Features & News

Beta Impressions: DC Universe Online

January 10, 2011, Author: Andy Corrigan

MMOs and I have never really gotten along. It’s not that I’m unwilling to get into them; I just find a number of stumbling blocks in my way. The first is a bit of a deal breaker in that I am in no way a PC gamer and of course, they tend to thrive on that format. Secondly and more tellingly, the main reason is that the most popular of MMOs tend to centre on High Fantasy and for me, it’s a setting that I can very rarely get into.

It’s the reason I’d put off playing the immensely popular World of Warcraft all this time, only venturing into a free trial inspired by Jacob’s recent beginners guide. Sadly, although I found enjoyment there, I decided that it wasn’t a game that I would want to pay a subscription for, based mainly on the subject matter. Even as a fan of Final Fantasy, I only dipped my toe into FFXI on 360 and not even Football Manager Live could tempt me to pay for it past the free trial.

So, along comes Sony Online’s DC Universe Online to solve both my issues with the genre in one foul swoop. Can it be the game that finally makes me stick on an MMO? The signs are promising, I’ll give it that.

It all began brilliantly, with a jaw-dropping intro that instantly put me in the mood for living out my childhood fantasies. Lex Luthor narrates as he and the other DC villains wage war on the heroes in the near future, literally laying waste to the city around them in the process. One at a time, the villains do the impossible; they kill off three of the earth’s battle-weary champions in Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman. Only once they’ve perished does Luthor realise his mistake. Over the decimated city horizon, we see the looming ships of Brainiac’s forces as they begin to take over a world without its heroes to protect it.

Repentant, Luthor manages to survive, stealing some modules from Brainiac before travelling back in time to appeal to the heroes before the war. Knowing that their numbers would not be enough to take on the onslaught, he unleashes the stolen modules, which bestow super-powers (based on Brainiac’s research) on anyone who encounters them. This is where your own interaction with the heroes comes in, as they’ll need to train you and the others as part of the new generation of super heroes to help defeat Brainiac and send him running.

The man of steel and an unknown!

Okay, so good start. By this point I was positively wetting myself to get going and, even though I’m more of a Marvel man myself, my mind was already racing at the possibilities that the DC Universe would open up to me. With the installs and updates done and the cinematic over, I got to choose my preferred server between the standard European one or a player vs player one. Opting for standard, I was then taken into the character creator.

First of all, I should mention here that you can take the boring route and use an existing hero as a template, however, seeing as this is the chance to live out all your childhood dreams, where’s the fun in that? I opted to create a character from scratch and it was a good decision. There are a wealth of options to be found here outside of the male or female, small, medium or large choices, meaning you’ll be able to recreate the hero you’ve always wanted, at least in some form. Once your gender and size are determined, you get to choose between being a hero and a villain; this decision is key because it affects the choices of who you’ll start out working for. To buck the trend against my normal choice of going badass in games, I went for being a hero (for the time being), landing on Batman as my mentor and choosing the source of my power to be gadgets (other options including fire, ice and mental abilities).

You can then choose your preferred movement out of flight, agility or speed before lastly choosing a fighting style. Not really being a fan of the man of steel, I went for agility, allowing my character to run fast, cling and climb any surface, glide and jump great leaps, with martial arts my weapon of choice. After this, you get to tinker with the costume and I have to say that this was a great deal of fun. If you’ve ever invented your own superhero in your childhood, you’ll be in your element here and pretty much anything you want to do is possible. I won’t go into too much detail but suffice to say, nearly all types of hero and villain are possible and I eventually ended up with this dark looking fella with a Spidey-esque mask (apologies for the poor quality of the screenie):

My not-Spidey

Into the game I went, my hero a prisoner of Brainiac’s forces in a ship above Gotham. After escaping my shackles, I found that the combat here is simple but very smooth and pretty fun, allowing you to string together basic combos with ease. Standard attacks are mapped to the Square button, projectiles on Triangle and locking-on available with L1. Before levelling up, this was as complicated as things got as I worked my way through the level, guided by the ship’s linear path as I tried to escape. Eventually I was aided by the introduction of ‘Movement Mode’ (activated by pressing in the left stick), my character was now able to bound along quickly and climb any surface (this will take you into flight if you have that ability).

At this point, the game, quite rightly, was pretty much holding my hand, allowing me to level up just once in this opening to help me get my head around the various skill trees. With this first instance of levelling up you are given a Power Point to spend, which allows you to buy abilities in three categories; traps, tricks and iconic powers. The only one open to me at this point was the traps menu, which I spent on a power that would snare enemies in electric cable, done by pressing L2 and the relevant button (you can change the location of your abilities). These powers have a cool-down period and use up your stamina, much like in any other MMO, so you’ll have to use these wisely. The next time I levelled, I received a Skill point to spend, which can help improve the weapons and enhances a character’s movement (I chose a stealth ability at that point).

