Ah, City of Heroes. Many is the day I wasted leveling my characters and teaming with other players, running around town to accomplish missions together and even roleplay. I had something like a dozen level 50 characters, including a couple that I’d gone through some of the belatedly-added endgame content with. Then it all came to a halt when NCSoft, its owner, decided it would look better on the financials to shut it down.

Controversy of Heroes

Fast-forward about six years, and suddenly a major controversy burst onto the scene. It came out just last month that a group of fans had been given all of City of Heroes‘s actual source code and content by an unknown source at the time the game shut down. Those fans have been spending the intervening years working on adapting it to run on private servers, even patching over some annoyances and adding improvements to the game over how it previously was. And one disaffected invitee to the private server decided to leak that fact to Reddit, and suddenly the bereaved City of Heroes fandom was in an uproar as many players were hurt that thousands of people had been playing on this server for years and nobody ever invited them.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little hurt myself for that reasonbut only a little hurt, and not for too long, at that. You see, I’m a grown-up. I’d largely moved on from the game since it closed (in fact, I’d largely gotten tired of it and moved on by the time it was first announced they were shutting it down), and don’t have huge amounts of time for playing computer games anymore anyway.

Besides, I’ve seen other cases of game studios shutting down reverse-engineering efforts to work with their game clients, and could readily understand this “Secret Cadre Of Reverse Engineers” wanting to keep a lid on things until such time as they were ready to go public and take their chances. They couldn’t invite everyone who’d have wanted in. And let’s not forget, the gaming community has a huge number of trolls and asshats who get their jollies from ruining other people’s fun. (Just look at Gamergate.) I can see why extreme secrecy would be the default, just to keep from attracting any of those. I’m sure the development process was fraught enough as it was.

While I like to think I wouldn’t have spilled it myself, I can’t exactly blame them for not inviting me. What hurts a little more is that they eventually did invite this random schmuck who leaked it all over Reddit only two weeks before they’d been planning to go public with it themselves. I guess it goes to show that sometimes you just can’t tell about a person.

(What hurts far more is that I never bothered to back up all the City of Heroes player guides I wrote and posted to the official CoH forums in the old days. My own local versions of them were lost to hard drive crashes some time ago, and the Internet Archive doesn’t seem to have CoH forum content. Alas, they’re probably gone for good.)

In any case, it didn’t take very much longer after that for SCORE to have a set of public servers up and running the new City of Heroes code, and for fans to start returning to Paragon for new adventures. Some people have scoffed at lead SCORE developer Leandro’s claim that even before the leak they had been planning to throw open the servers and announce the project openly themselves on City of Heroes‘s 15th anniversary, but I see no reason to doubt it. They clearly must have been nearly ready to go, because those public “Homecoming” servers were available within just a few days of the initial leak—and they’re still up right now. And yesterday, since the initial rush of CoH-thirsty new players had passed, I finally got around to giving it a try myself.

(And, in fact, Homecoming isn’t the only new set of public CoH servers. Since SCORE released the server code online, various other groups have set up their own “rogue” servers, some running slightly different builds of the codebase. Homecoming uses the very latest i25+ codebase, incorporating SCORE’s improvements, while the City of Heroes Discord server, Rebirth, is running i24—the last “official” release NCSoft made. Massively has a list of all the known public servers. I only played on Homecoming (Torchbearer server), so it’s the specific one I’m reviewing for the rest of this.)

I spent all day Sunday playing a new Fire/Fire Tanker character, and had hit level 24 by the end of the day. All in all, I came away really impressed by the amount of work these fan developers had put in…and a little worried about what the future might hold for this new City of Heroes.

For SCORE, and Seven Years Ago…

The Homecoming site has complete instructions for creating an account and downloading the latest release of the City of Heroes game client. It’s several gigabytes in size, so make sure you have a fast Internet connection and an hour or two to suck it down the pipe. You need to set it up in your Documents folder, or some other folder outside the “program files” directories where Windows usually puts stuff.) Once you set it up, you just run the launcher file as if it were the old NCSoft launcher, and it boots up the program and hooks you up just like in the old days.

And wow, what a kick of nostalgia to see that launcher screen and hear the repetitive music for the first time in six years or more! Even though the Homecoming servers don’t have access to your old characters, it really doesn’t matter. Anyone with a lick of experience at the game can level a new character in a hurry, anyway—and I should know, I once wrote a comprehensive guide/FAQ to City of Heroes powerleveling. And it’s been long enough since I’ve played the game that starting a character off from the beginning seemed like the right move anyway, to refresh my memory on how it all worked.

