MMO's are nothing new. MMO's centered around creating your own superheroes aren't exactly fresh, either. We've been playing games like City of Heroes and Champions Online for the past five years, so what makes DC Universe Online any different? Well, it's in the name isn't it? This is the first properly licensed superhero online game to grace both computers and consoles. Not only can you quest in dungeons with fellow user-created heroes, but you'll also be fighting alongside the likes of Superman, The Flash, Lex Luthor and the Joker. For fans of the DC Universe, as well as those with only a casual knowledge of it (which thanks to the Batman and Superman movies encompasses most of the global population), this may be enough to sell you on the game. But will you have any fun playing it?
The crux of DC Universe Online's story is explained in a fantastic opening cutscene exuding with awesome. In a dark and war-torn future (is there any other kind?), the villains of the DC Universe will effectively wipe out its heroes, including an armour-plated Batman and a badass red-eyed Superman. However, in doing so they leave Earth wide open for attack by Brainiac, another of Supes' foes, which a cyborg Lex Luthor is barely able to escape by travelling back in time. He warns the present-day Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, then releases squillions of 'exobytes' into the atmosphere with the intention of creating new 'meta-humans' out of ordinary citizens, to prepare for the coming invasion. You'd be one of those, then.
DC Universe Online has been released both for PC and PlayStation 3, and we primarily played it on the latter. It certainly feels like an MMO that belongs on a console, as the controls feel more like an action brawler than they do an RPG. Square punches, triangle fires your secondary weapon, and special powers and items are accessed by squeezing a trigger and tapping on a face button. Combat is carried out via mouse clicks on the PC. Your attacks even rack up a combo score, just like your Devil May Cry and God of War games, which means that initially this feels less like an MMORPG, and more like an action game that just happens to be online. However, it's nowhere near as responsive as your regular offline action title. That's not to say the controls are poor, but from time to time you feel less like you're pummeling bad guys' faces, and more like you're abiding by an invisible calculator running through all the variables and numbers, deciding exactly how much damage you dole out and how accurate you are. This is especially the case when throwing explosive barrels or objects at enemies, which sometimes completely miss their mark even if you were aiming correctly, and sometimes disappear altogether for no discernible reason. On the other hand, dying or getting 'knocked out' is handled quite well. You don't suffer any kind of penalty except time, having to wait ten seconds for a group member to revive you, and failing that teleporting to the nearest safehouse or to the start of the dungeon. It's hassle-free and forgiving.
Character creation is robust, but not entirely comprehensive. You can choose a character's gender and personality, from comical to aggressive, which affects their stance, and one of three McDonalds-inspired body types (small, medium and large). The most control you have is over your character's style, decking them out in all the accouterments that are expected of any superhero, ranging from your standard cape and spandex, to over-designed spikey armour and even top hats and monocles. You're also able to choose your character's powers, starting with their movement type - again, three options in flight, acrobatics and super speed. If you were hoping for a Batmobile or the ability to swim and talk to dolphins, you're out of luck. Offensive superpowers range from expertise in gadgetry, to magic or fire-based powers. You're also granted a secondary weapon, that includes dual pistols, dual sword blades and Thor-like smashing weapons. What's on offer here is entirely reasonable, and there is room to make some creative characters, although we haven't seen a lot of evidence of that judging by how many people we've encountered who look like half-naked angels.
The most important thing you'll be choosing is which superpowered side you're backing, and which 'mentor' you'd like. The option to be either a villain or a hero is a welcome addition to the superhero MMO genre, and in our time with the game, people were certainly getting into character. On one occasion we saw a gang of level 30 villains camping at the spawn point for new heroes in Metropolis, picking them off one by one, no doubt cackling maniacally as they did. Choosing a 'mentor' affects which city you start off in, what loot you'll receive and quest rewards. Both sides have interesting choices, from Batman and Superman to Joker and Lex Luthor, but unless you make multiple characters and compare what rewards you receive, the most notable difference they make is affecting who's talking to you occasionally in the top-right corner of your screen.
