Into the Gray: A Hands-On Preview of City of Heroes: Going Rogue

While City of Heroes: Going Rogue offers a little something to new players and veterans alike, the new story is centered on the new levels 1-20 experience.
While City of Heroes: Going Rogue offers a little something to new players and veterans alike, the new story is centered on the new levels 1-20 experience. Lead Systems Designer Matt “Positron” Miller explained: “We’re positioning Going Rogue as a new entry level game as well as an expansion. We want brand new players who’ve never played City of Heroes before to feel welcome.” And, unlike most comic book games offering a choice between good or evil, Going Rogue lets you work your way into that choice over the first 20 levels.  As a Praetorian (rather than a Hero or Villain) you haven’t yet  chosen a side, therefore you can choose from all ten of the available archetypes (five traditionally heroic archetypes and five villainous ones – details here:).

I picked a blaster with one of the new power sets, the dual pistols, to see if I couldn’t get some John Woo mojo flowing.  Making a point of the care that went into creating even the minor parts of this expansion, Matt explained that one of the game’s artists was particularly proud that when each pistol is fired, the receiver comes back, the shell is ejected, and a new cartridge is loaded. That may not sound impressive until you realize that your character seems to come from the Warsaw Pact school of ammo discipline and is literally firing off probably hundreds of rounds a minute.

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I spent a few minutes doing one of my favorite things to do in any City of Heroes experience – hitting “Random Appearance” a few thousand times – and opted not to go with a character with one of the new animated tails. As I went along, Matt explained the concept of Praetoria.  “We have this alternate dimension, this alternate earth, called Praetoria. When you first start the game, if you’ve never made another character, we force you to start as Praetorian, because that’s our best new player content; that’s our best foot forward.” As a nice little touch, character creation ended with a citizens’ registration card listing all my vitals, so (I’m guessing) access to the bars around Praetoria becomes that much easier.

In the tutorial zone, I was presented with a choice – should I take the basic or veteran tutorial?  “Do I want the full-on text of how to play the game, or just the highlights?” Matt explained, noting that those who are comfortable with MMORPGs are probably safe taking the veteran tutorial.  Most dialogue trees also offer an (Optional) branch, which grants players a little more story. Showing that these dialogue choices are optional is a nice compromise between fast play and a rich story – players who want the full story can select to read the (optional) dialogue, others can simply breeze past it. Going Rogue also features a new hot tips system in the form of red exclamation points on the side of the screen that can be read (or dismissed) at your leisure. These tips came in quite handy, though, as I was able to take advantage of the new, faster sprint skill that Paragon Studios added in Going Rogue.

As we moved to our first mission contact, Matt explained the two factions and some of the subfactions of Praetoria. The two main factions are the Loyalists and the Resistance. The Loyalists are those firmly devoted to Emperor Cole  and appreciative of all he has done to keep Praetoria peaceful and safe since the Hamidon Wars. That peace has come at a severe price, and as Cole has essentially turned Praetoria into a police state of truly fascist proportions, a budding resistance led by Calvin Scott.

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Within the Loyalists, NPCs are split between the Powers Division and the Responsibilities Division. “One’s kind of good, the other’s kind of bad,” Matt explained. “Those in the Powers Division, like Reece (your first contact), is all about the celebrity and glory of being an authority figure. ‘I just saved that school, put me on camera.’ The Responsibilities division is more like, ‘It’s all about saving the school.’ Even within each side, there are shades of gray. That’s really what this expansion’s all about – the moral choices, the shades of gray.” This was my first hint that things were going to get a little morally clouded in Going Rogue.

Reece assigned me to infiltrate the Resistance, at which I could have told him where exactly he could infiltrate (Matt noted that though players progress toward decision points regardless of dialogue choices – there’s not a lot of true mission branching, in other words – but specific dialogue choices are noted and may come back to haunt players in later conversations).  Instead, I toed the line and zoned into the Resistance hideout.

Before I go further, I’d be remiss not to mention of the quality of City of Heroes’s graphics since Issue 16: Dark Mirror’s graphical enhancements hit the servers. Reflections, shadows, and overall image quality have improved tremendously and, I think, are above par compared any MMORPG a quarter of CoH’s age. Paragon has even looked after the smallest of details: watch the Nova Praetoria skyline long enough at night, for example, and you’ll see the lighted rooms in the skyscrapers turn off and on.

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Down in the tunnels, we came across a reprogrammed Clockwork soldier that was badly in need of repair. While I opted to repair it, I was presented with a choice to have him move ahead and possibly aid me (pro-Resistance) or report to the surface and, unknown to it, be recaptured by the Praetoria PD (pro-Loyalist). Not wanting to blow my cover in either case, I chose the latter option.  In the sewers, the Resistance was fighting the Ghouls  (the creepy sewer dwellers that make up one of five plus NPC enemy factions in Going Rogue).

It was here that Matt pointed out one of the two nice new UI innovations in Going Rogue: a text dialogue that continues at the top of the screen as you move away from an NPC (so you can read as you run) and a yellow border that appears around NPCs that are attackable, but won’t attack you. These two features alone show the sort of maturity of this grand statesman of comic book MMOs, as well as the care that its devs have put into this expansion.

We eventually found our contact, Wrencher, subdued by two PPD officers. One of the officers recognized me as being sent from the Powers Division and assumed I wanted to take credit for the capture. I then was presented with a very clear choice, join the Resistance and cap these two officers (who would be the only witnesses to my treachery) or continue on with the Loyalists.  This won’t be the only time you’re presented with a Resistance vs. Loyalist choice – Matt explained that we’d have over 11 times to chose, and there’s no penalty to changing your mind aside from the fact that consistently making the same choice would result in a more solid storyline.

