Massively Multiplayer games are an enigma. A compelling prospect for publishers, thanks to virtual un-pirate-ability and ongoing revenue streams, they’re also - on paper - a thrilling prospect for gamers. After all, with the ongoing revenue at stake, the publisher is compelled to keep cranking out new content and to ensure that customer concerns around gameplay are addressed.
In reality, though, most MMOs are virtual spreadsheets. Instead of being particularly exciting or even similar to other (non-MMO) games on the market, they’re a grind where success or failure is more significantly a result of the player’s equipment than it is impacted by their skill.
So it is with some excitement, then, that we approach DC Universe Online. Eschewing the magical fantasy trappings that typically accompany an MMO, DCUO, as you might expect, is based firmly in the DC Universe. That is, the world in which Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and all manner of caped (or otherwise) super heroes call home. Super villains, too, with characters like the Joker up to nefarious activity should you be interested in going down that path.
The story, which we won’t ruin here, begins with an epic battle cinematic, featuring a host of the very top-flight from DC’s comicbook publishing powerhouse. Lex Luthor is at the heart of it and things look grim. But, thanks to some comic book happenstance, there happens to be a way whereby you can not only take on the super powers of your choice but you can save the day! It sounds twee and, in a way, it is, but that “way” is a comic book way and, well, if you like comics then chances are you’re going to love this.
The story and, in fact, the entire opening sequence, thrills you to the core with comic-like fervor. It’s so very DC that you get amped up and ready to play. So when it comes to character creation time, you’re good to go. For the nitty-gritty enthusiast, you can get down and dirty, creating any specific combination of abilities and looks that you’d like. The haircuts on offer, for example, are vast in number - if a little clunky to choose between (beards and hair are connected, for example, making for many more options to scroll through one-by-one). If you’d rather just get into it or have a hankering to play like a particular DC character (you can’t play as Superman, but you can “clone” him, copying his abilities), you have that option too.
Once you’re in, you’re introduced to the controls - which (initially, at least) are very action-oriented. The game feels a lot like the classic Superman arcade game, if you’re familiar with that, tasking you with performing high-action combos to dispatch your foes (rather than lock on and perform dull magical casts). Technically the difference between this and the more traditional MMO system is slight but the feel of it is like night and day. The PlayStation controller in your hand and the giant telly you’re perching in front of makes this a whole new experience.
As you level, and you do level a lot - it only takes a couple of weeks of moderate play to get to the level cap, you learn more abilities that complicate this a bit. It starts to feel more like a traditional class-based MMO, as you must learn to crowd control, heal or tank in addition to your damage role you spend most of your time in while soloing. To achieve this, you use the shoulder buttons like a “shift” key, giving you immediate access to your skills bar (i.e. hold L2 and press Triangle type thing). My Superman clone started feeling a lot less like Superman once he started wielding guns and freezing everyone in iceblocks.
Still, one thing DCUO gets super right in a you-cannot-argue-with-this kind of awesome way is that you can make your character look like he’s wearing any piece of armor you’ve ever collected. Unlike so many MMOs, where your character alternates between awesome and tramp-like as they level and upgrade their gear, here you can specify the outward look of your toon to be anything you like - so long as you’ve owned that equipment at some point (you don’t need to still own it). This is neato and ensures you don’t have a series of clones running around at max level (World of WarCraft, i’m looking at you here).
The quests on offer are largely the standard fare, although the way you get and complete them has been streamlined. You’ll still find yourself going to location X, plowing Y number of enemy type Z before you can continue. If anything, these quests are more annoying than in other MMOs, with large numbers of enemies to defeat in any given situation. Once you do manage to “beat” an enemy incursion, you fly off to do something else - seemingly oblivious to the peril the citizens of Metropolis or Gotham continue to be in. It’s a pretty weird feeling to have when role-playing a super hero but you can’t stay there forever and forever is how long that fight will keep going if you stay. So on you fly.
As you level you also get access to dungeons, raids and PVP zones - each of which have their own ups and downs. The system is streamlined and easy to use, with a lot of learning evident from recent advances in the systems used for this type of things in other games. Throughout the 30 levels you’re constantly gaining access to more and more stuff, just as you get used to using what you’ve got - the balance of this constant content addition feels about right.
Visually the world is a treat - thanks, no doubt, to the artistic direction provided by none other than Jim Lee. Your characters look and move like the comic book legends they aspire to be. When the marquee DC characters jump in alongside you during key quests, it feels like you’re actively controlling a panel from your favorite comic. If you’re a comic geek at all, this is gush material right here. It’s not perfect, however, with some quirks that will see you fly weirdly while still in combat or see some odd glitches here and there. The UI on the PS3 version is laggy, too, as if it needs to seek permission to change tabs with the server. You get used to it, though.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like there’s enough to do to maintain any long-term interest. Obviously we haven’t had it long enough to categorically state one way or the other as to the longevity of the title but, once you cap out the level limit to 30, you find yourself looking around and thinking “what now”. To be fair, this is a fairly common symptom of a new MMO, however it does feel like it’s slightly more notable here. Getting to 30 is a blast and playing around a bit when you get there is rewarding but...
If you’re looking for an MMO to play on your console, you have few options. Fortunately, DCUO is a good one - especially if you like a bit of action in your role-playing (ooo-er). DCUO, while not yet perfect, has every chance to become so - and what’s already there is very, very good. If you’re a comic book fan and are looking for an MMO, look no further.
Interested in our thoughts on the PC version? Check out Jess’s review here.