If you’re reading this post, it must be because City of Heroes: Going Rogue has just had its NDA lifted. Now we can talk about Fight Club Going Rogue.
I’ve been a City of Heroes player for more than 72 months. I love that game, even after all this time. If by some chance you are a listener to the Ballad of Iron Percy and also play City of Heroes, feel free to send me a tell and say hello. My global is @Hegemon, and I play on the Pinnacle and Virtue servers.
Naturally, I preordered Going Rogue. I have been in the beta for a long while, now, and have some pretty well developed opinions on just about everything to do with the expansion. I’m going to take the time to share them here in this post.
If this subject is of no interest to you, then you should probably skip it unless you’re really, really bored.
Enough prelude. Let’s get right in there.
Here is my obligatory SPOILER warning.
City of Heroes: Going Rogue has a lot going for it. In recent issues, the development team has unveiled a bunch of new toys to use in missions. These are not new ideas and have been standard practice in games for decades, but they have not existed in City of Heroes until recently. These are quality-of-life things like branching dialogue options and actual conversations with your contacts, the ability to talk to and question that guy you just beat up, that sort of thing. These exist in a few missions in the old content now, but are dwarfed by the older, static stuff.
Now, we can see that these additions to the game were test cases – every mission, story arc, and contact in Going Rogue makes liberal use of these dynamic storytelling tools. This has the effect of adding a lot of options for your character as you play through. Sometimes, you can kill your targets or let them live. You can arrest them or let them go. In certain Moral Choice missions, you can even betray your faction and switch sides. You can even kill your contacts, and they disappear from the world (but only for you, and with all the continuity headaches that that implies).
This adds an awful lot of fun to the missions. After experiencing the content in Praetoria, the older missions in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles seem stale and boring. When you leave – and the game forces you to choose either the Rogue Isles or Paragon City at 20ish – you will spot the difference right away. It’s that stark. This adds a more immersive feel to the game, a little spice it’s been lacking since launch. The new content really highlights the age of the old content.
The missions are a major strength of this new release. They’re actually fun in ways that City of Heroes missions have not been for me in a few years. They are very well designed, and if this is the direction new content will take in the future, then I look forward to keeping my subscription active for many months (years?) to come.
However, there’s one major flaw that really, really bugs me about the expansion. It’s a biggie:
The background that is Praetorian Earth is flawed in a way that undermines the whole ‘Shades of Grey’ premise they’ve been hyping up for months.
The main conflict present in Praetoria is not between Heroes and Villains, but between the Resistance and Loyalists – people who are loyal to the system, and people who try to overthrow it. You’re supposed to be able to have good guys and bad guys on both sides of this divide.
Unfortunately, I feel that they failed there. Big time. Loyalists = Villains. Resistance = Heroes. The game puts that forward from the very beginning and continually reinforces it as you play. There are no ’shades of grey,’ unless you count having the ability to switch sides between the goodies and the baddies.
This topic has sparked a couple of massive flamewars and several wall-of-text posts on the subject between posters who take my point of view and posters who insist that there are deeper shades of grey, and that you can be both a Loyalist and a decent person. It’s contentious. After thinking about it extensively (because I’m a nerd, and am wont to spend idle clock cycles processing this kind of thing), I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve already stated. You cannot have a character that is both a Loyalist and a good person, at least not for long. You can start that way, but the game eventually forces you to pick one of these two labels and ditch the other.
Let me present my argument.
First, the premises I’m working with:
Emperor Cole and the Praetorian Government = Evil.
Emperor Cole is unquestionably a bad guy. His regime also does a whole lot of unquestionably bad things in order to sustain itself. The writers really cranked Tyrant’s Mustache Twirl stat to a level that’s absurdly high, and the Praetors are really no better. Dictatorship? We’ve got that. Psychic thought police? Got that, too. Punishing dissent with ‘behavioral readjustment’ or a ‘trip overseas?’ Yup. Slavery of an entire demographic (in this case, psychics)? You betcha. Sketchy government-approved experiments with the result of turning people into flesh-eating monsters in a misguided attempt to make them better? Yes, that’s there. Total government control of the media, along with summary executions (again with the ‘trip overseas’) for those who teach or preach anything other than the party line? Literally doping the population to keep them docile? Torture? Yeah, you get the idea. It’s that bad.
Little justification for any of this is offered to the player.
