Had a discussion on Twitter today about free to play RPGs, and how I have too damn many of them right now. Guild Wars 2, Old Republic, Neverwinter, Secret World, Path of Exile, Star Trek Online, and so on and so forth… and yet, none of them have successfully replaced City of Heroes for me as a best-in-show assemblage of things I want out of a game.
There’s no way I can adequately explain that in 250 characters on Twitter. So, I figured I’d write it up. (By the way, if you’d like me to write MORE off-topic posts like these, let me know. I used to use this as a personal blog regularly, but stopped so I could focus on the writing… but could shuffle things up sometimes.)
I want four things out of a game: Personalization, Story, low Complexity, and ease of Socialization. I’m putting this behind a blog cut to keep from getting HUGE on your screen. Clicky through if you need to.
Personalization. I want to decide what my character looks like; not just picking a face and a hairstyle, but designing my outfit from the ground up. Ideally, right out of the gate. I’m not the sort of person who enjoys starting in rags and gradually looking more awesome. I’m a writer — being tied to my character is critical, I want to feel like I designed them, not just that I’m forced to wait until level 40 to get the hideous yellow shoulder pads with the best stat bonus for my class.
City of Heroes let you COMPLETELY design your costume, and none of it was tied to your stats. Look like whatever you want, right off the bat. Perfect. I could make a cowboy, a cowboy robot, a vampire, a martial artist, a schoolgirl, a time traveller, a lizard, whatever. All independent of my class and my role.
So far, no game has done this since. Some offer cash shop options (Secret World, Old Republic), and I’ll typically go for those — not out of vanity, but out of a need to BOND with my character early on. Or, they’ll offer transmutation stones (Guild Wars 2) to keep an article of clothing moving forward, or they’ll offer dye kits to make your stuff less horrible… but you’re still wearing newbie rags at the start, and gradually collecting things which may or may not be atrocious.
I can’t feel like I have any connection to a character without a consistent look that I approve of. It’d be like Superman changing his iconic outfit every two issues because he got a sweet purple drop. It sucks.
Story. I want to make decisions about my own story. I want to pick my character’s reactions to what’s going on around him/her (SWTOR). I want to have SOME say in the decisions being made (GW2, SWTOR). I want the background I’ve selected to come into play. (GW2) I want to choose who I ally with, who I betray, and most importantly WHY I am doing those things. I want the story to be about me.
Closest I’ve come to this is Guild Wars 2, and it’s also the farthest I’ve gone from this. For the first 30 levels the game is custom-tailored to your character, and you’re calling the shots along the way. Who and what you are is reflected in the tasks you perform. It feels terrific, like you’re the star of your own heroic adventure!
…and then Trahearne shows up, steals the spotlight, and every single decision you’ve made is ignored for the rest of the game. Your background vanishes. Even your SPECIES becomes irrelevant; Sylvari get re-introduced to their maternal goddess as if they’d never met her before, for instance. After that, it’s fifty levels of beating up zombies and letting this little bastard take all the credit for saving the world. I felt so betrayed by this that after FINALLY clearing the story I have not gone back to GW2. It tastes like ashes to have such an amazing story go completely off the rails.
Complexity, and here’s where I disagree with a LOT of gamers. I don’t like complexity. I don’t want to monkey around with builds desperately trying to min-max and design something capable of surviving while solo. I don’t want to juggle 20+ active abilities, all of which are highly situational, all of which have to be rotated in a specific order lest you die horribly. I’m tired of feeling like I’m spending more time reading a wiki than playing a game.
What I prefer is a game which evenly mixes action and on-your-feet decision making with some light strategy. A game you can solo OR group in, without feeling doomed for not bringing along a tank and a healer. I want something I can just RELAX and enjoy without running headfirst into a skill wall, over and over and over.
So far, the closest I’ve found to this is Guild Wars 2, which emphasizes positioning and action and few active abilities. But even then, it gets quite complicated the deeper you go into traiting… and I’ve had a HELL of a time dealing with the bag-o-HP zombies they make you fight in higher levels, to the point where I lost interest. All other games just pour complexity on you. Old Republic makes you juggle dozens and dozens of abilities (and dared to SELL us extra ability trays, early on). Secret World demands a build with perfect harmony of abilities or you may as well not bother. I can’t even begin to understand the fifty dozen interlocking systems with funny scifi names Star Trek uses.
Socialization is key, and there’s some progress here, but not much. City of Heroes had sidekicking… the whole team fought at the same level of the mission owner, period. You could migrate up or down in levels on demand and everybody could play together, all the time, regardless of who was joining in. Seamless and perfect.
GW2 only offers downgrading to lower levels, which is okay, but means high level players can’t play with friends who haven’t put in as much time unless they wanna stomp through the same low level areas over and over. Star Trek apparently offers two way sidekicking but we ran into problems with it, with L45 ships showing up in my L5 mission and obliterating me immediately.
The worst offender, hands down, is Old Republic. I have never played with my friends, because unless you’re in lock-step level sync, you may as well not bother teaming. I’m forced to solo the whole game, which is a pain in the ass for many classes that don’t have a dedicated NPC tank following them around. Without any teaming options, I lose interest fast.
Overall, none of these games have the whole package. Some offer good customization but also pour on the ridiculously convoluted game mechanics. Some have excellent personalization but the story goes to crap. None of them have given me the magic combo I found in City of Heroes, where I could relax and easily enjoy an immersive world with my friends while playing characters I felt belong to me. And that’s a damn shame.