It's been over a decade since it was shut down, but no MMO captures the Halloween spirit quite like City of Heroes

An image of a pumpkin-headed hero from City of Heroes' private server, Homecoming.
(Image credit: NCSoft / Homecoming)

Most MMORPGs will have a Halloween event, but for all their trying, I've never really felt like they capture the spirit of Halloween. Halloween's a time to tap into your inner freak, right before the commercial dirge of Christmas rolls in to claim our adverts and shops. For one, most MMOs make you work too hard for it.

Cosmetics, transmogs, and glamour are "the real endgame" in a lot of MMOs, and finding gear to play dress-up in is an activity unto itself. If you want to unleash your inner weirdo, you need to go to a wiki, run a few dungeons, fiddle with a glamour dresser or a transmog system or, heaven forbid, visit an online store. There's no equivalent to just throwing on a cloak and slathering your face with eyeshadow.

But City of Heroes, especially in its private server state, is for the freaks. In case you're unfamiliar, City of Heroes (and its expansions City of Villains and Going Rogue) was an MMORPG that met an untimely demise in 2012. But, thanks to servers like Homecoming, it's been raised from the dead. 

People are still playing it because City of Heroes was—and is still—the iconic superhero MMO. I've tried Champions Online, I've tried DC Universe Online, but none of them gripped me quite like City of Heroes did. 

Its setting captures a mixture of grimdark nightmares and zany nonsense. One moment you're contemplating an alien invasion that killed almost every superhero team, the next you're vibing in an interdimensional club with its own ski lodge, replete with ambient yodelling. 

A great example of how unexpectedly charming this 11-years-slain game still is lies within that Halloween spirit I described before. Off the top of my head, City of Heroes has at least three zones I'd describe as having potent Halloween energy, and they aren't season specific. The setting is perpetually spooky.

There's Croatoa, a resort town outside Paragon City. It's flooded with Fir Bolg (jack-o-lantern stickmen), Tuatha Dé Dannan (big furry deer monsters), the Cabal (a coven of all-female storm witches). It's also got the Red Caps, stabby fae goblins that huck knives at you. While I was getting the screenshot for this article, I tabbed back in to see a gang war break out between two of those factions over a big rock. Nothing's changed.

A City of Heroes character watches as a bunch of supernatural beasts duke it out over a rock.

(Image credit: NC Soft / Homecoming)

Then there's Dark Astoria, a ruined district where a lovecraftian deity named Mot pours festering roots into the belly of the world. Mot's horrible, by the way. Ate Chicago once. Just, like, the whole city. If you want a shadow over innsmouth-style post apocalypse, it's all there.

Lastly there's the Nerva Archipelago's Thorn Isle. It's home to a cursed, body-hopping race of immortal mages indebted to demons and their eternal rivals, the Mu. I haven't even mentioned the psychic clown faction, or the meteors from outer space that create goop-monsters like The Thing, or the spooky spirit guides called the Drudges, who are all dressed like old-timey British policemen for some reason.

This kinda theming comes with the turf for any good comic universe, admittedly. DC and Marvel both have their magic underworlds with similarly spooky haunts, and City of Heroes capitalises on that tradition. Much like the world traditions Halloween hails from, City of Heroes' setting is liminal. Spirits, fae, and the souls of the dead are never far. Its spooky, scary skeletons will in fact send shivers down your spine.

A picture of the Night Ward, a zone in the now shut-down MMO City of Heroes.

(Image credit: NC Soft / Homecoming)

On the player side of things, there's the game's major claim to fame: its costume creator. This lets you make basically any character concept with two arms and legs a reality. Want to be a giant werewolf with an assault rifle that flings fireballs? You're good. Want to be a robot trained entirely on repeat viewings of Braveheart, swinging a giant broadsword? You got it. There were paid cosmetics back when the game was live, but still—if you wanted to cook up something unhinged, you could go far even with the free costume pieces.

As someone who roleplayed a bunch in this game—both back when it was live and on those aforementioned private servers—the community takes full advantage. As I write this, the game's subreddit, a second home for these private servers, is flooded with advertisements for halloween events. Mainly the ever-popular costume contest: where community judges pick out winners from a lineup of hopefuls.

One of my favourite routine posts from that community, "Stories of the Zones" by user beyonda42, puts characters next to their biographies (you get about 1,000 characters to sum up your hero or villain, and anyone can read that description). Their recent ones have been Halloween themed, and they're absolutely killin' it.

Stories from the Zones (part 66 - Spooky Seasonings). These stories were collected from the past two costume contests, hosted by the Celestial Warriors, with the themes Superstitions and Creepy Dolls. I do love this time of year, and CoH really embraces it which warms this luke-warm heart. from r/Cityofheroes

My favourite here by far is "Scottish Play", a living thoughtform of Shakespeare's MacBeth whose creator is brave enough to ask: 'what if iambic pentameter is secretly for spellcasting?' Far from simply slapping a spooky transmog on your character, City of Heroes lets you create whole characters with Halloween in every atom. If you want to play a mummy with necromancy powers, or a witch who can see and speak to the dead—you can do that.

There are also events carried over from the live game. You can go trick or treating and fight hordes of vampires and monsters, getting temporary powers to dress up as villain groups. But City of Heroes doesn't just embody the Halloween spirit during its seasonal events—it lives it all year round. 

It's fitting that this 11-years-killed MMO still embodies the holiday so well. It's a literal zombie, raised from the earth by dark magic (and nostalgic love) to walk among the living once more. Its players don the mask of a slain game and celebrate it. They revel in their costumes, taking back the night from the capricious spirits of profit margins and budget cuts.

In the words of an old tune I like to play around this time of year: "The house is haunted, by the echo of your last goodbye, the house is haunted by the memories that refuse to die." It's not my main MMO anymore, but I'll always love City of Heroes for that.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.