After a few years of people playing in entirely online worlds populated with new heroes and mythos, one of the Big Boys is finally here. DC has stepped in with Sony Online Entertainment and given us DC Universe Online, an MMO that gives players the ability to rub shoulders with Superman, Batman and even Lex Luthor or the Joker. It’s a solid piece of nerd wish-fulfilment though at this early stage, there are still some unanswered questions lingering.
I Need A Hero
The premise of DCUO is that in the future, the heroes and villains of Earth have all but annihilated each other in a gruelling final battle. The end result is neither side is in any condition to cope with an invasion from Brainiac. Lex Luthor, one of the last survivors of this grim future, travels back in time to warn the heroes of the upcoming apocalypse, and then releases exobytes all over the world, basically a “hero in a box” kit that gifts thousands of individuals with random super powers. This, of course, is where the player steps in, crafting a super powered individual of their own choosing, and then setting that character out into the world to battle with established DC heroes and villains in a campaign to prevent the Brainiac dominated future.
The first thing that players need to consider going into this game is that, unsurprisingly, it’s influenced by comic books, especially in the graphics department. Players expecting a wealth of photorealistic textures and other visual touches are in for a disappointment as the bright colors of Metropolis and purple tones of Gotham’s perpetual night are designed with the intent that they look ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. There’s some pop up and draw-in, but not as much as one would expect for game with the massive draw distances that DCUO demands when players take flight and see the city across the entire horizon. It seems to be a well-conceived trade-off between high visual detail for greater scale and smoother performance, as the game manages to hold its own in the frame-rate department though lag and latency issues are another matter entirely.
The only major criticism that is genuine cause for concern at this point is the user interface. A compromise between the needs of a PS3 controller and the ability to mouse over menu options, it suffers from a delay when calling up menus, moving to other menus and issuing commands. At the time of this writing, it also has a tendency to close sub-menus almost immediately after opening them, making it extremely difficult to group with people as this normally involves some menu navigation.
The audio remains strong in the music and sound effects department, bringing lofty, majestic overtones to the music with beefy explosion and punch effects reminiscent of The Matrix to give sub-woofers a workout. It’s the fully voiced acting, unfortunately, that is a mixed bag. On the one hand, when Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voice Batman and Joker respectively as they’ve been doing since the animated series debuted in 1992, the voice acting is a comic fan’s dream. On the other hand, minor characters such as pedestrians on the street being saved or attacked sound like they were pulled out of a discount actor’s bin with the sort of delivery once usually expects from porn films, with the women, in particular sounding spectacularly fake with their “Oh no, please, stop, not that” pleas of mercy. The real blemish on the audio side is the voice chat, which is sporadic and currently often doesn’t work. These are launch bugs and will eventually be ironed out, but for an MMO, particularly an action one that requires a lot of communication, broken voice chat is a major obstacle.
This Is Not Your Grandfather’s MMO
If you’re the sort that believes the online gaming world begins and ends with World of Warcraft this is not the game for you. This might actually be the game for everyone else. While DC Universe Online has guilds, raids, PvP and other staples of the MMO, it has them in vastly different proportions to what people are accustomed to. Eschewing the traditional MMO mechanics of queuing up actions, target locking on enemies and crafting, DCUO takes the 3rd person action game, adds in some levelling mechanics and puts it online. Ironically, it’s a bit like what Marvel Ultimate Alliance would have been like if it had a character creator and had a persistent, online environment. You make a hero or villain, go through a brisk tutorial and find yourself in either Gotham or Metropolis with the cities as your playground.
Levelling, like combat, is closer to an action game. Grinding is non-existent as experience points are generously given after completing missions and it’s actually possible to hit the current level cap of 30 with a week of dedicated play, and rather than boost stats (which is largely done via loot), awards new moves and skills for combat. Combat uses abilities to string together everything from martial arts combos to mixes of spells depending on the kind of powers you choose. This foundation makes for a new, fresh feeling game that moves fast and is a genuinely solid, entertaining experience, particularly when played with friends as the game intends. If you attempt the game solo, which is also possible, you might notice the formulaic structure very quickly, largely consisting of a series of missions in open, common areas, culminating in a final boss fight in an instanced dungeon. The game rarely strays from this structure as the game’s back bone, but supplements it with “alerts,” which are special instanced missions, bounties, and a mix of instanced and daily PvP challenges which can even be accessed in PvE servers.
When all cylinders are firing, DC Universe Online is an entertaining experience that combines an action game with the social appeal of an MMO. In that regard, it’s worth the price of initial purchase. Where the uncertainty lies is whether SOE can keep the momentum going to justify paying the $14.99 monthly subscription once the free trial ends. It’s actually an impressive effort that mostly proves MMOs can work on a console like the PS3. In order to thrive however, it needs some quick fixes to the bugs—like the broken voice chat and buggy menu navigation—and dramatic support for the game beyond the launch to convince players the subscription is worth it.