As the history – or more accurately, this slightly faded receipt in my hand – tells it, on the second of December 2005, at 4:47 PM precisely, I walked into EB Games Carousel and purchased the City of Villains Collector’s DVD Edition for the princely sum of $74.85, beginning an on-and-off love affair that would last over three years.
City of Villains was pretty much my first MMO, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. And while I can look back and suspect that my shine for it might still be slightly rose-tinted for that naivete, I’ve since tried other MMO’s – Warhammer Online (for several months), World of Warcraft (for two weeks), Tabula Rasa (for six hours), Ultima Online (for… well, thirty minutes) – and I’ve even spent the last year balls-deep in development of another MMO. None of these games, no matter who I played them with, no matter how good the anecdotes about them, no matter how much I enjoyed working on them, none of these games have ever kept me interested, kept me excited and kept me coming back again and again like City of Villains.
As you may or may not know, the people behind City of Villains, Cryptic Studios, are currently working on another superhero-themed MMO called Champions Online. Naturally this sort of news is exciting to me, and while discussing it with my friends, all the good memories from the City of Villains days came flooding back. Our incessant talking about those halcyon days was enough to convince Jess that it was time to try it for herself, and so a few weeks ago we fired it up, and we haven’t looked back since.
There have been probably three distinct City of Villains eras for me before this one, and though I’ve always been pleased with the game’s ongoing development each time I’ve restarted, logging in again for the first time in nearly two years really floored me with the amount of improvements that they’ve been quietly crowbarring in. Though I’ve always loved the game to pieces, it has always had some distinctly glaring issues, or what I would consider to be incredibly obvious design decisions that needed to be made but which just weren’t. This time around, I could not help but be amazed at just how far they had come along in addressing those concerns. In fact, I’ve been enjoying playing it so much that I decided it was about time to write it all down and tell the world exactly why.
Most, if not all, other MMO’s force you to begin the game as an ugly template of a character, letting you choose between 6-10 (if you’re lucky) different options for the way you look and shoving you into a world populated by countless other people who look exactly like you. As you level up and find better gear, you might start to look slightly unique. Maybe, if you’re willing to sink hours of your life into it, you’ll find the armour set that only two hundred other people are wearing. But not in City of Villains, because the first thing you do when you make your character is sit down and get gobsmacked at just how many goddamn options there are for your appearance.
No other game even comes close to the variety of what City of Villains has on offer. Not only can you adjust every aspect of your physical size including height, bulk and weight, as well as scaling your facial features, but the game offers you unlimited combinations of what must surely be over several thousand different costume pieces, all of which can be coloured or textured to your liking. You can be helmeted, armoured, brain hanging out, hooded, insectoid, scaly, freaky, glowing, winged, even wielding a goddamn shovel in your fist if that’s what pleases you.
What’s the end result of this? You can look as absolutely and completely badass as you want at level goddamn one. The game doesn’t force you to grind for months just to get a glimpse of what cool looks like, only to find that once you get there every other motherfucker around you is wearing the same thing. Your character is uniquely yours because you created it. And you don’t just get one costume either: at levels 20, 30, 40 and 50 you can unlock extra costumes, and switch between them at will. Getting sick of your schoolgirl wear? Current mission call for a bit of class? Open the costumes menu and change! Instant success.
But the costume madness doesn’t end there! As you level up, you unlock extra costume options, including the ability to surround your character in a completely customisable glowing aura just so everybody can see what a high-level motherfucker they are dealing with. And you can purchase recipes from other players on the Black Market to give your character access to crazy kit like fairy wings, dragon wings and even rocket boots. And the character creator allows you to save and load costumes to your hard drive, letting you experiment to your heart’s content without ever losing anything. By taking the aesthetics out of the level-grind-treadmill, City of Villains gives you a game where you can feel cool and unique as soon as you step out of the tutorial. And it is a good feeling.
2. Getting Around
So once you’ve got your beautiful unique character, it’s time to go somewhere with them. Now, one of the things I hate the most about MMO’s is nearly all of them making getting from place to place a chore. They insist on having huge, beautiful vistas and monstrous sprawling landscapes and this is, undeniably, a good thing. But once you’ve seen them two or three times and you just want to get the fuck on with it, you find out that they don’t think you’re good enough for any sort of reasonably fast travel until you’re level bajillion and can afford the necessary mortgage to buy yourself a horse. Not the case in City of Villains.
From as early as level three – which is, say, 15 minutes of work for even the chronically lazy player – your character gets access to jet packs, jump packs and all sorts of malarkey that let them soar majestically from place to place in seconds. Those are temporary in nature of course, but they’re enough to not only keep you from having to pound the pavement like a chump, but to get you all the way to level fourteen where you unlock one of the coolest things City of Villains has to offer: travel powers.
