May 13, 2004
Welcome to Paragon
to write an assessment of Star Wars: Galaxies and Ive been putting it
off because I feel I need to go in and play the game again just to challenge
my established prejudices. The conventional wisdom is that a massively-multiplayer
online game needs a year to be judged. But Im dreading it: I follow news
about the game and it seems to me that there may just be things about it that
cant be fixed.
SWG left a bad
taste in my mouth about MMOGs. All that expertise, all that prior experience,
all that money, and a franchise that youd think was a cant-miss
proposition, and the result was a worse-than-average experience in a genre of
games that is already very unsatisfactory.
As a consequence,
I have been looking at every other MMOG coming down the pike with equal presumptive
hostility. In particular, I was sure that City of Heroes, a MMOG with a superhero
theme, would be a disaster. When the committed cynics at Waterthread started
saying nice things about the late beta, I began to wonder.
Now Ive been playing it for a couple of weeks, mostly on the Protector server, with a martial artist character named "Faust", and I have to admit it: I was wrong.
City of Heroes still has the basic problems of all MMOGs, but as far as the genre goes, it is one of the best. Its actually fun to play, and even more amazingly, fun to play as a casual playerI can drop in for 30 minutes and still find something pleasurable to do. Even the feature that I was certain would suck, which was building your character around archetypes that made more sense in terms of MMOG conventions than the comic book narratives the game borrows from, works pretty well without seriously violating the sense that one is a superhero in a universe of superheroes. Basically, its one of the few MMOGs that has kept a clear head about fun being the number one objective.
Maybe the most
astonishing thing about the game is just that the first day of play went without
major technical gliches, and that so far, there are very few disastrous bugs
or technical problems. The major issue at the moment is that one type of mission
doesnt work correctly, but its easy to avoid doing them. Theres
a lesson here thats crucial. The only other game of this kind to launch
well was Dark Age of Camelot. It shares with City of Heroes a basic simplicity
and cleanness of design. Its clear: dont try to do too much by your
launch, and keep your design as minimalist as you can. Im also hugely
impressed by the communication from the developers: they tend to be very forthright,
very out in front of problems.
Many small features
in City of Heroes are well-implemented. For example, I really like that when
I get missions from my contacts, after a certain point, I can just
call them remotely to tell them the mission is completedI
dont have to run all over creation to tell them. There are a few classic
MMOG issues that are in some ways worse in City of Heroes than any other game:
what people call kill stealing is for some reason uniquely aggravated
in the evolving culture of its gameplay. The game also has a treadmill just
like any other MMOG, and I still maintain thats unnecessary, that designers
are not thinking properly about how to scale challenges over time, and insist
on making hard mean time-consuming. And finally, as
is de rigeur for MMOGs, there are some really dumb and unoriginal names and
designs for characters out there. Ive seen huge numbers of Wolverine and
Punisher clones. On the other hand, I havent seen a single Legolas
some things Ill be looking for the designers to do in the months to come
that will help the game be more evocative of comic books. For one, Im
getting very tired of fighting cookie-cutter enemies: there should be colorfully
indvidual supervillains at every level of experience. Thats the essence
of the genre, and its sadly missing from the lower-level gameplay and
even from the mid-game. In fact, how about every character created getting an
archenemy, a supervillain who pops up from time to time to attack
There are other
elements of superhero narratives that need implementation in some way eventually.
Secret identities and all that comes with them are completely absent. The mission
storylines are pretty decentI saved a mechanic and his family from some
robots and now civilians remember that I did sobut there need to be more
plot types, more content that evokes classic superhero tales. There need to
be major public eventssay each city zone being attacked by giant robots,
with everyone pitching in to repel the menace.
Im still going to play SWG later this month to be a responsible critic, but when I want to have fun, Im going to be battling evil in Paragon City as the mysterious and inscrutable Faust.