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Eric: That moment that all becomes worth it.

So as you know, I spent a plurality of yesterday playing City of Heroes. Call it sanity. Call it recovery. Call it giving the tendons in my arm a day to heal from frantic typing. Whatever you call it, it was pretty much a full day of fighting for justice and experience points.

And truth be told, I spent a chunk of that day feeling pretty cynical about it. Early in the day we cleared out a couple of missions for my main hero, Transit -- but at least one of them was vastly easier than we expected, and the followup mission actually requires a full team of eight heroes to even start it. (Which is a pain in the neck, to be honest. There are about seven of us in our little coalition of heroism, but the likelihood of all seven of us being available to play at any given time is negligible. So, we'll need a coterie of pick-up heroes for this adventure. And while City of Heroes's pick-up adventuring system is pretty damn sweet, when you're at the culmination mission for an entire adventure, to suddenly have to have guest stars "Spydorr Man," "IMSOSEXYHOT" and "N0tBatM0n" join the Galaxy Circle is just plain disappointing.

So that was a bit anticlimactic. I then hit the streets with my "ode-to-Silver-Age" hero Matterman until the gang was ready for something for the evening. That something was the second Task Force you can take your heroes on. Task Forces are a long series of interconnected missions assigned to you by NPC heroes. This particular Task Force is assigned by Synapse, so those of you sitting at home who play this game and know from task forces are now nodding your head thoughtfully.

As it works out, this is the first time I ever played through Synapse. I've played through higher level task forces, as well as the soul crushing, mind numbing, finger cramping marathon that is the first task force, assigned by Positron. (Positron -- the only time in City of Heroes I've ever decided point blank that the citizens of Paragon City don't deserve rescue this much.)

Well, the Synapse Task Force is essentially one of the "end plots" for the early game. You see, at different levels in City of Heroes, you find yourself facing down different groups and organizations of nefarious intent. For example, as a first level hero... well, you're generally in the tutorial facing down contaminated thugs who've been sprayed by evil pathogens and gone nuts and throw rocks at you. But second through sixth level, you're generally facing street gangs like the Skulls or the Hellions, "scientific zombies" under the command of the insane Doctor Vahzilok, the odd pack of Nazis (which you can call "Nazis," but not "Nazi dogs," because the word "Nazi" is one of those the language filter triggers to block in the game. That's right. You're fighting a foe you can't name without it being bleeped. And yes, you can turn the language filter off, but Jesus Christ, half the fun of comments are watching language turn to [$@&%^]).

And one of the groups you fight are the automatons of the Clockwork King.

These things, as annoying and deadly as they can be, are cute. They look like scrap metal art as done by Phil Foglio, generally with little windup keys in their backs. And they make the most satisfying "crunch/clank" sounds when they collapse into junk. Now, there's a lot of Clockwork missions, so you become mind-numbingly used to them as you go along. "Oh, yeah. Fetch the weird spring. Oh, right, find the odd power source. Oh -- the mind of the King. Oh boy."

Well, the Synapse Task Force is the endgame of this. And it's... well... grueling.

At first, it's fun. The XP flies fast and free (especially for me, as two of the team members were L20 and I was L17 to begin with, meaning I got a healthy bonus for being a babe in the woods). And it's all doable. There's a few million helicopter clockworks and minion clockworks and giant killer clockworks to fight... they break the missions up into "recover the part" and "save the hostage" and "break all the robots in the power substation" type things. It's a good time. Also, you get to fight Bertha and Long Tom.

I swear. Bertha and Long Tom.

