Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The perfect storm of difficulty

In all my time paying City of Heroes, both when it was live and since the return of the game last year, I've only once come up against a mission that I couldn't beat. I was on a super strength/invulnerability brute, about level 40, every enemy in the mission was a boss mob with psi attacks, and /Inv offers basically zero defence against psi damage. It didn't take me long to drop that mission, and that was the only time I recall even being tempted to do so.

Until now.

The mission I'm facing now – I'm not quite ready to say stalled on – is a perfect storm of difficulty. It has multiple ambushes, which are not only tough in themselves, but mean that the mobs are still aggro'd on me if I self-rez and will run back into combat with me before I've shaken off the stunned status effect that follows a rez, let alone restored my health and endurance.  This doesn't tend to end well.

If I release back to the medical teleporters instead it's a long way through the Underground back to the mission door – so long that I think the mission actually timed out because I'd taken too long to get back there, which I've never seen before in CoH.

I'm also level 19, and since I don't dare level up to 20 for risk of out-levelling the final story arc of Praetoria that's not going to change any time soon. This is probably the biggest problem, because level 19 is easily the most punishing level in all of City of Heroes. The innate accuracy bonus that smooths out the early experience is gone, and half my enhancements are red (i.e. no longer functioning) because the level 15s are obsolete and I can't afford to fully load up on level 20s. This impacts my accuracy, my endurance usage, the duration of my holds and even my damage output. It's a tough mission, and I am quite literally at the weakest I will ever be relative to the content I am doing.

Finally, this is part of the story arc, and given the linearity of Going Rogue, it's not like I can just drop it and go do something else instead. Well, technically I could, but the story is the reason to do Praetoria.

I still have options, though not many. The usual fallback of loading up on +def inspirations won't accomplish much in this situation seeing as it's not one single fight I'm dealing with but several in rapid and unpredictable succession. The long run back upon defeat makes me more inclined to load up on rez this time, though that has its own issues, as mentioned, due to the way ambushes handle aggro.

I could also auto complete the mission, but that's definitely a last resort.  That does at least put it ahead of dropping my notoriety to -1/x1/no bosses, which I just won't do, because I never do that.

This missions has beaten me twice so far, so I'll take another couple of runs at it before I consider the auto complete option. It's a challenge, and I always like it when my steady progression through an MMO throws up one of those, although I can't say that 'steady' is a word I'd actually use to describe this particular run.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

In the dark

The milestones I look toward in my journey through the MMOs I play are rarely just about the numbers. Other than the level cap (a stretch goal in most) I'm not really thinking about reaching a particular level except as a means to the end of entering new zones, and some zones have greater significance than others.

Like Moria. In all my time in the Lord of the Rings Online I've never made it to Moria (nor am I likely to any time soon) even though it's always something I've looked forward to. I imagine I'm not alone in A Journey in the Dark and The Bridge of Khazad-dum being two of my favourite chapters of the Lord of the Rings, and beyond that there's the idea of exploring interior locations so vast they cover entire zones.

And yet... one of the criticisms of Moria I've seen over the years – and it does seem to be often a love it or hate it experience – is that it can become oppressive due to the sheer amount of time spent in the darkness of its subterranean realms. I've never quite understood that. Until now.

I've talked before about the way the resistance crusader arcs take place almost entirely in the Underground, but even beyond that something I'm only now noticing is that few if any of the missions – even up above in the city – take place in open spaces.* As much as that might be City of Heroes playing to its strengths (the game was never particularly good at rendering natural locations) it can, at times, start to feel claustrophobic.

This isn't something I experienced in Paragon City – especially with so much time spent in Perez Park and Boomtown – nor in the Rogue Isles. It's not even as prevalent, as best as I recall, in the other paths through Going Rogue. It's undoubtedly atmospheric – if it wasn't it wouldn't grate on me so much as it does – but, like those players of LOTRO whose opinions of Moria I've often puzzled over in the past, I'll be glad when I'm out of the darkness.