(I had thought that Homecoming would allow you to import character saves you had exported from the original game using the Sentinel+ utility, but I’ve since been informed that they won’t, but some private servers will. Not that it really matters to me; I had never heard of Sentinel+ until it was far too late to do me any good)

The character creator was familiar, just as it had been, but it had a lot more costume pieces available than I remembered. This is because that part of SCORE’s updates involved making all costume parts available to everyone—including costume pieces that you had to buy in add-on packs, or that you had to be a paying subscriber for years and years to unlock, under the old regime. So if you always wondered what one of those outfits you never earned would look like, here’s your chance to find out. (You can also access these pieces from the Icon tailor interface, as shown below.)

iconinterface.png

As in the most recent iteration of the official game, you can create characters from either villainous or heroic archetypes, then choose to start them on the hero or villain side of the game. If you want to play a Tanker in City of Villains, or a Mastermind in City of Heroes, there’s nothing stopping you.

Once character creation is complete, the tutorial process works the same as it did in the most recent official update. On the hero side, there are two zones to start out, with different training scenarios to teach you the ropes of running a character. You don’t have to go through it, but if it’s been a while you could probably use the refresher.

Once you get to the starting hero level, Atlas Park, it’s pretty much exactly as it was—though, since it’s been six years, if you have even a reasonably good computer now, you’ll get what would have been state-of-the-art quality graphics then. And one of SCORE’s biggest tweaks to the game can prove very helpful to you starting out.

“Pay 2 Win,” For Free

There’s a new power vendor available in Atlas Park, as well as the game’s other starting areas. This costumed individual represents an agency called P2W, short for “Pay 2 Win,” and I wish I’d checked them out first thing when it came to starting to play my character—because the P2W vendor represents the way SCORE makes various veteran reward powers available to new characters. These include prestige power attacks, like Sands of Mu or the Nemesis Staff, and travel boosts like jet packs or the jump pack that you can use for 30 seconds of Super Jump every few minutes. Some of them cost money, or cost money if you already have another version of the same power, but others are free right out of the gate. That could have come in really handy in the levels before I was able to buy the real version of Super Jump. (Oh well, I’ll remember that for next time I make a new character.)

p2w

You can also buy temp power attacks like the baseball bat, flashbang grenades, plasmatic taser, and so on. There are even silly “just-for-fun” powers available, like the snowball you could get from the winter event. What you can’t seem to buy are the more potentially unbalancing useful-pet powers, like the wolf whistle used to summon a Council werewolf critter. Those still have to be earned through gameplay alone.

You can also buy blockers that keep certain types of Inspirations, crafting plans, et cetera from dropping to you, if you don’t use them and don’t want to deal with them in your inventory. (And, I’m told, each blocker you use earns you a badge, if you care about such things.) There’s also a free “XP boost” option available, where you can choose to have 25%, 50%, or 100% of the Influence you usually earn over the course of the game converted into extra XP instead. You can take this boost in increments of one hour at a time, and can have up to eight at once. It can be very handy for leveling quickly, but the downside is that you won’t earn any of the cash you need to buy new Enhancements for your powers after you’ve outleveled the ones you have!

The joke inherent in the “P2W” name is that many of the powers are completely free, and others cost nominal amounts of the in-game currency, Influence. None of it requires any outlay of real money, which is what the phrase “Pay 2 Win” usually means.

(Other public server builds may handle veteran rewards in different ways. The City of Heroes Reddit plans to run a server using the old Paragon Rewards system, but granting all players bunches of tokens to buy their way up the chain.)

Other Improvements

One useful change SCORE made involves the “Notoriety” system, which is how players can adjust the difficulty level of the missions they accept—choosing to bump the level up, or the number of players the villains spawn for. In the official version of the game, you had to visit a zone contact to bump up the levels, but the new SCORE version places that option in the chatbox text field menu. (It seems kind of a counterintuitive place to put it, since most of the other options deal with emotes and so on, but perhaps it was just the simplest place to stick something new in.) So you can now change mission difficulty whenever you want to, from wherever you are—without having to travel halfway across the zone and talk to a blue-suited NPC.

It’s been so long since I last played, and I didn’t play the last major content release much at all, that I can’t be sure whether some of the changes actually came from NCSoft in those issues, or from SCORE afterward. For example, you can now choose to earn XP while exemplaring (artificially lowering your character’s level to match a lower-level character) or earn extra Influence instead. (But if you’re running one of those 100% XP boosts and set it to extra Influence, you actually don’t earn any Influence at all, so be aware of that.) (Update: I’ve since learned that this particular change was part of the old game for some time before it ended. Like I said, I didn’t play the game so much toward the very end of things.)

