DC Universe Online is a bold venture. The massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) genre is a tough nut to crack. World of Warcraft sports more subscribers than the population of Greece and tends to push out most competitors. Sony Online Entertainment decided to back their newest MMO with intellectual property powerhouse DC Entertainment, home of DC Comics and a plethora of recognizable characters like Batman and Superman. The partnership has paid off.
DC Universe Online (DCUO) takes place mostly in Metropolis and Gotham City. Lex Luthor travels back in time to warn the heroes of the apocalyptic fate they must now avoid. He had successfully killed off Superman and the Justice League in his time, only to allow Brainiac to invade the now-weakened Earth and begin harvesting the planet for knowledge. Lex has brought along ‘exobytes’ which hold the powers of long-dead heroes and villains so they can be distributed to normal people to assist in the fight against Brainiac. That’s where you come in. You are given powers by an exobyte to join the heroes or villains in the fight against a common foe: Brainiac.
DCUO starts off with a fairly deep character creation system. You choose hero or villain and then choose a mentor. Your mentor dictates much of the early game content and the type of late-game equipment you’ll be able to buy. Heroes choose from Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman. Villains choose from Lex Luthor, The Joker, or Circe. The creator then lets you choose stance (how you look when standing around), skin type (not just color, you can look like Dr. Manhattan or a 6’ tall cat), and you can fully customize the color scheme and style of your hero or villain. Movement style is also a big part of DCUO. You don’t get mounts in this game; instead you start with acrobatics, flight, or super speed. They can all move fast or get over obstacles, it’s just a matter of preference.
The part that really affects your gameplay is power selection. There are six power sets available. All powers can take on the damage (DPS) role, but also have their own specific roles available. Fire and ice are tank roles. Sorcery and nature are healer roles. Psychic and gadget powers are controller roles. You also choose what weapons you would like to wield in combat. Each weapon has melee and ranged attacks, the type of weapon determines which is stronger and how fast they can be used. For instance, the rifle is good at range but useless in melee. Martial arts are exactly the opposite.
Now you’re off and running in the DC Universe, starting inside a Brainiac ship for your tutorial. Beat up a few robots, equip some beginner equipment, take down a boss, and then finally team up with Superman or Lex Luthor while pummeling a small horde of robots. After that, you find yourself either in a police station (hero) or a nightclub (villain), which acts as a base of operations. You’ll get all sorts of missions here as well as do some low-level shopping. Leave, and you can also travel to other nightclubs or police stations in your starting city if you so choose. Around level 10, the Justice League Watchtower or Legion Hall of Injustice become available via a teleporter. These are massive basses that give access to higher level shopping and teleporters to the city you didn’t start in.
Quests are generally divided into small sub-missions. It’s usually go to area X and beat up so many minor enemies or destroy a certain number of offending objects. Get some experience and then go to the next area. Most quests end with a ‘dungeon’. That is, it will be some building you have to enter which is like an instance dungeon. While the earlier areas are open and you can find numerous other players beating up the same enemies, these buildings are populated for each group that enters. Enter alone, and you’ll have to finish it alone. Fortunately, you can usually find people standing by the entrance wanting to partner up.
Creating a group is where you find the single biggest flaw in DC Universe Online: communication. There are two ways to communicate inDCUO. One is via text chatting and the other is voice chat. Voice chat doesn’t work. At the time of this writing, it is completely non-functional. Text chatting was obviously designed with the PC in mind and doesn’t cater to the PS3 at all. If you want to text chat, you hit the select button and the PS3 on-screen keyboard pops up even if you have a USB keyboard plugged in. You cannot move your character at all while in a text chat, either. Communication is the key to upper-level content in any MMORPG and players shouldn't have to turn to Ventrillo or Skype to solve their communication needs in DC Universe Online.
Moving past that, once in a party you don’t need to communicate much in low-level content, you just head in and beat up some enemies. Combat is handled primarily with square and triangle. Square is melee and triangle is ranged, different combinations of the two along with holding and releasing can be unlocked with skill points for numerous combos and powerful blows. Your powers are used by holding either the L2 or R2 buttons and pressing one of the four face buttons. This all makes for an MMORPG that adapts surprisingly well to the console. It really feels very action-oriented rather than the normal point and click nature of other MMORPGs.
