Surprised that City of Heroes went free-to-play? Of course not. Make a list of all the RPGs that could easily get away with gouging their audiences into oblivion, and an ageing but popular one that's already built on genuine character customisation is always going to come top. Can't you just see the accountants now, dancing naked through their editors with a pricing-gun, before retreating to their dark lair to watch the money come tumbling in from all those fire swords and boob-windowed leotards and whatnot?
Yes. The thing is... that's not what they've done. Far from it. City of Heroes: Freedom is one of the most generous free-to-play games ever. Bad news for crime. Great news for us.
If you've ever bought it in the past, you keep everything you unlocked. Even new players can access almost everything. Pet classes get the shaft and have to be bought, as do a few other archetypes and powers, but most are available. So are most costume pieces aside from a few auras and themed sets, and both Hero and Villain factions. The Going Rogue expansion is the only major lock-out, although you can still wander its questless streets if you feel like taking a boring holiday from the fight.
Get into the world itself and things keep getting better. City of Heroes hasn't had a visit from Deathwing, but the leap in quality of the opening areas at least is a Cataclysm-level update... uh... in a good way. For starters, while Paragon has always understood the importance of making you feel awesome from Level 1, the opening missions now serve up stories that let you do proper hero stuff, not just painstakingly sweeping every last bloody warehouse from Atlas Park to Kings Row.
Returning players will appreciate the changes the most, such as the new plot arcs and signature characters, scripted missions, and a brand new Trial you can jump into immediately for speedy levelling. You'll still get sick of the repeated tilesets and locations, but there's far, far more variety to keep things fresh. New characters also benefit from a tutorial that's only about five minutes long, and getting proper travel powers like Fly at Level 4 instead of having to stumble around like some kind of civilian.
Free players do have some major restrictions, such as not being able to play user-created content in the Mission Architect mode or join guilds. Purchasing anything in the store grants Premium status that directly unlocks these, or makes them available as in-game Rewards, and you'll most likely want to do this relatively early just to get it out of the way. All players can reach Level 50 without paying a single penny though, with the majority of regular content open to everybody.
Subscribers get a monthly stipend of points to spend, along with being the only ones who can create guilds (an unfortunate, but increasingly standard restriction) and getting free access to all game systems – the auction house, Mission Architect, and so on – though not all of the premium content. They're also the only ones who can continue improving their skills as Incarnates in the endgame.
Paying or not, this is all very impressive, making CoH well worth trying, or better yet, firing up an old account for a return visit. DC Universe Online beats it in terms of kinetic combat and dungeon design, but City of Heroes remains by far the best superhero MMO in terms of content, systems and community – and going free-to-play gives Paragon Studios a damn good reason to keep the new stuff coming. Even if what you got from a free account was all you'd ever get, and there were no more updates, there'd be more than enough BIFF! and POW! for one hell of a heroic or villainous career.