Looking forward to playing City of Heroes again

Last week’s bizarre story involving a long-dead MMORPG, a super-secret server, and a community that found itself suddenly divided ended in a strange but uplifting win for City of Heroes fans. After discovering that there had been a gated emulator running underground for six or so years and being rather upset about it, the COH community suddenly found itself gifted with a treasure they never thought they’d see: the source code.

Long, long story short, this means that with a lot of work and knowhow, it’s now possible for anyone in the world with this code to create a City of Heroes emulator and start operating it. Short of NCsoft opening the game back up for fans, this is the best result that could’ve happened for fans. There’s now the very real — and previously unthinkable — possibility that they might get to go back to their game in the future.

I mean, who really knows. I have no idea how workable all of this is, but when the news of the code release happened on Thursday, you could almost visibly see hope coming back to fans who have been carrying a torch for this game since 2012.

It’s truly interesting and has me contemplating a notion that was previously only a thought experiment: What would it be like to go back to City of Heroes again?

I’m not the biggest emulator player, but I do support their efforts to preserve what I see as “abandonware” by studios. And I certainly want these games carried into the future for myself and future generations of players. City of Heroes was my first real MMO love, and I can only imagine what it’d be like to log into a proper running version of the game and not just Paragon Chat.

I suppose it would be surreal, almost as if no time had passed since the game’s closing. When you play something for that long, you get so familiar with its design that every sight, sound, control, and feature is immediately recalled from long-term storage and put right back into the forefront of the mind.

It would also be pretty exciting to see the community rush back to old stomping grounds. I’m sure there would be plenty of new and curious faces too, especially in the era of WoW Classic. It would certainly be An Event for the month it launched.

But me? What would I do? I don’t know. If the server looked stable and populated enough, I’d be more than a tourist — I’d settle in. Make up a fun new roster of heroes. Blog about it. Join up with some friends and check out content that I never got to see, as I primarily only played during the first three years.

It’s not a sure thing that this will happen, but with the sheer passion and drive that this community has shown — especially considering all of the City of Heroes spin-offs and spiritual successors in the making — then I bet it will. And if not, well, there’s always SEGS and Paragon Chat to hold on to the glory days while we hope that Ship of Heroes, City of Titans, or Valiance Online makes something of itself.

Update: Events were moving pretty quickly this past week, and this pre-written post became partially invalidated when, a day after the source code was released, players already had a fully functioning test server up and running. I didn’t really want to scrap this post — the core is still valid — but it’s fascinating to see how rapidly this all has developed. There’s been a real and strong hunger to get City of Heroes back, and the second the community saw its chance, it took it.

Am I playing on it? I’ll talk about that another day. I think we have a lot of moving parts that haven’t quite settled down into stability, and so I want to hold back on that discussion for now. Let’s just say that I’m very, very glad to see this game resurrected, even as a rogue server.

LOTRO: Questing under golden leaves

While I think that four months was a good span of time for the initial release of LOTRO’s progression servers — what with 50 levels, a whole volume of the epic, and over a dozen zones — I don’t think the same is true for this period of Moria. It’s definitely less content to consume (fewer zones, only 10 levels), and less than a month into it, I had already blasted through the underground kingdom and come out the other side as a newly minted level 60 Minstrel.

I’m not complaining too much, mind you. Unlike some of our kinship, who are loving every minute of being in Moria, I got my fill about a week and a half in and then was ready to egress. Even with the streamlining of quests and travel, the second half of Moria relies too much on confusing zones that are bothersome to navigate. So when I hit 60, I lost a lot of interest in doing regular questing in these areas, preferring to simply focus on the epic until I got out into Lothlorien, where I started back up with all types of quests.

That’s worked out fairly well. Despite uppity elves who try to shoot you on sight and then make you pick flowers for them ever after, it’s a visually beautiful zone that feels refreshingly open and colorful after the dark dreariness of Moria. About the only thing I really don’t like is the layout of the elf city, as trying to figure out how to get from flet to flet can occasionally be maddening. Plus, there’s a lot of returning to Moria for various tasks, and that doesn’t seem to endear itself to players like myself who would rather be done with it.

Still, it’s relaxing. I’ve spent several evenings doing nothing more or less than forging forward in the epic and doing the random side quests while trying not to engage in combat with the “protected” animals. Are elves protected? Can I collect a few of their ears for my hobbit hole walls?

