City of Heroes/Villains Double Pack PC Review - 10/08/2007

The crime-fighting MMORPG City of Heroes was released back in 2005 over here to much critical acclaim. About a year afterwards, the crime-spreading City of Villains was released, and various updates (we're now on number 10) have followed, as well as a new double pack, making it one of the best supported MMORPGs out there, and giving us a perfect reason to revisit the two games for a review.

Starting at the beginning, the subscription and game in general is very easy to set up, you can just download the game updates (which take a while as you'd expect) and can then jump right on in. The character customisation has quite rightly received much critical acclaim, and you can create Villains or Heroes as devilish or beautiful as you could wish – you'll never see two characters that look the same.

We're reviewing both Heroes and Villains as you can now buy them together on a single disk, which makes everything a lot easier, and essentially gives you two games for the price of one, as the subscription fee is shared between the two. You also get a month's free subscription, and a 14-day timecard to give a friend, who can obviously download the game client themselves for free and join you online.

Heroes is set in Paragon City, and clearly all the quests and tasks involved revolve around fighting-crime and defending the city from the inevitable scourges that plague such areas. As a Hero, you have various abilities that make the game play out far more as an action game than a RPG. Depending on what you choose to specialise in at the start - you have a choice of classes: Blaster, Controller, Defender, Scrapper and Tanker; and a choice of how your hero got their powers: Natural, Mutation, Science, Technology, Magic – then the choice of power sets, such as martial arts as your primary power set, resulting in specific abilities, and maybe a ranged power for secondary. You can add to the powers as you progress, but the primary set you choose will define your hero's style and character.

The Villains fight for control of the Rogue Isles, where communities of fellow outlaws gather, and while both games feel alike, the range of new abilities, powers and character designs that come in Villains, as well as all the new quests and completely unique game world, make it well worth getting with the bundle.

The structure of the game follows that of other Massively Multiplayer RPGs, but is far less taxing on those of us who don't particularly value the idea of repeatedly going through 'dungeons' and fighting endless respawning enemies to gain some XP. While Heroes generally involves taking people out with your powers, at least in terms of the quests you are given from the huge supply of contacts you meet in the city, there's a bustling metropolis to explore, and that's one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game.

Running around (or flying) with your superhero powers on full show is a great experience, and never stops being fun. One of the trump cards that Cryptic, the developers, installed into the game is that instead of randomly occurring battles or enemies on the streets of Paragon City, you see instances of crime breaking out, such as muggings, robberies, shootouts etc. and it's up to you to intervene if you want that all important XP. Which people don't obsess about. Bragging rights aside, levelling up takes a backseat, and although it's awesomely cool to get new abilities and show them off to the latest pickpocket in the city, you still use your early abilities at high levels. With that said, there's a wealth of smaller, really neat powers that higher levels give you, flight being one example, which gives you something to aim for - but the levels don't dominate gameplay as in other games in the genre.

This makes it a perfect game for anyone disillusioned by the onslaught of fantasy MMORPGs, with the focus in Heroes and Villains on adventuring, teamwork and fun in general rather than devoting your life to repeating the same task over, and over, and over, and over again. If Heroes is all about being good, cleaning up the city, then Villains, the standalone 'expansion' is a reworked version, centred around the other side of life, the dark side. It's not actually all that different from Heroes, and while the new character models, game world and quests make for a nice diversion, you'll probably pick a favourite out of the two and stick with it. I personally preferred the bright and airy world of Heroes, but others may like the dark and seedy world of Villains and the appearance of the characters in general. A black fiery superhero somehow doesn't look quite right, but in Villains, you'll be right at home.

Of course, as it's Massively Multiplayer, there's plenty to do with other people and lots of team based challenges. You could feasibly do it all yourself of course, with a well balanced character, but then, where's the fun in that? With the aforementioned class based character-creation, you ideally want a team complete with ranged and close combat, someone to heal your injured members, and the balance should be just right in order to complete the many quests in the game without suffering. There are also some nifty arenas laid out, which allow player vs. player combat, which is pretty great fun if you're confident enough to go for it 1-on-1.

Finally, you can join guilds, or groups as they're known in the game. These allow you to have fixed bands of Heroes or Villains and generally be a whole lot more orderly about the whole team aspect of things. There's a whole lot more to the game than I've covered here, but the joy of titles like this is experiencing them for yourselves, and no, that's not a lame excuse to keep the review short.

There are sadly a few flaws. The graphics are dated, which is no surprise given the date of the first release, but it may well put some people off paying the 8.99 a month or 44.99 for 6 months, which is pretty steep, although has led to the wealth of updates that have undoubtedly taken the game to new heights. Clearly NCSoft are confident in the quality of the game, and I have to agree, but it's still a lot of dosh really, although maybe regular MMO'ers don't see that as high. Combat, while fun, is limited, and works like any other MMORPG, but feels like you should have more of an impact on the tide of battle.

A criticism others level at the developers is that numerical values for each attack are not displayed, so it's difficult to know for sure which attacks are more powerful, and which are better suited to certain enemies. Instead, you have hazy values like low, short, extreme for example. I personally prefer this, as it takes a lot of the confusing figures and stats out of the game that tend to dominate the screens (and community forums!) for other such games, but that comes from me as not such a big fan of the more traditional, more hardcore MMORPGs – although that's not to say City of Heroes/Villains wouldn't please players of those titles.

The various Issues (updates) to the games have gained much acclaim from critics, and quite rightly. Issue 9 added a salvage mode, allowing real gains to be made from battle apart from simply getting XP points, letting you craft objects from the items you find, as well as cross-server Auction Houses for selling your hard earned hoard. Issue 10, which was release about two weeks ago adds new quests, missions and items revolving around an invasion by the trans-dimensional Rikti. This also supports a great co-operative quest which applies for Heroes and Villains. They're probably as feature-full as some of the pricey expansions we see for PC games, but are completely free as part of your subscription cost.

City of Heroes and City of Villains are brilliantly crafted MMORPGs that are no less impressive now, or less fun, than they were three years ago. The subscription costs are balanced out by the fantastic Issues/updates that Cryptic have consistently released, and generally, if you've ever fancied being a superhero or supervillain, but would rather do it online with your friends than dressed in spandex in your bedroom (calm down) then Heroes and Villains is the best there is.

- Mike Hazleton



Cryptic Studios