Whether you choose to super-leap, fly, teleport or just plain run really fast, travel powers open up the entire game to you. There is nowhere you cannot go, no building you cannot scale. No feeling is greater than bounding from rooftop to rooftop across the city, or soaring over the ocean with nothing in sight for miles. Because City of Villains uses a proper physics engine, jumping and climbing in-game feels solid, kinetic and real. Unlike other MMO’s where your character balks in terror at even the most knee-high fence, City of Villains lets you climb on houses, scuttle along ledges, tight-rope along power lines, bound up sheer cliff faces, all in a completely believable and intuitive fashion. You really feel that you are present in the world, and that everywhere is open for you to explore.
And it doesn’t matter where you do go exploring, because one of the beautiful things about City of Villains is that you can never, ever get lost. Finding your way around is a snap, because you can open up your map at any time, click on the marker of where you want to be, and the game gives you an instant, spatial heads-up view of the direction you need to go, and a ticking counter telling you just how far away you are. Simply head that way – using your travel powers to bound effortlessly over any obstacles or enemies in your way – and you’ll get where you need to be in no time. It is an almost insultingly simple system, and it boggles my mind that it hasn’t been appropriated by other games. Using a number of incredibly simple tricks, City of Villains makes it fun just to move around. But fortunately for everybody, there’s more to the game than simply getting from place to place.
City of Villains would be a pretty poor rendition of a superhero game if it didn’t give you the opportunity to knock helpless motherfuckers around like bowling pins. Luckily for us it gives you this opportunity, and in spades. The physics engine not only gives us realistic jumping, but allows us fast-paced and thoroughly visceral combat. Unlike, say, World of Warcraft, where “combat” means “two people standing an arms length away from each other and gently flailing until one person has collapsed”, City of Villains takes combat for what it really is.
You can propel people backwards off rooftops and ledges with well aimed blasts of concussive force. You can smash people into the sky with a classic, cartoon-style wind-up punch. You can stomp the ground, the shockwaves sending dozens of nearby enemies flying into walls and skidding across the concrete. You can summon a gale-force wind to blast a group of helpless chumps off their feet. You can pound your hammer into a poor foe and smash him into the ground, laughing as he staggers back to his feet, dazed. It feels real and exciting and you never want to stop. When Warhammer Online said an ability had knockback, it meant there was a small chance your opponent might skid backwards several inches. When City of Villains says knockback, it means your enemies better pack a goddamn lunch because they are going to get knocked all the way into motherfucking EVE Online.
But combat doesn’t just feel great, it looks great and handles great, too. The visuals and animations are top-notch and the combat, particularly at high-levels when the particle effects start flying fast and thick, is simply a joy to watch. Not only this though, but City of Villains actually generates realistic physics debris after many battles, littering the corridors and tunnels of your missions with proof of your badassery. You can kick these bullet casings and rubble chunks around just to amuse yourself, or even go so far as to swoop down the corridor in flight, watching the bullet casings swirl around in the air currents generated in your wake. It’s totally gratuitous, totally unnecessary, and totally gorgeous.
Combat is easy to control as well, allowing you to queue attacks even when they’re not ready to use, and even offering you the ability to auto-fire some abilities so that they constantly activate. If you only have one power so far and are sick of pressing the key to activate it, or combat is too frantic for you to remember to cast heals on your group, simply control-click on the ability and stop worrying. It’s beautiful and simple and addictive.
4. Gameplay and Level Progression
Many other games struggle with keeping players consistently interested, or place unnecessary hurdles in the way of allowing friends to play together. For example, during my time playing Warhammer Online, it quickly became apparent that my friends, who played staggeringly more often than I did, were actually impossible to play alongside. They were simply too high level, and there was no way for me to take part in any of their quests, fight by their side in the PVP zones or even get into their general area without spending 35 minutes trekking around featureless brown terrain.
City of Villains takes a different approach. The entire world is open to you at any time, and instead of quest lines, players are given missions by their contacts. Each mission is essentially an instanced dungeon set through a door or portal in the world, only accessible by the players that have that mission. If a player is in a team, all players in the team can enter the mission also, and the game automatically scales the mission up or down in difficulty as the numbers in the group fluctuate. This means that the missions are always appropriate for the team taking them on. Team leaders can see every team member’s mission and choose the team’s mission appropriately, and if several players in a team share the same mission, completing it for one person will complete it for all of them. This means that everyone advances together as efficiently as possible. You can even enter into a level pact with another character, meaning that experience is split between the two of you. So if you play your character every night for a week, even when your friend logs on, you’ll both be the same level and ready to kick ass and take names.
