You may already have read my ePinions review of City of Heroes. If not, go ahead and read it now; I’m going to build upon it in this entry, but not repeat it, and talk about why, if you haven’t already gotten into City of Heroes, now might just be the time to do so.

Finished? Cool.

That review was written back around the time of the game’s early commercial release, after I had first gotten the opportunity to play. Now, a few dozen character levels and two free content updates later (well, okay, one and nine-tenths updates later; the second update hasn’t actually gone live yet, but I’ll get to that in a minute), my opinion of the game is even higher—not only has Cryptic Studios shown a remarkable level of willingness to fix what’s obviously broken, they’ve improved and fixed some things I never realized were broken at all until they fixed them.

The first patch was largely a high-end content patch, with some cosmetic fixes for people at lower levels. Levels 41 to 50 were added to the game (characters had previously topped out at 40; now they get to go up to level 50), along with a new area for those higher-level characters to hunt, and some “instanced outdoor missions” to relieve the monotony of all the building crawls. Lower level folks could purchase costume changes at a tailor shop, and earn extra costume slots at levels 20, 30, and 40. Certain changes were made to some of the missions: adding “laboratory equipment” that could be smashed for a random chance at a power-up or power-down, or putting “prisons” in some enemy bases that would trap the unwary character trying to teleport out to the hospital for resurrection.

This was all fun stuff if you were levelled high enough to experience it, but it left a lot of lower level people wondering why they got passed over. The answer, game developer Jack “Statesman” Emmert said, was that they had actually expected more people to have concentrated on single characters and be in the level range where the content would be accessible. But still, the fact that people were having such a fun time playing multiple characters and taking a slower route to the top is actually a good thing, because it shows people are really enjoying the game. Emmert promised that the next update would have plenty of stuff for characters of all levels.

And he was right. Update 2 has been in beta on a special “training room” test server for a couple of weeks as people played it and located bugs for Cryptic to fix. This has let folks who care to (like me) experience what’s in store for everyone once the patch is applied generally. And there is a Hulk-sized load of fun in store—so much stuff that I scarcely even know where to begin.

New content is one thing—there are new areas such as the Hollows for lower-level players, or the Shadow Shard for higher-level; there are also new “instanced outdoor” missions for people below level 40—but game mechanics are also getting an overhaul. The in-game chat system has been extended and expanded (and over-complicated, some critics claim, but it’s easy enough to customize that you can perfectly duplicate the old system if you want), other interface bits (such as the character information screens) have been reorganized and clarified, some powers have been given different animations, and there are various other changes, most of which would take more explanation than it’s worth to people who don’t know anything about the game, and people who do know about the game would have heard already from reading the updates, so I won’t go into most of them here. However, there are a couple that are particularly worthy of mention.

One of these is the new exemplar, or “reverse-sidekicking,” system. The original “sidekick” system allows a higher level character to elevate a lower level character up to almost his own level in terms of fighting skill, defense, and hit points—so a level 10 sidekick can go toe-to-toe with a level 20 mob (MUD/MMORPG slang for “mobile NPC”) and survive, if he has a level 20 mentor. This was touted as a unique solution for bridging the level gap that would arise between the characters of people with differing amounts of time to spend on the game—and to an extent, it was. If a friend of mine can only devote a few hours a week, and I devote thirty hours a week, our characters could soon be a dozen levels apart—but if I sidekick him, we can still go on all my missions together.

The problem is that this leaves the lower level character’s missions largely unaccomplished, unless he does them by himself or with people his own level. This can lead to inconvenience down the road, because doing your own missions is the way you get contacts to sell you better goods and tell you where to find other contacts in other areas. If you gain too many levels on other people’s missions, you may find yourself without contacts in particular areas. For instance, one of my characters has no contacts at all in the “King’s Row” district of Paragon City—which can be a problem if she has missions that take her there and should need to power up with Inspirations (the City of Heroes equivalent of potions).

Enter the new Exemplar system. Exemplifying is sidekicking in reverse: instead of a higher-level character taking on a lower-level character as a sidekick and temporarily raising his level, now a lower-level character can take on a higher-level character as an exemplar and temporarily decrease the higher character’s level to match his own. The higher-level character loses access to any powers he took after that level for as long as he is paired with the other character, and his fighting skill and hit points decrease to match. Instead of earning normal experience, the exemplified character earns 100% of XP toward debt reduction (instead of a 50/50 split between debt reduction and normal XP), or an equivalent amount of Influence (the City of Heroes version of money) if he has no XP debt. Thus, the circle is closed: a higher-level and a lower-level character can now adventure together all the time, as long as the higher-level one doesn’t mind dropping back to the lower one’s level half the time.

