Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nah, it's just our hopes for DC Universe Online falling a bit from the heights we envisioned during our hands-on last month. The final product still packs a super-powered punch, but the thrill is fleeting. The quests quickly get repetitive. The content may not warrant playing beyond the first free month. And horror of horrors, the button-mashing quality of the gameplay occasionally makes playing World of Warcraft seem like performing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto on a banjo by comparison.
Above: Silent but deadly
Still, there's something to be said for making a superhero or villain that gets to do Batman or Lex Luthor's dirty work, and the story helps it succeed. The basic idea is that the whole superhero racket is now an equal opportunity gig since Lex Luthor decided that killing all the major superheroes on earth perhaps wasn't such a good idea after all. When an alien nerd named Brainiac gets cocky with all the jocks out of the picture, Luthor goes back in time with a stash of bugs that gives everyone super powers and - as a curious side effect - compels them to walk around in colorful S&M gear. That's where you come in.
Fans of earlier games like City of Heroes and Champions Online will likely find the character creation process a tad limited despite its many options, but there's plenty of loot in the game proper if you suddenly decide that those thigh-high boots don't match your gas mask. What's more, you can lock the model of a particular item if you like the way it looks instead of its upgrade, and you get to avoid the clown-suit ensembles of other MMOs since your outfit's color scheme always stays the same. While this means you can't go AFK in the local faction hub so noobs can gawk at your epic gear, it also means that no two characters in DCUO look quite alike.
Elsewhere, you can choose a primary weapon (with the option of changing at higher levels), your main power (fire, ice, nature and the like), and your mode of transportation (hyper speed, flying or acrobatics). Play your cards right, and there are very few limits to what your character can look like. Shortly before writing this review, we saw a familiar figure in a crimson and purple helmet fly through Gotham. While DC is protective of its own licenses (you can only make characters "inspired" by its biggest names), apparently there's nothing to stop someone from making an in-game version of Magneto.
Since everyone's a superhero now, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and pals largely kick back and let us peons do their bidding. You can choose one hero from your faction to serve as your mentor, which essentially means they pop up from time to time in the upper right hand corner to order you around while they take all the credit. The text for almost every quest is spoken aloud by talented voice actors, which gives DCUO a coveted level of immersion that many other MMOs could learn from. But do yourself a favor and level a villain. The heroes' lines are about as bland as last month's bread; you'll far more enjoy cackling along with Circe and supporting Mark Hamill's career in yet another outing as the Joker.
Above: Brother Blood lets us know what he wants on his pizza
If only this immersion fully carried over into the surrounding world. Metropolis and Gotham City are both sprawling, breathtaking arenas that invite climbing to the tops of skyscrapers and plunging down to the sidewalk below. Gotham bleeds with the sooty ambiance of Prohibition-era Chicago, and Metropolis shines like a futuristic Manhattan on a radiant spring morning. Every location loads quickly on the PC with only a few latency issues, and the transitions between zones are seamless. The problem is that both cities seem abandoned once you leave the quest hubs. Here you'll find no throngs of innocent bystanders, and the traffic you encounter seems more appropriate for lunch time in Nunavut than rush hour in New York.
About those quests. Even though the storylines are undeniably engaging, the quests themselves follow the same tired formula of killing 10 dudes in one location and looting 20 items in other. And because there may be any number of quest givers spread throughout a given area, you may find yourself flying back to kill the same 10 dudes again if you encounter a quest that you missed the first time around. The good news is that DCUO sidesteps the problem of kill stealing by giving every player credit for a kill if they landed a hit or two, and sometimes you get credit for a collection quest if you're near another player on the same quest. But the quests are repetitive. Your location might change and the character models of the dudes you're killing will look a little different, but in the end it feels like you're doing the same thing over and over again.
