After years of waiting (and reporting) DC Universe Online has finally made its way to both the PC and PlayStation 3 console. And we are happy to see it has lived up to the hype. While DCUO isn’t a ground breaking experience that will redefine the MMORPG genre, it does provide an addictive and fun super hero world for people to play in.
Taking a few lessons learned from previous super hero titles like City of Heroes and Champions Online, DCUO allows players to experience an MMO world in an iconic universe with well known locations and super hero and villain compatriots at their side. Unlike SOE’s previous iconic MMO with Star Wars Galaxies, players are actually able to fight alongside their favorite heroes and villains instead of just receiving missions from them. The game also has a fully voiced cast, a much notable difference to players of past titles like classics like Everquest or Galaxies.
DC Universe Online plays similar in many ways to most other successful MMOs. It is to be expected since those formulas have proven successful for the type of game. Players move using the traditional WASD format combined with their mouse for changing directions and looking around and aiming. Different tap and hold button combinations on the mouse (unlocking more as players increase in level) release different attacks on foes. Additional super powers are unlocked and assigned to the 1 through 8 keys that can be used during combat.
Combat itself is fast paced and fun without much down time between. Unlike many MMORPGs, combat is not item-centric where players must worry about equipping tons of healing items to use after each combat instance. As long as players don’t run through like a lunatic kamikaze, they should be able to take a breather between fights to allow their character to quickly heal up before heading into the next encounter.
Players can work together or go solo on their way through their character’s missions. The game is designed so that it can be played as a solo experience, which is good as some players may not want to be forced to group with strangers. This is accomplished by teaming up players during more difficult missions with AI controlled iconic heroes and villains, anyone from the Titans to Batman himself. There is an incentive for players to team up though once higher level missions and Alerts occur. Unless a player is an expert at crowd control or has a severely overpowered character, it may not be possible for them to complete many hard alerts on the first try alone.
Players are able to work through multiple story arcs simultaneously. While one may require them to defeat a certain amount of Gorilla Grodd’s warriors, another might ask them to collect a certain amount of dropped items from those warriors. Progress bars keep track of multiple objectives at once allowing faster character advancement. Players will often find themselves at a level higher than the difficulty of many of their missions once they start hitting the teens, allowing again for solo play. Players are also continuously given options for more difficult Alert missions which they can attempt to solo or pair up with other heroes and villains to complete.
Leveling happens fast in DCUO and as a result, the initial release of the game feels like it isn’t full of content. There are lots of hours worth of missions to play, but gamers who want can hit level 30 within two weeks to three weeks. As with most other MMOs, DCUO promises further content the longer the game exists so there is not yet an overabundance of content to play through yet. There is also no experience penalty for dying which results in faster leveling.
A few gameplay designs are questionable in DCUO such as the game’s targeting, where players may shoot projectiles in a cone that draws more aggro from enemies than desired or the lack of a button which allows a player to keep running forward without holding the W key (until later unlocking more enhanced travel powers). The other comes from the unintuitive chat and other player interface controls. It is a hassle to communicate with other players be it through chatting or inviting another player in to a party. There is no easy toggle to allow players to just click on a fellow hero or villain with their mouse and press invite to bring them into their party. It’s surprising after SOE’s experience with Star Wars Galaxy and Everquest that something like this would be overlooked.
There is an interesting dichotomy to the story of DC Universe Online. In DCUO, the story is both the strongest and weakest part of the game’s overall experience. First, let’s look at the positives. In DCUO, you feel like your character matters. The entire time, you are hobnobbing with the elite heroes of the DC world. In your very first mission where your character must escape one of Brainiac’s ships, you are communicating with either Oracle or Calculator At the end of the mission (spoiler), you get the chance to team up with either Superman or Lex Luthor, the cream of the crop of their respective side of the heroes vs. villains war of DCUO.
As players progress, they never feel like they are small potatoes. While they know they aren’t going to start their first hero mission taking on a big gun like the Joker, they are always going head to head with recognizable villains, even to those players who aren’t deeply invested in DC lore. Within the first few hours of play, a hero under the guidance of Batman will go head to head with the Scarecrow. They will continue to face more villains of increasing difficulty as they progress further towards the coveted level 30. On the way, they also fight alongside other notable heroes. Taking on a mission from Wonder Woman, my character teamed up with the Titans to help save their partner Raven from the grips of her demonic father.