‘Necessary Evil’ was supposed to be a big theme in Going Rogue. Unfortunately, Praetoria is heavy on the ‘evil’ and light on the ‘necessary.’ As your character learns about the things going on behind the facade, s/he is offered very little in the way of justification. ‘Because the God-Emperor Said To’ or ‘That’s Just How It’s Gotta Be’ is about as deep as it gets, and that just won’t fly for a good person as a reason to engage in the kind of awful things the government gets you to do in the mission arcs.
Many people could understand and even sympathize with someone doing something sketchy for ‘the greater good,’ but in Praetoria, it’s just not clear that the greater good is what you’re working toward.
After grasping at all the straws, about the best I could come up with as a justification for all of it was survival. Without Emperor Cole, the world would have surely ended. He is still needed. Therefore, you must do as he says, no matter how wicked, or everyone dies.
But that’s pretty flimsy, isn’t it? It’s not as if he needs psychic slaves, a police state, and the like to beat the Hamidon. Indeed, according to him, he’s already tamed that beast. So why is it necessary that we surrender our freedoms? As you progress along the story, this becomes harder and harder to swallow. And when you get to Primal Earth, it becomes impossible. They’ve beaten the Devouring Earth, and they did it without turning into Praetoria.
The misdeeds of the regime are obvious.
Cole’s regime is a legitimate government like Crey Biotech is a legitimate business. Crey has its Security Forces out on the street, and they will openly attack players and harass people. It is therefore not a huge leap of logic to assume that they’re not really nice people behind the scenes. Indeed, I’ve always been annoyed at this with regard to Crey – it’s supposed to be a closely guarded corporate secret, but many characters accept it as truth as soon as they’re given their violence license. The attitude is quite prevalent among characters and I can’t blame the players for it, because the game makes it plain.
The same is true with regard to Praetoria. The tagline for the Resistance is ‘those who see behind the facade.’ But the facade is really flimsy – any character who isn’t a complete idiot is going to start noticing things and questioning his loyalty pretty much right away. You can literally beat up dissenting citizens for criticizing the government right out of the tutorial. In one mission, you’re allowed to wander around a police office, and you can look in on officers beating an unarmed suspect. Seers will threaten you for having naughty thoughts as you pass them.
It’s blatant. Your character can’t pretend to be unaware that something is very, very wrong there, unless they somehow think that these are good things. In which case, I think you lose the ability to consider the character to be a good person.
Conclusion: Praetoria is not a Utopia unless we’re using the word ‘Utopia’ ironically. There’s just way too much piss in the pool for it to be considered a good place to swim. Since ‘Utopia at a price’ is the whole theme behind Praetoria, this is a pretty big failing. Too much Price, not enough Utopia.
I think they drew too much from Real World literature and history for there to be any other outcome. No sane person reads 1984 and thinks ‘Wow, Oceania is awesome and I totally want to live there.’ No sane person sympathizes with Real World fascist states. By drawing heavily from these examples, then, the writers made it impossible for good, sane characters to side with the Loyalists. I think this is a massive weakness.
When I first discovered this earlier in beta, I was dismayed. It killed one of the character concepts I wanted to run with and made me regret pre-ordering the expansion. That the game lets you play in ‘Shades of Grey’ is one of the game’s major selling points, and that they dropped the ball with this was a massive disappointment. Still, the game is fun and worth playing. The missions are more dynamic and immersive. The zones are beautiful. The new content is well-written and amusing, even though the setting doesn’t allow for the kind of character I wanted to play. Side-switching alone is enough to make me part with my money. Kinetic Melee and Demon Summoning are sets that I’m highly interested in, too.
So, I’m still glad I’ve bought it. I will still enjoy it, despite the flawed setting. I’m still looking forward to release next week, and I still intend to call in sick at some point shortly after it goes live for a marathon session or two.
But I still can’t help but sigh at the missed opportunities. If only…
(Feel free to stop reading here. The rest is just an intellectual exercise by me with no real goal.)
In case you’re wondering, here’s how I’d have run it if it were my show:
Instead of Orwell’s 1984 as inspiration, I’d have used Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. If you haven’t read it, in that novel, the world government is a democracy, with the exception that political power only belongs to veterans of the armed services. Anyone can join the army, no matter their limitations. It’s a matter of principle – if a man was blind, deaf, and wheelchair bound, they’d get him a job counting the hairs on the backs of caterpillars by sense of touch and let him call himself a soldier. It will be rough, but not impossible. Anyone who chooses not to join can live life more or less as they choose, but they have no right to vote or hold office. This system is self-reinforcing, because anyone who’d make a revolution successful – the sort of person who’d fight and die for the cause – is already likely to have political power.