*The near total absence of windows in the interior locations in CoH, even in locations that might reasonably be expected to have them like the ubiquitous office blocks, is something that it took me forever to notice, because the game is so consistent in not featuring them.  It's like realising how few buildings in World of Warcraft actually have doors.

Monday, July 27, 2020

There can be only one (or two)

City of Heroes has always been the MMO in which I've let my love of alts run wild, and one year into this blog that hasn't really changed. There's a couple of other games that might see an alt sooner rather than later – Lord of the Rings Online being one, and Star Trek Online being another – but so far as CoH is concerned I've started a new character every time I've come back to the game, and that's likely to continue for a while longer.

Not indefinitely though. There is higher level content in CoH that I do want to revisit, having not ran it since the game was live, and there's content I never did at all back then, including a few zones in their entirety. Sooner or later one* of my CoH alts will become a main, for a while at least.

It's unlikely to be Mistletoe.

That's not to say I dislike this character – I don't, and the slow pace of this particular run has had little to do with the game itself. It's more to do with how dominators play, and how that differs from some of the other archetypes.

My experience with a dominator has been far less intuitive than with my brute or even my defender. This is a far more methodical archetype, and it requires an awful lot more focus on the mechanics of the game on a minute to minute basis. If I'm going up against any mob with a lot of CC resistance – i.e. every single boss mob I run into – the encounter becomes a mathematical equation. If I have Domination up I win. If I don't I need to hit them with my immoblize abilities over and over again and hope I can drop them before I run out of endurance.

What it comes down to is that any boss mob is an immediate priority target that needs to be tackled in a very specific way or I'm going to lose the fight. A lot of the time it's really that simple. It's still interesting. It's still fun. It's just more restrictive than I like, and to some extent it takes me out of the experience, as I'm less focused on the story arc I'm running or the atmosphere of the zone I'm exploring because I always have to be thinking about the rules of the game. It's not intuitive in the way that the best of CoH is.

*One or two, because blueside and redside are so distinct from one another.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Too much, too soon

In my last post I wrote about the linearity of Going Rogue, and the way in which the player is locked into a specific set of contacts if they want to see the story they started through to the end. As it turns out there is a way to interrupt that succession of missions, and I did it without even knowing I could, because I outlevelled the last contact in the resistance crusader arc in Imperial City.

This isn't the first time I've outlevelled contacts in City of Heroes. Back during my run through the Rogue Isles I mentioned how easy it is to out-level 3 of the 4 regular contacts in Port Oakes – in fact it's actually easier to out-level them than it is to stay on-level long enough to access them – but being able to out-level a contact in Going Rogue is different.

The final arc in each zone of Praetoria usually wraps up the overall story for that zone, often referring back to what has gone before, tying up loose ends and, most importantly, offering a moral choice which gives the player the option to stay on their current path or switch sides. With the last contact out-levelled I'll see none of this, and so have to move on to Neutropolis having resolved nothing in Imperial City. It's decidedly anti-climactic.

Not long after the launch of Going Rogue two new contacts were added into the 1-20 zones. Back then some players were having problems earning enough XP through missions to stay on-level for the story arc contacts.  The new contacts acted like the radio/newspaper in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles, handing out generic missions to fill in the gaps. Out-levelling contacts wasn't something that happened then, and I'm not sure how it's happened now.

I do think there were some changes to the rate of xp gain made back when the game was live that have carried over to the revived game.  I didn't notice this on either of my previous characters, but the linearity of GR makes it far more obvious where exactly you should be at any particular level.

Still, I doubt any changes to the rate of xp gain have been that dramatic. Similarly I've done very little street sweeping on this character – probably less than usual given the limited time I've spent on the streets during this run. So it's not that either.