I chose the Resistance and took out the two policemen.  Calvin Scott, the Resistance leader, appeared, and immediately understood that I’d be the perfect mole,  since I could say that I took down Wrencher and no one would be the wiser.  Matt explained how this pans out: “What I love about some of our new missions is that, now that I have [Calvin Scott] on my contacts list, I can get a Loyalist mission to go to a police precinct, then once I’m inside, you can call up Calvin Scott who’s got an alternate mission objective for you while you’re in that map. So you can gather clues and information for both sides and play that sort of spy character, which I love.”

I asked Matt what would happen if I’d chosen to side with the Loyalists instead. Whereas I took down the cops by rolling Resistance, I’d have to take down Wrencher if I chose Loyalists, and instead of Calvin Scott I’d have another policeman as my ending contact for the mission. Then a few contacts down the line, you’ll get a decision that’s really morally borderline, and you’ll again have to decide whether you want to stick with the Loyalists or go Resistance.

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But don’t expect the Resistance choice to always be the “good” choice, or the Loyalist choice to always be the “evil” one.  “The water supply of Praetoria has mind-altering agents to pacify the people, and they recommend that you drink seven glasses a day. (laughter) So the Resistance has a mission to blow up the water treatment plant, and you’re like, “That’s a no-brainer, I have to go do that.”  The drawback is that this is the only source of potable water in all of Praetoria, and people are going to be sick and die for months because there’s not enough water.  That’s the kind of decisions we want to put in the hands of players – how would you react in this situation? And it’s not always cut and dry.”

With my lot thrown in for the Resistance this time around, I zoned out and met up with Loyalist contact Marauder, who was pleased with my work in taking down Wrencher. I brought up the Clockwork I’d sent topside for recapture, and he explained that Reece said that he recaptured the Clockwork.  “Now you’re like, man, I’ve got a rivalry already. We play with that rivalry – if you stick with the Powers division, you and Reece go toe to toe over and over.”

That was the end of the basic demo, but just the beginning of Going Rogue. “Once you get out of Praetoria (or if you have an existing character over level 20), we have the Going Rogue system.  The Going Rogue system revolves around getting tip drops after you defeat enemies. You get a tip and it’s the location of a drug lab with a crime lord living in it. So now you have two choices: the heroic choice is to go in and destroy the drug lab and arrest the crime lord. The vigilante choice is to destroy the drug lab and kill the crime lord – you’re judge, jury, and executioner as a vigilante.

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Matt continued: “ You run that mission and you’d get a hero point or a vigilante point. When you get ten of these points and you’ve run enough of these missions, we offer you a morality mission. This includes one of those big, heavy moral choices that you need to make. Are you truly a vigilante? If so, you can chose to become a Vigilante at the end of the mission. As a Vigilante, you can visit the Rogue Isles, you can team up with villains that are there, you can do the newspaper missions that are there, you can’t get new contacts yet because you’re not truly a villain, but you’ll get those tip drops that now have a villainous bent to them. So you can do ten of those, get another morality mission, and become a villain if you want to.  So it’s not an overnight thing; it’s going to take some effort to turn your hero into a villain (or vice versa), because we wanted you to feel like your character was falling from grace or find redemption.”

So is a vigilante or rogue a valid, long term way to play? “We want to encourage all styles of gameplay. If you play a vigilante or rogue, you have access to both sides, you can play with all your friends, you can get badges you couldn’t normally get.  But if you want to stay a hero, you can run that morality mission and say you’re staying a hero, and we’ll give you a hero merit.  That’s a new form of currency with which you can buy the very rare drops, the purple drops, in a place that only heroes and only villains can go to, called the Loyalty Lounges.”

But does a merit or token system cheapen the value of some of these rare drops, which had required something of a grind to attain before? “The time / reward ratio is consistent,” Matt explained. “But the merit system is more in the player’s favor because now you can choose exactly what you want to buy, rather than relying on random drops.”

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Finally, the Incarnates system had been scheduled to go live with Going Rogue, but Paragon Studios decided to pull it out of the expansion and save it for a future Issue. “We got a lot of feedback from the players that, ‘Yea, this is really fun and I can earn some really cool powers for my guys and get some cool stuff, but I want more to do with it.” And yea, you’re absolutely right, you should have something more to do with it. We want to make sure that when we’re ready to release the Incarnates system, there’s more to do with it as opposed to get the power and have it sit around.”

Issue 18: Shades of Gray, which is the free-to-subscribers portion of the expansion, will come out on the same day and date, and will include the tip drops and accompanying missions (sans the morality missions).  If you buy Going Rogue later, you’ll likely have 10 points saved up to switch alignments or gain merit points. Issue 18 will also include the Cathedral of Pain, a level 50 raid that was horribly broken in its first incarnation. Now it’s been fixed and added to the Issue free to all players. At this time, Matt noted that the hero and villain auctionhouses and basic currency will be unified in Issue 18 to accommodate players who wish to switch back and forth between the alignments, i.e. most or all of you.

Hero, Villain, Vigilante or Rogue, your choice will soon be at hand. City of Heroes: Going Rogue will be hitting store shelves in just three weeks on August 17th. Our sincerest thanks to Matt Miller, NC Soft, and the Paragon Studios team for letting us get our grubby hands on City of Heroes: Going Rogue at San Diego Comic-Con  2010.

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