A New Mercy Island

We’re continuing a redesign of City of Villains that I would do if I were sent back in time by an evil witch who’s laid a very specific curse on Jack Emmert, the guy who made the alpha timeline’s City of Villains. This time, we look at how I’d rewrite the game’s intro.

A New Mercy Island

We’ll follow a fledgling villain through my new version of the game up until right before their first maniacal scheme in Port Oakes. You start out in the Ziggurat, the maximum security super prison for super criminals. Arachnos is breaking someone out. It isn’t you. This is a departure from the original City of Villains tutorial, in which Arachnos was breaking you out, specifically, because their future-destiny scriers have found out that you are one of the chosen ones. This tied into a couple of other plotlines, but in a mostly stupid way. We’re dropping that plotline. We don’t need to pretend you’re more specialer than other villains. You’re already a super villain, and that makes you pretty special on its own. So you’re in the Zig, maybe because of a crime you didn’t commit, whatever, and Arachnos shows up to break someone else out, and you happen to be in the same cell block. They release all the other villains on the way to the guy they’re after because it’s an easy way to make a bigger mess for Paragon City, and that makes it easier for them to get away. You hitch a ride on their chopper home because they have room and it can’t hurt to have another villain on the Rogue Isles.

So you get taken to Mercy Island, the newbie island of CoV. In the original City of Villains, this leads to the Arachnos officer in charge of the operation telling you to run and be a free spirit, warning you that other free spirits may beat you up and take their lunch money, but if you beat them up and take their lunch money, then you may come to the attention of powerful Arachnos agents and make something of yourself. Here’s the thing: This ain’t no survival game. We don’t need an excuse why the players are running off to do whatever. They aren’t going to do whatever. We’re going to give them a checklist of cool stuff to do, and the only thing they’re going to decide is priorities and the exact timetable, so this Arachnos officer is going to tell you that the ride came with a price, and he needs you to go fuck up the good guys and thwart their invasion of the island, which will lead to basically the same anti-Longbow missions (to keep a long story short for people who don’t play CoX, Longbow are the super police) as we get in the original. I’m going to assume that making the issue 21 version of Mercy Island would be no additional resources over the actual CoV launch version, using that as my model for the following outline, but it wouldn’t be that different if resources demanded we use the launch version instead.

So the officer (Operative Kuzmin, if you’re familiar with the game and are wondering which guy I’m using for this role – same one as in the i21 intro, Operative Kuzmin’s fine) who was running the extraction tells you that Longbow have a secret base somewhere on the island which they’re using to coordinate the invasion, and he wants it blown up to fling them into disarray. You do that, come back, and he tells you that he’s pawning you off to Dr. Weber, a contract scientist working with the Infected. The officer tells you that Dr. Weber’s work could be useful to Arachnos, so do whatever he says. Another villain named Omnicore approaches you, also broken out from the Zig recently (we can add in quick a scene with her in the breakout mission if budget allows), saying that the officer is trying to pawn her off to repay a personal favor to a guy named Fire Wire who’s gonna rob a bank. She asks to swap missions, because she’s all science-y and would like to be working with the evil scientist. Regardless of what you say to her, she’s the on-ramp to the Ongoing Training missions (more i21 content, in this case an optional ongoing tutorial that helps introduce some of CoX’s more arcane features – the villain version was not well written but the basic concept is a good one which we hopefully have the budget to stick in right from the beginning), and also gives you a choice between Fire Wire’s and Dr. Weber’s mission chains. Whichever one you complete, the Arachnos officer assigns you to work with defecting Longbow Lieutenant Harris afterwards to repel Longbow from Mercy Island once and for all. In addition to the existing dialogue options at the end to spare or kill Harris, we’re also going to add a scene where you confront the Arachnos officer who’s been ordering you around on the way out. You can declare your eternal loyalty to Arachnos, in which case he officially assigns you to head out to Port Oakes and establish yourself as a villain, make veiled threats, in which case he stammers a bit and gives you the same assignment but with the implication that he’s been intimidated into letting you off your leash, or you can just murder him and blame it on Longbow. Either way, your term of service as a villainous henchman is up and you’re on your way to Port Oakes.

