Freedom (I Won’t Get You Down)

25 November, 2011 at 10:10 pm (city of heroes)

So, waaaay back in March, I began working on a post about my experiences with DC Universe Online. I have a coterie of internet chums, predominantly out on the Left Coast, who meet up virtually to kill mall zombies, snipe 14 year-olds and comic book professionals alike, and generally bond in a virtual environment. In part due to my East Coast isolation and my job-required early curfew — but predominantly because of my general ineptitude at videogamery in general and FPSes in particular — I haven’t really been able to join in the melee. But in this case, I decided to make an exception, I procured a PS3, and bought the game at launch so that I could experience it and learn about it with other players.

As boondoggles go, sixty bucks is not the most grievous penalty I’ve ever paid. And the experience was not entirely unpleasant. I can’t say the same about, say, Champions Online, where my stuttering, halting framerate completely obscured clarity of action and rendered me unable to determine whether my frequent, inevitable deaths were the result of poor gameplay on my part or a combat system that resisted easy fluency. That account was deleted quickly and with no small amount of vicious stabbing at the keyboard, and I didn’t regret no longer having to endure their faux-four color printing fetishism, which is not the aspect of superheroics that moves and compels me.

No, the reason I fell out with DCUO was because of bad timing. The PS3 was borrowed, and eventually needed to be returned. Unfortunately, a couple months into playing the game, Sony was rather aggressively hacked, and all gameplay was suspended as servers were frozen to prevent an exploit of user data (this is my hazy recollection of events, anyway). Despite some sops for the absence of access — a few costume pieces and free access to a new mission arc — much of the velocity was lost, and the community of players with whom I had hoped to adventure had dried up. Perhaps if chat had an easy fix, or typing on a PS3 controller has been at all feasible, we would have been able to feel like a group of friends, but gaming — to us — never felt like were were playing as a team, even when gaming together.

So I gave back the console to its lender, but not before I found myself enjoying many aspects of the game. I enjoyed the powersets and character customization. I loved the fact that despite that armor improvements were combat drops — like in World of Warcraft, or Diablo, or the like — that one’s costume didn’t have to visually change to reflect the better armor. The game understood that a superhero treasures his or her look, and that while these boots may make for a faster movement rate, they also needed to match the overall style or design of the character, every character, and so needed to be suitably customizable. I appreciated the well-rendered physicality of the characters and the world. Yes, they were a little plastic, with a smooth solidity like a molded, immobile army man. But they stood out against the background and they felt vividly interactive.

Like my first forays into City of Heroes, I made my primary character based on the Lego superheroes I invented and constructed in my basement as a child. It wasn’t an entirely faithful visual adaptation, but I got as close as I could while still feeling like it was a cool look. And I liked the upgrade. I preferred him to his City of Heroes counterpart.

So when City of Heroes switched to a tiered Free-to-Play/VIP model with their transformation into City of Heroes: Freedom, I jumped on the VIP bandwagon. VIPs could log on to a limited-access server, not open to the wider public. Which meant, that if there was a character name that you’d always wanted but someone else had previously claimed, you might be able to get in on the brand-new server and snag it. This allowed me to recreate my totem character one more time. In addition to wanting to rebuild him in a manner that recaptured the reinvigoration I’d experienced with DCUO, I wanted particularly to start him from scratch, with the correct name, because the revamped game was offering a new wrinkle to sweeten the pot: a hoverboard travel power. And since the whole original aspect of the first “Speed-Skate” was that he rode a modified rocket-powered skateboard, this was surely the best in-game equivalent.

So my roster of reinvention continued. What was, in a former post, a collection of three interpretations, has grown. As shown above, from Left to Right: Speed-Skate in Lego, Godspeed as a middle-school drawing, Augenblich as a City of Villains ‘toon, Augenblich (again) as a DC Universe villain, and, finally, God-Speed as an Ultra-Mode VIP.

City of Heroes now has voice narration in limited sequences, much in the way that DCUO had voice actors for the major players and tiny, tinny sound-FX snippets for the minor thugs and minions that populated each villain group. But despite the fact that I’ve been playing City of Heroes now since 2006, I’ve never really found myself enraptured or even enmeshed in the game’s mythology. There are characters with stories and story-arcs, and plotlines that have been woven throughout the game. Villains have origins that are predicated on missions I have run and completed, and yet I couldn’t tell you what happened or how. It’s all very incidental to me. Much in the way I would impatiently skip any cut-scene in an FPS, I thoroughly ignore every dialogue box, clue, and interstitial in City of Heroes. However, that wasn’t the case with DC Universe. When my commlink crackled with static and Kevin Conroy told me that I needed to report for duty, you can be damn sure that I responded.

City of Heroes is more expansive, more personable, more community-oriented, vaster, and ultimately the game I’ve chosen to stick with and invest in. It’s simply more playable, and a more versatile vehicle for my superheroic imaginings. DCUO is predicated on the thrill of not being the ultimate hero yourself, but working alongside the iconic heroes of the Detective Comics Universe. It’s a strange form of wish-fulfillment, an oddly limited dreamscape: the desire, not to be Batman, but merely to be Robin. I didn’t think that it was a premise that would ring true. I was wrong. I’ll miss that. I already do.

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