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Hero Hour

Microsoft and Cryptic's new 360 MMO, Marvel Universe Online, will replace city of heroes' made-up stars with classic characters... and change Xbox Live forever

If someone told you two years ago that Marvel and MMO developers Cryptic would be working together in 2007, you'd have laughed. And so would the judge residing over their court case. As the two sued and countersued one another, arguing over whether Cryptic's PC MMO City of Heroes and follow-up City of Villains was violating Marvel's intellectual property by allowing users to create Marvel-a-like characters, you'd never have guessed that, behind the scenes, true love was blossoming. We delve deeper into the deal, what it means to you, and how 360 online gaming is about to change for good...

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'MULTIPLAYER ONLINE', IN LAYMAN'S TERMS?
You know World of Warcraft? Six million players worldwide, addiction clinics opening, South Park episodes about it? In the murky world of keyboards and graphics cards, the Massively Multiplayer Online genre (MMO) has exploded into the most important gaming phenomenon of the century. Games like WoW, Anarchy Online and Eve have been an astonishing success, with thousands of players interacting at once on single servers in constant, living worlds. It's finally possible to gather together with friends within a game, and explore it together. Now, with the forthcoming Live Anywhere, Microsoft wants to share the PC's multiplayer lands with the 360.

ENTER CRYPTIC, THEN?
In 2004, Cryptic released their first MMO, City of Heroes. At the time the genre, despite being young, was already in something of a rut. D&Da-like fantasy or sci-fi games were the MMO's chief domain, and it was becoming dangerously nerdy. Cryptic were having none of it, instead tapping into the... er, okay, still nerdy world of comic book heroes. But in a fresh and fancy-free fashion. And it's because of COH that we're interested in Marvel Universe Online - these guys make a fantastic MMO.

SO WHAT MADE CITY OF HEROES DIFFERENT?
First and foremost, CoH is an arcade game, rather than trying to offer the 'second life' of the more involved MMOs. It's about crafting a hero, and then just being a fricking hero. You don't buy health potions or food, nor sit around in taverns. Instead you go on missions to fight organised crime, or fly to great heights to pose impressively, your level 20 cape billowing in the breeze. It's about instant reward, whether alone or with friends, using your increasing pool of superpowers to look cool.

"CRAFTING A HERO"?
Yes, this was CoH's other standout feature. The character designer, despite being nearly three years old, is still the best in the business, letting you create a hero unique to you (or illegally similar to someone else). So while there are too many identikit skin-tight costumed buxom blonde heroines, that's the fault of unoriginal (single, male) players, rather than a limitation of the game. You can create a giant robot who casts fire from his fists, all the way down to a 4ft masked mutant moleman. It was this, of course, that got them in trouble, but also caught the right people's attention. And thanks to the fact that you pay a monthly subscription - as you will have to when Marvel Universe hits 360 - stacks more costumes, levels and the like are added with each regular-as-clockwork update.

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SOUNDS GOOD.
Right. And it sounded even better when some splendidly silly new designs arrived in 2005, in the shape of Heroes' sister-game, City of Villains. Same principle, but this time you play the baddies, in a much more bleak city. It also introduced player-vs-player (PVP) gaming, where CoH and CoV players could meet in contested areas and fight. Compare this to Marvel's world of heroes and villains, and you start to see how this could get very interesting indeed when MUO comes out next year. Ish.

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