In the world of superheroes, nothing is less permanent than death. Just ask Superman; his demise in 1992 was one of the biggest news stories of the year, at least for the kind of easily bamboozled person who doesn’t actually read comic books (like the editors of Time Magazine). The more sophisticated were not fooled however, and rightly so. Superman was only in the ground for a little longer than your average basketball season.
This being so, it should come as no surprise that an entire universe of heroes and villains should return to life almost seven years after completely vanishing in a cataclysmic climax that can still bring tears to the eyes of those who were there at the end, but an enormous surprise it was. The comic book immortality principle notwithstanding, it really did seem as if that universe, the world of Paragon City and the Rogue Isles and the alternate dimension of Praetoria, was truly gone forever. But if comic books can teach us anything, it’s that the impossible is possible and that for the brave and pure of heart, no defeat is final.
In other words, City of Heroes, the legendary and beloved superhero MMORPG (that’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, a phrase even uglier and more graceless than its acronym), which ran from April 28th, 2004 until it was shut down by NCSOFT on November 30th, 2012, is back!
[Click the images for super-sized versions.]
Superman #75 (Jan 1993). Art by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding
This is great news for all the people who were devoted to the game and who have never found anything to take its place in the years since its disappearance, as well as for the many who’ve heard about it during the intervening years, years in which the game’s reputation has only grown.
How in the world did this happen? CoH was dead; seven years ago NCSOFT had turned a deaf ear to the frantic pleas of players and had spurned offers from interested parties to buy the game and keep it running, and in all the years since, the company has shown zero interest in ever bringing it back. So what changed?
On April 15th, Massively Overpowered broke a shocking story — for six years, a secret, fully-functional City of Heroes server had been running on an invite-only basis. Maintained by a group called SCORE (Secret Cabal of Reverse Engineers), the secret city had a population of around 3,000 players, all of whom had agreed not to reveal the existence of the project. While the rest of us were sitting around in dingy saloons, swilling cheap gin and saying things like, “Hey — did I ever tell you about that time on Talos Island when I took down three orange Tsoo Sorcerers, all without using any inspirations? Hey, where are you goin, Buddy? C’mon back and buy me another… I swear it’s true…” they were designing costumes, creating characters with power sets, battle cries, and back stories, and flying, superspeeding, or teleporting around the City, meeting contacts, doing missions, running task forces, holding costume contests and dance parties and all the rest. The intolerable injustice of it!
An ordinary day in Atlas Park
But all of the hush-hush, don’t tell stuff became moot when a You Tuber who was also a SCORE member let the cat out of the bag by posting video of his gameplay, declaring that it was no fun not being able to share his experience and asserting that the legions of ex-heroes who had spent years fruitlessly yearning for their game were being cheated.
BOOM. The large and lively CoH subreddit and Facebook communities exploded in outrage. Collusion! Conspiracy! Cover-up! Forget Russiagate — this should be investigated! Escalation followed escalation, and soon after, the up-in-arms outrage itself became moot too, when the SCORE team made the secret server public, open to anyone.
BOOM squared. I found out about it when a friend of mine, a member of my old weekly hero and villain team-up groups (our villain team was called “Habitat for Inhumanity,” which I think is a great name, and not just because I thought of it) posted a screenshot on Facebook of his new character standing in Atlas Park. I whooped so loud I almost broke the windows in my kitchen, after which I immediately demanded to know how the hell he got in there. He obliged by posting “A Guide for Preparing to Join the Public Server” that’s available on Reddit. (I know. You want to stop reading right now and Google it. Go ahead, it’s okay; believe me, I understand!)
After I did the necessary downloading and set up an account, I entered the game for the first time in almost seven years. It was like coming home. It was more than that, even. To CoH friends on Facebook, I compared the whole thing to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know how overblown and absurd that comparison sounds, but there’s a bit of truth in it too. A community that had been unnaturally and unjustly destroyed had, suddenly and against all expectations, been recreated and reunited. It was amazing and joyous — that first night, hardly anyone was actually playing. People were emoting, backflipping, leaping, dancing, saying how wonderful it was to be back in this cherished place that they thought had vanished forever. More than a few declared that they had tears in their eyes. I ran around like a dog off its leash, eager to revisit every beloved bush and tree… while pausing to wallop a few impertinent Hellion purse snatchers along the way. (You would have thought they would have learned by now – crime doesn’t pay.) By the end of my session, my face was literally sore from grinning, and I know that there were a lot of people in the same condition.
