DC Universe Online - hands-on

Here's a surprise for you: The beta for DC Universe Online is actually fun. For months we've feared that Sony Online Entertainment's newest outing would be another Star Wars Galaxies at worst or a tired World of Warcraft clone at best, but DC Universe Online quickly proves that there's more than one way to enjoy yourself while wearing latex. This is what would have happened if Batman: Arkham Asylum had had an extensive multiplayer campaign; this is what happens when true action replaces the point-and-click mechanics of many MMOs; best of all, this must be what happens when Sony Online Entertainment gets something right.

Above: Bizarro doesn't care that you're technically on his side

Of course, there's a story in all this. DC Universe begins with Lex Luthor gleefully impaling Superman with a gigantic kryptonite spear in the midst of a battlefield strewn with heroes and villains alike. It's a short-lived rush, however: in an almost comic turn of events, Brainiac's horde of alien forces appears on the horizon while the lance still wobbles in Superman's corpse, and the alien apocalypse begins with no resistance since those pesky superheroes are out of the way. No worries, of course: Luthor simply goes back in time to convince everyone to kiss and make up and fight against this common evil. And since he'll need more than a few good superbeings to beat them back, he brings back a stash of bugs carrying super powers to be distributed among the Average Joes of the population.

That's where you come in. Since there's apparently nothing so satisfying as saving the world while decked out like a luchador, DCUO provides a hefty customization feature for your rookie superdude. It's not quite as extensive as City of Heroes' interface, but it's complex enough that you'll likely never see another super-person wearing the same fabulous tights. In all cases, you can adjust your character according to three body build types, five weapon specializations, and three forms of travel style (flying, acrobatics or high speed), and a host of other options.

Above: Healers can look badass, too

Don't care for all that creative junk? Unimaginative players can even forgo making their own costumes and create a knockoff character that's closely modeled on figures like Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman for heroes or Lex Luthor, the Joker or Circe for villains. These six iconic figures also serve as faction leaders of sorts for all players, and selecting one or the other will affect your character's general storyline and starting city. Since we played as a dual-wielding, fire blasting, coquettish acrobat aligned with the sultry sorceress Circe, many of our quests dealt with harnessing magic.

Above: Yeah, we didn't mind taking orders from her

Butt-kicking starts within seconds while you escape from one of Brainiac's ships in your spiffy new duds. After only a few kicks it's clear that this is a game that sings when played with a gamepad. You need to dodge attacks, you need to break out of stuns, and you need to pull off complex combos to pummel bosses. There's nothing particularly wrong with playing with a keyboard (especially if you're a god with keybinds), but the fluidity that accompanies the gamepad more than reveals DCUO's obvious gameplay bias towards the PS3. Indeed, DC Universe Online is more Bayonetta than Everquest; PC combos require multiple mouse clicks that were obviously intended for the DualShock.

Depending on what type of character you create, you start in either gloomy Gotham City or sunny, hopeful Metropolis. Both must cover more territory than Rhode Island, although the ability to teleport to certain locations makes the size much more manageable. Normal travel is exhilarating. Launch into your character's fast travel mode (which can also be used to escape a bad fight), and you'll be running across water, bounding over buildings, and flying like a speeding bullet depending on your choices at the character screen. At Level 10 you'll have the chance to learn an extra weapon proficiency and specialize in tanking, damage-dealing or buff-mongering.

Above: Beats taking flightpaths

Main quests are often progressive - steps are added as you complete different sections - often culminating in a single-player instance with well-known bosses (and being able to see the end quest reward at all times is nice). On one occasion, Lex Luthor commanded our villain to round up some pouty super-powered patients who had escaped from a Lexcorp-controlled hospital. The heroes, on the other hand, were obviously told to free the patients and rescue them from intercepting hospital guards. This quest alone revealed how PvP servers likely contribute to the feel of the massive superhero battles so popular in comic books. After delivering all the patients, Luthor then had us destroy the news vans and control communications, as "freedom of the press only goes so far." Finally, we entered the hospital itself and engaged in several rounds of rough fights with Supergirl (Lex asked us to get a sample of her DNA using kryptonite. You know how it goes).

