A View from Atlas Park: CoH Beta Review

Just got the email saying the NDA is lifted, so it’s time to spill my guts about my time in Paragon City. I am a CoH fanboi – I got into beta as part of Wave 2 after following CoH for two years, downloaded the client on my 56k modem and bought a new video card just so I’d be able to get involved… this won’t be the most objective look at CoH going around. However, I am going to try to be fair and honest about my experiences. Also, I’m going to assume that you, the reader, have some knowledge about CoH’s basic systems; I’m not going to explain all the basic terms as I go along. And so, my rambling look at the CoH beta…

The Good

  • Let’s start off big: the entire CoH beta has been the best run beta I have seen. Devs constantly on the boards, answering questions and setting objectives for players to test. Bugs being discussed and squashed relatively quickly. Probably the most shocking thing has been the fact that player suggestions have been taken on-board and acted upon. As an example, players disliked having to catch the Monotram through all the zones before getting to the one they wanted. As of now, you can select the zone you wish to go to when you are the station (assuming the zone is on the same Monotram line). This sort of involvement is still continuing – the devs are still posting on the boards and are still involved in the community which is nice to see.

    The word that springs to mind about the CoH beta is “professional”. CoH was mostly stable when it entered beta and was declared ‘feature complete’ in January. Sure, some bugs still exist, but given that the final product has been polished for almost three months these problems are mostly minor. Fixes have been fairly frequent and have occurred regularly. Whoever was responsible for organising beta and organising it so effectively deserves a raise – I can’t say enough good things about the management of the CoH beta test.

  • The character creation system. There will be a lot of praise heaped on this part of CoH and deservedly so. The sheer versatility of this system is incredible and if you spend any time in Paragon City you will see the capability that it offers. From 8-foot tall killer cyborgs to cheerleaders to devils to martial arts masters to aliens to traditional spandexed costumes to almost anything you can think of (in humanoid form), you can create it. Just for fun, hit the “Random” costume button and see the combinations that pop up. You can spend literally an hour going through the options and finalising the various sections of your hero’s costume, or just select something and play. This character creation system sets the standards for all future mmogs.

    That said, there are limitations and you may not be able to recreate perfectly the characters you sketched idlely in Maths class. However, if you can’t make a reasonable approximation, you aren’t trying or just obsessive about your guy having a cape.

  • As a follow-on point: the breaking of the traditional mmog link between appearance and function is great to see. No longer are you able to assess what a character can do just by looking at them. That 4-foot girl in a mini skirt might be a Tanker; that Gargantuan male in full body armour might be a Controller. Sure, some other mmogs have done this, but not to the same degree.

  • The Archetype system works. Every Archetype has a unique feel and plays differently – I find Tankers quite dull to play but enjoy the excitement of a Blaster hero. Other people find differently. I recommend that people try a couple of different Archetypes to see what style ‘fits’ them best. Archetypes also have fairly distinct power sets and all are useful in a team – there are no dud Archetypes in my experience. There can also be a large amount of variety within Archetypes depending on the power sets you choose – an Assault Weapons / Devices Blaster has noticably different capabilities to a Fire / Fire Blaster.

  • The powers selection system works well. After picking your primary and secondary powers you have a few levels to develop them before being given access to the power pool powers at lvl 6. The power pool offers the ability to make your hero do a bit more than their Archetype allows, but at the cost of not enhancing your ‘core’ powers. At the very least most players will take a travel power, but you can give your Tanker (as an example) some healing powers to make them a bit more useful in a team. Be warned – that by only getting power pool powers you limit what primary / secondary powers you can get, which can lead to serious disadvantages for your hero.

  • Your hero is able to take on a number of similarly lvl’d villains right off the bat. This makes you feel heroic – no having to fight rats (and dying) for a CoH hero!

  • Paragon City looks like and feels like a city. There are people just walking about and cars on the streets. Each zone (eg Atlas Park, Kings Row) has a different feel and look, but it’s all consistent with a comic-book city: giant buildings and statues, junk yards, parks, sewers and back alleys, all teeming with villains. I’ll draw a comparison to the city feel of GTA – Paragon City looks alive. The heroes certainly aren’t the only thing in it.

  • Most mmogs are fairly flat. In CoH, if you want to go straight up (and have the appropriate power) you can and the zone is designed to let you.

  • The villain groups are quite different from each other and require different tactics for victory. You can just beat most street gangs by just attacking them. If you try the same tactics with the Tsoo (especially if a Sorcerer is around) you are going to wake up in the hospital. Villain AI is also great – they will folllow you up stairs, call friends and generally make things difficult for you.

  • Combat is dynamic and fairly quick. There is an auto-attack option, but you still have to be there, controlling your hero. Also, the range of powers you will have access to means that you have to make tactical choices over your attack – do you pull one bad guy, stun the group of them or make them fight amongst themselves?

  • The first time you are ambushed on a mission, you will remember it.

  • The xp debt system works well. When you die, you get some xp debt that you must pay off. You will still progress your hero when you have debt, but it just takes a bit longer to hit that next lvl.