Anyway, it was sometime after one in the morning. We're exhausted. And it's just work at this point. We've lost all narrative thread. Our banter -- our group gives excellent banter, balancing the concept of role playing with the reality that this "role playing game" really is just a tactical hack and slash with multiplayer. (Admittedly, I feel that way about a number of the D&D Campaigns I was in and ran alike, growing up.) We've lost Darklens to fatigue and the recognition that tomorrow is a work day. And more crucially, our scrapper -- a speedster named Ms Mercury -- lets us know that sleep is no longer optional. And finishing off the Task Force with two defenders (my own Transit -- who as a teleportation specialist isn't exactly... useful on this task force in her own right, except as a minor buffer of allies and a minor doer of damage, and the more effective Schattenelf -- which I may be misspelling because I don't know German, but to my knowledge it's not a dirty word so stop snickering), and our leader, the Controller Living Prodigy, really couldn't do it all on our own. Nor would we want to cut Darklens and Ms Mercury out of the endgame. So we exit the mission after finishing and start saying goodnight....

Now, some of my team mates have played this Task Force through before. And they expect that at the end of the next mission, there is a Big Thing. However, the designers like to mix things up a little. So, we've exited a warehouse in Skyway City, right next to one of the gigantic walls and sequences of highway overpasses that is architecture in Skyway City... we're saying our goodnights, and beginning the 30 second countdown sequence to logging out and HOLY [$@&%^] IT'S BABBAGE!

Babbage is a Clockwork Monster. Huge, and epic... like something Jack Kirby and Lea Hernandez would collaborate on. There's nothing cute about Babbage. When we ran to engage, Ms. Mercury didn't come up to Babbage's knee. This thing drops down the wall out of nowhere, ready to decimate us for ruining the Clockwork King's plans, and any thought of leaving now went away.

It was frightening in the best cooooool way. Adrenalin was flowing (not in such a way that I'd need to medicate, thankfully) and the team was back into full swing. Ice bolts and darkness blasts and radiation bursts and swift kicking combined. Our controller locked Babbage in ice -- it lasted less than a second before he burst free! Ms Mercury flurried punches and kicks but couldn't nail anything vital. The Elf tried her own hold (those were some damn big tentacles of darkness) but they didn't manage to snag it. I burned the thing with my eyes and tried not to die... it began to weaken--

And it jumped to the top of a building and started to flee. It was out of angle for our attacks! And none of us had swift versions of flight (in fact, I'm the only character with Hover) or Superleap!

Which had been bugging me, earlier. Transit can teleport and hover, but when pretty much all the other heroes on my team have Superspeed, it still means she arrives last to the party most of the time. Last and exhausted, as chain teleporting takes a lot out of you. I finally used enhancements to alleviate that somewhat, but still -- it seemed like the power I'd based my whole character concept on was a wash....

...until that moment. Babbage was getting away! But Babbage would terrorize the streets and wreak havoc on lower level heroes if we didn't stop it! And no one else could get up there quickly. I looked up, targeted my teleport (teleport isn't a very granular power -- 98 yards forward onto your target, period) to the underside of an overpass, beamed up, whirled in air, targeted the rooftop, beamed down next to where Babbage was walking, jacked up all my remaining Inspirations for extra power and fired everything I had.

It worked. I got Babbage's attention. And therefore got very hurt, very fast, though not quite dead. And it gave my fellow heroes a chance to work up how to get within range of the beast. And we were able to nail the monstrosity.

In that moment, at the end of hours of gameplay and fighting vague dissatisfactions (at 17-19th level, I shouldn't feel superfluous)... suddenly, I was in a comic book. We were desperately outmatched, and the stakes were high and real (trust me, I've been on the receiving end of someone's high level ambush going "uncleared" while walking through a lower level neighborhood. You despise these people). Suddenly, we were the Fantastic Four fighting against a giant mole creature. Suddenly, we were the Justice League being pushed to the limits of our mighty powers taking on a threat no one of us, not even Superman, could fight alone.

Suddenly, it was role playing. For one brief second, I was the hero I'd been pretending I was since I was five years old with a gold towel to represent Captain Marvel's cape (not the comic book Cap, the SHAZAM! television show).

When you beat Babbage, you get a Badge in the game. The badges are fun, but generally fluffy (some combinations of them 'earn' you bonus powers, but when you're 19th level, you're very, very far away from any of those. They're just kind of cute at this point in the game). Well, this Badge represents something to me. This badge represents combat teleporting and desperation... represents those who wield entanglements trying desperately to hold the beast while our speedster tries desperately to get hold of the thing and shake something loose. It represents a multihour task force where you grind for XP and get a couple of levels and become almost jaded being transformed, alchemically, into the very heart of the genre you want so desperately to be a part of.