Most of your time in DC Universe Online will be spent on PvE missions, where you'll encounter some of the most well-known villains and heroes from the comics. As a hero, expect to be beating up a lot of gorillas, robots and corrupted citizens, whereas villains will find do-gooders such as police officers their main fodder. These encounters are probably the highlight of the game, and fans of the DC Universe will have a lot of fun interacting with fully voiced incarnations of their favourite characters. However, they do get somewhat repetitive the more you play. Objectives usually consist of 'go here, beat up X number of enemies, activate X number of objects,' which works fine as long as the scenery and plot remain interesting. That said, the missions do eventually become repetitive, but by that point you'll have already reached the maximum level cap.
It's actually pretty easy to reach the level cap of 30 in DC Universe Online, especially if you're in a group, although it's conceivable to reach it within a week going solo if you were deadset on it. Experience is gained from completing missions, and is doled out as you complete objectives within them, rather than being withheld till the end. The fast levelling is both good and bad. It means you gain access to new powers and abilities pretty often, but it also means that you'll stop getting them pretty soon. After you reach level 30, the game becomes mostly about getting the best gear, and decking your character out in the most powerful equipment (which, incidentally, doesn't have to affect their appearance thanks to a style option in the menu). For a lot of players, this might the point where the game settles into tedium. This is somewhat remedied by the PvP options, which are are fun, if not outstandingly creative, and let you fight in famous arenas, such as the Bat-cave. Also, hitting level 30 opens up larger dungeons and introduces two-player 'duo' dungeons, which are interesting even though you'll have stopped getting experience by that point.
On PS3, the game requires a 12GB install before you can have the privilege of downloading another 2GB worth of patches. Even with these patches, there are still glitches present in the game that are fairly annoying. In an early mission with Gorilla Grodd, we were knocked out while facing the atrocious ape, which teleported us back to the start of the dungeon but made the area where Grodd was inaccessible, making the mission unfinishable until we reset. On PS3, we also encountered a lot of slowdown, and it didn't appear to be connection-related. At random times during gameplay, even if we were just flying around minding our own business, the game would slow to a slideshow-like crawl, even affecting the speed of the XMB when we tried to turn off the system. On the PC, it was relatively smooth sailing. Voice chat is also a problem area, that only sort of works. Some of the time. When it feels like it. However, it is early days for the MMO yet, and hopefully these are problems that can be patched out.
On PC, depending on your specs, DC Universe Online can be a decent looking game, with expansive city vistas and detailed (if a little cartoony) character models. On PS3, everything looks noticeably lower resolution, and there is a fair bit of texture pop-in (except on occasions where they refuse to even pop-in late). On both versions, the design of the cities, with Metropolis in particular, can be a little uninspired. The game's music doesn't contain any of the famous themes you may be used to from other DC media, but is still nicely orchestrated and generally unobtrusive. The voicework in the game ranges from fantastic (with the likes of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy on board to breathe life into Joker and Batman), to really very awful (the death cries of Brainiac's death drones in particular are hilarious, just listen to their astonishing rendition of the masterful line 'This one has failed...'). Nevertheless, the amount of voices in the game, given that it's an MMO, is quite impressive.
We've raised a lot of points where DC Universe Online fails, but that doesn't change the fact that the time we spent with it was mostly quite fun. With glitches, limited character creation options and uninteresting endgame aside, our journey to level 30 was a colourful ride, encountering all the characters we were hoping to meet and even some we weren't expecting. The simplified combat system was generally easy to handle, if sluggish, and the abilities we unlocked for our character were fun too. If you've been following DC comics for some time, or have any stake in these characters, then it's actually not a bad game to play for a month, which is exactly the amount of time included with the game. The problem right now is that there's little reason to keep playing beyond that, especially considering that in Australia SOE are charging AU $19.95 a month for subscriptions, which is inexplicably more than the US price of $14.99, given the exchange rate. So, buyer beware of the subscription cost, but for comic book fans it's at least worth the trial period.