Cityscapes dot every country around the world. From New York to London to Dubai. Marvelous, towering mountains of man cast sparkling lights for miles. Yet, of all the cities I’ve visited, there’s one that has left a lasting impression on me. One that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
A city that has fueled many offhand daydreams for years — since I very first set foot in it. It’s a city, that until recently, has barred visitors since 2012 simply because, like a mirage, it ceased to exist. That place was a city of heroes, a city called Paragon City. And now, after years drifting in the ether, it has reemerged.
A Surprise Homecoming
You’ve probably never heard of Paragon City. That’s okay. If you try to look for it on a map, you won’t find it. It isn’t on any continent. It isn’t anywhere on the globe. In fact, it doesn’t even exist — not in the physical sense, at least.
Paragon City only existed as bits of data and code, hosted on servers as a digital playground. It was a place for gamers to come and live out their very own superhero (or villain) fantasies. It was the main setting for the titular City of Heroes (CoH), a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) released way back in April of 2004. That was a far different time and place for video games — most especially for MMOs.
The game did well initially. Unfortunately, however, like most MMOs of the time, it would fall victim to the colossal, seemingly invincible titan that was World of Warcraft. In November 2012, City of Heroes was laid to rest amid a myriad of other games fell under the massive popularity of Blizzard’s giant. But, while Paragon City was gone, it far from forgotten.
Flash forward to April 2019, and, amid a flurry of rumors, unofficial City of Heroes “private servers” began to pop up. It would seem after independent fans spent years toiling away trying to recreate the iconic superhero MMO, someone with access to the game’s original source code “leaked” it onto the internet. Seemingly overnight City of Heroes rose from the grave and the most popular among these emerging private servers was the aptly named “Homecoming.”
Within a month of its initial launch, Homecoming racked up a stunning 100,000 new accounts. By all appearances, Paragon City is back and more bustling than ever. So, I decided to once again dawn my mask and cape to delve back into Paragon City. Several years removed from my last time playing the game, this was a chance to see if City of Heroes still held up or if all my daydreams and pining had been nothing more than nostalgic yearning tinted through rose-colored glasses.
Leaping Back to Paragon City
Immediately upon logging onto the private server and beginning the character creation process, one thing became abundantly clear: City of Heroes has a wealth of in-depth character and class-building options. This game was — and it still is — an alt-oholic’s dream. With over ten archetypes available and dozens of powerset combinations, the possibilities felt endless.
Do you want to play as a giant robot who unleashes sonic attacks to subdue foes? That’s covered. What about a slimy fish-man who blasts enemies with torrents of water? Yup, you can do that, too. Okay, but how about a hulking villainous brute who swings a giant hammer while radiation seeps from her pores? You bet you can! Laser rifles, super strength, poison darts, web grenades, psychic mind-melts, rejuvenating growths, dual-pistol assaults — it’s all there and it’s all viable and it’s all so much fun to play.
The richness in character building options City of Heroes offers players is largely unparalleled by modern video games. Particularly by other MMORPGs. It’s immediately obvious how deliberately and lovingly the developers built a system emphasizing player creativity. Players can truly dive in and create just about anything they can imagine. Most importantly, this holds true for class-building as much as it does for simple character aesthetics.
Gameplay in City of Heroes, like many MMOs of an earlier age, is deceptively simple. You blast, burn, and smash your way through large groups of enemies across open maps. Yet, while it may seem straightforward initially, the combat lends itself to layers of nuanced coordination built on the robust class-building system.
Crowd controlling superpowers that render entire groups of enemies blinded open opportunities for squishier melee specialists to hack or slice through tougher opponents. Radiation bursts lower boss enemies’ defenses, allowing ranged attackers to hit their mark. Gravitational singularities pin groups down, making them easy targets for aerial bombardments. Sometimes, a single class, when built correctly, can create these opportunities. Other times, multiple heroes, in teams, in leagues, or as supergroups, band together and strategize.
It’s this unparalleled level of creative freedom, in creating your hero or villain’s costume to building out their powers, which makes City of Heroes so utterly unique. This is a game that gives its players the opportunity to create characters as wild as their imaginations will allow while catering to playstyles both broad and niche. Meanwhile, creative freedom is a quality that’s been largely absent from the modern gaming industry — especially among MMORPGs.
A Love Letter to Super Heroes and Gamers
When it comes down to it, City of Heroes is an undoubtedly old game. It was initially launched in 2004 and its development ceased in 2012. Few games age well enough to remain relevant over a decade after their release. Yet here City of Heroes is. Resurrected and still beloved. Perhaps it’s even more beloved now than it was as it laid on its death bed seven years ago.
Why has City of Heroes endured? The answer can’t simply be nostalgia. Old players aren’t just dropping back in to dip their toes, reminisce, then leave for the next big thing. Instead, the community continues to grow and thrive. Besides, one thing is plain to see for me and every other player: City of Heroes is still fun. Very fun. Yet, even that doesn’t justify its resurgence. There must be something more to it. I might know what that is.
Today, video games, whether they’re massively multiplayer or otherwise, seem to increasingly tell their players how they should play the game. Oh, you’re a warrior? Well here are your exciting selections of overly limited options.
Oh wait, you’re a sorceress? Do you want to wield a wand or a staff? No, you can’t use that weapon; it’s either a staff or a wand — shut up and pick one.
Oh, you’re a cowboy in a sprawling, gorgeous western setting? Here are the weapons you must use to complete this mission and the exact path you’ll take to do it.
Today, the vast majority of video games seem to think the player is either stupid, lazy, or both. Even sprawling, massively open-world games reign players in, limiting their options to traversing through simple pre-determined map-markers while offering a controlled, checklist focused gameplay experience. Meanwhile, many early MMORPGs, like City of Heroes, loosened the reigns. Players were allowed freedom, given a buffet of character-building choices, and left to their own devices.
When the player begins their superpowered journey in City of Heroes, they’re given options upon options. Of course, this is all within a system — it wouldn’t be a game, at least not a fun or coherent one, if there wasn’t some system directing the gameplay. However, within that system, players are given a breadth of freedom. They’re given an actual comic book sandbox to play in. This is what makes City of Heroes so brilliant.
Paragon City feels like a sprawling, carefully-crafted love letter to superheroes, video games, and role-playing. The moment players set foot in this City of Heroes, a colorful, seemingly limitless world unfurls beyond them.
Unlike most modern games, City of Heroes doesn’t pigeonhole players into rigid roles or archetypes. Nor are players hand-held and given a laundry list of items to checkmark. Instead, they’re given a city to defend and an open canvas to create their own comic book-worthy superhero story.
That’s why, even after fifteen years, so many gamers have yearned for and are now journeying back into this game.
The world still needs a city of heroes.