DC Universe Online – Review



Title   DC Universe Online
Developer  Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher  Sony Online Entertainment
Platform  PC, PS3
Genre  MMORPG, Action
Release Date  11th January, 2011

I don’t know about anyone else, but I was very excited when I heard that there would be a new superhero style MMO based around an IP as loved as the DC universe. Fighting alongside Superman and Batman – what geek out there hasn’t had that little dream? It’s up there with owning your own lightsaber and being able to use the force. Sure, there have been superhero games before in the genre; for a long time City of Heroes was an example of how to make a great superhero MMO, which was later improved upon by Champions Online. Sadly, last year, DCUO was pushed back and, after I got access to the PS3 beta, I could see why, but it’s here now, so let’s have a look.

DC Universe Online (or, because we gamers like our acronyms: DCUO) is the latest game from MMORPG giants Sony Online Entertainment. SOE has brought us games like Star Wars Galaxies and Everquest and, while some may question how well they have made those other games, they are still at it. With a comic book legend like Jim Lee on the development team as executive creative director, and access to a literal multi-verse of content from DC, what could possibly go wrong?

From the outset SOE have promised a more action packed MMO, with combat you would expect from a hack and slash game like God of War. For months, developers Jens Anderson and Chris Cao have been on Facebook and Twitter getting the online audience hyped up and answering their questions. We were promised huge customisation, fantastic voice over work from actors like Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy and action packed combat that was to be worlds away from what you would expect in the genre. As a huge comic book fan I have been excited about this game ever since I first heard about it. Superheroes battling villains in the streets of Gotham and Metropolis, teaming up with your friends to take down the Joker… come on, it’s a dream right? The real question is this: did they deliver?

Visually the game is very impressive; as I mentioned, Jim Lee was brought on board to help direct the visuals and give it that comic book style made famous in his books. DCUO has that style without going too far into the realm of cel-shading and the character models look sharp and feel like they have been pulled from the actual pages. There are four major hubs in DCUO: Gotham, Metropolis, The Justice League Watch Tower for the heroes and The Legion of Doom HQ for the villains. The visual difference between the two cities is striking; the developers decided to give each city its classic character and impact and to do this they have employed a staple of games in this genre: the day/night cycle.

Gotham is a city in constant darkness. From the huge moon hanging low in the night sky to the Gotham police airship drifting across the skyline and the huge clouds of smoke (or is that Scarecrow fear-gas?) filling the skies, you get the real sense that this is Batman’s playground, pulled straight from the comic books. On the ground the police do battle with villains on nearly every street corner; in some districts buildings are trashed by the Joker’s goons and burned out vehicles litter the road. However, using your grappling hook to get above all of the action and into the fantastic gothic architecture, you really get a sense of the scale of Gotham City. Most heroes will start out in iconic locations like Crime Alley, where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed and work their way through the city to places like ACE Chemicals or even Arkham Asylum.

Metropolis, by contrast, is cast in brightest day. The city of tomorrow is as impressive and vast as ever. Depending on who you have as a mentor you will either start in the magical Chinatown with Wonderwoman or down by the beach and the Queensland Boardwalk. Like Gotham, Metropolis also feels like it has been lifted straight out of the comic books; its towering ultra high-tech buildings in the aptly named Tomorrow District are an amazing sight and a great place to stand if you want to get a screenshot. The thing you’ll notice most about the city when comparing it to Gotham is its overall better condition – it’s protected by Superman after all. There are still areas that are totally demolished though and crisis points like City Hall that has been flattened by the Sinestro Corps. It is a place you will want to get your flight travel power to visit in order to soar above it like some kind of bird, or a plane… birdplane?

There is also a very nice contrast between the main social hubs of the heroes and villains. The Justice League Watchtower is a vast satellite high above earth, ultra high-tech and bright. The Hall of Doom, in comparison, sits sunken in the waters of an unknown marsh – still ultra high-tech, but murky and bathed in red light. Overall I think the visual elements of the game work very well. The first time you get to the highest point in Gotham or Metropolis, or even visit the Watchtower or Hall of Doom you will be blown away by the sheer scale of it all. The environment and the high quality of the visual effects in combat, along with the sharp character animations are both striking and immersive.