If we really want to maximize verisimilitude, we can have a flag set that has the Arachnos officer spawn if the game notices you’re in Port Oakes while still having one of the mainline Mercy Island missions in your log, triggers a brief cutscene where the officer’s angry at you for running off instead of doing his bidding, and then he and his goons attack you and you beat them up, which clears that mission chain from your quest log. We could also make the game respond more to the player’s choice at the end of Mercy Island by having the Arachnos officer assign you to a specific Port Oakes maniacal scheme if you act like a loyal Arachnos minion instead of intimidating or killing him, and give the player the option to slip the leash again every time they complete a villainous scheme and get assigned a new one. This gives their decision at the end of Mercy Island more impact and opens up the possibility for a route where you are a loyal minion of Arachnos for most, if not all, of the game. I doubt this would be the more popular route, but having it exist as a fully fleshed out alternative will make people happier about not picking it, so it might be worth it if all we’re adding in is a few flags directing players to either a commanding officer who assigns a new maniacal scheme or a sycophant who presents a list of options and lets them pick.

A New Ongoing Training

This is barely related to the maniacal schemes thing. More so than the Mercy Island revamp, which is 80% the same as in the game we actually got, and the reason for the differences aren’t gonna be explained until we start getting into Port Oakes. But instead I’m gonna detour into a revamp of the villain side of Ongoing Training. Introducing people to the unintuitive and non-standard features of CoH, like visiting a trainer to level up or how the invention system works, is a good idea. The problem with the redside training is that everyone hates everyone else for no damn reason except “because we’re villains, and therefore assholes.”

Spoiler alert for the twist ending of this mission chain, by the way, skip the rest of this post if you don’t want spoilers on content from like ten years ago.

The twist ending of redside’s Ongoing Training is that the contest for ambiguous “great power” is actually just a gambit by one of the other villains, named Dollface, to find a new body she can inhabit. The one she’s got is failing past her minion Dr. Graves’ ability to maintain, so she’s in the market for a new one. She’s been doing this body-hopping thing for centuries. Dollface masquerades as one of the contestants, but she really just wants to be able to personally observe the proceedings without risk of discovery. She comes across as an idiot narcissist who gets by on her mind control powers, but actually she’s a reasonably clever narcissist who gets by on mind control powers and the layer of patsies those powers put between her and the consequences of her actions.

This is a really cool plot in general, but in execution it falls apart because every single one of your fellow contestants are assholes that you’ll want to kill. Except Zephyr, but even then I think they wanted him to come across as insufferably stupid and just weren’t able to stick the landing because his dimwittedness made him so easy for the player villain to manipulate that it felt like kicking a puppy and I started feeling bad for him.

I get the “dark mirror” thing they were going with, where the blueside Ongoing Training is about five heroes and the player teaming up and then being torn apart by a traitor in their midst, while the redside Ongoing Training is about five villains and the player put at odds with one another and then coming together for revenge when the contest turned out to be a sham, but that theme is already knocked off-kilter by one of the five villains being the ultimate antagonist who you kill anyway. Plus, if you want me to come together with these villains, then don’t spend the entire build up making me really want to stab every single one of them, especially including the quest giver, whose promises become obviously empty really early on. This is exactly the kind of “being jerked around by higher ups” content that people don’t want in redside. Even the minion-level stuff I was aiming for in the new Mercy Island, content which is intended to make you feel like a henchman for another villain starting one rung up from bottom in a cruel and abusive hierarchy, shouldn’t be this overt. The quest givers should generally take you for granted, not openly despise you.

You meet Omnicore very early on in the Mercy Island content, and she’ll invite you to a villain team-up scheming to get out from under the thumb of Arachnos. Omnicore is still an arrogant supervillain who will do anything for ultimate power, but she’s not so stupid as to be unable to realize that she’s level ten and can’t afford to be making enemies of everyone she meets, so she’ll engage with the player villain as an equal unless directly antagonized in dialogue options (if we even have the budget for two different Omnicore dialogues for every step of the mission chain). Likewise, Dr. Graves can still be all grim and cold, but he needs to be more in that way of taking minions for granted rather than openly abusing them, the same way as the Arachnos officer in the Mercy Island mainline missions. Crosscut can still be a crazy axe murderer, Zephyr can still be kind of a dunce who’s in way over his head, and Dollface can still be a narcissist who periodically mind controls the player character into effusive adoration for her, because she’s the one we’re gonna stab in the face at the end, so making her super terrible will ultimately make that moment more satisfying.