XP boosts are available on the server I'm on, but they're optional and, as usual, I haven't used them at all. I did raise my notoriety – which does increase the xp gain per mission by dint of throwing more and/or higher level enemies at you – but that was for exactly one mission, after which I dropped it back to the same +0/x1 which I've been running since level 5.

If anything I might have expected to be earning XP at a slower rate than usual, seeing as I've been using Seeds of Confusion fairly often in the last few levels, and that reduces the XP I gain since I get less/none for mobs partly/fully defeated by other mobs.

The only way in which my notoriety settings differ from the default is that I've been facing bosses since level 5, as I always do. Has that made such a big difference that I'm now at least 2 levels ahead of where I should be?

Thinking about it, it's possible that it has. There's a lot more boss mobs in GR – far more than in most regular CoH/CoV content. Back in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles on these settings I'd expect to face one boss per mission, whereas in Praetoria I've ran several missions where the frequency has been closer to one boss per room.

That, I suppose, will add up.

I wish I'd noticed this sooner, and realised that I could in fact out-level contacts in Praetoria. I didn't though, and as I head into Neutropolis (a 16-20 zone) I'm already very very close to level 17.

If a game offers a way to turn off xp gain – as CoH does – I rarely make use of it for much the same reason I avoid xp boosts, but I will this time, once I reach level 19. It's that or run the risk of out-levelling the finale of the entire story of Going Rogue.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The straight and very narrow

I've described Going Rogue as some of the best content of City of Heroes, and while I do stand by that I'll also acknowledge it's not perfect. As I've played through this run* I've found a couple of things that are not exactly failings, but not strengths either.

The first of these is the difficulty level. GR is CoH on hard mode, but even allowing for that there's a lot of multiple wave ambushes and a lot of boss fights, and the structure of the story telling (and the low population on goldside) means that you will almost certainly have to face this solo. There are certain archetypes and primary/secondary combos I simply would not take into Praetoria, because I can't see how they could handle some of these encounters at this level.

Dominators are on the edge of that category due to the number of times you go up against bosses and elite bosses, who have a lot of inherent resistance to crowd control.

That said, none of the difficulty is insurmountable. The tried and true method of loading up on +defence inspirations has seen me through a couple of these fights, and if all else fails there's always the -1 level/no bosses difficulty setting to fall back on – though personally I never do.

The second point is that Going Rogue is very very linear.

Linear is a word that, when discussing games, is almost invariably used in a negative sense, and usually deservedly so. Here though I'm not talking about instanced dungeons that for all their twists and turns still essentially follow a single straight line, or zones that channel the player from one area to another so much that they might as well be interior locations. Here I'm talking about the way the story arcs are structured.

As I've mentioned before there are four main story arcs in Going Rogue, and if you intend to see your chosen arc through to the end you are, from the start, locked into a specific set of contacts. City of Heroes has utlised story arcs that span entire zones before, and to excellent effect in zones like The Hollows and Faultline, but the difference is that those are single zones, stretching across perhaps 5 levels in all. In Going Rogue the overall story stretches across 3 zones and 20 levels, and there's not really many opportunities to change things up along the way.

It's possible that I'm noticing this more this time because of the way the crusader story arc is laid out. In both Nova Praetoria and Imperial City all of the crusader contacts are found in one location, and the majority of their missions take place in, or are accessed via, the Underground. There's not much change of scenery, is what I'm saying. Indeed, I've spent remarkably little time in Imperial City itself, and a lot of time under it.

*Despite this being my sixth GR post I'm only about halfway through this run – my schedule having gone all to hell this month for reasons unrelated to the game itself.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The darkest shades of grey

Going Rogue has some of the best content in City of Heroes, but at the same time it's probably the worst possible introduction to the game for a new player. I'm not just referring to the fact that GR defaults to a higher level of difficulty than CoH or CoV. I'm referring to the tone, and to put this in context I have to look back for a moment to City of Villains.

When CoV was released back in 2005 one of the criticisms was that villains weren't allowed to be villainous enough. They spent too much time – it was said – fighting other villains and not enough time being villains, or more precisely, being evil.

