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.
As a plus, each quest chain ends in an instanced dungeon of sorts that you can tackle alone or with someone who happens to be doing it too. The design of these encounters is some of the best that I’ve seen in an MMO, with each feeling distinct and just as interesting to explore as the rest of the game. The more involved “real” dungeons, or Alerts as they’re called in DCUO, are an interesting experiment. Each Alert on the moon or in Area 51 is basically an extended mission chain that you complete with a random group. Players move to different mini-locations and complete a series of tasks and then defeat a mini-boss before moving to the next area. The mechanics are the same five that you’ve seen before – activate this console, bring this many objects there – but it’s a nice departure from tank and spank dungeons and helps players get used to the role of defender, healer or damage.
Unfortunately, the communication in groups like this was almost non-existent, and the game doesn’t do a very good job of teaching people how to excel at their roles. The menu system isn’t very robust, and it’s not very clear what loot is better for which role. I know that the “Precision” stat increases melee damage, but that’s only because I dug into the menus to find a description and corresponding equation. But is it better to ditch Might or Health for more Precision? I don’t know, and DCUO doesn’t teach me the difference. Perhaps Sony is expecting forums and fansites to provide that information but, again, that doesn’t cater to the guy who may not be familiar with how MMOs work. If someone just picks up DCUO and wants to play like Superman on his PS3, he’s going to be a crappy tank.
The interface does the best that it can to accommodate both PC and console players but it’s lacking in very significant ways. The menus are laggy as molasses; calling up your inventory should be instantaneous instead of on a five to ten second delay. MMO standards like your quest log get muddied really quickly and it’s hard to know where to find the one that you’re looking for. DCUO also makes it a pain to complete quests by forcing you to go to your quest log after you complete the task, and then go to the guy who gave you the quest. Why is getting loot/XP a three-step process? Finding groups on the fly isn’t much of a problem but it takes some doing. There’s no “Group up” button and SOE might do well to include one to encourage more such play. For now, you have to get to the social menu and manually select a player character nearby and invite them to group. If he or she accepts, bang, you’re done and can move into the dungeon. Targeting in combat can take a bit of getting used to as the game will inexplicably have you shoot that big fireball at a barrel, or even worse, at another group of enemies, making you agro the whole room. At least the death penalty isn’t too bad, after being “knocked out” you respawn either back at the start of the dungeon, the nearest headquarters, or at spawn points distributed throughout the city.
PvP draws in many players and there are bound to be more than a few who want to play a mean villain who preys on the unsuspecting heroes. If that’s what appeals to you, then you need to create a character on a PvP server in order to engage in open world fighting. Many of the areas in the game are quest locations for both factions, and playing on a PvE server gave me the odd experience of seeing a villain player punch out an innocent citizen and not being able to fight back. Even if you’re PvE, you can queue up for many different PvP battleground types which are well-designed enough to not feel like frag-fests.
DC Universe Online does so much right – the exploration, fully realized Gotham and Metropolis, fun action-packed combat – that it can be easy to overlook its shortcomings. I loved that the game provides a complete MMO experience that appeals to three out of the four Bartle’s player types out of the box, with socializing only possible with a keyboard or headset. I may be roleplaying Graendal as more of an anti-hero, and I fully expect to deck him out with all of the best top hats that I can find, but I don’t know if there’s enough game here to warrant paying a monthly subscription.
Bottom Line: You feel like a superhero playing alongside your favorite characters in an open MMO world thick with action but with a frustrating user interface. The fun combat and beautiful scenery more than make up for any shortcomings.
Recommendation: DCUO is one of those games that you have to try for yourself. It does enough right to justify a purchase if you like brawlers, superheroes or MMOs, but after playing for a month you may not want to re-up.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.[rating=4]
Game: DC Universe Online
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Release Date: January 11, 2011
Platform: PlayStation 3
Available from: Amazon: PS3, Amazon: PC
Greg Tito would like to thank all of the evil clowns, anthropomorphic plants and super villains who died to make this review possible.