DC Universe Online, published by Sony Computer Entertainment, is one of a short-list of pay-for-play superhero themed MMORPGs on the market and it’s already making something of a powerful play for being an excellent contender. With City of Heroes/Villains from NCSoft and Champions from Atari already wrangling for supremacy of the marketplace it makes sense that they took MMO-controls in a new direction. They have also done an excellent job of embracing the DC Comics intellectual property by presenting known characters such as Superman, Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Joker, etc.
A multitude of comic book lovers may flock to this game just for the color-and-flare of the comic book fare, the narratives ripped right out of the comic book industry, and the heavy characterization. Like any good MMO, it also extends the storylines that we all know and love—although it does seem to borrow a bit liberally from sources all over the canon to write a different variation on the DC Comics universe.
The game opens up with the end of the teaser trailer, the bent and beaten future-self Lex Luthor returning to the Earth of the past to warn the Justice League—among others—about an impending invasion by Brainiac. He releases the powers stolen from future-Earth’s heroes into this timeline via tiny robots called exobites that transform everyday people into extraordinary heroes.
In kind, this brings about a new era for humankind on the eve of their potential apocalypse.
Building Your Superhero
DCUO goes in a similar direction to a multitude of games when it comes to making your superhero character from the outset. Upon starting character creation you’re given a choice between picking a template and customization. Template characters automatically mimic particularly popular heroes from the DC Comics universe and it will choose both an outfit that matches their motif as well as powers and skills—customize is exactly that, build from scratch.
Note: If you’re one of those types who likes to start from a template and build from there, you can pick a template, then back up and recustomize everything.
Costumes run a huge gamut, something that we’ve all enjoyed hugely from other superhero MMO games like City of Heroes/Villains and DCUO doesn’t scrimp at all here. It allows for a variety of designs and colors that come pretty close to providing tights-and-capes plans that come very close to looking like popular heroes and villains like Superman and Mr. Freeze. You even get to choose small, medium, and large for both male and female avatars—where the small is actually quite diminutive and large provides a hulking brute.
The next decision is one of “morality” which really means hero or villain and that includes picking a hero or villain as a mentor and become an acolyte thereof. The three heroes that you can choose are: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman; where as the three villains are: Lex Luthor, The Joker, and Circe. Your choice of mentor will change gameplay somewhat as it will guide what types of missions you receive from the onset and you’ll also hear your mentor speak about current events in the beginning (mostly a snide soliloquy about Brainac’s invasion and the release of the exobites.)
You also get to choose a travel power from the get-go—something that takes a few levels to reach in games like City of Heroes—each of them provides a good boost to movement speed and also has an upgrade tree that provides further acceleration as your character levels up. The three movement modes consist of flight, super-speed, and acrobatics. By in large, all of the movement modes can be kept on in and out of combat—combat just causes your character to slow down to normal speed (or fall out of the sky). In the case of non-flying powers, having them on also causes characters to stick to walls and ceilings allowing them to reach places that would otherwise be out of reach.
Finally the meat of your character surrounds how you’ll play and interact with the game: your gameplay combat powers. These are split into two primary categories: Weapon Skills and Powers.
Weapons cover a broad spectrum of martial and conventional warfare: one-handed (swords, daggers, clubs), hand blasters, bows/crossbows, claws, guns, dual-swords, hand-to-hand, rifles, staves, and two-handed weapons. The weapon skill will decide the primary attack and defend style of the character and how they engage in mano-e-mano knock-down-drag-out fights with opponents. In fact, this is an important element to what makes DCUO an innovative superhero MMO.
Powers provide a skill set of phenomena effects that exemplify the super-hero or -villain. These come out of power sets: fire, ice, mental, nature, sorcery, and gadgets. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses and breaks down into two distinct paths that delivers a different role-effect for each. For example, a gadgets character can go primarily into “tricks” which provides sticky bombs, sentry turrets, and area-denial effects like gas.
Gameplay: It’s all about the combos, baby
DUCO has been criticized a little bit because of its newly unorthodox control mechanic when dealing with weapon skills. This is where DUCO will either shine or flop for a new player and it has been a really interesting ride for me. Weapon skills don’t work like every other popular superhero MMO (City of Heroes or Champions Online) but instead works off of a button-combo mechanic.
As a player levels their character, they select from new skills that change how their weapon powers work. Left-click causes a close-range attack; right-click causes a long-range attack—and then skills add combos of double-right-click or hold-left-click that generate particular effects like balls of energy, blast enemies backwards, hook them and draw them close, so forth. These appear in a skill tree that builds very quickly and button combos differ something broadly between different weapons especially between single and pair or melee- and long-range weapons.