Graphics are nothing, however, if they are not backed up by impressive sound and gameplay and DCUO has these in spades. Everything from the high quality voice acting provided by some of the best known names in DC media, to the smack of fist on face is crystal clear and well done. The game also boasts a really nice soundtrack which takes examples from many of the animated series-es. I will happily admit to wandering around Metropolis, hearing a few notes from the Superman theme and looking up just in case I could see him flying through the sky. While in most MMORPGs you wouldn’t really notice the soundtrack because it’s a series of elevator music and battle tunes to mix things up, the soundtrack really does draw you in here.

DCUO was billed as the first ever action MMO. From the start the developers told us that the control system and the way combat worked would be more like God of War than World of Warcraft. So did they deliver on that promise? Well yes, the game does play more like an action, hack and slash title. You have your main attack buttons, melee strike is left click, while ranged is right click, or square and triangle on the PS3 controller. Mixing these together with either multiple taps or holds gives you combos to beat down your opponent. You are also not going to be bombarded with a vast number of abilities; the game uses a system more akin to Guild Wars, where you are given quite a few abilities but only one hotbar and are restricted to using only six at a time.

The combat system is fun – it feels very fluid and action packed and it really does feel good to use your travel power to swoop in and beat a guy down with very nicely animated combos. There are some issues with the targeting system, however. It’s an automatic process most of the time, usually targeting whoever is closest and who you are aiming at. You can manually target one enemy at a time but, with the speed of combat, the chances of even thinking about using this are slim. These issues with the targeting system have caused me to go flying off into groups of enemies by mistake and, as many veteran MMO players will know, accidentally running into an additional group of bad guys while you are still dealing with the first, Leeroy Jenkins style, is not great and can lead to multiple deaths.

The abilities or powers in the game are as wide and varied as you would expect in a superhero title and SOE have created a fresh way of looking at how combat roles work in the MMO genre. There are the four standard classes that you would expect: Healer, Tank, Crowd-Control and Damage, but the player can switch between any two of these depending on what ability set they picked. So, as a gadget player you can join a group and fill the role of Damage or Controller, these roles can be switched on the fly to fit the needs of the group.

The power sets you will choose at character creation are fire, ice, magic, gadgets, nature and mental, although I get the feeling that these power sets were put together by committee a little bit. Fire and ice are the tanking classes – sure ice makes sense, ice is solid and strong, but fire? Mental is a controlling class, yeah I get that – you take over the enemy’s mind and make them do things, but gadgets? With gadgets as a controller class power set you then limit the kinds of gadgets that you can include; no Tank style force-fields, no giant damaging death rays. It’s Sticky bombs and Tazer lines and it’s pretty off putting. The developers went on for months about how you would be able to play the character you want when, in actual fact, you’re limited by the class types and power sets. If you want to make that Superman style character who is a Tank because they are durable, and who has super-strength so they can lift cars and buses, you probably wont be able to without either waiting until you are level twenty (where the super strength ability is unlocked) or taking a bunch of ice powers to enable you to tank, which will effectively make you an ice character. If I had any advice for SOE it would be to fire whoever they had in charge of abilities and take another bash at it. Maybe allow the player to switch to any class (Tank, Healer, etc.) and choose any power type they like so that they can choose how their character plays. Just like you originally promised.

On a positive note, the mission system is very well done. Fully voiced through out, DCUO puts a bit of a dampener on Star Wars The Old Republic’s claim to be the first ever fully voiced MMO, and the great voice cast is a really nice addition and something that has not been done before in the MMO genre. The missions themselves fall into a pattern; storyline missions have three to four parts, where the player is asked to travel around the city a little bit and generally beat up some bad guys and each storyline chain ends with a boss fight; these are often varied enough that you wont really notice the similar parts of the quest chains.

There are other types of PVE content, such as the World of Warcraft dungeon style alerts. These are instanced group content where the player joins a group and travels to various locations around the globe to save the day or, otherwise, cause some trouble. Alerts play out like miniature storyline missions over a large map split up into a number of areas, the player then has to complete different tasks such as ‘take down 20 enemies’. Eventually you will come against the big boss at the end of the alert and these, just like the storyline missions, are varied and require a little strategy to complete. If you want to take down a big name villain but don’t want to worry about all the hassle of finding an alert team, you can try the wanted posters because roaming the streets of Gotham and Metropolis are boss-level villains and heroes such as Flash and Bizzaro.