DCUO also does a great job of teasing larger encounters, giving players a taste of what is to come. At around the level 17 mark, I was able to team up with Batman to take on the Joker who was holding Commissioner Gordon and other members of the Gotham City Police Department hostage. As expected, the Joker was able to escape in the knick of time with Batman giving chase. But it did get you excited to see what happens the next time you get your hands on the Joker.
The presentation of mission arcs is also very fulfilling with the game’s unique take on cut scenes. Instead of fully animated CGI or in engine scenes, players are treated to miniature motion comics. There is minimal animation over beautiful artwork and fantastic voice acting. As we will cover in Sound, these iconic voice actors kick the overall experience up to the next level.
Now, on to the not so good. A problem that plagues many MMO games is there is little to make the experience feel truly unique. This is quickly seen by any player who creates both a Hero and Villain. The first mission for either faction is identical, with the exception of the informant guiding them through and the icon who comes in to team up with them. While the heroic and villainous stories diverge from there, heroes stories will quickly overlap with each other. Just traveling from Gotham to Metropolis, players will find themselves doing missions from heroes who are not their mentor leading to a more generic experience that a player could go through regardless of whether Batman or Wonder was their chosen mentor.
The most disappointing aspect of the story is the lack of a true super hero origin story. As seen in the original Blur trailer, Lex Luthor comes back from the future after Brainiac has successfully invaded the planet due to Luthor’s organization against the heroes of Earth which lead to the death of both Superman and Wonder Woman in his timeline. (Batman didn’t die though as seen in the newly released second Blur trailer.) Luthor releases exobytes into Earth’s atmosphere, granting thousands of ordinary people super powers. No matter what, that is how your character is treated. No radioactive spiders. No escapes from a dying planet. No green ring given to you by a dying intergalactic peacekeeper. There isn’t even a section for players to write in their own origin.
Additionally, while Metahuman (be it mutation or alien characters) or even Magic based characters can be explained using this generic origin, Gadget characters like Batman don’t. Exobytes being released into the world can explain why someone can suddenly shoot lasers from their eyes, it doesn’t quite explain why someone can suddenly afford to purchase expensive crime fighting weapons and suits or why they didn’t just do it before Luthor came back and changed the world.
Graphics and Sound:
As expected from an MMO, DC Universe Online isn’t a graphical powerhouse. Large environments and tons of characters must be created at the same time. As a result, intense graphical detail must be left out. The art design however works with this in a way that keeps players happy, especially with the level of detail allowed in character creation and further customizability.
There are times frame rate, even on medium settings, can become an issue. Once players are a certain distance away, some animations of NPCs begin looking like old school sprites. In some instances, there is graphical clipping or times when objects load in front of a player instead of in the distance or during loading screens.
The voice acting in DCUO is some of the best to hit the MMORPG world. With a fully voiced cast, there are few performances within that don’t live up to the overall package. Kevin Conroy (voicing Batman, Booster Gold and various other characters) and Mark Hammill (reprising his Joker role) headline the best of the best in DC voice acting. These familiar takes on people’s favorite characters quickly immerse players in to the game world. While not every NPC can be as well acted as Batman or Joker, the duds are few and far between giving DCUO one of the best auditory performances in the MMO world.
DC Universe Online is a great step towards the ideal super hero MMO, but it just isn’t quite there yet. The gameplay is quickly engaging and addicting. The look and feel of the DC Universe gets nailed as soon as players step out on to the streets of Metropolis or Gotham. Being able to fight alongside someone’s favorite hero or villain is an instant draw. There are still certain aspects to the control and story though that leave something to be desired. Players may find themselves quickly scavenging for more content after the first month or two of playing. It is going to be important for SOE to keep more coming to keep the player base strong. While there is a good number of people playing, MMOs in the past have shown that lack of content or drastic gameplay changes can take a growing world and tank it down to ghost towns.
While there is no way for players to demo DCUO, it is a worthwhile investment for fans of MMOs or the DCU. Most players don’t play single games for more than a month before something new catches their attention so only having a 30 day trial included isn’t an issue. The question will be how many players decide to stick around and begin a monthly subscription fee to play more content as it is released.
PC (Also available on PlayStation 3)
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Price: $49.99 ($59.99 on PlayStation 3) w/ 30 day trial + $14.99 Monthly Subscription