The effect of weapon skills depending on button combos engenders a highly frenetic combat environment where instead of hitting button sequences or respecting a macro of steps a veteran player can find themselves stymied by their input device betraying them. It introduces a lot of randomness into combat that can be equally frustrating as it is fundamentally exciting.
The reliance on combos continues into the powers. As they rise through their skill trees the earlier powers become foundations for the later powers; earlier powers put status effects on enemies, and later powers take advantage of them. Such as the ice powers which put a “frostbite” effect onto enemies and stacking frostbite can cause them to become rooted in place or frozen in a block of ice. The other tree might “chill” the enemy which then allows the ice user to toss them around or control them.
So, unlike other games, a lot of the combat is being drawn from mouse-click combos and that’s being supported by the powers which are selected from a power-try. Powers can only be set up in keys 1-8 in set ups called “load outs.” Even by level 10 you can end up with a lot more powers than just eight and if you don’t focus into one tree of your primary powers you’ll find yourself making some strange decisions on how to use those precious combos in your limited slots.
As for caveats about this combat system, however, is a problem that arises from the targeting system. There is a tab-targeting system to “lock on” to targets, but in a melee it seems to be willy-nilly; it’s difficult to choose a new target, and picking one in general is all about where the camera is pointed. This adds to the frenzied pace of combat and the twitch hammering of mouse combos as the camera swings wildly about. Veterans probably earn themselves nerves of steel in order to pick and choose trargets from the fray but a newcomer to this control system may find themselves overwhelmed and frustrated.
Audio: And by that I mean voice acting
This game has a lot of narrative and it’s accessible in a way that I haven’t encountered in many other games. It doesn’t play as much with scripted events, as I’ve seen, but what it does do is have a lot of voice acting. At first it’s a little disconcerting watching the animation of avatars alongside the voices (mostly because the mouth movement looks like a badly dubbed animé) but the voices themselves are amazing.
From the very beginning of the game you’ll be guided by a voice. As a hero it will be Oracle and as a villain it will be Calculator. They’ll contact you via your communicator and guide you through the initial opening stages of the game: the escape from the Brianiac invasion ship. Even after you’re in the game proper, you’ll still keep receiving communiqué from heroes and villains as you follow through the narrative missions arcs.
The best part of all this? The voice acting is beautiful.
You’ll understand if you play a villain and take The Joker as a mentor (not to say the other actors did not do a good job) because it’s just amazing listening to him speak—and yes, it’s Mark Hamill. Also, for Firefly fans, Wonder Woman is voiced by Gina Toress, who played Zoe on that Science Fiction Western. Although, at first I had trouble placing her as Wonder Woman, her voice has grown on me. The other voices sound amazing, they’re well recorded, and they’re all over the place.
Listening to Lex Luthor tell me about how the Justice League are allowing humanity to slip away by interfering with his human experimentation is just heart warming. Especially when he snidely comments that people are following “that alien” (he means Superman) instead of him. According to the back story, he also the reason why Earth fell to Brainiac in the alternate future.
Graphics: Nothing really new, but nothing too old either
The graphics fit with what we’d expect from a superhero game. The color palate is thick with striking colors and the characters are designed to be a little bit cartoon—exaggerated features, bulbous and curved body structures, and overlarge expression. The rendering distance can be set to pretty far without too much grind on the CPU, and the engine runs fairly smoothly except when there’s a lot of nonsense going on (say during a firefight with a lot of particle effects firing off.)
The terrains do a pretty good job of giving stuff to stand on and the game spends a lot of time giving you stuff to stand on—or destroy. In fact, a great deal of objects in the terrain or locations can be destroyed, from lamp posts to fences, cars. In some cases, it’s an object of a mission to wreck up vehicles and other elements of the environment; some things can actually be picked up and used as weapons, either to smack people with or in throwing them. Too bad they didn’t take that a little further and allow characters to do combos while holding objects or create effects that require them.
Outfits in particular is a fun element as you can collect costume items. While there’s a limited set to begin with but missions provide outfit items in the vein of fantasy MMOs that offer stat buffs—and while they change the appearance of your character, you can lock your current outfit or put on the new piece and still retain its buffs.
Conclusion: Fun, really fun – but a little bit frustrating
DC Universe Online is a rip-roaring fun game, especially in the opening levels with the excellent voice acting, the compelling missions, the interesting comic-book inspired storylines containing characters from DC comics, and the sweeping genre-centric environments. The combat system will certainly not be for everyone and some players will find it either cumbersome or problematic—especially the mouse-button combo systems—others will find it an interesting change of pace from the usual press-button-and-wait system presented by modern MMOs.
Overall, it’s a game worth inviting a little time to dally about in Metropolis or Gotham city.