Oh yeah. It was worth it.

So, did anyone actually read this thing to the end?

Posted by Eric Burns-White at November 22, 2004 9:27 AM

Comments

Comment from: Patrick Harris posted at November 22, 2004 11:20 AM

I read all the way through! I feel vaguely fanboyish for having done so, but hey.

Comment from: J.(Channing)Wells posted at November 22, 2004 11:23 AM

*raises hand sheepishly*

I am not familiar with City of Heroes; nor, frankly, any sort of on-line gaming, being (as I am) out in the boondocks away from all sources of high-speed Internet save satellite uplink. I have nightmare visions of computer-controlled devil-spawn and fellow heroes alike assuming mocking poses and laughing heartily at my dialup before either (a) annihilating me or (b) leaving me in the dust as I wrestle vainly with a pedestrian 1 fps interface.

Even despite this, however, I can certainly empathize with the feeling of being swept up in an artificial reality, and you describe it well. I love the moment (and, honestly, am simultaneously a little freaked out) when a game becomes Something Else, when you don't turn around and cash your honorable adversary's sword in at the nearest shop for a quick spot of change, choosing instead to keep it in memory of a good man fallen (Stefan Gagne's "Penultima"); when you hang onto the game-useless bottle of caffeinated orange juice because damnit, you're exhausted and thirsty (System Shock 2); when one of those usually-tepid romance 'quests' blindsides you and actually elicits a sad sigh(Planescape:Torment).

Maybe we're all just crazy. But it's a good kind of crazy.

Anyway, to sum up: Enjoy your medal. Sounds as though you earned it.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 22, 2004 11:42 AM

Channing:

For the record... Ms. Mercury's player is on dialup. There's a lag involved with zoning (passing from one region of the city to the other), but the game seems eminently playable at that speed.

Not, you know, to tempt you further.

Comment from: Phy posted at November 22, 2004 12:34 PM

Funny you should mention this.

I created a CoH character awhile back, Gresh Firebrand, based on a short story I'd written earlier this year:

http://phywriter.com/archives/2004/11/22/with-regard-to-dragons/

The nucleus of The Spandex Avengers just completed that taskforce again two weeks ago, and followed up with the Lvl 20 TF the Friday after that.

I sat down to write yesterday but was getting nothing done, so I hooked up with my gaming buddy, Fishbowl Man (a King's X reference) and played for a couple of hours doing street hunting in Dark Astoria for some quick XP (which turned into quick debt because of the JABD phenomenon, Just Another Blaster Death). I hung up my spandex after my second pointless death due to lack of focus and tried to write some more. Being stuck between NaNo writing and gaming is a special bit of torture because I end up doing neither well.

I sat down at 11am to write and didn't get in my daily quota until I finally rose to go to bed at 1:45 am. This whole NaNo challenge is sick and twisted and Chris Baty should be shot, resurrected, and shot again. They did that in the "War Stories" episode of _Firefly_ to great effect. It could be done. ;)

Anyway, CoH is getting so good for me (lvl 27.75) that I've decided to pass on WoW and see this thing through. Also, I bought a separate account for my son, 11, and we play together as father and son, Blaster and Scrapper, ensuring that geekdom passes fully from generation to generation.

And did I mention that he asked last week for me to load up software to allow him to write? I gave him Open Office and he started right in on some Warcraft fanfic. It was precious. I'll have to ask him if I can post some of it up. Even if NaNo2k4 *does*, in fact, kill me this November, I will have accomplished something far more important than finishing a cheesy space opera, I will have created a new generation of cheesy-space-opera writing gamers. Somewhere, I am standing tall with chin jutting out (to take the focus off the spare tire around my midriff), and a flag is snapping happily in the background.