Morally sketchy. You’re denying a lot of people the right to vote – one of the most ’sacred’ rights in a democracy – depending on their willingness to give a few years of their life working toward the defense of the state. With that in mind, I’d have the Praetorian situation based on these facts:
- Democracy ended with the elected world leaders dropping nukes on their own people in a desperate attempt to purge the Hamidon. This event awakens Cole and causes him to decide that full democracy is not a sustainable system in a world with nuclear weapons and superpowered beings.
- Cole then saves the world from the Hamidon, but barely. He’s strong enough to beat the Hamidon, but not strong enough to do so and defend the people at the same time. The situation is a stalemate – the sonic barriers allow them to keep the Hamidon spores at bay more or less indefinitely, but there has been extreme difficulty recovering land that’s already been infested by the Devouring Earth. Humanity is safe for now, but the DE threat remains. Until Praetorian Earth’s scientists can find a way to purge all DE taint from an area, or until the Devouring Earth finds away around the barriers, nothing changes.
- So, most of the world is ruined. It looks like a verdant paradise outside the barriers, but it’s crawling with dangerous flora. This creates a resource crisis. Humanity can continue to exist for now, but only as long as it does not exceed its ability to sustain itself.
- It is a time of war. Certain freedoms must be suspended, certain things must be rationed, or everyone dies. To see this done, Cole restructures the government and places himself at the top.
- Reduced to its most basic components, the theme of the new regime is ‘Rule of the Supers.’ It is a democracy, but citizens only have the right to vote or hold office if they have metahuman abilities and are willing to use them in defense of Praetoria. Without powers, you are literally a second-class citizen. It goes deeper than voting, though – because of the resource crisis and the rationing, the consumption level afforded to non-meta citizens is lower than those who are members or veterans of the Praetorian Defense Force. Everything is still free in the sense that you don’t need to work (yay, robot slaves!), but if you’re not a metahuman defender, there are certain items you are not allowed to consume and certain things you are not allowed to do. If neither you nor your partner is a veteran, you are not allowed to have more than two children, for example. If you’re a Praetorian Defender, you aren’t restricted in the same ways. Cole and the Praetors consider this fair, because the world’s available resources are minimal at the moment and this situation is not likely to improve in the near future.
- Quality of life in the regime is high, but only due to Cole’s strict limitations on freedoms. Anyone who disobeys them is exiled – which, given the state of the outside world, is essentially a death sentence.
- If you don’t have metahuman abilities, the Praetorian Government can give them to you in the form of cybernetics, deliberate mutation, or highly specialized training. This will allow you to fight for Praetoria and gain full citizenship. However, each of these methods has a small-but-significant chance to go horribly wrong. The result is either a dead subject or a Ghoul.
- Resistance only becomes possible and desirable after the breakthrough of dimensional travel and the discovery of Primal Earth.
- The Resistance movement opposes Cole’s regime on the grounds that it is no longer necessary. They know about Primal Earth – another dimension where the Hamidon was defeated without Cole’s draconian restrictions. They believe that with the knowledge they can gain from that dimension, they could turn back the DE and return to the old ways – full democracy, full rights for everyone. They know Cole is aware of this technology and they know he isn’t acting on it. They can only assume that Cole is not interested in protecting Praetoria at all, but is instead chiefly concerned with protecting his own rule. Members consist of disillusioned normal citizens and metahumans who sympathize with the goals of the Resistance.
- The Loyalists believe Cole when he insists that full democracy is not sustainable in this day and age. They remember how it ended, and they feel that any return to it is doomed to end in the same way. They look at Primal Earth not as a shining example of how things could be, but as a society doomed to die by its own hands. Already, there is chaos there. Only the continued intervention of metahumans has prevented catastrophe. They’ve gotten lucky so far, but statistically speaking, it’s only a matter of time before that world enters a real crisis. They don’t look kindly on Primal Earth’s agents aiding the Resistance, either, and see it as an act of war.
Aaaand this post has gotten way, way too long. If you’ve read this far, I’m sorry I’ve subjected you to my self-indulgent plot-wanking.