Another handy change is that you now have more than just 10 slots to hold Enhancements that drop over the course of play. I’m not sure whether you get a number that increases as time goes on, or if it’s static; I just happened to notice my Enhancement tray was now tabbed when my first one was full but I kept getting notified I was still getting drops—and I had 7 tabs of 10 slots each at that time. That’s really nice if you’re out and about doing a lot of adventuring, because you can’t always get to a store to sell by the time you’ve filled up that first ten.

Lots of stuff seems to just have more available. Like, you can now have up to 10 different costumes per character at the Icon tailor shop, counting ones you earn in-game. I’m pretty sure there weren’t that many costume slots available last time I played! (Or maybe there were but you had to pay to unlock them? I can’t remember. In any case, anything you had to pay extra for in the old days is now thrown in for free here.)

Did NCSoft add those options in a late issue, or did SCORE do it? I don’t know, but either way, they clear up a couple of little annoyances from the version I remember playing regularly, and make the game that much more fun to play. I’m sure there are plenty of other improvements that I’ve missed, or haven’t discovered yet.

screenshot_190520-23-16-33.jpgA Blast from the Past is a Blast At Last

The game does still show its age in some respects. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to work well with the 150% screen scaling I normally use so I can read the screen when I’m streaming to my Steamlink on my TV downstairs, so I had to go back to 100% scaling to play it. The graphics are still the same as we remember, and a little bit dated, even if NCSoft had put in a real effort to improve them in its last update before shutting down. If the good we remember is still there, so is the bad (even if SCORE’s improvements have made some of the bad less so).

If you choose to play it, bear in mind that, technically, you are violating the EULA and copyright laws. You’re probably not going to get sued for it yourself—in fact, even if you actually ran a server, it seems likely you’d get C&D’d first rather than have NCSoft immediately throw lawyers at you in a courtroom, because lawyers cost money and there’s no money in shutting down a game they don’t even run anymore anyway. And nobody running a server has even been C&D’d yet. Still, if that’s something that matters to you, you may want to give it a pass, at least until and unless someone actually gets explicit permission from NCSoft to run a “legitimate” public server. (And I’m not a lawyer, nor is the person who write the article linked above, so we can’t really give you legal advice anyway.)

But legal issues or non-issues aside, you might want to go ahead and give these new Homecoming servers a try, and re-experience the good old days—but don’t get too attached to your characters. You never know; NCSoft could shut them down with a cease-and-desist order at any time. Conversely, if you want to revisit Paragon City for old time’s sake while it’s still there, maybe you shouldn’t wait too terribly long to start.

Whether NCSoft will start sending C&Ds is an open question. I’ve heard that Titan Network, the site that produced a lot of City of Heroes utilities back in the day, has been negotiating with NCSoft to try to get official blessing to run a server itself, but I’m not sure how true that is, or whether SCORE has been negotiating too or to what extent. I have a hard time believing NCSoft would want the negative publicity that would come out of shutting such a beloved game down, especially since it’s not as if it’s costing them any money right now—but what do I know about how some Korean gaming corporation thinks?

Even if that does happen, SCORE’s server code was already publicly released, and by now it’s probably been saved and mirrored enough places that NCSoft will never be able to scrub it from the net. If folks like SCORE can run public servers, then anyone who can afford to rent the server hardware could run a private one—and as long as its operators only invite people who can be trusted, there’s no reason they ever need to attract anyone’s attention. Likewise, people could run public servers hosted in countries that don’t care about US copyright laws. So perhaps City of Heroes has a future of some kind beyond NCSoft, whatever happens.

That future may necessarily be limited, though. Even if it can allow players to replay the old City of Heroes as it was on its last day, and can even improve the interface to remove annoyances and make veteran reward items available to all, does SCORE have the ability to renovate the engine or introduce new content, power sets, and other major features? Unless someone actually does get the rights from NCSoft to continue actual development, and a legitimate transfer of all game development and intellectual property assets NCSoft might still possess, not to mention a source of funding to continue it, this snapshot of the past might be as far as SCORE’s version can advance. (Though I could very well be wrong, and will be happy if that proves to be the case!)

I’m hopeful, though, that some of the other superhero MMOs currently under development will be able to take the things that City of Heroes did well and improve on them—City of Titans, for example, to whose Kickstarter I happily contributed, is hoping to come out with its first playable alpha sometime this year or next. Since it was created by long-term CoH fans and players, they’ve had ample opportunity to learn all the lessons CoH could teach about what does and doesn’t work.

In Conclusion

If you want to relive the good old days, or you missed the chance to try out City of Heroes when it came around the first time, I’d recommend trying the Homecoming servers (or the other “rogue” servers) while they last. It really is a great nostalgia trip to play it again, and with the little interface improvements and free vet rewards, the game is literally the best it’s ever been right now.

Just don’t be too disappointed if those servers suddenly go away again.