DC Universe Online is a new MMO that lets players create their own hero or villain to fight aside such comic icons as Superman, Wonder Woman, The Joker and Lex Luthor. But what happens when you give the unwashed masses a taste of power and let them loose in Metropolis and Gotham? Read on and see...
Character creation in DCUO is quite straightforward and intuitive. The most crucial choice is whether you'll play as a hero or villain, and to a smaller degree, which iconic DC character you'll choose to follow. After that line has been crossed, it's all about customizing your character.
The four key characteristics for any hero (or villain) are: their origin, or trigger to superdom (magic, meta or tech), their form of power (gadgets/mental, fire/ice or nature/sorcery), movement type and weapon skill. These key characteristics determine what sort of play style your hero will wind up having. For example, in groups, those with a focus of gadgets or mental usually take responsibility for controlling groups of enemies - slowing them down, etc - while nature and sorcery characters can take on the role of healers ( though they can do some pretty good damage too). Fire and ice players commonly form the tank and damage units.
As well as choosing characteristics, there's also a lot of fun to be had in designing the look of your character, with a plethora of body suits, capes, masks, belts and gloves to choose from. Its worth pointing out that if you want to create a non-conventional hero look there are options for that too. I wound up creating two characters: the first, a pixie-sized heroine (dubbed Herself) in beret and stomper boots, with skills in brawling and fire, and the acrobatic skill. My villain, who I dubbed Laundry Man, was hulking in size, and wore just a pair of shorts and singlet with a large L on it. Laundry man had hand blasters, and was skilled in nature, and had the flying movement skill.
In terms of your character's look, while there's a good range of initial starting styles, it's also important to note there are also a ton of new styles to be collected as you progress through the game. DCUO handles this really well (perhaps recognising that a superhero's look is in some ways more important than their skills) in that they let you lock in a style, no matter what your character is actually wearing. This means you can dress your character in any style you have encountered, even if you no longer own the item any more. So Laundry Man was able to maintain his "my good cape's in the wash" look with singlet, shorts and bare feet, even though he actually had some pretty good gear equipped.
DCUO opens with a big bang, with an awesome movie showing how the old heroes and villains ran into trouble with a new baddie in town, giving way for the new guard (yeah kid, that means YOU!) to show up on the scene. If you haven't seen it yet, I won't spoil it for you. But in any case, the actual touch-down for my character was pretty impressive as well, in the heroes' HQ at the Police Station in Metropolis's Chinatown.
After finding my way to the exit, I stepped out on to the street, and the first thing I noticed was all the other heroes, leaping and zooming and flying around, dressed in capes and stilettos, with green skin or made out of crystal. They were punching the air, scaling buildings in single bounds, then landing hard on the ground so the things around them exploded with the force of it. They were pummeling baddies and picking up things and throwing them. It was hilarious.
It was totally awesome! I was a superhero!
Finding and accepting quests is straightforward - as a nice touch, often when you activate one you will get a corresponding communique from the quest giver, that displays via your in-game PDA. While there are a few variations to the standard go-here-and-beat-someone-up type of goal, the majority of quests will see you favouring brawn over brain. It's also worth noting that the bulk of your experience points (xp) will come from completing quests, as the experience granted for killing someone is minuscule.
When you level up, you will be awarded a single trait point that you will be able to put into your abilities and skills. Abilities are the expressions of your character's power, for example Laundry Man, with his nature skill, can apply points towards abilities that will let him heal, or perhaps to blast out a thicket of thorns that will knock all of his enemies back, and off their feet. Abilities draw from a character's power bar, which recharges over time.
Instead of an ability point, your character may be awarded a skill point (usually the allocation points seems to alternate between the two; you cannot put a skill point towards an ability, or an ability point towards a skill). This allows your character to enhance their movement or weapons ability. A cool example of this is Herself's acrobat ability that allowed her to use a grappling hook while climbing up buildings. Hitting the space bar while she was climbing meant she could reach the top of any building in a matter of seconds.
At this point I'll mention the first of my gripes (there aren't many, but I think they are significant). One thing I found frustrating was the lack of in-game documentation or help. Several abilities that I selected for my character sounded awesome at the time, but the game gave me no information about how to activate or use the ability. I would have to hunt around to find out if the ability I'd just activated was an action that I would need to add to my loadout (six-slot action bar), or was it an innate ability? If it was the latter, then I'd need to spend a bit of time experimenting with the keyboard to figure out how to activate the skill. Not cool.
What is cool, however, is the amount of thought the developers have put into the exploration and movement through the worlds of Metropolis and Gotham. Not only does being able to fly over a place give you an incredible way to discover all its nooks and crannies, but it definitely gives the player that ultimate "I'm a superhero" feeling.
