Sunday, August 7, 2011

Issue 17 - Dark Mirror: A Review


NOTE - It should be fairly obvious that the post below is going to have spoilers. But just in case, here it goes: If you have not yet experienced I17, and don't want it spoiled for you, please read no further. And if you continue to read further and get upset that something was spoiled for you, don't blame me. I warned you.
And with that, I bring you my review of City of Heroes' latest update - Issue 17: Dark Mirror.
Issue 17

I'm lucky enough that my computer can handle the big feature of I17 - Ultra Mode. Introduced at HeroCon 2009, Ultra Mode is a massive graphics update that makes the world of CoH look a lot more detailed and realistic. It also gives a much needed face lift to a game that just turned six years old. These features include real time shadows, character shadows, environmental reflections, water effects, and ambient occlusion. In the screen shot at left, you can see the world reflected in the water, including Lusca's moving tentacles. You can also see that the places in shadow have realistic light and shadow depth (that's the ambient occlusion). You will also see that I am casting a shadow, which characters never did before. The rest of the screen shots in this post were all taken with Ultra Mode enabled, so keep an eye out for those new features. Ultra Mode brings so much more life to the world of CoH and makes it much richer and detailed than before. CoH has always been visually beautiful to look at, and Ultra Mode takes that and kicks it into high gear. The day the issue launched, I flew around and just stared at things for a long while before doing anything else. Also, a side note to that screen shot - long time players probably noticed that my tail is moving, and that I'm wearing a belt with the tail. While this may be a small feature to some, this is something that players have been wanting for years. Belts and tails are now separate items, and there is now an option for animated tails. 
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I17 also brought with it a whole new collection of badges. Most of these badges are exploration badges in various parts of the cities. Both hero side and villain side have new badges in all city zones, and the hazard zones Faultline and Hollows on the hero side have new badges as well. In addition, there are accolades associated with each of these zones for getting all of the badges in the zone. These accolades also come with the nice bonus of 5 reward merits. My favorite part of these new badges is that they take you to places that are rarely seen or experienced, which I guess is the whole point anyway. For instance, the screen shot at right was taken in a part of Nerva Archipelago that I never knew existed, despite the fact that I have been playing villain side since it was in closed beta testing. I spent quite a bit of time looking and exploring here, and was fascinated by the detail in this area. I was also impressed that I could still find something new in a game that I've been playing for six years that had been there the whole time.
Another cool feature about the exploration badges is that a lot of them give interesting history and insights into the CoH lore. As a lore nerd, this makes me very happy. Additionally, I really like the badge on top of the hill in Talos Island. The text of the badge reads that it was a gathering spot for heroes during the second Rikti War. And it was. Players gather there for both Rikti and Zombie invasions. To have a nod to player culture in game is just awesome, and I appreciate that the devs are aware of the way players enjoy the game. Lastly, there are some very funny badge text as well, including one in Mercy Island and one in Peregrine Island. I'll leave them to you to find, though.
The only thing that concerns me about the accolades is that I hope it's not an indication that new exploration badges will never be added to the game. That would be very disappointing, as I17 shows that you can move the story along and fill in gaps of the lore with badges.
Issue 17


Four additional badges can be found in the new story arcs that were added - two hero side and two villain side. All four are in the 24 - 29 level range, and can be accessed via Ouroboros for characters who have out leveled it. The first hero arc starts with the contact Keith Nance who sends you on a very unusual assignment - go stop yourself from destroying the city.

Keith gives you a radio, through which he contacts you while in the missions. This is a new, and quite awesome feature. During various parts of the mission, floating text will pop up on the screen to give you hints and clues, or to move the story along. My one and only complaint about this new feature is that it isn't captured with the NPC chat, so it's not logged in the chat files. This makes it impossible to go back and read it if you've missed something. In the future, I hope that is changed, and that this tech is used again. Another interesting feature of this arc is that one mission, the one featured above actually, starts in Faultline and ends in Talos Island. This is something we have never seen before, and is a nice touch. Sometimes the instances in the game can feel a bit weird, especially when you enter an office building and come out the other side into an outdoor map of Atlas Park. But this new feature gives the sense of movement and reality.
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What you discover is that there are three versions of you out there - you-you (the player), the good you, and the bad you. You have no idea where the other yous came from. All you know is that the evil you is wrecking havoc all over town, the good you is trying to stop her, and the you-you has a hard time telling them apart, so you just beat up everyone that looks like you. Confused? Good. This arc will certainly keep you on your toes and guessing up until the last minute.
After you have it figured out and you thoroughly kick your own butt, Nance passes you over to Jenni Adair. Completing Nance's arc also gives you The Fairest badge.   
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Jenni doesn't seem the least bit weirded out by the multiple yous. In fact, she wants to help you find and defeat the evil you. She puts you in touch with another ally - the good you. She even gives the good you a radio so she can talk to you during the missions. Adair's arc introduces another cool new tech. Your ally, the good you, has objectives of her own. You can see them in the navigation bar along with yours. As she completes them, she updates you via radio on her part of the story, just as Nance did in the first arc. I totally geeked out over this, and was very excited to see it.