I’ve given some thought as to what I’m going to do when the side quests and epic runs out, and I haven’t really settled on a firm plan yet. I do need to catch up on Bingo quests, and there are always — always — deeds to be done. I could go the raiding route and join my kin in Turtle and Watcher raids (which I’ve actually never done), or grind up my skirmish soldier (ick), or jump back onto my level 19 Cappy and work on her a bit. Another option is to greatly scale back on LOTRO until the next unlock and focus on some other MMO projects. I don’t want to disengage entirely, but I also don’t need to be grinding when it’s not fun or I don’t feel like it.

Most likely than not, I’ll be focusing on the anniversary festival content, especially considering that I haven’t done any of the scavenger hunts on the progression server.

It’ll be a good feeling to have my Minnie fully ready for Mirkwood. Despite what some people say, it’s still one of my favorite expansion areas, although I do hope that SSG opens up more than Mirkwood with the next unlock. Mirkwood plus Enedwaith, perhaps? Or Mirkwood plus the entire Isengard expansion? I wouldn’t mind that!

Cat people in MMOs

I am not a cat person. If you have to place me in a category, whatever is opposite of “cat person” is where you should assign my fate. Cats have never fascinated me or drawn drooling “awwws” from my lips or inspired me to write poems about them and claim that one is my spirit guide. And that’s fine, the world has room for diversity and I’m generally live-and-let-live with cats, even if I don’t understand their popularity.

And they are popular, especially in MMOs, where playable cat-people are far more likely to be an option than, say, a playable dog-person (oddly, World of Warcraft is one of the very rare games that has the latter without the former, Druid forms aside). And despite what you might think, not all cat-people are alike. Some are the basic “slap a cat head on a human body, add a tail, and call it a day” model (such as Star Trek Online’s Caitians and SWTOR’s Cathar). Other than giving your person a feline slant, you really aren’t going out on a limb with those kinds of picks.

FFXIVs Miqo’te are a textbook example of trying to make an animal-themed race that is as non-offensive to our eyes as possible. They’re… cute. They’re designed to be as cute and barely cat-like as possible, with slightly different hairlines, teeny tiny pointed canines, and widdle pointy ears. They’re the option for players who are tired of humans but also still want to be a human with only minor cosmetic differences.

Guild Wars 2, for better and for worse, went whole cat hog with its Charr. Technically it’s supposed to be more of a beast character, an amalgrim of various animals, but if we’re honest, that mix is about 90% cat and 10% “assorted.” The designers definitely tried for something different than a svelte human with fur, giving the Charr a larger frame with a distinctive hunch, backward knee joints, and long claws and snouts. When you play a Charr — probably to admire how well this race’s helmets fit — you have no illusions that you’re a hulking brute of a cat. You’re a tiger monster amid a sea of soft bellies.

I also have been contemplating Elder Scrolls Online’s Khajiit. Visually, there’s an astounding range of looks that capture many types of cats instead of just one basic template. I don’t often see “lion” cat-people in MMOs, but I do here — and not just lions, but tigers, pumas, and other predatory felines.

Maybe for some, cat-people are an expression of how much they love the look of their own pets, and maybe for others, these races harken to this fantasy of being a stealthy, quick, and ferocious apex predator. At least we’re not seeing the same-old, same-old boilerplate variants between games as we do, say, Elves.

LeChuck’s Revenge: Jailbreak!

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1991’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Could it get any worse than this? Guybrush is stripped of all of his nonsense inventory and thrown in jail by Governor Phatt while the feared zombie pirate LeChuck is on his way to enact revenge. It’s even in the title of the game! What will Guybrush do?

Break out, of course.

This isn’t too difficult, as anyone who has a passing familiarity with Pirates of the Caribbean knows that the dog will give up those keys for a good bone. Man, I miss that ride. Fun times at Disney.

Before he leaves, Guybrush picks up his inventory (in a manilla envelope) and a banana and organ grinder (in a gorilla envelope). I really appreciate any and all dad jokes put into this game.

Even though Guybrush is a wanted man, he’s not going to leave the island without the map piece that he needs. To get to it, he’ll need an invitation to Elaine’s Mardi Gras party, and to get that, he’ll need to engage in some fixed gambling. Does this pirate know no bounds? Seems not.

The last thing Guybrush needs to do — for now — on this island is to obtain three important books because… plot. Fortunately, there’s a library, and it’s stocked with so many funny titles that it makes me question the sanity of the game designer who wrote them. At least one completely breaks the fourth wall of the game, but I’m fine with that.

Little touch I loved: Every time you ask the normally harsh librarian to get you a book, she scoots to the back room on her chair with this giant grin on her face like she’s a kid. C’mon, we all did that.