Above: Supergirl tries to give us the cold shoulder

Amazingly, you never lose track of the story. Every single interaction with quest NPCs is handled by talented voice actors - a tactic that easily avoids the voluminous and ignorable quest text found in so many other MMOs. The experience significantly boosts immersion since even rank-and-file enemies have a surprisingly large library of voice emotes. Many of these only have placeholder audio for now, however, and thus one of the best treats of the beta is hearing Circe occasionally speaking her over-the-top lines like Ben Stein.

PvP arenas are the only locations where you can play as DC favorites like the Joker and Batman, although you'll need to unlock each character as you level. As a villain, we could only play as Harley Quinn (heroes played Robin) in king-of-the-mountain-style matches in Arkham Asylum and the ACE Chemical Factory, but these were intensely enjoyable. Here you can play with the iconic character's abilities instead of your own, and there's even a clownish sparring target to test your skills while you're waiting for the match to start.

Above: Our kind of Harlequin romance

Elsewhere, you can queue into an Alert instance, in which you work with three other players toward a common goal. In other words, this is the standard MMO-style dungeon. In our case, we went to the deserts of Area 51 to halt an attack by the Brainiac posse, complete with a few minor bosses and objectives and one end boss that wiped the floor with our super asses a couple of times before we took him down. This was partly the fault of the poor communication in our group - since no one was using voice chat and text chat is difficult to use in combat, the battle essentially turned into one big disorganized mess, our strategy simply being focused on attrition.

Above: Well, that's one way to prove that there are aliens at Area 51

DCUO is not without its other kryptonian weaknesses. Vaulting and flying through the simultaneously cavernous and labyrinthine spaces of faction hubs like the villains' Hall of Doom and the heroes' Watchtower quickly grows tiring after a few visits, and more than once we found ourselves simply lost (here's where an ability to walk through walls would have come in handy). Chatting is slightly cumbersome and chat channels are thus strangely quiet for an MMO, and there's an excessive focus on voice chat for the PC version. Most worrisome of all, DCUO often feels like a gigantic single-player game, and we hope that more obviously group-based missions will appear at higher levels.

Overall, however, DC Universe is off to a good start. Owing to the low beta level cap, we've yet to see anything approaching end-game content, but what we have experienced is both exciting and promising. Genre favorites like reputation-based faction awards abound, and DC Comics buffs will revel in the intense characterizations of more than 127 of the franchise's greatest heroes and villains. Visuals are fantastic, and the non-placeholder audio is perfect for the subject matter. In other words, this is pretty close to a complete package, and we're looking forward to what's to come and we hope the PS3 version will be as good as it sounds.

Just one more thing - please, Sony: don't screw this up.

Dec 8, 2010

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  • Tigermace - December 22, 2010 10:53 p.m.

    Been playing the beta, it's great. I wish I was on the ps beta, not pc. Game comes ouyt Jan 11, and I'll be getting the ps3 version. Death stroke is in it-he's in the trailer/opening movie
  • Marshallcolt - December 10, 2010 1:17 a.m.

    Okay as one of the lucky ones who was chosen to play the Beta, let me tell you that even in Beta form DCU is one of the smoothest playing, expansive games I have ever played. I am mostly a fan of RP style MMOs but this game rocks and actually has potential for rp especially if they can tweak the chat system which is really clunky. When if comes out, I highly recommend this game for sheer fun.
  • wazup98 - December 10, 2010 12:48 a.m.

    I hope they try to make this as good as dragon age. P.S games radar FTW!
  • esotericus - December 9, 2010 10:27 p.m.

    @Dreadnought Nothing specific yet. Basically just "early 2011."
  • SausageLozenge - December 9, 2010 2:11 a.m.

    I'm there! DC FTW
  • Dreadnought - December 9, 2010 1:04 a.m.

    Still very glad I got a PS3 in the beginning. The game looks good so far, anyone know when this comes out?
  • Mamudo - December 9, 2010 12:35 a.m.

    The negatives mentioned are pretty much the only problems I'm having with the beta so far.
  • EnragedTortoise1 - December 9, 2010 12:33 a.m.

    Ooh, a PS3 version! DO WANT!
  • NightCrawler_358 - December 9, 2010 12:16 a.m.