The response to this came with the release of Grandville, the 40-50 zone for villains, and one contact in particular – Westin Phipps, the most evil man in the Rogue Isles. This won't be the last time I write about Phipps, because he and his missions are some of the most memorable content in the game, but for now I'm mostly thinking about how in a couple of ways he acts as a precursor to the story arcs in Going Rogue.

Most obviously in that years before actual side-switching through morality missions became a thing players would intentionally fail one of Phipps' missions, letting it time out to ensure that the good guys won, because Phipps made you think about the rights and wrongs of what you were doing. Not even so much if you were a bad guy – that goes with the territory in Rogue Isles – but what kind of bad guy you were.

There was no reason in the game mechanics to do so as side-switching wouldn't be introduced until years later, but for some players Phipps was a step too far, and rather ingeniously the devs provided a way out that didn't involve leaving the arc unfinished.

Phipps pushed the limit of what was acceptable in CoH to the limit. CoH almost entirely lacks the main tools of modern MMO storytelling – cutscenes and voice acting – and so has always had to rely on its writing, and in Phipps' missions a lot more is implied than shown.* It works, for the same reason that in the horror genre what you don't see – but can imagine – is far scarier than what you do see.

*This near total reliance on the writing is one of the reasons I rate CoH so highly when considering the best written MMOs. Secret World Legends, for example, is brilliantly written, but also has well made cutscenes and superb voice acting to back it up. CoH has text boxes and some simple scripted sequences, and still manages to deliver some of the funniest, most moving and most memorable stories in MMOs.

Which brings me back to Going Rogue. One of the central features of the expansion was the side-switching system, which allowed Heroes to become Villains and vice-versa. The stories in GR tie into this by exploring what it means to be good or evil or – and there's a lot of this – to be somewhere in between.

This is what I'm thinking of when I say the tone of GR is drastically different from much of the rest of City of Heroes. Even as a Resistance Warden – the most obviously 'good' option of the four arcs open to a new Praetorian – it's a challenge to come through GR and out the other side with clean hands and a clear conscience. In the Loyalist arcs – rather wonderfully called Power and Responsibility – it's less a question of if you can stay on the side of good than it is a question of just how bad you have to be, or want to be.

Then there's the Resistance Crusader arc, which is pretty much about being a terrorist.

No, really it is. I'm not kidding.

For a crusader the ends always justify the means. That's the viewpoint of the ones who genuinely believe in the cause they are fighting for, but there's also those who are simply using it as a justification to cause chaos and destruction for its own sake, and you'll work with both. This is a story arc where you start by carrying out a nerve gas attack on a police station, then take part in a plan to reprogram maintenance robots to attack random civilians in the streets. That's in Nova Praetoria. Once you get to Imperial City you've moved on from nerve gas bombs to human bombs and from civilians being terrorised by hacked robots to civilians being fed to your cannibalistic allies... who are also human bombs.

It's strong stuff that gains impact for being so at odds with the tone of most of the rest of the game, and in that respect it's very reminiscent of the way that Westin Phipps differs from any other contact in City of Villains. In the Rogue Isles there's usually a sense that everyone is playing by the same rules – at least most of the time – but Phipps breaks those rules with his gleeful targeting of innocent people, and the crusaders are similarly callous, even if they have better reasons for what they do.*

As I said in the opening post of this run, Going Rogue was developed with veteran players in mind, and it's best experienced after you know what it's like to be heroic in Paragon City and to do villainy in the Rogue Isles. GR is all about the shades of grey that lie in between, and some of those shades are very dark indeed.

*Better, in this case, is highly relative. Whether or not at least some of the actions of the crusaders are justified is open to debate, and that at least puts them ahead of Phipps, who revels in cruelty for its own sake and whose motivations are some of the darkest and most twisted in all of CoV, even as they cast an entirely unique light on the true nature of the Rogue Isles.