Dollface is using Dr. Graves as a front for the villain group, which is planning a bank robbery in Paragon City, but not just any bank. This bank is being used to store valuable Rikti tech recently recovered from a strike on one of their hidden bases (if I were time warped to April 2011, right after the release of issue 20, and told to revamp just the issue 21 content, I’d use the same Shivan meteors that the alpha timeline’s Ongoing Training did – for this exercise, I’m replacing them because we’re in 2004 and we have no Shivan assets). You get a bunch of tutorial missions in which you meet Omnicore and Graves, then recruit Crosscut, Zephyr, and Dollface (who secretly knows what’s up, but is pretending to be the last one recruited to throw people off her trail). After the heist, Dollface fingers the player villain as her next body and tells Graves to set in motion the plan to have the others killed off. While assembling the team for the heist, you still learn how to level up, how to use the ferry, how to slot enhancements, and how inventions work.

Now here’s the thing: Dr. Graves developed his surgical techniques in order to extend his own life. He looks fugly because he can’t body swap, so he has to keep Frankensteining body parts in for his original body. The player villain figures this out and guesses that Graves is trying to kill the other contestants just to tie off loose ends before cannibalizing the player villain’s body for parts. So when Dr. Graves says he’s got a buyer all lined up but asks the player villain to knock all the others off so they can split the take two ways instead of six, the player villain guesses that the plan here is for the stronger Dr. Graves to kill them and not only keep all the money for themselves, but also use their body (having proven the strongest) for parts. You recruit, rather than kill, Omnicore, Zephyr, and Crosscut, though you have to beat them senseless first because Dr. Graves gave each of them the same offer. Zephyr and Crosscut took it, and Omnicore realized it was a trap but when you show up at her house she assumes you had fallen for it. I’m imagining a bit where, after being defeated, she reveals an upgraded super-mech suit that she’s going to field test on you, and in the ensuing dialogue it comes out that both of you had guessed Dr. Graves was planning a betrayal and had no intention of killing the others – you were just here to ask for a team-up. At which point Omnicore is like “oh, good, I have no idea if this thing even works” and powers the supersuit down.

You’ve got three other villains with you when you find Dollface, so she agrees to join your plot against Graves out of self-preservation. This departure from the original Ongoing Training arc is because, as those familiar with the game may have noticed, I’m cutting out Scirocco completely. The player villain turns the tables on Dollface completely out of their own ingenuity. Again, there’s a mirror here where big-time hero Manticore helps out the heroes in blueside Ongoing Training, but Scirocco just doesn’t have a vital role in redside’s plot the way Manticore does in blue. Everything he does for the player villain, the player villain could’ve just done for themselves. I do wonder if the blueside and redside Ongoing Training arcs were initially meant to be the springboard for other plotlines and needed the presence of Manticore in one and Scirocco for the other. Like, maybe they scripted out a whole plotline that was going to be released one installment at a time, and that outline called for a powerful hero/villain to dispense the next arc because the blueside version was written first and then the redside version written to mimic it, so Scirocco was kinda crammed in. Three updates later (issue 24 was the final release before the game shut down) nothing like that seems to have materialized, though, so we’re safe to write Scirocco out of the arc.

The confrontation with Graves proceeds as normal, except that Dollface bugs out early (the villains resolve to punish her cowardice later) and there are no betrayals, or if we must have betrayals to balance the boss fight, then it’s Crosscut and Zephyr who betray you, not Omnicore and Zephyr. Graves is beaten, he reveals Dollface (now out of mind control range) was behind it all, and you’ll need a special magical doohickey to yoink Dollface. Scirocco provides this in the original version, but we’re instead going to have the player villain get it for themselves. How? Why, through a maniacal scheme, of course! And you thought this was just a giant tangent about an unrelated writing issue in CoV!

This is our maniacal scheme tutorial, introducing players to how those work. This does mean that we need Ongoing Training to not be level-gated the way it was in the alpha timeline, because otherwise the player villain would be minimum level 15 when they do the climax, and Port Oakes content starts at level 7-ish. The tutorial is completely optional, but if players are doing it, they should be getting the tutorial when it matters. This means they don’t have to wait ’till level 5 to get the tutorial on leveling up. Honestly, saving Omnicore’s introduction until after the initial missions against Longbow might even be too long, and I’d consider bumping her up to meeting the player and giving them the tutorial on-ramp as soon as they set foot on Mercy Island, and then just have her show up again to offer the alternative mid-arc mission chain with Fire Wire, just so we can have a branch there without the Arachnos officer actually offering the player villain any options, since the whole point of that first arc is that the player is being treated like a minion.

In any case, the player villain steals some unobtainium restraints and then captures Dollface with it. You can decide whether to sell her on the black market, turn her over to Arachnos, keep her in some villainous lair just in case a use for her ever turns up, or dump her in the ocean where no one will ever find and release her.

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