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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

My name is pronounced "Layf." I write about video games for a living. I grew up in Texas. I used to be a cowboy (spurs and all). Someday I'd like to live in France. I love nature. I love my wife. Any questions?