Unlike, say, World of WarCraft, where players have to gain levels before they can purchase mounts, DC Universe lets players, er, hit the ground running, right from the start. During character creation, you designate whether you'll be an acrobat, like Spidey, speedy, like The Flash, or a master of the skies, like Superman. What's also wonderful about these different options is they are really well-balanced, to the point where it almost becomes an aesthetic choice rather than a practical one. Nice.
Although combat options are pretty limited when you first start playing, You rapidly gain new skills and abilities as you level up, to the point where you will need to consider those loadouts I mentioned earlier. Unlike some other games which let you cram your quick action bars with every ability you gain, DCUO restricts players to six slots per role, per playing profile. It's tricky to manage at first, but it also makes sense, in that you can tailor your ability slots to suit whatever role you're playing at the time. So in a support healing role, Laundry Man uses the loadout with all sorts of buff abilities, whereas when he's out soloing he switches to the loadout with more of a balance between offense and healing.
The actual combat itself is impressive, with pyrotechnics and moves completely befitting of a superhero, especially when fighting in a group, or side-by-side with one of DC's iconic characters. These big fights can be a bit messy (or epic, depending on your perspective). Explosions go off everywhere, and it can be often hard to tell who you are targeting.
And if you are overwhelmed, death isn't a hideously penalising experience. Your character simply gets "knocked out" and then comes to, not far away, with a small amount of equipment damage.
I have mixed feelings about the world of DCUO. On one hand, I think it excellently-designed; Metropolis is as shiny and futuristic as you've seen in the funny papers, while Gotham is appropriately gloomy, wet, and run-down. Both are interesting to explore as a new player.
But: the world design is also strange. There are massive freeways in Metropolis, with no cars on them. There are designated quest areas with baddies, and hapless pedestrians crouching or running for cover, but outside of these you hardly even see normal people just walking around. For such a massive place, Metropolis feels pretty, well, dead.
The world also feels extremely limited. Outside of Metropolis and Gotham, there is nothing aside from the Watchtower, a massive area you portal to and from, which also acts as a bridge between the two cities. There's no sense of scale in the world, no concept of anything outside of these two places. For all the emphasis on movement styles, there's no need to use them as anything other than to get across town faster.
And for all of your character's skill in getting from place to place, navigating this game world can be confusing and frustrating for a new player. Quest locations don't indicate whether they take place in Metropolis or Gotham; only the neighbourhood is indicated. For a newbie, it can take a while to figure out where you are meant to go. Furthermore, navigating the labyrinthine halls of the Watchtower can be equally difficult.
Metropolis and Gotham aren't the only places to explore. As you move up in levels, new areas start to open up, including arenas and vaults. For new players, the first area you're likely to hear about is the Joker's Vault, where once a day you can enter a carnivalesque cavern filled with bouncing balls (and bombs). Dotted among these are huge wrapped presents, which you "unwrap" (with your fists!) to see whether Uncle Joker has given you a present. It's a fun (yet random) way to find new styles, and gear too, if you're lucky.
Arenas are Player versus Player (PvP) areas set in various 'landmarks' in Gotham or Metropolis, such as the Arkham Asylum. In arena battles, players can take on the personas of famous DC Characters, once they have been unlocked. I unlocked Robin and Harley Quinn early in my characters' games, and it was a lot of fun to be able to assume a different persona for a little while.
Other PvP options are unlocked once you hit the level 30 cap, such as raids, and duos. I didn't quite make it there for this review, so I'm afraid a review of these areas will have to wait for another day.
DC Universe Online is a tough game to give a final overall score to. On one hand, the culture and history surrounding these characters and places is so well-established that stepping into their world feels like coming home in so many ways, such as when you step inside the Gotham Police Station and find Commissioner Gordon hanging out with Robin. Getting to design a superhero or super-villain is a great experience, and watching the antics they all get up to is a riot.
At the same time, the feeling that DCUO is a brand-new game, that hasn't quite ironed out the wrinkles, is palpable. I didn't mention all of my gripes earlier, as most are about small things rather then the overall game experience, but these too make the game feel like it needs a bit of time to just sort these things out. Examples of this include the imbalance between heroes and villains on many servers, the difficulty in using the GUI (user interface), especially with chatting and grouping, and the same-ness about so many of the quests.
What DCUO has to offer, though, is that sense of that joyous fun that made us love the DC characters as kids (and love them still, today). Being able to run really fast, straight up the side of a building, or wear a cape, or even just your undies on the outside in public. To fight the good fight, whether you are saving the world from gangsters, or trying to mutate students at the university - to make a difference, for good or for ill.