Red Mongoose in the Sewers
I didn’t stay up very late that first night — though I wanted to stay up until dawn — because I had to go to work in the morning. I was planning on getting right back in the City just as soon as I got home. However, before work was over, I got the news that NCSOFT had threatened legal action against the SCORE team, and the free CoH server was dead. Two hours. After waiting almost seven years, I got two hours.
The next day though, it was reported that there was actually no legal action pending; there was no reason for the public server to shut down, or at least not yet. And so, the day after that there were two servers up, and a few days later, four, which is where things stand right now.
Why didn’t NCSOFT take action? Why hasn’t it? The machinations of the corporate mind are hard to fathom, but I know this. The day I thought the public server had been killed, I visited the NCSOFT Facebook page. It was full of company-authored puff pieces about current NCSOFT games, and all of their comment sections were completely clogged with comments (I may have even added a few not exactly temperate ones of my own), all of which were variations on the following themes: “Screw this game!” “Screw your company!” “Let us play CoH!” “Leave the public server alone!” “Give us back our game!” “Boycott! Boycott!” It was the online equivalent of the peasants grabbing their pitchforks and heading for the Bastille.
Maybe, just maybe, someone at NCSOFT realized that attacking the public server could gain the company nothing but ill-will, while benevolently leaving it and the players alone could make the corporate suits look like… well, like heroes. Or maybe they just don’t give a flip anymore. Who knows? For now my passport is stamped for Paragon City, and that’s all I care about.
I realize that this all sounds like a ridiculous kerfuffle over a silly game. But to those who loved it, City of Heroes was not just a game — it was a real place and a vital community, and it left a genuine void when it was taken away. No, it wasn’t the end of the world, but it was the end of a world, and even after the better part of a decade, that loss continued to be keenly felt.
I should know — I had played City of Heroes almost daily since shortly after it debuted in 2004 and I was there at midnight on November 30, 2012, when NCSOFT shut the game down. Waiting for the end in Atlas Park (always the social center of Paragon City) was like waiting for the extinction-event asteroid to hit in one of those ultimate-catastrophe movies, only this time there was no Bruce Willis to save us; it was an eerie experience, especially as the clock reached 12:01, then 12:02 with the game still running. The suspense became almost unbearable; I think the curtain finally came down at 12:05. The end had come — or so we thought… for a very long time.
I’m not tech/spec person, so I can’t tell you in technical terms what made City of Heroes special. (I do know that even all these years later, it still looks pretty damn good, and I don’t think that’s just nostalgia speaking.) The combination of great visuals, subtle and infinitely varied character-building possibilities, deep storylines, exciting gameplay, and a large community that felt genuinely connected to the game and to each other all combined to make CoH legendary.
Meet Me in the City
I’ve played other MMORPG’s and some are very fine, but none has come close to City of Heroes. I mean, you get to wear a costume and fly and defeat bad guys (or good guys if that’s the way you swing) and receive the thanks of grateful citizens. C’mon! What’s not to love? Just designing and naming characters is more fun than actually playing many other entire games — Purple Cow! Ghengis Connie! Bad Divorce! Solid Citizen! (A stone tanker, of course.) Maid of Honor! Super Tuesday! Fat Buster! (The CoH character creator is so good you can make a character that looks just like George Foreman.) Supreme Soviet! Trashmasher! Summer Blockbuster! (Mutated by prolonged exposure to artificial popcorn butter while working at the local multiplex.) Cap Zap! All Beef Patty! Red Mongoose! Smashmouth! And on and on and on…(by the way, it’s ridiculously easy to get right back in the swing of things – “Just one more mission and I can level up…got it! Hey – there’s a bunch of Skulls. Looks like easy picking…wow! Just a few more bars and I can level again; it’ll only take a few minutes. Oooo! New contact!” And four hours later…)
No one knows what the future holds for the game now. For all I know, NCSOFT may not be quiescent or benevolent or even minimally smart. They were obtuse and callous enough to pull the plug on the game seven years go, remember. The company may just be slow; by the time you read this the lawyers may have donned their supervillain suits and the public servers may have disappeared like a mammoth sinking into a tar pit. I doubt it, but it wouldn’t surprise me, either. (There are rumors, though, that that the folks running Paragon City now are in negotiations with NCSOFT to give the game some sort of official or semi-official status.) But the game’s source code is out there in the wild now and it’s hard to see how it could ever be completely suppressed again. The genii is out of the bottle and one way or another, in one form or another, it really does look like City of Heroes is back. Sometimes, even in real life, the good guys do win.
I’ve got to run now — if you want me, you can find me in the City.
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was Basil Rathbone Reads Edgar Allan Poe