The last book is on Gov. Phatt’s gigantic belly, and Guybrush has to do some Indiana Jones-like measuring (including tearing pages out of a book) to swap them out. That was pretty clever.

Probably my only other (small) complaint about this game is that the sea voyages — done via map — take way too long. I have to spend at least a couple of minutes staring at a line zig-zagging here and there before we get to our next destination…

…which is Booty Island! Nice place, Booty Island.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis came out around this time, so Monkey Island 2 has a little bit of cross-promotion going on. Two great games come together! And for a third Indy reference, nearby is Kate Capsize, a sly reference to Kate Crapshaw, the actress who played Willie in the second movie.

This souvenir shop contains a lot of weird and interesting items, and it’s entirely possible to get lost for about 10 minutes checking all of them out. Guybrush buys a few important items here, including a mirror that Polly there is preening herself in.

Try-It Tuesday: Starmourn

When it comes to the fringe world of MUDs, Iron Realms is a current powerhouse, containing several popular titles that have endured even as online players have mostly forgotten that text-based MMOs are an actual thing. The studio’s newest title, Starmourn, just released into open beta this winter and caught my attention due to its sci-fi nature and promises of engineers and hoverboards. I’ve only ever lightly tried MUDs, so I figured it was time for another go with as modern of a title as I could access.

I’ll say this for MUDs — they always seem much more concerned with getting you into the headspace of your character during the creation process than most MMORPGs. I often lament how bare bones and boring character creators are in MMOs compared to pen-and-paper RPGs, but at least Starmourn has a slew of options and encourages you to visualize your looks in your imagination rather than giving you a picture to go with it. The details go so far as to descriptive skin and eye color, although I was disappointed not to get more in the way of background and traits. I went with a Jin Engineer with a smoky skin tone in the hopes that one day I would get probes, hoverboards, and other fun toys.

Unfortunately for blogging, MUDs are not very photogenic. It’s a bunch of reading, for the most part, and by and large I enjoyed what I experienced here. The different colors of text separated quest text, other players’ presences, general descriptives, location directions, items, and so on. I think you get more used to parsing this as you play, but I found that it was a bit of an eyesore at first, especially when you got to a new area and the text kept scrolling as events unfolded. I don’t want to be speed-reading, worried that I’ll end up dead because I’m on paragraph 4 while my character is being lasered in paragraph 10.

The other problem I had with the text is that the main box is far too wide, making my eyes travel too far left and right to be comfortable. After a couple of hours playing, my eyes grew fatigued from this. Perhaps there were options to resize the center frame, but I didn’t see it.

One very nice touch was that Starmourn includes a lot of hypertext links, allowing me to bypass typing every last thing out and clicking on options when presented as well as directions on the mini-map.

So this is the general layout here, with the minimap on the upper left, character sheet ont he lower left, main screen and options in the middle, and on the right descriptions of items in the room and quests.

Starmourn started out with my character crash-landing on a planet and then falling in with a group of scoundrels while slavers came to attack the area. It’s all an extended tutorial of do this, do that, and you definitely won’t die, but I still thought it was more interesting than your standard MMO “go kill the first five mobs and return with their ears” quest. Following this, we took off and I got a confusing spaceship tutorial — and yes, the spaceships kind of move in real time, although not very fast. Plus you have to keep using various text commands that I was sure I was not going to remember, so I hoped that there would be shortcuts in the future if I got my own craft.

Eventually the game dumped me out in a large city area, and here’s where my interest started to flag. Probably one of the worst things that RPGs can do to me at the start is go “Here’s a big town, now poke around and feel lost and directionless as you’re trying to learn the game!” I sat on a bench, I stood up from a bench, I had a long chat with an AI information broker, and I took a shuttle from one part of the city to the other, all while whatever immersion the tutorial had created started to dissipate.

I have a feeling that I’ve played visual games for too long at this point in my life. I would have had a lot more patience (not to mention fascination) with a MUD like this in the 1980s or 90s, but getting over the learning hump would take a bit of a push that I’m not willing to put in right now. Still, it was interesting and made me applaud the fact that devs are still creating these kinds of games today, so check this out if it sounds interesting to you!

DDO: Tomb raider

Lara Croft doesn’t have anything on this Gnome with a repeating crossbow, an energy cannon arm, and a robotic dog who jumps headfirst into danger. Although she does have two guns, so I guess there’s that.

