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.
Above: Brother Blood lets us know what he wants on his pizza
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 gigantic green-skinned character in purple pants bounding through Metropolis and smashing helpless medics out of the way. 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 The Hulk. He even had the name.
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.
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.