Raids, Player vs. Player (PvP), and instances are all handled through the ‘Alerts’ menu. Heading to this menu lists them all in one nice, neat menu so you can join a queue for any of them very easily. PvP offers two different modes: standard and legends. Standard is what you would normally expect, with objectives that pit heroes against villains; chaos ensues. Legends levels the playing field by putting all players in the shoes of an NPC like Batman rather than their own character. It’s not about your equipment in Legends PvP, just pure skill.
The game has a level cap of 30, at which point most of DCUO’s content opens up with high-level raids, PvP, and instances. Many of these are simply level-adjusted versions of earlier quests, whilst some are original for high-level characters. This is also where getting some friends or joining a league (guild) is necessary. While all the leveling content can be challenging but doable alone, the upper level content requires more people to beat. Beating this content will award you top tier gear along with Marks that can be used to purchase faction (mentor) specific gear.
While DC Universe Online won’t win any beauty competitions against other top-tier PS3 games like Uncharted or Killzone, the graphics are great for an MMORPG. The sheer volume of content that has to load up all at once in an MMORPG prevents the graphics from being top notch, but they are right up there with any other graphically advanced MMORPG. DCUO also brought in superstar artist and DC Comic co-publisher Jim Lee as creative director. Marv Wolfman, legendary comics writer of such titles as "Crisis on Infinite Earths", wrote much of the content. These combine for a great art style mixed with some equally great storytelling.
Sony Online Entertainment brought in several big-name actors to voice the key NPCs in DCUO. Adam Baldwin ("Chuck") plays Superman, Kevin Conroy ("Batman: The Animated Series") returns to the voice of Batman, and James Marsters ("Buffy", "Smallville") takes on the voice of Lex Luther. That’s just a few. Missions are given to you with NPC voiceovers and even random NPCs on the street are given a voice, not just a text box.
The cities are expansive. So expansive I did notice quite a bit of pop-in when traversing large distances at high speed. There is so much pop-in the game becomes unplayable as the loading of scenery tries to catch up to your location. This forces you to either head back the way you came or go into a police station/nightclub so the game can load up the area anew when you exit.
Despite the pop-in, the professionally voiced and frequently interacted-with NPCs, along with expansive cities really gives you an immersive DC Universe feel. I’m a comic book fan, long-time reader of DC Comics and the game doesn’t just bring the big-name, movie starring characters. It also brings to life characters like Oracle, The Question, Felix Faust, and the OMACs. It takes you to STAR Labs, The Daily Planet, Wayne Tower, and Crime Alley. That’s something DC Universe Online has over other MMORPGs: it immerses you in classic, recognizable characters and locations.
Value is always a tricky thing to gauge with an MMORPG. The monthly fee is $14.95 per month but Playstation Network is offering ways to purchase multiple months for a discount. There is supposed to be a lifetime subscription available as well, but currently PSN only allows $150 in the PSN wallet at once, so it isn’t available until they get that fixed. The potential $199 lifetime subscription would pay for itself in the 14th month over the monthly fee.
The time to level 30 is about 40 hours, but DCUO allows you to create multiple characters so you can experience all the differing content of heroes, villains, and different mentors. Sony estimates that more than half the content in the game is designed for level capped characters as well.
Much of what makes the difference between a good MMORPG and one that’s mediocre is the game’s support. You’re paying a monthly fee, but you’re expecting continuous support and new content to be added. DCUO has already announced their February content updates for 2011. It brings new quests for low-level characters and new high-level instances centering around Catwoman stealing some cursed Egyptian artifact and adds the feline femme fatale to the Legends PvP selection as well. Their plan is to add content of this depth each and every month, so the publisher and developer support is looking very good.
Overall, DC Universe Online is a really good game that could be a lot better. The action-oriented combat lends itself to the console but the communication and menus don’t. It surprises me they didn’t just develop versions for the PC and PS3 on different platforms since they don’t share servers anyway. There are just too many things that feel like they would be more at home on a PC. That said, the game really puts you in the DC Universe and offers hours upon hours of content. In the never-ending quest for better stuff (the central mechanic of all MMORPGs),DCUO knows what it’s doing.
Despite its flaws, DC Universe Online is an easy recommendation for comic book fans that like MMORPGs. It’s still a pretty easy recommendation for MMORPG fans looking for something to play on their console. Sony Online may have finally figured out the winning formula for putting an MMORPG on a console: DC Universe + online = a good game.