DC Universe Online Review
Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, MMORPGs for short, have been hugely popular with PC gamers with up to 12 million subscribers signed up as of October 2010 to the market dominating title – World of Warcraft. It’s no surprise that console developers want to get a slice of this action and reap the rewards of a monthly pay-to-play system. Sony Online Entertainment have set out to do this on the PlayStation 3 by joining forces with the comic giant DC. However when limited to the layout of a DualShock controller will they manage to succeed or is the console world not yet ready for an MMORPG?
In order to make good use of the DC license they have drafted in Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns to be principal writer and bring his comic experience to the table. His main story sees Lex Luthor travelling back in time after a huge battle between supervillains and superheroes to warn Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman that their fight has been manipulated by Brainiac so he can dominate over all.
In order to prevent this they aim to create a superpowered army, known as metahumans, by releasing ‘exobytes’ in the Earth’s atmosphere to give normal people extraordinary powers. This is where players step in as they begin their training to become the best heroes or villains they can be in order to combat Brainiac’s eventual arrival.
First of all players need to create their chosen look and select whether they want to side with the good or bad. Each side has three mentors so while the heroes will have the option of Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman the villains will get to choose from The Joker, Lex Luthor or Circe. These affect what sort of missions you’ll start out with as well your initial starting area.
Your gender and size are also selections on offer although the latter boils down to only three presets. Fortunately the powers and weapons are a lot more substantive allowing you to mix elemental forces, gadgets and mental abilities with swords, guns, martial arts and even hand blasters. These give plenty of variety and are sure to satisfy most people’s wants.
If that wasn’t enough there are three movement modes to opt for. First of all there are acrobatics which see players running around in a parkour style flipping over ledges and scrambling up walls. This is the easiest to control and clearly the preference for beginners. Next up there is superspeed which is essentially a much faster and sporadic version of acrobatics. Finally there’s flying which does exactly as you’d imagine but can be a slight chore to handle at times.
Finally players define their initial look from the pool of skins, armour and colour schemes. Although there are plenty to be found should you wish to create your dream character, you can also find a few preset costumes for those who wish to look like one of their favourite comic legends. One notable addition is that while you can equip new armour and weapons with their stat bonuses, you can visually change your characters appearance to anything that’s been previously equipped.
The initial mission is spent escaping Brainiac’s ship and learning the basic controls. From the offset is clear that Sony are aiming for a more action oriented, flashy and instantly satisfying combat which comes across at first to be more akin to a brawler than an MMORPG. This means that combos can be made and button mashing will get you through the very beginning of the game.
Don’t fear as this isn’t prevalent throughout and there are still plenty of powers available to test out on your enemies. A quick glance at your skill tree does reveal a wealthy amount of options to choose from however the controls only allow six powers, one item and one trinket to boost stats at one time. This greatly limits your possibilities and, when compared to other PC MMORPGs with their mass of action bars, makes unlocking a lot of abilities feel a bit pointless. Once you get to level ten you do unlock another action bar, known as a loadout, which acts as a separate role to your standard damage dealing one. Although this still limits you greatly as you can only have one or the other and it’s not that simple to switch on the fly unless you happen to have a keyboard attached. The console controller is the reason for this system but no doubt those used to PC titles will find this to be a big letdown.
However most of the other usual MMORPG staples are still here. Player Versus Player (PVP) and Player Versus Environment (PVE) servers are separate. For those who are new to this type of game this means that on PVP servers enemy players can attack hero players whenever they see them. Conversely PVE servers allow players to go about completing quests without the fear of other players attacking them unless they have set this option on.
The game also features dungeons (known as alerts) where you can play as your character or a DC legend, raids and plenty of questing. The quests aren’t anything different from the standard kill or collect a certain number of things aside from any Booster Gold quests which see you travelling round the city to find kiosks to give you an insight into the history of various monuments. Most quest chains come to a close with a fight against a famous DC character (often paired up with a DC hero or villain) followed by a comic style cutscene. These are highly entertaining and once again make good use of the license.
One issue with the game is that the level cap is a mere 30. Given that this takes roughly two weeks to reach it feels far too short. Fortunately there are the high level raids, dungeons, duos (two person dungeons) and high level power armour to aim for but if you don’t enjoy doing these then your time with DC Universe Online is likely to be short lived. The developers seem to put all their faith in these features for longevity however it certainly isn’t catering for everyone. This is also a bigger issue coupled with the fact that these can take a while to join due to the lengthy queue process that sometimes fails to drop you in these events for quite some time.
MMORPG veterans will also be disappointed to note that there are no professions in this game. So you aren’t able to create your own armour, weapons or health items. This is one again another way of extending the game that is tried and tested but simply excluded from DCUO.
Naturally one huge thing that’s required for an MMORPG is the integration of social interaction. After all why have loads of people online if you can’t join them, talk to them or even fight them? This is one crucial area where this game falls flat on its face. Bringing up the chat box may only be a single button press but it obscures the screen and almost forces you to be either chatting or playing the game. When you are working with others to beat an enemy you need to communicate and if you aren’t using a keyboard then this is a serious chore. Voice chat is also included but it’s incredibly limited in its radius and isn’t always reliable.
Joining a group fortunately isn’t as much of an issue but once again DC have failed to include a quest sharing ability so you may be doing the same quest but there’s no way to check how you are doing. Clans, called Leagues in this game, are very simplified and it doesn’t really encourage their formation. This is very basic stuff that they are missing out and it truly hurts what could have been a great game.
Also included in amongst the lag ridden menus are achievements earned through exploration, discovery, combat and levelling. These award points to spend on abilities so there is an actual benefit to spending some time chasing their completion.
The visuals on offer in DCUO are very satisfying given the width and breadth of the cities you are fighting in. Draw distance is solid and it’s not often that you’ll be running along waiting for the graphics to catch up with you. Unfortunately despite all this the cities do simply look like cities and fast become dull to explore even with collectables dispersed throughout. Luckily the sound and voice acting does a great job of immersing you in the unique universe even if the metropolises lose their charm.
DC Universe Online is an ambitious title and one that has a lot of unreached potential. The melee combat is fast and exciting and coupled with the unique movement and powers it does give the feeling of being a superhero or supervillain. Sadly its failure to grasp some of the basic elements of a good MMORPG overshadows the genuine advancements in the genre. It’s already seen a number of patches to improve it so far but with similar titles out there who have set the standard for some time why didn’t they take note rather than choose to play catch up?