You can be a gun-wielding villain!

Once I’d escaped from Brainiac’s ship with the help of Superman, I was able to explore a safe-house (police stations for the heroes), which also provides access to the Justice League’s headquarters and some of your first missions. I was a bit overwhelmed with it all at this point, so I took to aimlessly exploring, taking in the sights. Although totally side-tracked, I was deeply impressed with the attention to detail in the game’s visuals. This is a beautiful game considering the scope and certainly more attractive than some of the single player super-hero action games on the market. Throw in thousands of other players with tons of action on-screen at all times and you’ll find that it’s a decent achievement. Not only does it look better than some of those standard super hero games but DCUO really does feel and play like one too, with large city areas to explore with no limits on where you can go. With my limited experience in MMOs, this action focus was extremely refreshing, making it easy to enjoy solo-questing or indulging in team-based raids depending on what mood takes you.

With having previously selected Batman as my mentor, I started in one of Gotham’s precincts, advised to seek out a certain officer who needed my help. This started my first experience of DCUO’s many sub-stories, this time involving the Scarecrow. Rather than just being given a simple quest of ‘kill X amount of enemies in this location then end your quest’ (there is an element of that), it’s all tied into an ongoing mini-story. At times, your character’s level might prevent you from carrying on with a certain storyline (especially if you are more of a solo-quester like me), so you can instead busy yourself with a different quest and come back to it when at a more suitable level. I really enjoyed this set-up along with the always-evolving combat.

I also have to say that stepping out onto the streets of Gotham was fantastic; the look, the feel and atmosphere are absolutely spot on. Dark, dirty and stormy streets in abundance with a touch of the ‘Tim Burton’ about them, thanks to that twisted and exaggerated vision that Batman’s hunting ground is famed for. In stark contrast, my first outing to Metropolis, although met with some lag the further afield I got, featured huge, bright, New York-styled sharp skylines. Sony Online have absolutely nailed the look of all the environments they’ve tried to recreate and anyone who’s ever read a DC comic will feel instantly at home.

Once I’d completed a couple of the quests, I got a feel for the loot available and thus came my only real (but minor) complaint of the experience. You see, like WoW you have many slots to fill with new armour and weapons that strengthen your abilities and defences. When selecting these you see the visual effect on your character, so although you selected the cool looking gloves to suit your character when starting the game, by equipping the better ones they’ll replace the stock ones you chose initially. It does allow for some further evolution of your character, though it did make me wonder what the point really was in tinkering with my design in the first place. Understandable to a degree, recognising that you’re making these changes but I’d have found an option to have loot effects take more of a passive role a better one.

I mean, you want your hero to look how you designed them and at times, you’ll find yourself going with gear that detracts from what you were originally aiming for. The actual costume design for most heroes is a milestone in their storylines, it’s what makes them iconic and helps them stand out from the other meta-humans; it would have been nice to see this to some degree here with a chance to really stamp yourself on your given avatar. That said, littered around the halls of the Justice League, there are some awesome outfits themed around heroes that you’ll eventually be able to obtain, however, you have to prove yourself worthy before you can spend the cash.

Harley makes her appearance!

For those wondering about the ability to play as the real heroes of the DC Universe, you need not worry. Although you’ll never take control of Batman or the like during the normal campaign, throughout gameplay you’ll unlock the right to play as your favourite characters in PvP matches, which you can access quickly and easily in the ‘On Duty’ menu. I’ll be honest, my time in these modes was fleeting but seemed to capture the type of fun provided in Bioshock 2 (especially in the PvP matches with your own character), with differently levelled characters going to town on each other with unique set-ups and powers. The games I played were quick, action-orientated and fun but I only found them a mildly entertaining distraction from the excellent campaign provided.

This is as much as I was able to ascertain in my limited time with the beta and I’m sure in this preview I’m just scratching the surface or have missed things that MMO stalwarts might lament. I’m pleased to say, however, that aside from one instance of slowdown when paying a flying visit to Metropolis, I really couldn’t find a lot to complain about in a game that takes the MMO blueprint and finally wraps it up in a scenario that interests me. Could this be the title to finally make me commit to an MMO for a long period of time? I think it might just be. Regardless of whether I jump in and stick with it, I suspect there will be a lot of happy comic fans this coming week. Keep an eye out for our full review later on down the line.

DC Universe Online is available in the US from the 11th January 2011, the UK from the 14th, and Australia from the 20th.