Anyway, lots more Necropolis questing this week — I think there are about 22 in total, with four boasting epic versions. It’s going to keep me busy for the better part of a month, so I’m trying not to waste any time. Next up was Tomb of the Immortal Heart, a library-themed dungeon with lots of hidden alcoves and ridiculously easy to slay bad guys.

The CR level keeps jumping up and down on me depending on the quest, and I’m not always the best in figuring out if I should select epic difficulty level or keep it at normal. I didn’t see that this was was just level 5, so of course I blitzed through it. Still, that’s one more that’s down and buried, pardon the pun.

Tomb of the Shadow Guard is another one of those DDO quests that I’ll be more than happy to never repeat. Basically, it’s Swimming: The Quest. What we have here is a very, very long dungeon in which large parts are entirely underwater and require traversing. The twisty passages, Z axis, and murky water all contribute to a disorienting effect, and it’s only the largely linear nature of the dungeon and the advice to “follow the light plants” that kept me from being lost there forever. Just felt like a lot of pointless swimming, and I’m not a big fan of swimming in MMOs.

I was initially frustrated by Tomb of the Blighted, as all of its water is filled with this horrible blight rot debuff that continually lowers stats until you’re powerless and dead. But then I figured out the chief mechanic at play here, which was to use vials of blessed water to de-corrupt strengthened roots, cleanse myself, and cleanse a series of urns around this large square hallway. It was slow going, especially with the zombies who die and spew out an even nastier skeleton to fight, but once I got the pace down, it went very smoothly. And I give the quest designers props for a clever mechanic, so all in all, it’s one of the better dungeons that I’ve run in the Necropolis.

If we were to grade dungeons on atmosphere, Tomb of the Crimson Heart would get high marks. The hazy red miasma lends a gooshy Halloween feel to this fairly straight-forward instance. The goal here is to find three runes (embedded into random decorative skulls), open a final door, defeat a mummy boss. I probably took this dungeon at too low a level, because everything was dying if I just glared at them hard enough. At least now I have a month’s supply of toilet paper on hand.

Tomb of the Shadow Lord clearly discriminates against solo players, because it’s one of those instances where a party member or two needs to stay behind to activate certain levers. The workaround for soloing is using pets and hirelings as stand-ins — you have to drag them over to a spot, command them in a firm tone to “STAY!”, run to the door, and then click their “use” buttons at the same time and hope you got it right.

Fun fact: It is ENTIRELY possible to lock yourself in a room in this instance from which there is no escape. Not that I did this and had to exit out and restart the dungeon. Nope. Not at all.

LOTRO: The idiocy of Elves knows no bounds

Unlike the fall and winter festivals in LOTRO, I have little interest in participating in the spring celebration. It’s simply not as well designed, and the key features — the hedge maze and shrew stomp — lean more toward “frustrating” than “fun” on my scale. Factor in the lack of really desirable cosmetics, mounts, or housing items, and I am more than willing to skip this every year.

However, I heard that SSG added a new questline for 2019, so I acquiesced enough to at least run that. New story is new story, right? And this one seemed slightly promising at first, as three herbalists from Gondor come to work… which ends up being a lot of lounging around and drinking. There is one responsible one in the bunch, but the other two don’t listen to her at all. Anyway, the story quickly switches over to an eavesdropping Elf — one of that race’s many sterling qualities — who butts in to moan and whine about the extinction of a special elf-flower that used to be found all over Middle-earth. The tragic — dreadfully so! — event drove two Elf brothers apart because nothing is more dramatic in the elf world than anything to do with flowers.

Things went from an eye-rolling “the elves are going on and on about flowers AGAIN?” to true groaning when it’s revealed that this incredibly precious and deeply lamented flower is…

A sunflower. Yup. You know, those things that SSG stuck all over the Shire one day this past year to the bewilderment and even annoyance of players? Like the whole region suddenly contracted a plague of tall edible flowers. Well now with this quest I smell conspiracy to commit retcon in the writers’ room! Either SSG had the forethought to get sunflowers in for the quest to come, or the studio is getting in a joke at the expense of rankled players. I mean, with this quest, the sunflowers are now canon, so they’re there for good.

It’s also ridiculous and not at all flattering for the elves to be completely ignorant of the sunflower’s existence in the Shire. I mean, if these two guys were so in love with this one particular plant, you’d think they would have asked around a bit. Perhaps paid to put some pictures on the side of milk cartons: “Have you seen this flower?”

Elves and flowers are always a dangerously stupid mix, and this quest is perhaps the pinnacle of proving such.