Even then, it is of course possible for friends to have characters who are of drastically different levels. In any other MMO, this would make it impossible for them to play together. Fortunately, City of Villains has implemented a system to counter this. If a high-level player wants to help out their low-level friend(s), they can malefactor themselves to bring their character down to the lower level, allowing them to fight alongside their friend(s) without being so over-powered as to take all the experience from their friends. On the other hand, if a low-level character wants to fight alongside the big boys, they can become a high-level character’s lackey, which brings them up to one level below that of their boss. This increases all of their health and endurance to the higher level, as well as adjusting their powers to that level of effectiveness, allowing them to fight easily alongside their friends without having to worry about getting picked off. It is a truly inventive approach and makes it possible for friends of all levels to enjoy gaming together.
Even with all this, it is still possible to eventually run out of storyline-related missions to do. When this happens, if you don’t feel like moving onto another zone, you can always just pull out a newspaper and thumb through it. Perhaps you’ll find an article about how some upstart gang lord by the docks is calling you out! What to do, sports fans? As a villain of course, your only sensible approach is to head to his family home, break in, and murder his elderly grandfather. These simple, one-off missions with no over-arching storyline are more than just instant gratification. Do enough of them and somebody will take notice of you, offering you the chance to have some real fun: running a Mayhem Mission.
Mayhem Missions are a delightful example of the developers sitting back and going to themselves: “We’ve got physics, right? You know what would be cool? Just fucking tearing shit up, man. Let’s make that happen.” And so they did, dumping you and your team in the middle of the city, with 15 minutes on the clock to rob a bank and cause as much carnage as physically possible. In the normal environment, only enemies are able to be damaged. But Mayhem Missions take it a step further: you can blow up cars, payphones, trucks, parking meters, barrels… almost anything. And the game rewards you with bonus time for your efforts, dumping another three minutes on the clock as you casually detonate your way through another carpark, sending dozens of SWAT team members flying through the air in flames. It is an adrenaline shot right to the eyeball of the game, and a great way to get the pulse racing.
Once you’ve built your character and got them to a reasonably high level, like any game, it is of course possible to start feeling discontented and want to start again. But what if you could run two alternate builds of your character, swapping between them at any time? What if one version of your character piled all their points into offense, but found she wasn’t that useful in team missions? Fortunately, City of Villains lets you do this, allowing you to visit an Arbiter at any time in the game and swap to a completely different version of your character, with all different power choices and abilities. It’s a beautiful, easy way to stay interested and keep your character performing at maximum.
5. Everything Else
Visually, City of Villains looks awesome. It has a beautiful and unique aesthetic, unlike that found in any other MMO. It has an incredibly rich and varied backstory, with all the different factions and characters having a wealth of information to sort through, but it never, ever shoves it down your throat. Each of the classes available, while fairly generic MMO archetypes, fulfill unique roles and provide endless replayability thanks to the large amount of powers available. And I haven’t even really mentioned the supergroup bases: completely customisable environments that your supergroup (or “guild” if you will) can fill with whatever items, weapons and furniture they desire. If you’re brave enough, you can even invade other people’s supergroup bases and try and take their stuff for yourself! Or, like me, you can just fill an entire room with photocopiers. The choice is yours.
I’m not going to lie to you. A lot of people don’t like City of Villains. A lot of people really enjoy grinding, questing, and knowing that they can move as fast as they do, and look as cool as they do, because they’ve put the hours in to deserve it. A lot of people enjoy waiting an hour to get forty people together to run a large-scale raid, then doing it again every night for a week because the dragon at the end didn’t drop the helmet they need. I personally think that’s bullshit, and I would question any game which actively gets in the way of the player having fun right from the get-go.
A lot of people also find City of Villains repetitive or frustrating. When it first came out, there was basically only one mission arc from levels one to ten, and every new character had to run it over and over again, which meant killing a whole pile of snake people. It is true to say that when I first played it, I found myself becoming bored or frustrated, and it was all too easy to stop playing. But I would urge anybody reading this who has been burned in the past by City of Villains to fire it up again, and give it another shot. There’s been so many tweaks to so many aspects that it may as well be a different game entirely, and it’s not hard to fall in love all over again.
I leave you with this group shot of our team of second-rate, washed-up supervillains. From left to right: Count Geiger (Michael), The Electrojogger (John), The Pinky Promise (Jess), Ms. Hellfire (Debari) and finally myself as Mechanigranny.
We’re currently rocking it on the Triumph server. Perhaps you can join us.