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Remembering City Of Heroes

RIP, Two Years Late

Sometimes you can wait too long, think it's okay to put off saying that important thing to the game you love, and then they're gone. Then time goes on, and it becomes less and less relevant to say. Then you never say it.

City Of Heroes shut off its servers about two and a half years ago. Alec had the sense to eulogise it then. I never got around to it. And yet my memories of the game still buzz around in my head, the fondness for the MMO that really was responsible for forming RPS, years before there was an RPS, all with no outlet. The game can't really be included in Top X lists, since it's unplayable. It doesn't make good use of time or SEO to dedicate a feature to it on a major gaming website. So what to do? Waste some time, I say. Here are my memories of the long-lost City Of Heroes.

It's very possible you missed City Of Heroes. It's troublingly possible you arrived to it too late, by the time it was a muddle confusion of base-building, unfathomable loot, and far too much fiddle in front of the fun. But near the start, probably up until just after the release of City Of Villains in October 2005, there was the sweetest spot.

The best character creator the world had ever seen welcomed you to the superhero world. (So versatile that stupid, copyright owning people tried to sue it for infringing on their characters - the equivalent of Disney suing Crayola for its crayons being able to draw Mickey Mouse.) And then you landed in one of two starting cities, to see the hilarious and ridiculous sight of spandex-clad superheroes hugely outnumbering the city's civilian population. Then you leapt, sprinted, and punched your way to glory.

My character was Nitefall. A purple lady with purple clothes, and eventually when they were added, a purple cape. She was a magic user, a Dark Controller, able to do spooky things like conjure up netherwordly tentacles from beneath the ground, or suck the life force out of baddies. She could also, in a very limited fashion, transfer life force from living enemies to team mates. More on that in a bit. Always a middling character, completely useless in combat on her own, Nitefall was a good team player, buffer, and most of all, not a healer. And for many months, she teamed up with giant robot ANDOV (Jim Rossignol), flying Scarlet Witch rip-off, Warwych (Kieron Gillen) and bug-like blaster Entomologist (Alec Meer). Indeed, two years before there was a Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the launch team had already united. We were often joined by a number of others, including Y'gor (Dan Griliopoulos) and journo-chums Neil Mohr, Ian Shanahan and others I'm rudely forgetting, and together we fought the shit out of crime.

City Of Heroes got so much right that so many MMOs since get wrong. Most importantly, it was instantly fun to play. While you didn't get your super-amazing movement power until level 14, you would begin the game able to jump very high, or hover, or run fast. Just a few levels in it would improve, and level 14 was never so far away - at that point you were incredible. Nitefall had super-jump, which was some of the finest movement gaming's ever seen, letting you clip the edge of a window ledge of a skyscraper to propel yourself another few hundred metres across the map. With Warwych in flight, ANDOV bouncing, and Ento super-speed running, we would gather handfuls of missions and then burn the night hours away in spectacular battles, plundering networks of caves, picking our way through suspect offices, and unleashing giant clockwork behemoths or building-sized octopuses before battering them back into the ground.

Not only was this a sweet spot for CoH, but a sweet spot in all our lives, too. We were 20-something games journalists, and as such did not keep sensible hours or lead healthy lifestyles. Night after night we would gather, maybe 10 or 11pm, and play until 3 or 4am. Weekends were a bonanza. And on the way, anecdotes were gathered. Heck, it remains my only positive experience of online multiplayer gaming, and what a thing it was.

I remember how much of our personalities came through in how we played. Jim would incessantly plough ahead into the next mob of mobs before anyone else was ready, starting off a fight before we'd recovered from the last. Kieron would want to be in charge, but incessantly get killed and blame it on everyone else. Alec would solidly plough on while constantly worrying that he wasn't doing it well enough. And I didn't want to make any important decisions, or have anyone else rely on me. This last aspect led to quite some troubles because no matter what, nothing could convince Kieron that I wasn't the group's healer. We didn't have a regular healer. I had a crummy heal power, but it wasn't useful enough to fulfil the role. You may well have heard, John Walker is a bad healer.

My terrible heal power required the enemy not to be killed during the lengthy countdown, and for the person being "healed" to not move away from me. Kieron would always either kill the target, or suddenly run off mid-heal, and then shout at me for having failed to keep him alive. Explaining why it had happened, again, would be studiously ignored. This would repeat, again and again (with, naturally, not a mumble of acknowledgement when I could top up his health). I'm not bitter or anything. I'm just very bitter, and settling the score.

However, when we were joined by a healer, boy what a team that made us. Someone showering green pluses upon us as we conducted our orgy of super-violence against the Circle Of Thorns in Perez Park, or the Freakshow hordes in the ripped up landscape of Faultline - it was beautiful. Just the titles of the zones are so intensely evocative ten years on - Skyway City, King's Row, Talos Island. Ooh, Dark Astoria.

My favourite moment, and I've talked about it many times before, came after a routine clearing out of a factory dungeon. City Of Heroes split itself between the enormous sprawling overground maps, and instanced dungeons for specific missions. Rather too many of these took the form of mix-and-match office blocks and grey factories, always finishing with the same very familiar final room showdown. I forget who was in the party when we started the mission, but by the time it was cleared out it was just me and Ian (better known as Always Black, responsible for the incredible games writing of Bow Nigger and Possessing Barbie. At the end of this level, our two characters were in a small office off the side of the factory floor, and we were chatting over the in-game chat. After a while, we both used /sit commands to have our characters perch on a table and filing cabinet - an unspoken but symbolic act of committing to a conversation.

Neither of us can remember exactly what we talked about. I know it was about faith, religion, and different ways to encounter faith. I know that if either of us had had the sense to cut and paste the conversation, it would have formed the basis for a wonderful gaming article. Although there's something poetically perfect about its being lost to the moment. After the conversation was done, neither of us wanted to leave - the location had taken on meaning, and our leaving it would mean it was destroyed forever. We awkwardly hung out a bit longer, pondering the finality of it, before giving in and spawning back on the streets above.

Oh, and there was the obligatory dancing around a boombox after every successful mission.

I stuck with CoH longer than any other MMO, even World Of Warcraft. I've never liked an MMO more than it. It felt so fun, so immediate, and I never had a moment where I felt I needed to grind. It had sidekicking to let you play with people of any level. It had a constantly growing roster of super powers. It felt like an MMO that gave, rather than took away. And then, a year or so in, we were all done. City Of Villains gave us a brief return, and jolly fun it was too. But then the updates made things more complicated, it became about base building, there was somehow a disco, and it slipped away from feeling like the game I'd so loved. So in November 2012, when the plug was pulled, I felt an ambivalence to its demise, grieving the loss from seven years prior.

But I still miss it. I miss not just the game, but the time - the freedom to stay up until 4am with my chums. (But God, that's specific - I sure as hell don't miss that part of my life in more general terms.) City Of Heroes captured a moment of my life, and indeed solidified four almost-handsome fellows into being a unit that could one day form a rather good website. Hey, City Of Heroes, sorry I left this so late.

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John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org