DC Universe Online has been out for just a few days, which means this is a really unpopular time to say negative things about it. Players are still in the giddy honeymoon stage of playing the game. Everyone has just spent their money, and they’re riding high on a euphoric dose of post-purchase rationalization. Any concerns can be dismissed with a wave of “Bah, the game isn’t even a month old, give it time.” But set aside your pitchforks for a minute and hear me out. I’m still enjoying the game, but I see some really serious problems that I think are worth talking about, problems that will hurt the longevity of the game if ignored.

First off, I’m not going to be hammering the game for bugs and balance issues. Yes, there are bugs and balance issues, but I’m fairly confident they’ll be taken care of. This game doesn’t feel like it was carelessly rushed out the door. It just has some standard post-launch annoyances. No, the problems I see with the game are worse than bugs, they’re deeper flaws that will hurt the replay value of the game.

In no particular order:

1. Combat is not rewarded

Champions Online made this same mistake (which I discussed near the bottom of the page here) and I maintain that this is a grievous and foolhardy decision. Basically, fighting mooks is worthless for XP. In the parts of the game where quests are worth thousands of XP, Individual foes are worth two or three XP. (And often zero.) You can pummel guys for twenty minutes and make no visible progress towards the next level. This is terrible, because the action-oriented combat is the best part of this game. You might decide to sweep the streets just for fun, even if you don’t have a quest telling you to do so. But the game doesn’t really reward you for doing this, so if you’re fighting for fun then you’re no longer moving forward. Like Champions Online, this encourages players to ignore mooks whenever possible rather than fight them, because they’re just a time-sink. Worse, all of this makes the game dangerously one-dimensional and dull.

One of the beautiful things about an online game is how the leveling mechanics can accommodate diverse types of players. On one end you have the highly skilled hardcore people who want lots of challenge. At the other extreme are people who have little skill and a low frustration threshold, but mountains of patience. The hardcore can seek out quests above their level and fight more difficult mobs. They’ll plow through the game faster. The casual might wander around inefficiently, fighting extra mooks and gradually over-leveling their quests so that they’re often facing foes beneath their level. The play experiences of these two players vary widely, and match their approach to the game: Fast & dangerous vs. slow & steady.

But in a game where mooks are worthless, this curve vanishes. The casual can’t level up fighting dudes. And in the case of DC Universe, the hardcore can’t take on higher level quests. Everyone follows the same leveling progression and levels up at precisely the same spot in the chain of quests. Everyone faces the same level of challenge, all the time. Every trip through the game will feel the same.

2. Lack of Costume Pieces

Online games are typified by players creating a character and leveling it through the content, but superhero games are an odd exception. Remember that the game begins with designing your own superhero, from conception to costume. This is a very creative process and players spend a great deal of time on it. They’ll often spend over an hour on a hero, even if they will only play the character for a few days. For these players, the character creation is the heart of the game.

DC Universe Online is horribly, painfully short on options. There are far less individual aspects to customize. (Champions might let you design your head with hats, eyewear, earpieces, neckwear, facial hair, and mouth-pieces, while DC Universe just offers hats and masks.) Within these aspects, there are fewer options. (Less hats, as it were.) Due to the multiplying nature of these options, you end up with many orders of magnitude less room for freedom and creativity. There’s just less game here.

This is made worse by the fact that many options are not available at the start. You have to unlock new costume options as the game progresses. This takes vital options needed at the start of the game and moves it to the middle of the game where they will be worthless. Nobody is going to want to roll a witch-themed character at the start of the game in the hopes that by level twenty they’ll get lucky and actually find all the pieces they need for a witch costume, thus spending most of their time looking like a non-witch. At the same time, playing as a hulking cyborg and finding a witch hat for your character is not very exciting. At the very least, the costume unlocks should take place on a per-account basis instead of per-character. Sony already has the most shallow superhero builder by far, and the last thing they should be doing is reducing those options even more.

3. There aren’t nearly enough powers

Like costume pieces, the choice of powers is very limited when compared to the other superhero games. There are only six power sets. (Compared to the twelve that Champions Online had on my last visit, and the it’s-complicated-but-way-more-than-twelve of City of Heroes.) Sure, you can eventually unlock Batman’s batarangs or Superman’s laser eyes, which is nice if you’re making a knock-off and you don’t mind leveling your character for a long while before you can actually finish them. But it’s terrible if you like experimenting with new and different builds and power combinations. This is like a set of six Lego bricks: There just aren’t that many different things you can build.

If you’re a fan of the game, you’ll probably respond to all of this by saying you’re having a great time with the game. Believe me, I’m right there with you. The combat is a blast and I’m still in awe of Sony’s Gotham city. But the PC version of DC Universe Online has entered a market where there are several larger, deeper, cheaper alternatives. Yes, the game looks gorgeous and the combat is fun, but the same was true for Batman: Arkham Asylum. I enjoyed that game a great deal, but at the end of a week I’d seen everything it had to offer and I quit. DC Universe Online is an excellent single-player game (or will be, once the bugs are fixed) but people don’t pay fifteen bucks a month to play single-player games. Champions Online might be a crucible of sanity-destroying silliness when it comes to writing, but it will go free to play in a couple of weeks and it has far, far more features when it comes to designing and creating superheroes.

I predict this game will burn out quickly. Some of the problems I’ve mentioned – like the XP rewards and costume unlocks – are fixable. Others – like the need for more options – are expensive and time-consuming to address. I’m not predicting doom for DC Universe, but I am saying this game isn’t about shake the world of online gaming. City of Heroes and Champions Online don’t have anything to worry about. Which is a shame. Sony Online Entertainment made a fine product, but they cut corners in the wrong part of the game.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Drawn to Knowledge. Please don’t suggest plugins to him to fix these problems. He knows, he just feels you shouldn’t need plugins to make a game less obtuse.

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