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DC Universe Online is a novel approach to the MMOG. Sony Online Entertainment began developing it over five years ago, probably in response to City of Heroes, but somewhere along the line, DCUO became an action game. There is no targeting and you can only have six skills “equipped” at a time. DCUO is designed to be played with a console controller, and will be released on the PS3 and the PC on November 2nd. With the likes of Mark Hamill, Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin (The man they call Jayne), the voice acting will be top notch. And if that didn’t set it apart, DCUO actually has a story that explains why there are so many superheroes and villains running around beating each other up.

“Essentially, Brainiac has the ability to absorb all the super powers,” Marv Wolfman tells me at the SOE press event after the unveiling of the trailer at San Diego Comic Con 2010. Wolfman made sure to note that this story was devised by the lead writer on the project, DC writer Geoff Johns. “The heroes in the trailer [Batman, Superman & Wonder Woman] are all murdered. [Lex] Luthor realizes that Brainiac has caused more trouble than was expected and goes back in time to use the energy that Brainiac stole from the heroes to empower people today to help the superheroes avert the future crisis. Why is Luthor doing it? Is he doing it to actually help the heroes and the world? Or is he doing it for something else? That’s part of the story.”

If you wanted someone to provide believable storylines for an MMOG set in the DC Universe, you couldn’t find a better writer than Marv Wolfman. He began writing at DC in 1967 before moving on to Marvel in the seventies, where he created Blade and Bullseye before becoming the Editor in Chief. In 1980, he came back to DC and wrote the new Teen Titans and the Crisis on Infinite Earths story arc, as well as many other ideas that we now take for granted.

“The version of Lex Luthor who is the businessman was mine. He was always a mad scientist before, and I turned him into the businessman,” Wolfman says. “I can honestly say this, it’s hard to believe but I can prove it. I’ve written Superman for six decades. There’s no one else who can say that. So I’m pretty close to the DC Universe.”

Wolfman is also a gamer. “I started with coin-op games and then got a Colecovision very quickly. Currently, I’ve got a PS3, PS2, Xbox 360, a Wii. My absolute favorite game of all is God of War. I loved it so much that when I heard that DC was going to do the God of War comic that I had to fight for a year to make sure that I was assigned to it,” Wolfman says, although it’s hard to believe he needs to fight for anything. He also plays all kinds of MMOGs but perhaps familial connections means more. “My wife is lead producer for the cinematics at Blizzard, so I think I know those characters.”

What is going to set apart the missions that Wolfman (who wrote several hundred of them) and the other writers have created is that are on par with comic book stories. “What I tried to do was to not think about writing it as a game, I actually thought of it as ‘What would happen if I did this in a comic? Where would I go with it as a comic?’ If I was doing something with the Flash, it had to be perfect for the Flash. It made so much more sense if Gorilla Grodd is turning people into apes, or biologically retrogressing them into cavemen, that would be a very much a Gorilla Grodd-type story,” Wolfman says. “Once I come up with the plot, I’ll put in a few lines that might make it a videogame story, because comics are just pictures and videogames are about movement. But the core concept of each story was ‘What would I do in a comic?'”

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On the gameplay side, Chris Cao is working to make a truly action MMOG, as opposed to the standard fantasy MMOG like World of Warcraft. “I was the lead designer on EverQuest 2 so I understand really well how to make a good traditional MMOG. They allow you to have a sort of turn-based tactical, more stepped back fell to it,” Cao tells me. “With a superhero game, you can’t do that. Other MMOGs have done that to some success, but they’ve been hindered because they didn’t go fast enough, they didn’t honestly build an action game from the beginning.

We actually hired an action team. We hired guys from God of War. We fused a team with our MMOG expertise and action game expertise and said, ‘Ok, we need to build a game, it isn’t a hybrid, instead it’s a superhero MMOG.’ Day one, you have to have action combat. The whole thing has to stand on it. If you’re going to be credible as a superhero MMOG, which is a game where you get to be a superhero or a supervillain, then you have to feel like it. You can’t fake it.”

While that all sounds great, and may just be the trump card that will set DCUO‘s gameplay apart, I wondered how the combat will accommodate the holy trinity of MMOGs. How will it be fun to be the healer in such a setup? Chris Cao responds:

We have these core roles, we call them the Defender, the Controller and the Healer, but they have an action game spin to them. The Defender is a tank, that’s what an MMOG guy would call them, but an action game guy, he’s tough, he can take a lot of blows, and he can control the scene. The Controller can control it even further, using traps or tricks or illusions to control the scene, lock guys down or make them do things they don’t want to do. The Healer is interesting because you’re not just sitting there watching bars. You have to be in the fight itself, because your healing is dependent on your fighting.

We really took a cue from superheroes and said ‘Look, nobody stands in the back and doesn’t do anything.’ In a superhero game, everybody is on something all the time. So in our content, everybody is fighting all the time. Everybody is in the thick of it, throwing stuff around, blowing stuff up, and then they work together based on those roles. Think of it as an evolution, the roles will be familiar, but how you use them is going to take more action skill than you would ever have in a regular MMOG.

Because of the brawler mentality, working together in DCUO will be a lot easier because you can change your character’s focus depending on the situation. Cao seems to have adopted Blizzard’s “bring the player, not the character” mentality by allowing you to change specs before each fight. Every character will do damage, but there will be Defender, Controller and Healer builds for each hero and changing between them will swap out the 6 active abilities that you have available in the fight. The example that Cao gave was if you are playing a hero with ice powers, one build might have “cryogenic” powers which freeze yourself and give Defender-like abilities and another build might be “storm” which freezes others and acts more as a Controller.

With the great storylines supplied by Marv Wolfman, Geoff Johns, Jim Lee and the rest of the writing team, and the action game combat from Chris Cao and his team, DC Universe Online is looking extremely interesting. When it is released in November 2010 on PC and PS3, it could really be a blow to all competing action games, massively multiplayer or otherwise.

Greg Tito didn’t actually know who Gorllia Grodd was and had to look him up.

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