DC Universe Online mixes the superhero formula with the MMO world and brings it to the PS3 home console . But can it support thousands of caped crusaders mashing two buttons all at the same time?
Boys and girls the world over have at one point or another dreamt of being a super-hero - it's a childhood rite of passage for all healthy imaginations. Sadly, unless pieces of Krypton start falling from the sky, it's a dream that will never materialize. So as far as vicarious pleasures go, an interactive world where you can don the cape and cowl, complete with all the glory that comes with it (and without any of the real world problems) sounds like a mighty fine idea. Unlike City of Heroes, which may not spark the same interest in gamers because of its non-licensed cast, DC Universe: Online is packed with established superheroes sure to whet any fanboy's appetite. Is this enough, though, to fulfill the daydreams of our childhoods past - or are they crushed by the weight of a game that not even Superman could save?
It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a Super-Sloth
If you managed to sneak into the beta then you'll remember just how impressive the opening hour of the game is - you get to watch a massive battle between world-renowned heroes and villains that ends in Lex Luthor claiming victory. Unfortunately for old Lex, Brainiac's galactic fleet of warships decided to stop by and fill the Metropolis skyline. Without ruining it all, Luthor then goes back in time with a stolen energy source known as exo-bytes, essentially granting him the power to transform people into super humans. Both the villains and the heroes have a stake in the outcome of the battle with Brainiac and for the time being they agree to work with each other to free the Earth from a terrible future. All of this plays out in a cut-scene that is effective in setting the tone and style, but that also justifies the existence of a few thousand supers. This high caliber of production value really blows you away and, even as a sometime comic book fan, it got my nerd juices flowing. It's too bad that the tutorial level kills that momentum and shows you the worst part of the 30 levels to follow.
Like APB before it, DC Universe: Online sports an impeccable character creation system with a comprehensive list of customizable options for players to sort through. It's a robust setup that lets you make behemoth-sized powerhouses, silky smooth fliers, and assault rifle carrying android-alien cross-breeds that you can dress like pimps. You might think I'm trying to be funny, but spend a little time in-game and you'll realize that there's an eerie fascination with canes and white suits amongst online gamers. In any case, the opening hour should fulfill a lifelong dream for anyone who at some point in their lives saw a comic book hero and thought "what if" - or "how would a super-pimp deal with this?"
Playing for Both Teams
The biggest choice you'll make is choosing who among Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Joker, Lex Luthor and Circe (ed. note: WHO?) will mentor you. They'll be your primary contact throughout the game and the ones who guide you the most early on. While you'd think that the most impacting choice would be picking the role of either a hero or villain, ultimately it has little impact on the way the game plays - especially if you stick to PvE. The tutorial plays out identically no matter who you are or what side you're on and is, unfortunately, a telling trait of the overall game; while quests are shaped after you've chosen a side (like trying to kill a room full of cops if you're under tutelage of the Joker or saving that room of cops if you're under the careful watch of Batman) it really has no bearing on the overall gameplay and nothing makes these situations feel any different beyond the dialogue and text.
Ultimately, this is because all of the missions break down the same way: you head to a location on the map, beat as many enemies up as the quest requires and either free X number of civilians from control or collect X amount of something that always looks like a question mark in a bubble. Quest by numbers! Objectives are tailored to mimic the theme associated with whoever the end-boss of that sequence is, so if you end up fighting Poison Ivy then the enemies will be plants of some sort, or civilians that are poisoned, if it's the Joker you'll fight clown-faced henchmen and release cops from giant presents. A lot of the Alerts (DCUO's version of instances) are just more complex quests where you do the same thing on a larger scale. It would have been nice if they had found ways to make those missions truly unique, but all you really get is a specialized location. The only possible thrill from the quests, then, comes from either your imagination, or from the games core action.
The biggest characteristic DCUO has to offer to a broader audience is that it's an action game, encouraging gamers to hammer square and triangle in place of buffering spells or shouts to cast. As you progress you'll unlock a ton of new combos, innate abilities and special moves (powers) that are mostly class dependent. You have two roles to customize, defense and damage, by filling eight slots with points toward whichever attack you'd like. Your special attacks use up an energy pool that replenishes slowly on its own over time, though you receive a small amount back each time you kill an enemy. I found a balance of self-healing and major damage dealing specials was a good blend to contend with the action, as long as I was soloing. The game does a poor job explaining how to switch roles for when you enter a group alert and things like playing as a controller or a tank become more critical. A lot of times if you enter random alerts you'll end up with all four players classed as damage dealers which makes for slow progress - and that's not even my biggest gameplay concern.