Above: We could walk on water, but we couldn't turn it into wine
Unfortunately, this repetition carries over to the combat. While PS3 owners will be happy to know that DCUO plays more like God of War than a standard-issue MMO thanks to the game's obvious design bias toward the DualShock, they might be less happy to learn that combat frequently devolves into mindless button mashing. Think of playing Bayonetta on normal or easy mode and you'll have something of the right idea. Thankfully, the combos and abilities available through your talent trees never grow complex enough to warrant setting up some kind of attack rotation, and you can conquer almost anything as long as you remember to block and use a few key combos and abilities (such as one that heals you). And the gamepad makes it all satisfyingly simple. As with most action games, the square button is mapped to normal attacks and triangle is mapped to strong attacks. Press L2 and one of the four face buttons to unleash one spell or power; Press R2 and one of the four buttons to start another. If anything, this focus on button-mashing means that combat always feels fast-paced.
Yet the most glaring issue for PS3 users is the game's almost useless chat interface, which lags behind even the lackluster PC version thanks to the limitations of the DualShock. The best MMOs are social in ways that Facebook can only dream of, and much of the success of games like World of Warcraft springs from their role as chat rooms with entertainment options. There's none of that here. For one, even bringing up the chat menu takes more effort than necessary (particularly since the menu interface on the PS3 is subject to excruciating bouts of lag) and you're left hoping that at least a few people have their keyboards hooked up to their systems if you ask a simple question. If they don't, waiting for a reply takes hours while your superfriends try to mash out text messages on the controllers. Voice chat helps a bit, but it's sporadic and usually limited to your immediate area. Since the game never gives you any tips on how to use the various channels (we only figured out how to use them by using commands we know from WoW), it's worth wondering if Sony gave this crucial aspect of an MMO any real thought at all. To make matters worse, the game's Puritan profanity filter occasionally blocks even the most angelic statements in text. We once went two whole hours without seeing anyone say anything in the chat interface despite there being men in tights running all over the place.
Above: And you thought your potholes were bad
The multiplayer instances suffer as a result. Known as "Alerts," these send you to places like Area 51 (when you can get into them), and you'll join other players as they down bosses for loot. The fights are usually fun, but strategy inevitably amounts to every player pummeling the boss with everything they've got since no one wants to bother with the cumbersome chat interface. And usually it works. To be sure, DCUO includes standard MMO roles like healers and tanks, but these mean little when everyone is free to blast away and heal other players only when they feel like it. This applies even to the PvP instances (where you can unlock the ability to play as iconic characters like Batman) which usually simply require holding a base and fending off incoming players with knockbacks and stuns. Fortunately, PvP is often more engaging than the PvE content since playing as DC icons removes the gear imbalances in other MMOs.
DC Universe Online has an endgame, but it may not justify playing beyond the first free month in its current state. For one, it's possible to reach the level cap of 30 within only a couple of days of gameplay, even while working a full-time job and playing only in the evenings. This is good for players wishing to avoid the grind of other MMOs, but it also means that the content flies by like Superman on the way to the can. And since superheroes and villains apparently think themselves above silly crafting professions, there's no option to engage in a server economy or even an auction house to sell stuff in. Instead, you grind for gear by improving your reputation with various factions, by fighting other players in arenas, or you can take a stab at actually working with your fellow heroes in the two challenging raids or the six difficult dungeons for rare items that more closely resemble the best costumes in DC's repertoire. There's a good chunk of content here, but it all seems a little too similar to what came before it.
Above: Strategy? What strategy?
Despite its problems, DC Universe Online still has a lot going for it, particularly if you play the PS3 version. DCUO just feels "right" with a gamepad, and its fast-paced battles and occasionally inspiring visuals mark it as the best attempt at a console-based MMO to date. Even the most casual comic book fans will drool over the lavishly illustrated cutscenes that round off single-player instances and major quest lines, and the accessible combat system embraces many players who would normally avoid the genre. The world is consistently beautiful, and the familiar characters and locations make DCUO uncommonly inviting. Unfortunately, the game's shorter than a modern comic book, and the crippling limitations of the chat interface keep the PS3 version from outshining its PC cousin. Success as this point would require almost monthly content updates to keep most players interested, and we hope that Sony Online Entertainment has many surprises waiting. As it stands, DCUO is just a casual masterwork that any comic book fan should take for a spin, and we fear the $14.99 monthly subscription fee will be the kryptonite that brings this hopeful giant to its knees.
Feb 2, 2011