After hitting level 30 a lot more of the alerts open up in hard mode, along with raid content and the Duos in which you and another player take on a boss fight from the storyline missions but with the difficulty ramped up. Much of the endgame content is really just lower level stuff with a higher level of difficulty, but there are some new missions in there to mix things up. The big issue seems to be the number of times you are expected to do these missions in order to unlock the iconic battle suits. These suits are basically raid/pvp gear, designed after your mentor or another famous hero or villain. To pick them up you will need to do quite a few runs through the hard alerts and duo missions to get Marks which you can then trade for gear.

Overall I think most players will find a lot to do in DC Universe Online. If your draw is normally graphic quality backed up with great combat and story then there should be no reason why you wouldn’t pick this up and play for a month. Whether it has enough in it to last longer than that though is another matter. If there is one thing an MMO should be – a fundamental thing really – is that it should be a time-sink. It should take you a few weeks to get to the level cap and there should be a lot of content in between the start and finish so that your players don’t just switch off after they hit the cap and go back to WoW. Sadly, I think SOE have missed that point here. If I can casually get to the level cap in a week while holding down a full time job, I don’t think the hardcore players will stick around for very long and they are the people you want to keep hold of if your MMO is going to survive.

The combat is fast and exciting, graphics and the detail in the city and characters is amazing. Sure, there are issues with the power sets but these tend to be minor points that you soon forget as Batman barks another mission at you. I would perhaps not look at this as an MMO – it plays and feels so much more like an action RPG, with multiplayer and co-op elements added on and that’s not a bad thing… unless you’re trying to run an MMO.

Sadly I cant see DCUO lasting very long unless SOE perhaps put some new content out and things change. At the minute, at its core, this is a PC MMORPG that SOE have turned into a console action game and it just feels wrong as an MMO veteran, yet I would still recommend it. It’s had one of the best launches I’ve seen in a long while. Yes, there have been issues with servers, but at its core the game works and, most importantly of all, it’s a lot of fun.

Pros
  • Action orientated combat
  • Stunning visuals
  • Fully voiced by some of the big names
  • Tons of fun
Cons
  • Poorly designed powers
  • The mix of genres is a little off putting
  • Lack of promised levels of customization
  • You cant have bloody Green Lantern powers!
Summary

DCUO is the world's first ever proper MMO action role-playing game. The action elements are well done, creating a flowing combat system that players can change on the fly to pummel the enemy. However, there are so few typical MMORPG features in the game that I would struggle to justify its entry in the genre. Sure, there are lots of characters, and it's set in a massive world, but that's it. The chat system is difficult to work with and there is no crafting system or player run economy - features that should be core in this type of game; they should be there and without them the place feels empty. There is little reason to talk in chat anyway, unless it's to randomly shout something about Chuck Norris or ask if anyone would want to team to take down a "Wanted" boss.

Issues aside, I think I would still recommend trying the game. As it is now, it's well worth the retail price to play it for a month and play as a hero or villain up to the max level. The storylines, locations and voice work alone make it make it an immersive experience andn when mixed with the "actiony" combat, the game becomes what all games should be regardless of genre - fun.




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10 Comments

  1. Lorna says:

    I love the idea that they used to day/night cycle to really underline the distinction between Gotham and Metropolis. While I would tend to veer more towards the gothic grime of Gotham, I can imagine some of the photo-ops from the rootops of The Daily Planet and such like are too good to miss.