Comment from: Zaeron posted at November 22, 2004 1:20 PM

I've never played CoH, but as an ex-Everquest player, your story has sparked long forgotten memories of fights that really did *matter*.

I wish it happened more often - something truly epic, something that makes you feel that the grinding is worth it. But those few occasions are possibly the closest I've ever been to living the game.

So yeah, I read it to the end :)

Comment from: rabble posted at November 22, 2004 1:59 PM

Ah yes, I remember my first time doing that task force. We also had just completed a mission and was chatting outside the mission door when suddenly a beam of electricity as big around as my character was tall, streaked across my screen and our blaster screamed bloody murder as he crumpled over in an electrocuted heap.

We turned in the direction of the blast and there he was in all his three-story high greatness. . . stuck in the awning of a building.

Oh well, can't have everything. It was still fun to take him down.:)

As far as immersion and seat of your pants heroing, wait until you give the Terra Volta trial a go. That's the most fun I've had in a MMORPG ever. Period.

If you ever play on Virtue be sure to look up the sworn protector of the Paragon City Memorial Rest Home, a hopping octogenarian scrapper known only as "The Grey Hare!"

Comment from: Shaenon posted at November 22, 2004 2:35 PM

Wait, this is why there's been next to no comics Snark lately? You big nerd. Just TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER, you know you want to.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 22, 2004 2:39 PM

Shaenon -- no, Nanowrimo's why there's been next to no comics Snark lately. But it's just one more week, I swear.

And I thought I just did tell you about my character. ;)

Comment from: djcoffman posted at November 22, 2004 4:12 PM

HELL YES I READ THAT!-- Amazing man. Sounds like a ton of fun. I've mostly been doing solo work since most teams I get with seem flakey as all get out. Plus, I get interupted a lot too.

That sounds like a blast. My level 14 tanker is just too slow now and crawling for XP-- I started a Magic Scrapper and he totally kicks butt. I might even make a comic about him-- since I sort of made the character off an idea I had.

Comment from: Robotech_Master posted at November 23, 2004 12:11 AM

Heh...I have some great memories of the Synapse Task Force.

One time, by the time all of us had come out of the mission right before the Babbage ambush, one member of our party had taken off across town for some reason, I forget what█to sell enhancements or something, I guess.

Guess which member of the party Babbage decided to go after?

It was a bit startling watching Babbage appear█and then immediately pivot on his heel and run off in the other direction. We had to chase Babbage halfway across Skyway City. "Hey, you! Stop! Come back here so we can kill you!"

Oh, by the way█just wait 'til you can six-slot Transit's teleport with Range SOs. (Or, more likely, 5 Range SOs, 1 End Reduction.) You'll beat those sorry superspeeders to the doorway every time, because when properly slotted, Teleport can be over twice as fast as the superspeed cap.

Comment from: Robotech_Master posted at November 23, 2004 12:13 AM

Oh, and by the way "Big Bertha" and "Long Tom" are the names of two famous cannons from history. World War I or II, I forget which.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at November 23, 2004 3:44 PM

Big Bertha was a Krupp creation for WWI (built in 1914, threw a one metric ton shell, but was not very long-barrelled).

Long Tom first appeared in the Civil War (on the Confederate side, abandoned in the Cumberland Gap after being spiked), but has been used to refer to any number of large cannons (including one in Peter Pan).

Comment from: Eric the .5b posted at November 23, 2004 8:16 PM

Badass. :)

Comment from: Paul A. posted at November 24, 2004 4:03 AM

Me? No! No, I didn't read it all the way to the end... *looks around, attempts to sidle away nonchalantly*

I don't do online gaming, partly because of the dial-up thing but mostly because I rarely find time for computer games of any description, and committing to a computer game that had to be played regularly would require monstrous amounts of self-delusion ...but if I ever do, I suspect that it will by City of Heroes, and it will be largely your fault.

Comment from: Prodigal posted at November 26, 2004 9:11 PM

That's the kind of story that makes just about any frustration the game chooses to send your way worth it. :)

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