    Very cool. I hope Deathstroke is in it... i mean deadpool, no, slade... whatever! But seriously, high speed characters look very fun.
  • crumbdunky - December 8, 2010 11:56 p.m.

    I also remember a reliable friend saying that the hands on he and a few workmates had with The Agency a while ago was also pretty good-though as I haven't kept up with it it might have been canned since for all I'd know!! Maybe having their own console owners to develop for instead of a pure PC only crowd has proven an escape from the normal MMO contraints and risks(in a modern mmorpg)of trying to ape Blizzard's magic formula. Who knows , even developing with the action mapped better for a pad makes a big difference for SOE? Naturally I don't think development can have been easy(both big SOE PS3/PC MMOs were pencilled in for original 2008 releases IIRC!!)having to consider console and PC needs at the same time but I do think SOE might find their feet a little better because of , rather than in spite of, this situation. Certainly, as someone who's never really been caught by the normal EQ/WoW style PC MMO scene I'm more interested in the whole genre than I have ever been and think a proper(and not dumbed down in either combat terms or levelling either), skill based action approach(or true stealth shooter)tailored equally(or better) towards a pad might be up a lot of new(to mmos) people's street. Course, we (and even more likely, I!) could be totally off point and Sony balls this, The Agency and whatever they're doing with FR up completely but it's been really promising reading most beta reports for DCUO(that I've read anyway)and I'm hopeful of actually trying a new MMO with a LITTLE hope of sticking at it with DC or The Agency. They could have a big success on their hands if they can appeal to old hands by making the PC version shine and new fans(on console)if the PS3 game is it's near equal and loses nothing for pad based gamers(not that you couldn't use K/M on PS3 if you want to anyway-I have for UT3 in the past when challenged to by some old CS buddies one night-even if it's easily the most effective controls for a shooter I just find it both TOOO good to be true at times and as a result, and also aiming on two planes, a little less immersing than a p[ad for some reason these days and also like the more level playing field we get online on consoles with 99% of gamers using all the same gear etc)-they're taking a LONG time(sweet trailer/cinematic, mind, which grabs attention)about it but maybe SOE have learned from their errors and have been inspired and freed up by going cross platform with it's new set of challenges. I#m certainly hopeful and a little shocked how good it's all looking without us seeing any of the REALLY big and intense higher level stuff yet. Someone said to me the other day that it would flop on PS3 no matter how good it was or how many actually ended up playing on PC purely because consoles aren't FOR MMOs and people didn't buy a PS3 wanting to p[lay one-FF11 did OK, though, as a cross plat MMO didn't it? I know the FF name held a lot(and still does or 14 would already be dead!)of gamer sway but the attraction of DC should have a similar effect and I'd imagine PC and console gamer al.ike are [pretty familiar with Bats, Supes and The Joker-the big, famous cultural icons could make this the game to break MMOs on console. By that I mean it being almost a level PS/PC split of a healthy populous eventually. Hell, even if it ends up not being my cup of char I hope it ends up a good game that brings the genre to a large console audience for the first time and, to me, signs are pretty good-my twelve year old lad is almost obsessed with how this is going.
  • Cruddi - December 8, 2010 11:50 p.m.

    sweet so looking forward to kicking the dark knight around... also is the ps3 version free to play?
  • killerhi5 - December 8, 2010 11:19 p.m.

    ok this game looks amazing... probably just because im a comic book geek but.. i have an xbox...
  • esotericus - December 8, 2010 11:03 p.m.

    @thearcani Jeremiah here! I don't know about the other guys, but I'm still playing "Esoterica"--the hot one in the screenshots. Feel free to catch me online. I've kind of caught Cataclysm fever, though, so I might not be on for a day or two. ;)
  • thearcani - December 8, 2010 10:57 p.m.

    I've been loving the beta. Is there any way we can play some time with the GamesRadar staff?
  • StoneDreadnaught - December 8, 2010 10:34 p.m.

    I'm very glad to hear that this has a strong start. I was afraid that this was gonna get shat out, and thankfully it has been given some good care and attention. Also, one can hope that they work out all of the major kinks in the game before the full release. If they do, I think this could rival KotOR, or even WoW, one day.
  • Hexateuch - December 8, 2010 10:26 p.m.

    Looks awesome