Adair's arc also brings in some old enemies, and puts Archon Burkholder back in the proper uniform. He's a tough customer, but a fun foe to take on. His role in all this is very interesting, so be sure to read all the clues (as you should anyway, as these new arcs are intricate stories).

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The final battle is against an enemy that has been talked about in game lore, but never seen before. The whole thing ends in a tear-jerker moment that leaves more questions than it answers. At the end of the arc, you are granted the Singular Vision badge. And if the end of the arc wasn't sad enough, the badge art really tugs on the heartstrings. And that is the mark of good story telling. If you can make a player care that much about the pixels on the screen, you've done a great job.

This arc is surely an intro arc into Praetoria, which is the new zone for Going Rogue, the expansion coming out this Summer.   

Issue 17

The first villain arc starts with a new contact named Dean MacArthur. He's an interesting addition to the game, as he talks differently to female characters than he does male characters. His dialogue for female characters is exactly what you'd expect from a heteronormative, alpha male type - he flirts with you shamelessly, tries to woo you, and acts like a badass. However, he also knows that you're smart and that you most likely see through him. He send you on a heist where you run into a duplicate of yourself. Just like in the hero arc, you chase this duplicate around the Rogue Isles, trying to find out where it came from. However, the story is very different, and you don't have a you ally that talks to you via radio. In fact, you try to set up a cloning lab and purposely make clones of yourself. Once that's done, you set your sights on a guy named Ajax who has been giving Dean some trouble. Completing this arc gives you the Bane of Ajax badge and unlocks a contact named Leonard.

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Leonard is excited to hear about your cloning lab, and knows where you can find some Crey scientists to help you. He works for a group called Mane Corp, and has promised you funding and resources. This arc has several twists and turns, and the opportunity for two badges. There is a mission to test your clones, and if you choose to take on all 8 at once, you will earn the Army of Me badge. I'm currently wearing the badge, as it's quite perfect for a Mastermind. This arc also has new and updated maps, and ends with you fighting the same enemy as the one in the hero arc. There are also a lot of choices you, the player, can make to change the outcome of the arc, and how certain missions play out. Completing the arc gives you the Explosive Finale badge.

All four of these arcs feature branching dialog that all give you different reactions from the contacts and NPCs on the maps. In addition to that, the objective items on the maps are highly interactive and can give you a lot of information. All this new tech makes these arcs much more immersive and personal, and allows the personality of your character to shine through by letting you make decisions. This is a wonderful new direction for content in this game, and one I hope continues. However, there is a downside in that now all the old content looks bland and boring. I can only hope that Issue 20 is called Facelift, and it brings the old parts of the game up to speed. But that's a different entry for another day.

Issue 17

Lastly, I want to talk about the Positron Task Force. Long time players know that the old Positron TF was one of the most hated in the game, probably second only to the Dr. Quaterfield TF. It was boring, tedious, a bit too hard for the level range, and way, way too long. The revamp breaks the TF up into two parts, each with five missions.

The maps have all been updated, so each one of the ten missions has a new look and feel to it. There were times when my team just stopped and looked at stuff, and most of us have been around a long time (three of us since year one). Again, that's the sign that you've got it right. The story pretty much stays the same, and the named bosses from the original all make an appearance in the new TF as well. And just like the story arcs, there is cool new tech in these missions as well. For one, Positron has a little bit of branching dialogue. This makes it possible for him to have, essentially, two TFs (completing the first part unlocks the second). Next, Azuria teleports you to the Circle of Thorns city of Oranbega, rather than it being an entrance from a cave or something. And at the end, there are shadow clones of every one on your team. When my team got to that part, we again all stopped and said "Oh, now that's cool."

The second part of the task force plays more heavily on the old story than the first - your team is tasked to save the Faultline Dam. But unlike the old version, you actually go into Faultline to do it! But first, you have to track down who is behind it and try to stop them. This takes you into all kinds of neat places, including a Vahzilok lab that has someone in it very familiar to villains, but never before seen hero side. It ends with an epic battle on top of a catwalk, and you and your team are Dam Heroes.

Just like with the story arcs, I worry about how the other original task forces are going to hold up now, especially the Citadel and Manticore ones, which were pretty boring before the changes happened, and look even worse now. I only hope that the players' enthusiasm over the changes shows them that it's worth their time and effort to revamp the others.

And now I'll leave you with some more screen shots from the Positron Task Force. Enjoy Issue 17!

Issue 17

Issue 17

Issue 17

Issue 17

Issue 17

Originally posted 4 May 2010

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