DC Universe Online

As the first gamer to enter DC Universe Online, I can state with some confidence that it is not just World of Warcraft in tights. In working with this high-profile license, Sony Online Entertainment is preparing something special that it hopes will live up to the name.

Previous comic book games built on established superhero stories have put you in direct control of an iconic character, but as a consequence were limited by whatever fiction/lore/baggage was attached to that character. According to SOE Austin Creative Director Chris Cao, the development team at SOE was tasked with thinking around that convention. In DCUO, instead of rolling characters like Batman1939 or GreenLantern2814, you introduce your own superhuman to the DC universe. The backstory: for some unknown reason, thousands of superhumans suddenly emerge in places like Metropolis and Gotham, and the established heroes and villains must cope with the mysterious superhuman influx.

“It’s our job to open the door to this universe, and let people step through as a hero or villain from their own imagination,” says Cao. “We want the kind of experience where you can be a villain, throwing cars around and screaming at little kids, and you suddenly see a streak of blue and red, feel a minor earthquake, and boom, there’s Superman. Or, another villain example, imagine breaking into Arkham Asylum, freeing some villains, and then going on a raid at the Batcave. Those are the kinds of experiences we’re trying to create.”

With this in mind, the team created one of DCUO’s most intriguing mechanics, designed to give the game a “superhero action” feel: the dynamic encounter system. Cao quips, “We didn’t want a game where you see ninjas hanging out at the same street corner [all the time] waiting for players; the fiction is perfect for that dynamic ‘you’re needed here and now!’ feeling.” Instead of looking for people with exclamation marks over their heads, you get most of your “quests” via a communicator from either the Justice League (heroes) or the Legion of Doom (villains). Notifications will pop up about crimes or missions in progress, ranging from a nearby bank robbery to an attack on a HIVE (flamboyant terrorists resembling Cobra from G.I. Joe) base in South America or a ninja lair in the Himalayas; objectives can include stealing items as a villain or rescuing hostages as a hero. Heck, there’s no reason they can’t send you off to galactic locations such as Apokolips or Thanagar when danger arises. The dynamic encounter system is designed to cater to players burnt out on the traditional mob-spawn system of other MMOs.

The game is still in early development, but I got to experience the basic, moment-to-moment gameplay. Character generation is still being developed, but you can expect to choose whether to be a hero or a villain, what type of powers you use (fire, ice, light, etc.), and how they’re used (via a power ring, mystic weapons, or your fists). Other character customization attributes will include body types, origin (magical, technological, or neither), and, of course, the color scheme of your costume. I quickly made a few hero characters including Pocket Hercules, an ice-powered melee guy, and Yellow Peril, a flying earth-power guy. SOE let me run around a PvP encounter that takes place at the Temple of Isis, where heroes and villains duke it out to grab objectives/buffs around the temple; these objectives culminate in a raid encounter against Black Adam (essentially the evil version of Captain Marvel - the guy who yells “SHAZAM!”).

And hey, it does feel much more action-y than you might be used to - no more “hit a button and watch looping animations.” The controls were immediately intuitive; you use the typical WASD setup and mouse to move around, and perform basic attacks with clicks. Movement powers, such as flight and super-speed, are activated via the F-key, and special abilities mapped to your number keys open up more interesting combat tactics. You can use a snare/incapacitation power, such as an ice blast that turns your opponent into a big ice cube, and then immediately hurl that ice cube at another opponent or an object to knock stuff around. Alternatively, you can use a wind ability to blow enemies off their feet, then super-speed up and smack the crap out of them. At least part of the fluid third-person action comes courtesy of DCUO Creative Director Jens Andersen, who has a little action game called Star Wars: Battlefront on his resume.

We can confirm that loot, such as Thanagarian war gear, will be in the game, and that you’ll visit iconic settings like Metropolis and the Batcave, but everything is still very rough and in flux at this stage. We’ll be keeping a close eye on DCUO to see how well the extremely ambitious and awesome-sounding concept of dynamic encounters is implemented. This, and other secrets of the mysterious origins of this MMO revealed in the next installment!

Jul 15, 2008