dedicated to predicting and preventing disasters caused by the deaths of Superheroes, he had his hands full today. Before him, he saw men and women in spandex, capes and magical battle armor trade punches with an invading army from space. With no powers of his own, all he had to do his job was an assortment of gadgets and a pair of particle beam pistols disguised as twin colt revolvers from the 19th century—his home timeline. Sighing, he used tear gas canisters to disperse the crowds and dove into the fray with guns at the ready.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t a mad scientist in a Steampunk power suit, a time traveling cowboy or even an immortal swordsman who stopped the attack, it was a forty-seven year old construction worker named Howard Carmichael. He stood tall above the corpse of Hro’Dtohz, General of the Rikti invasion force and puffed on a cigar. He had no powers, only a sledgehammer and his wits, and with the heroes dropping left and right beside him, there was nothing left for him to do but swing.
This was a scenario that played out time and time again for the players who adventured in City of Heroes. It was a game that enraptured scores of fans, during a time when Superheroes were considered a “Niche” interest. Even as the servers shut down, millions of players stood in the heart of the city in their best costumes, holding torches high to celebrate the memory of the game’s eight years of life. This high player count, even during the sunset of the game, was only made possible through clever game design and an innovative focus on player engagement that catered to players interested in roleplaying, actually acting out their characters’ lives in-game.
It started with the game’s complex and detailed character creator. From the start, players had access to a wardrobe of customizable costumes, allowing them to create anything from flashy caped crusaders to edgy, battle-hardened vigilantes. Power customization was also similarly detailed, and an integrated document for a custom back story meant that you could create just about anything. Want to create an ancient, demon slaying knight from the Crusades? You can. A reality warping ninja robot powered by quantum-magic? You can do that too. Optimus Prime? Absolutely. With the character and power editor, the possibilities were limitless.
After character creation, prospective vigilantes were thrown into a fully open world. One of the things that appealed to many players was the freedom they were given. You could do any mission you wanted, at any time you wanted, provided you were strong enough to handle it. With a wide variety of travel powers, ranging from basic flight to teleportation, you could go anywhere at any time. After climbing up a roster of villainous gangs and super powered criminals, and reaching the highest building in the city, you would expect the game to get boring, but it didn’t. What kept the game from being tedious was the way the plot was structured. The plot of the game was the story of YOUR hero that you would write while you played. Mission structure was designed around self-contained “slice of life” type missions that gave players a sense of the day in-day out life that their heroes faced. Every story arc was self-contained, though there would be story arcs that would lead to larger storylines for the player to partake in. At any given time, they could check the police scanner for attacks by super villains, which would provide quick, easy to run solo missions. Now, there was an actual overarching plot concerning the world’s biggest heroes, but you had to really work to complete them through raids requiring larger teams of heroes to participate in. Every other mission was centered on exploring the world that they created, with a hero of your own design. The game was about you, and how you interacted with the world.
In case you ever grew tired of the missions the developers threw at you, custom missions designed by your fellow players were always a refreshing option for play. Through the Mission Architect, the game’s custom level service, you could design interactive story arcs for other players to enjoy. You could create an elaborate origin story for your favorite hero, or an epic-scale plot surrounding your own custom super group. The options were again vast, and a hefty pool of in-game content creators meant that the game itself had no shortage of content.
What really set the game apart from other MMORPG’s though were the world events. At any given time, alien invasions, robot uprisings, zombie outbreaks and Kaiju (giant monster) attacks would hit the city hard, compelling players to join forces with other heroes. These large-scale events would force players out of their comfort zones to fight alongside other heroes. These events broadened the horizons and perceptions of players everywhere, exposing them to a much bigger universe of heroes not found in the back alleys or abandoned warehouses that made up the regular missions. They allowed players to meet new comrades, form new alliances, and forge unbreakable bonds of friendship that would last until the closing of the game.
It wasn’t just a game about saving the world from evil; it was a game about how YOU were saving the world from evil. You were nobody’s sidekick. You were a powerful hero that could do anything. The scenario I described in the beginning of this article? That actually happened. I was Ashcroft, an immortal black knight broadsword fighter. Howard Carmichael wasn’t a metaphor for how there are heroes inside of all of us either. He was a tank-y construction worker with a sledgehammer who toppled an entire invasion force. By appealing to player creativity, the developers crafted a truly entertaining and engaging experience for their players that lasted all the way up until the game’s sunset, when the servers were sadly shut down.
The world had ended in 2012, but it was a virtual one. It’s been at least six years, and I haven’t found a game that was as immersive or as entertaining as City of Heroes. As a fan of Superhero media, this drought has left me starved for similar content. I can only look to the future at successor projects like City of Titans and Valiance Online, upcoming games made with love and affection by old City of Heroes fans to replicate the same city that they once populated and soared high in.