To say we've been anticipating the darker spin-off from all-conquering superhero MMO, City Of Heroes, for some time now is a mild understatement. There's a little psycho in all of us, and the thought of spending another long day fastidiously patrolling the streets of Paragon City, fighting crime and wrong-doing was starting to get to us. Time to release the pressure valve a little. Would City Of Villains hold the answer? Luckily, we were invited into the closed beta test to get a hands-on experience to see for ourselves.
Much relief greeted us with the character-creation screens. At first, it seemed as though Cryptic had really gone to town with the 'baddie' concept, giving you choices between Brute, Dominator, Stalker, Corruptor and Mastermind archetypes. All promising options, and while it didn't take long to realise these were mostly the same classes as in COH but with different names and one or two tweaks, it was forgivable as soon as we encountered all the new clothing options.
At least the Mastermind class gives you something new to play with. Essentially, you're given control over zombies (harrumph), robots, or our favourite, a team of ninja warriors to do your bidding. Here, our notions of building our dark army of the night grows ever stronger, although you only get to control between one and three henchmen at first, and their powers are limited to basic fighting moves until you unlock higher-level training powers.
The background to COH concerns the dastardly Lord Recluse and his chain of seven independent islands, the Rogue Isles - home to every kind of ne'er-do-well you can imagine. Recluse has dominion over the inhabitants, allowing gangs and factions to conduct whatever business they desire as long as his own schemes aren't disrupted. One of which is the rescue of your good self from the infamous Ziggurat prison, a setpiece that forms COV's tutorial.
Presently, the atmosphere is very grim. Dark, with a capital bleak. It feels as though someone attacked City Of Heroes with a giant fun vacuum then, once all vestiges of camp tomfoolery had been eradicated, flipped the switch to blow and covered everything with a coating of depression and misery. Citizens wander about the islands in a permanent state of paranoia and helplessness. Gangs roam (well, hang about their spawn points) with abandon, beating on each other for no reason other than it's something to do. Desolation and oppression abound and the day-glo, colourful world of Paragon City is as distant a memory as it gets.
An interesting premise, but there's a currently rogue purple sock of concern in the whites-only wash of potential. Namely, that all this gloom and doom doesn't quite have the same wide-reaching appeal and lofty scope as the bright environs of City Of Heroes. COV is quite definitely not a sequel, more a re-imagining of the original, the Star Trek mirror universe of super-powered MMOs. Playing these early levels with each of the different villainous archetypes, we were slightly disappointed to see that the path of progression was the same whatever type of criminal powersets we boasted.
COH had the good grace to give each hero class a mission path of their own to follow, while including enough random and group-based content to cater for almost all types of player. City Of Villains, it seems from this early play, makes the first eight levels identical whoever you are.
There's also a problem of focus. Essentially this is an identical game to Heroes, just on different maps and without the valiant nature to your actions. For goodies, this mechanic works perfectly. As a young man suddenly gifted an ability to shoot fireballs out of your penis, you're naturally going to start small, blasting a few muggers and low-rent hoodlums with your rod of justice, before working your way up to tackling ultra-baddies, alien invaders and world-threatening plots of diabolical cunning. All fine, dandy and in-keeping with traditional comic-book norms.