Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
While I am fond of Cryptic Studios’ first foray into the MMORPG world, City of Heroes (indeed, I am still subscribed to the game and play with some regularity), I have to admit that I was not really looking forward to its “sequel” (due to the nature of its content, it may be seen as a sequel, but it may be more appropriately described as an expansion pack), City of Villains.
The lure of the first game for me was largely the idea of playing out my childhood love of comics on the small screen, and my understanding of the onset of the sequel was that the game was largely intended to add player vs. player elements to the CoH universe, which is not necessarily my cup of tea. I prefer the cooperative style of strategic combat that a game like CoH offers. Additionally, that childish sense of wonder that playing a comic book character evoked is associated in my mind with saving the world, not destroying it. Nevertheless, when I was invited to the beta, I decided to give the game a whirl.
CoV is not simply a PvP expansion of CoH. Instead, it offers a whole new environment with a number of new zones to play villain in alongside a few PvP dedicated zones—though, this environment is not as big or expansive as that of the first game. The Rogue Isles are the home of Lord Arachnos and his fiendish organization Arachnos. This area serves as the counterpart to the heroes’ Paragon City. There is a clear architectural difference between the two places as the clean lines and skyscrapers of Paragon give way to the more European and gothic stylings of the Rogue Isles. Likewise, the upbeat, often disco-inspired tunes that set the mood in Paragon are replaced with heavy metal riffs and screeching guitars. Heavy metal has always been the music of evil after all.
Also, the top notch character creator includes a host of new options to build really rotten looking scoundrels. Skulls, barbed wire, and chains abound and accessorize well with any villainous attire as do the plethora of scarred and veiny faces, monstrous heads, and claw-like hands. Like CoH the character creation screen is almost as fun as the gameplay itself—at least if you enjoy playing dress up or tuning and tricking out a character to really make it your own.
Despite these mood differences, though, it would seem that there is often little apparent difference between the activities of a superhero and supervillain in Cryptic’s version of the universe. While initially the game does a nice job of setting the tone for role-playing villainy through a tutorial mission called “Breakout” (again, a clever inversion of Paragon’s introductory “Outbreak” zone), mission objectives and goals are more often merely semantically different from the goals and objectives one has when playing a hero. Kidnapping hostages as opposed to rescuing them works the same way in terms of gameplay mechanics: beat up the opponents holding the hostages (CoH) or “protect” your intended victims (CoV).
This semantic ambiguity has a tendency to chip away a bit at some pf my previous observations about CoH and its ability to make you feel honestly heroic by playing a super powered hero. While beating up random thugs and stopping a purse snatcher with a wave of energy or a psionic tsunami makes you feel like Superman or one of the Fantastic Four, that image tends to crumble when playing CoV as you realize that rush of adrenaline inspired by your noble act was really more the result of the sense of your growing power over weaker mortals. Suddenly, whether your mask is white or black, you realize that the fundamental goal of the role-playing game is to develop more and more power, not mere altruism or even cruelty. In other words, the semantic ambiguity tends to reveal a kind of moral ambiguity about power.
Likewise, the MMORPG is not necessarily conducive to being a villain in any case due to its lack of freedom of action. Lacking the sandbox-like freedom of other games where you take on the role of a criminal, how is one really to take on the role of a villain? You can not really come up with your own plan to rule the world or even decide to break into a particular department store that catches your eye, since, while there are doors and buildings to enter missions, within them are “fiendish plots” of “your own” invention that are really scripted and instanced. You will always be reacting to the goals of contacts in the underworld, rather than proactively hatching plots of your own.
The rating of the game, likewise, leashes more savage intentions. During beta testing this topic came up more than once on message boards, asking exactly how “villainous” one can truly act in a Teen rated environment; rape, pedophilia, and particularly brutal murder is kind of out of the question. On this level, though, it seems to me that Cryptic has gotten the supervillain right. Such overtly brutal and disturbing crimes are really not the subject matter of the genre. While certainly edgier, more mature comic books have arisen since comic books like The Watchmen and Dark Knight took “funny books” in more mature directions, the fundamental innocence of traditional superhero titles does not generally deal with such material and probably is not necessary for such a mainstream and traditional recreation of the genre in game form.
One new mission type in CoV—the bank heist—seems truest to the genre and probably has been one of the more unique and most obviously villainous mission types in the game. While overall the mechanics of the game seem to lack the ability to evoke the role of the comic book villain for the player, this experience may be the one exception as you assault a well guarded bank lobby, make you way back to the vault, blow the gigantic vault door, grab the loot, and fight your way back to the door. The heist is pleasurable, campy, and so true to form. I just wish that Cryptic had spent a bit more time on simple innovations of this sort to really give their players a sense of being the bad guy, rather than what the game often feels like when compared to its predecessor: a superhero in wolf’s clothing.