This also brings me to one of those problems that I didn’t even know City of Heroes had until it was fixed. Now, when characters are sidekicked or exemplared to one another, the lower-level character’s name appears indented below the higher-level character’s. Thus, no more uncertainty over whether everyone is sidekicked before going into battle—and no doubts about who is paired up with whom. This was something that often frustrated me in the old version, but it had never occurred to me that it could be fixed in the interface.

Another change is the addition of the badge system. I have already touched upon this briefly in an earlier post, but let me go over it again. Badges are little trinkets that a character can earn for visiting particular places in Paragon City, or for certain accomplishments (reaching a multiple-of-10 level, completing a task force, taking a certain amount of total damage, paying off a certain amount of XP debt, collecting a certain number of badges, etc.). They’re not really good for anything, except for displaying alternate titles under your name (though developers have suggested that some of them might be given certain game effects somewhere down the road), but they’re fun to collect—sort of the City of Heroes version of orienteering.

Perhaps the change that people have been most anticipating, however, is the addition of capes. Once a character reaches level 20, he can take on a special mission to earn the right to add a cape to his costume. Similarly, at level 30 he can take on a mission to “upgrade his powers”—adding a glowing aura effect that surrounds his body. In both cases, these are little more than cosmetic changes, different options you can add at the costume shop like gloves or a hat. But all the players who feel their characters’ costumes just aren’t complete without a cape will finally be satisfied—not to mention all the mobs who’ve been saying, “Oh no, it’s a cape!” will finally be right.

Capes were originally supposed to have been a part of the game on its original release, but the developers weren’t satisfied with how they looked and decided to leave them for a later update to give them more time to work on the animation. That extra care they took certainly shows in how well the capes ended up looking. They blow in the breeze (apparently heroes generate their own breeze, since they blow indoors, too), they swirl and swing as characters move—in short, they’re one of the best-looking things about the game (and auras don’t look so bad either). The only problem is that they have clipping issues with characters who have bulky bodies, long hair, or things (like tails) sticking out their backs.Hopefully somewhere down the road Cryptic will find a way to fix that.

As I said earlier, the second update has not actually gone live yet. It’s been in beta for the last couple of weeks on the testing server. Players who cared to create new characters there or copy pre-existing characters over could play in the new system, learn about what’s been changed and added, and sniff out bugs or coding issues that were still in the code. And Cryptic has been remarkably responsive, coming out with a new patch every couple of days fixing things that people noticed or complained about. Badge checkpoints that don’t give badges, information overlaps that cause people using badge titles not to display their character information, problems with the way the new chat interface worked—all these and others were addressed, and quite promptly, too.

And those of us who bought the game are getting all this extra content for free. Sure, there are charge-for expansions (City of Villains) down the road, but nobody can complain that Cryptic and its publisher NCSoft haven’t added a whole lot of value to what we originally bought.

And for those of you who haven’t started yet, now might be an especially good time to get into the game. Recently, Statesman posted a mysterious announcement:

Fellow heroes, disturbing information has come to light. Thanks to the hard work at the Federal Bureau of Super Powered Affairs and the Portal Corporation, we have discovered an odd energy signature throughout Paragon City. Researchers believe that this aetheric energy appears to be building towards a climax at some point in the near future. We believe that this will occur at some point over the next several days, but the authorities are not yet sure. All heroes should be on the look out for anything strange in the city. Be on guard; we have reason to believe that this bodes ill for our metropolis.

The consensus among City of Heroes players is that this probably means that there’s going to be a special “live event” coming up to kick off the new update, perhaps this weekend. This would be the first such event since the alien invasion that marked the end of the City of Heroes beta test period. All reports from the people who were around for that were that it was a heck of a lot of fun, and everyone’s looking forward to seeing what Cryptic is going to throw at us now.

So, if you’re in the USA, you can go to the store and buy the box, which comes with a free month; if you’re somewhere else, you can purchase a CD key and download the software (about 800 megabytes) on-line (which would also include that free month). It’s a great game, has a lot of good players in it, and is some of the most fun you can have on-line for $15 a month.

Oh, and if you decide to come to the Victory server, say hi to Purramedic.

Edit: Corrected references to NCSoft, the game’s publisher, to refer instead to Cryptic, the game’s studio. I always get those two mixed up…