    You make a great point about the content and level cap in that with so much MMO competition out there; people will just rebound back to WoW without a lookback if they aren’t careful. I always imagined every MMO to be a massive timesink, but it sounds like this one is quite ‘MMO-lite’ from what you have said. I imagine that it is a good thing as far as the newbie or casual MMO player goes, but a shame for the hardcore who have perhaps waited for this world to be created in MMO form. Good review :)

  2. MarkuzR says:

    MMOs tend to put me off because of two huge reasons… you have to play online with god knows how many arseholes ruining it by spitting Kryptonite shavings into your Gatorade, and you have to pay a monthly fee. The fact that you managed to reach the level cap in a week means that it’s a no-go for most MMO lovers, but for me that’s a positive aspect as I’ll be able to play it without having to worry about immersing myself in a sea of potential idiots and have to spend money from one month to the next. I love superheroes. I love gaming. I love the idea of gaming as a superhero and while I considered City Of Heroes A LOT, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

    I’m actually sold on this. I thought the new SW MMO was going to be my first dip in the water but I think this may be instead. Unless the Fallout MMO comes out before I get as far as DCUO. Awesome screenies by the way, the game looks lovely!

  3. Author says:

    I was excited about this for quite some time. But reading reviews and watching gameplay videos has put me off quite a bit. Everyone has referred to it as an mmo-lite. I think I’ll stick to WoW until The Old Republic is released.

  4. Ben says:

    Cataclysm has raised the bar for MMOs in my opinion, and as such the only one I can see even tempting me away is The Old Republic.

    Such a hostile genre, developers must be mad to try and make a successful one now when making a generic FPS shooter would likely mean more success.

  5. Directing Chaos says:

    However good this game may be the cost to be involved in juswt being able to play the game is pretty excessive after all a lot more people are being effected by debt after the credit crunch, so £100 a year isn’t exactly being sensitive to customers needs in the current climate.

  6. MarkuzR says:

    People pay £30 a month for porn though. People also pay £30 a month for Sky and rarely find anything to watch… ever. I know people who pay £10 a month to watch a web cam that’s supposed to have a ghost on it, and have been doing so for years. People will ultimately pay whatever they want to for anything, if they really want it. To be honest, as a programmer, I think £10 a month is a small price to pay for something that’s being constantly maintained and taking up a ridiculous amount of server resources. Generally the people who complain about monthly fees being too high don’t think far enough into the reasons why and the infrastructure that’s in place to allow it to sustain.

  7. Marks says:

    What Mark said. Like any subscription service, you are paying for the maintenance of the service and development of new content. If you think of all the costs associated with running a game of this type, customer services staff that have to be on 24/7, the continuation, although scaled down im sure, of a game development process.

    In the MMO genre, most content updates are large and they are free (Usually depending on size of the content). There are also the continuous patches and updates that are smaller but still add to the game. In the other games, you would probably have to pay for content updates, paying for DLC.

    I guess what im saying is, if you look at it in the long term. Yes it might cost you more 120 a month to play game you initially bought for 30. That game is constantly evolving though and in most cases is vastly improved apon and added to in the space of 12 months.

    Then again, my point in this article was that the game will cost you 30, the same as any other title, you get a free month of subscription time included and i think in that time you would be able to hit max level and get your money out of it. After that if you still like the game then you can think about subscription properly. I wouldnt let the thought of a subscription put you off the inital purchase of an MMO because more often than not you get that first month free to play it.

  8. Edward says:

    I’m not really an MMO person or a DC person, so I’m going to have to sit this one out while someone I know berates me for finding Spiderman a better superhero then Batman.

  9. Lee says:

    You’ve certainly got me interested in the game now, shame about the lack of things you would normally expect in an mmo. Hopefully they’ll all get added overtime and I’ll pick it up then.
    It would be a shame if it went the same way as city of heroes and forgotten to time.

  10. Adam says:

    I lost all faith in SOE after Galaxies sold out in the NGE and beyond though this review goes a little way to restore some confidence. That I read about so many MMO’s that launch today that are seemingly just released to the public so that they can start recouping some subscription money to fund actually finishing what I’d consider a retail release is a massive problem for any MMO that isn’t WoW. I watched Age of Conan do it, releasing a game before they could make good on their promises and not fulfilling them for long past 6 months of release, so that DCUO is a strong contender out of the gate is great news.

    I personally don’t see if for me as it lacks the social functions I crave for in an MMO. A player run economy is a must for me as it leads to all sorts of crazy interactions beyond the games missions and creates an experience I don’t mind paying for. It would be nice if DCUO can continue to receive enough funding to develop into something greater but that you’re keen to point out that the game is great for a month but could prove hard to love beyond that tells me all I need to know.

    A great review Mark

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