Ever since 2004’s City of Heroes, gamers have wondered what an MMO based on familiar comic book heroes and stories would be like. Fans of the DC Universe will get their shot at battling alongside Batman, Superman and villains like Joker and Catwoman when DC Universe Online is released in 2011. While I was interested on a story level after I spoke to veteran comic book scribe, Marv Wolfman at San Diego Comic Con, I wasn’t sure that a so-called “action MMO” would work mechanically. I was invited to go out to SOE Denver and play the action MMO on Sony’s machines and was surprised and excited to discover that DC Universe Online might just bring innovation to the MMO landscape that has been fairly stagnant since World of Warcraft.

The story of DC Universe Online is all explained in the extended trailer released this summer, which also serves as the game’s opening cinematic. Metropolis and Gotham City are overrun by the android army of Brainiac, and all of the superheroes in the world have their energies sucked dry by insect-like nanorobots called exobytes. Lex Luthor somehow travels back in time before the attack, and offers a truce to Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to prevent Brainiac’s plan. The player uses the exobytes that Luthor stole from Brainiac to empower our transformation into super heroes or villains.

The whole character creation process keeps with the theme of using the exobytes to imprint characteristics onto your avatar. Your first major choice is if you want to be a hero or a villain. Several templates, such as The Joker and Green Arrow or lesser known profiles like Beast Boy, are available if you want to play like your favorite character, but you can also start from scratch designing your perfect hero or villain. There are no classes per se, but the choices you make during character creation will vastly change how you play the game. Power source is probably the most important, as choosing Mental or Gadgets will give you abilities which control the battlefield while the Nature and Sorcery powers will allow you to heal your comrades. Second in importance is picking what weapon your hero wields from a list of more than ten options. Choosing between dual pistols, a big staff, brawling fisticuffs, or hand blaster (think balls of flame shooting out of your palms) will distinctly flavor how you take down the bad guys.

Here is also where you choose your mentor. Do you identify with the lawful good heroism of Superman? Are you more of a vigilante like Batman or a feminist icon like Wonder Woman? If your tendencies lean more towards the bad boys, are you cold and calculated like Lex Luthor or a controller of mystic energies like Circe, the evil Goddess of Magic? Or maybe your just batshit insane like The Joker? Picking which iconic character is your mentor doesn’t have mechanical effect on your character, but it does change where your story leads. Picking the Joker for example, starts you out in Gotham bribing cops and laying joke bombs, while going with Superman has him telling you to defend the citizens of Metropolis from Gorilla Grodd’s de-evolution units.

The voice acting for all of these characters is top-notch. Adam Baldwin’s Superman hits all the righteous notes that he perfected in the animated film Doomsday, and Mark Hamill plays The Joker awesomely as always. I also loved Michelle Forbes as the deliciously evil Circe, but I may be partial to her from my Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica fanboyism. Because it’s still in beta, it’s clear that a lot of the voice acting is placeholders probably recorded by the game designers (including a guy hilariously falsettoing a Minion of Lust), but the large amount of specific voice assets in the game, from small time quest givers to vendors, is impressive.

Metropolis and Gotham City, the only locations currently in the game, are huge and lovingly recreated from the source material. Metropolis is bright and shiny, despite Brainiac’s ships attacking, while Gotham is a darker, murkier city. Each building and city street is rendered so that you can jump and leap from rooftops or stand on light posts.

Exploring is made easy by the final choice that you make during character creation: your method of movement. Flight allows you to whisk around with your cape fluttering behind you, but with Acrobatics, you can pull off the ever important double jump, climb over any obstruction or glide to your destination. Super-Speed is just like it sounds, but dashing up buildings a la The Flash never gets old. The first time I entered Gotham City, I spent a good chunk of time just flying around and was happy to discover the Bat Signal shining in the clouds.

All of these trappings are useless without combat that feels right. Based on my early experiences, the action of DCUO is a lot of fun. You can lock onto targets, but there is not auto attack button. To take down enemies, you must click a button to punch or fire a ranged attack. The brawler-style action feels like a wham-bang comic book. Scenery is not just difficult terrain; picking up barrels and tossing them at your foes is sometimes necessary for tough encounters. Leveling up your skills unlocks combos, with varying effects that can interrupt enemies from pulling off that devastating fire breath or stunning punch. And if you do get stunned, you better break out of it before you get pummeled.

The only downside with such frenetic combat is that the keyboard and mouse interface isn’t really conducive to all this action. It’s hard to follow up nine short left clicks with a long right button click. While I was visiting SOE’s offices, I was able to play with a PS3 controller, and this control scheme was preferable. There’s something about holding a controller to mash buttons in this kind of combat that makes much more sense. The perfect situation for playing on your PC would be to use the keyboard when you are in town or navigating menus and switch to the controller when you’re fighting, but despite several attempts, I couldn’t get my PS3 controller to work with Windows. Hopefully, Sony will release official drivers for the Sixaxis controller when DCUO launches so that this won’t be a problem.

All of the MMO hallmarks are present in DCUO. SOE wanted to preserve the loot chase, as the designers believed that was core to what MMOs are, and you earn quest rewards and find random loot which will increase your stats when you equip them. These items will conform to the color palette of your character, but you can also choose to preserve the look of your character as you originally designed it without sacrificing the mechanical benefit of better equipment.

World PvP between heroes and villains is common, at least on the PvP server I played on, but you can also enter arenas after you reach 5th level. You assume an iconic role during these instanced battlegrounds, with the first available being Robin and Harley Quin. I’m not that good at PvP to start with but I hope that SOE improves the matchmaking for the arenas because it’s never fun for a newbie to be pounded on by an iconic Bane that’s 10+ levels higher than you.

I didn’t spend enough time with one character to level him up to a point where I could get into the nuances of group combat, but I’m interested to see how this kind of combat lives up to SOE’s promise that fighting as a team will be just as action-based. It will be cool to see how the storylines unfold as well; I really enjoyed the long quest arcs that allowed me to assist Brother Blood in destroying Dr. Fate or helping The Flash defeat Gorilla Grodd.

From what I have played in the beta test, I can say that SOE has made a game that presses all of the right buttons. DCUO is an MMO that allows you to create vibrant and iconic superheroes and villains to explore the expansive worlds of Metropolis and Gotham, but it’s also an action-brawler with combat that makes it actually fun to “grind” tons of bad guys. SOE nailed the experience of the first ten levels; let’s hope that the rest of the game lives up to it.

DCUO was good enough to pull Greg Tito away from leveling his worgen druid with (almost) no regrets.

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