There's a discussion going on in The Escapist office as I write this about whether or not Wonder Woman is cool. She does have the Amazonian background and the Lasso of Truth but lacks the personality that even the ironic comedy of Aquaman's underwater powers provide. The thing about superheroes is that everybody has an opinion; everyone has an image in his or her head of what the coolest superhero would be. Older MMOs like City of Heroes and Champions Online allowed you to create your own hero or villain and loose them onto an open world. But those games can feel inauthentic, surrounded by characters that you don't recognize and to which you feel no connection. That's where DC Universe Online shines. Your custom-made superhero or villain is rubbing shoulders with the most iconic characters in Western culture: Superman, The Joker, Catwoman, Wonder Girl, Cyborg, Ambush Bug ...
Wait a second, who the hell is Ambush Bug? For those of you who have a passing fascination with the world of DC comics, lesser known characters of the canon appear in DC Universe Online and instead of being off-putting, they hint at a deeper story beyond what you might see in the movies or TV shows. Ambush Bug appears in the game around level 5 to allow you access to a daily quest called the Vault, but his brief quips piqued my interest enough to learn that he was a fourth-wall breaking character meant to test the boundaries of comics writing. And that was pretty cool.
As an MMO, DC Universe Online breaks down a few walls itself. Chris Kao at Sony Online Entertainment was concerned with making a true action MMO and, in this, the game succeeds. You punch, smack or shoot enemies with all of the gusto that a panel of Action Comics can muster. Superpowers must be mixed in with melee attacks to get the best results, and many powers play off each other so combat takes coordination and skill. Tossing objects at your foes does tons of damage, especially if the barrels are of the fire or ice variety, and this encourages you to manipulate your environment.
Both PC users and PS3 owners play DC Universe Online on the same servers and this breaks down another barrier. The concept of an MMO for consoles is nothing new, but the same problems crop up: navigating the menus and communication using a PS3 controller is not ideal. If you would like to group or coordinate with others, you need to plug in a USB keyboard or invest in a headset if you don't already have one. For me, the perfect way to play DCUO would be on the PC with a controller available for the action. Other than the control scheme, the game delicately blends the two disparate genres and platforms into one cohesive game. It feels like an action brawler, with the loot, exploration, PvP and cooperation of an MMO.
The joy of exploring Gotham City and Metropolis cannot be overstated. The three movement types each enable you to scout out tall buildings and dangerous alleys in an engaging way. Flying and Super Speed are just like they sound, with Super Speed allowing you to run up buildings and leap really far. But for me, it's most fun to jump and glide as an Acrobat. As you level up, you can invest more points into getting around the cities quicker, which means zip lines and grappling hooks all activated from the jump button. It's a rare game where just getting around is fun.
Not only that, DCUO rewards you with some very MMO-like bread crumbs for just checking out the brilliantly designed city. Collectibles dot the roofs of buildings and ledges, and the exploration quests from the Booster Gold Exploration Series kiosks in each headquarters give you XP for travelling to landmarks like Superman's Statue in Centennial Park or the Amusement Mile roller coaster in Gotham. I'm the kind of MMO player that loves these kinds of things - I got a kick of excitement each time I found a Metropolis street sign or turned in another quest to that showboat Booster Gold.
The writing for the missions is both a strength and a weakness of DC Universe Online. The stories, created by working comics book writers like Marv Wolfman and Jim Lee, all feel authentic. Interacting with the Teen Titans and Catwoman places you in the canon and the first few times you beat up Joker's stupid clowns, the quips they say will actually put a smirk on your face. But after completing 20 or 30 missions, the commands to stop this villain's plot or that hero all start to run together. Stopping Poison Ivy's plot to enslave the whole human race in her greenhouse seems very similar to Gorilla Grodd de-evolving humans into apes, and, once you stop it, the enemies still populate those areas. That's a problem that plagues many MMOs, but DCUO doesn't do much to innovate on quest mechanics. The first time you interrogate a bad guy by running up a status bar, it's easily forgiven. The thirtieth time in ten levels is less so.