I don't remember how I learned about City of Heroes but I was able to play during beta and my experiences there were more than compelling enough to get me to buy the game. City of Heroes is unlike any other MMO I can think of. It has some familiar elements such as characters, grouping, questing and levelling up but the similarities end there.
There are two levels of story in CoH. There is the broad game world fiction that continues from month to month and changes with periodic updates to the game they call 'issues'. The second level is the individual mission or story arc which takes you through somewhat episodic content similar to the way a story might unfold in a comic book. Each mission advances the story a little further usually culminating in an encounter with the arch villain who must be defeated.
Unlike most MMO's you don't stop and loot the enemies you defeat and they don't drop things like money, weapons, or armor you can equip. Instead gear is limited to power enhancers that you purchase in stores or may acquire automatically after defeating bad guys. The currency used is prestige which is awarded for each criminal you beat and each mission you accomplish.
Prestige can also be used to update your costume and change your look any time you want. The costume options are the most extensive I have ever seen allowing players to choose and combine multiple clothing options as well as colors and decorative details. They even ran into a bit of trouble when people started using the system to recreate copyrighted comic characters such as Wolverine or 'The Hulk' and Marvel comics filed suit against Cryptic Studios in 2004 which was largely dismissed and finally settled in 2005.
Combat in CoH is more dynamic than what is found in earlier games. While it is still possible to play using the archetypal roles of tank, dps and healer it is far more common for everyone to be blasting away and doing everything at once in chaotic fights that, when well balanced, can be quite exciting.
The number of options players have for creating characters and selecting powers is extensive and CoH is the first game I can remember where creating alts and trying different character options became a widely adopted mode of play. One which took even the developers by surprise and is well accommodated by a large number of character slots that can be used.
Leveling up is fairly quick with solo play being perfectly viable though somewhat slower for advancement than grouping. Nearly all missions can be completed solo as well. If you prefer to group weather for faster experience gain or just to be social the missions will automatically scale up the number and level of enemies inside the private instance used to match your team composition. If your friends are much higher or lower level than you there is a sidekick/mentor system that will let you play side by side at relatively equal levels. it is up to you weather to raise the level of the lowbie through sidekicking or reduce the level of the higher character by mentoring. Either way both players will be able to gain experience and prestige for enemies defeated.
The downfall of the game is, for me, it's simplicity. Playing CoH is like eating candy. It is very good now and then but you wouldn't want to have too much. The game plays exactly the same at level 10 as it does at level 50 with new powers added in as characters advance. The story lines are shallow and, like most games, there is no element of choice. After playing for a while you get the feeling that one mission is just the same as another and whether you are fighting gangsters or aliens you are just running through another maze blasting bad guys. There are some impressive areas within the game but after the initial thrill you are left with a feeling of powerlessness. No matter how many criminals you arrest or how many zombies you blast into oblivion you can never make even a small change to anything. Crime will always be rampant and the zombie hordes will forever infest the cursed zones.
In the end the combination of repetition and ineffectiveness is why I stopped playing. It makes an amusing diversion to stop by and obliterate a few bad guys now and then but in a game where you are supposed to be a superhero I find the characters to be ultimately powerless and uncompelling.
Since I stopped playing there have been many updates to the game. They have added the ability for supergroups to create their own bases. An invention system has been added which lets players create new and more powerful enhancements to their powers by using a variety of items of varying rarity dropped by enemies. Players can now be villains as well as heroes with the release of the City of Villains expansion and PvP has been introduced in the form of arena fights and base assaults. The next update, issue 10, promises to add yet another mode of game play where heroes and villains can team up to fight a common enemy.
Despite lacking mass appeal or hundreds of thousands of subscribers City of Heroes still does well enough to continue producing free expansions that create new elements of play, refine old ones, and maintain a healthy community of players.