  • Having a near itemless game works. Inspirations are important to give your hero the edge in tough battles and Enhancements really add to your powers, but both are commonly available (excluding Single Origin Enhancements). You will use Inspirations frequently and replace / add to Enhancements often, so there really isn’t any ‘must have’ piece of equipment… although most sensible heroes keep an Awaken on themselves at all times.

  • The contact / mission system is simple and fun. Your contact gives you a choice of missions, you select one and head off to complete it. It really makes your hero feel important when a contact gives you a mission to complete, as though your hero is actually making a difference. Especially fun are story arcs, where one mission leads on to other related missions. Completing a story arc gives your hero a souvenir that details the adventure you were involved in that stays with your character.

    In fact, CoH does a great job of making your hero feel at the centre of the game. Yes, there are other heroes, but they are doing different things to you. Lvling is more a side-effect of playing your hero than the only thing to do – the main focus in CoH appears to be giving your hero a unique story or set of events to be involved in. Sure, you can play to lvl, but I’ve found CoH more enjoyable if you focus on doing missions or on working as part of a team.

    [p]That said, reaching the next lvl is always a good thing – every even lvl you get to choose a new power; every odd lvl you get to add Enhancement slots to your powers. At some lvls you also get bonuses (eg lvl 6 gives you access to the power pool powers; lvl 15 gives you the ability to select a title).
  • The sidekick system does a fantastic job of allowing lower lvl heroes to contribute to higher lvl groups. Once you hit lvl 11, you can create a sidekick, which will pull a hero of lower lvl closer to your lvl (the final difference depends on your ‘real’ lvl difference). This means you never have to take a mission on alone again – just pick up a sidekick – or that your friend who starts CoH later on can still assist your character on missions.

  • The final good aspect that I can think of at the moment is that CoH was worth waiting two years for. It’s fun, exciting and the only mmog I’ve wanted to play past the first month. I’m even willing to pay for it. Plus I keep wanting to see more of Paragon City and uncover what is going on behind the scenes…

The Bad

  • Mission difficulties can still fluctuate a bit. You might get a mission that you can walk through pretty easily, followed by one that kills you in the first room. ‘Front loaded’ missions, where the first areas are packed with red- (or higher) con villains followed by anticlimatic battles against blues and greens in the final rooms, are common.

  • Some bugs still exist. Trying to find out who is online from your bugged friends or superteam list can be impossible – it’s usually easier just to send a /tell. Superteams are also still a bit bugged, but I expect / hope to see this change before release.

  • CoH has a history of problems with ATI graphics cards. I’ve got an ATI graphics card, so experience glitches from time to time. Be warned, other ATI users!

  • Disconnects and lag spikes occur from time to time and can be quite annoying. However, these are generally infrequent and I’ve never actually died because of a disconnect or lag-induced episode.

The Ugly

  • The Vahzilok and the Lost are suitably unattractive, while I’ve heard some great reports about the appearance of Dark Astoria.

  • CoH isn’t EQ or DAOC or SWG. Playing it as though it was is a mixture of boring and stupid. You can’t spawn camp. You can’t auto attack your way to victory. Complaining because you can’t is wasted breath.

The Interesting

  • You can solo in CoH, but it takes care and patience. If you think you will be able to do as well soloing as you can in a group, think again. Grouping enhances your hero’s abilities no end.

    From personal experience, a group of 8 (the max size) is great if you are just patrolling for enemies in normal zones, but can make mission zones very, very difficult. Missions scale to the group size, which means that a team of 8 will be fighting a lot more villains than a team of 2. In fact, I’ve soloed a mission zone that a team of 7 gave up on because it was too hard.

  • PVP code is in CoH – a dev pk’d a player on April Fools Day. In doing so, s/he also showed why open pvp should never be in CoH – it’s too easy to sneak up on a player and unload with both barrels, with ranged attacks having a definite edge on melee. Here’s hoping the Arena isn’t too far away for those who want it.

  • Gameplay in CoH is fairly simple – fight villains and complete missions. For some, this won’t be enough. That’s fine – no one game is for everyone, no matter what the hype says. Personally, I see no function for tradeskills in CoH while pvp should only ever be a sideline addition at best. Either accept that this is the case and play CoH or move on – please don’t spam up the forums with requests for things that just don’t fit into CoH.

Conclusion

As I said before, CoH is a game I waited two years for and feel that the wait was justified. I find CoH fun to play, which is really all a game needs to be to get my attention. It’s been my summation of CoH is that it is evolutionary, not revolutionary – rather than starting from scratch, Cryptic Studios appears to have taken on board the experiences and features that already exist in mmogs and improved on them. By doing this they’ve avoided (thus far!) the mistakes of other mmogs in trying to reinvent the wheel while also adding in a flavour all of their own. CoH is truly a next generation mmog.

I’m as aware as the next guy that a mmog is only as good as the next patch and hope that launch doesn’t ruin what is currently a great game. Assuming launch day isn’t borked, I recommend that everyone spend a little time in Paragon City – you may find you like it there.

I’ll leave it at that. Other, more professional reviewers will be going over CoH soon, so you’ll be able to get a more objective look at the game. I’m sure they’ll give it glowing reviews too.

See you in the City!

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