DCUO's button mashing action fails in two of the most crucial areas; it isn't deep enough and it doesn't run nearly as well as it needs to. I found when I was in a spot without many others I could have my way with enemies by stringing together a number of combos, though as soon as I was in a group or trying to take down bigger enemies like Arkillo or Clayface (you can take on bounty missions to defeat well known super villains) the action was slow, unresponsive and frustrating. Over the course of the four weeks since launch this problem has persisted and gotten worse. I can enjoy games that ask me to mash out combos, but the half second lag from input to screen in DCUO means that I'm often left trying to react to things already gone by, stifling the fun I was preparing to have. This problem is only compounded when you perform your combos and your animation lasts much longer than it needs to and hardly damages the enemy.
Put simply: as simple as the fighting mechanics are, they're not nearly as balanced as they needs to be. The limited energy pool means you rip through special moves quite quickly leaving you to use your far weaker combo attacks. Against enemies of a lower level than you this is fine - and you'll replenish energy fast because they're easier to kill - but against opponent the same level or greater than you it can take a supremely long time. This is evidenced towards the end of the game where killing anyone can take so long that the seemingly weak primary attacks do very little to calm rising frustrations. I frequently had to get huge combos or rely heavily on my energy pool just to beat a couple of enemies! As an action game first it becomes a boring slog that's only easier to take because you level so fast, making any area that's too slow to get through easier to digest an hour later. This is less noticeable if you quest around with others all the time but it's more disparaging to solo players. Still, with how often you're sent to beat up a couple dozen enemies, DCUO fails to find a balance or to reward players for their effort and, much more importantly, make them feel like an actual superhero.
My Superpower is Tolerance
I hope at this point you understand what the game's striving to achieve and whether or not that appeals to you, because what I'm about to say may unintentionally read like a laundry list of reasons you shouldn't play DCUO. I have an unnaturally thick skin with regard to the frustrations that I'll stomach in games that I can otherwise personally enjoy - Alpha Protocol, for instance, is still one of my favorite games - but everyone is different and games can't be reviewed on what I alone can tolerate. Also know that the game will change as time goes by, future updates are released, balance is improved, content is added and so on, so go in knowing that these problems could happen but that they could also be eliminated in the future. MMO's are notorious for being sketchy early on, so anything resembling a functioning video game is considered a success. DCUO was steady going for the first couple days, but it wasn't very long before problems started to take over gameplay and leave players with a lot of unexpected and unwanted downtime.
At times DCUO has some terrible performance issues; the worst I came across was a ton of hard freezes almost every time I played over the course of a couple of hours. That won't be the case for everyone, but clearly if it is happening this much then something must be wrong. More concerning to me was the frequent framerate drops that get so bad you can literally start counting the frames per second on as little as one hand. Whether it's an overloaded world or simple the technical limits it tells me that the PS3 just isn't capable of a fluid action MMO game.
When it manages to run smooth the animations are really quite nice and the world is very well realized, with Gotham and Metropolis offering some distinct variety from one city to the other. However, almost every time I fly across the map and land at my destination the area will be devoid of textures. Worse, enemies would be there but not visible; leaving me vulnerable to attacks that often resulted in death while the game caught up and loaded the assets in my location. Texture pop-in is tolerable, but having to respawn because I had to wait fifteen to twenty seconds before I could find my assailants was not.
Finally, the user interface is just bunk. It's cumbersome and annoying on the PC and unable to overcome latency issues on the home console. On a PS3 you have to use the triggers to switch menu tabs but it always takes a few seconds for that sub-menu to open. Worse, the game is supposed to support voice chat but for much of the time since release I haven't been able to use it at all, making it imperative to have a keyboard for any communication. I found the best way to deal with that was to never speak, which is a really poor solution in a game that is centered around playing with others. Everything about the user interface is clunky, time consuming and unintuitive, right down to the misleading queue times for Alerts, Duos, Arenas and Legends PvP which usually gives a 3 to 8 minute quote time to enter the modes. No word of a lie, my first two weeks with the game I got into only a single alert even though I activated the queue to jump in every day that I played the game. After one of the major patches in the game it seemed like I was able to jump into them a little more, but I'm still waiting upwards of two or three hours some days.
When Mediums Collide
One of the most appealing things to DCUO is the pure artistry that has gone into the game. Comics are a static medium that must rely on the strength of their images to carry on entire scenes, so it's easy to understand why great artists stand out. Here, Jim Lee's aesthetic is noticeable and impressive, bringing a harmonized consistency to figures that have taken on many different designs over the past century.
Just as much effort has been put into the audio of many of the iconic heroes and villains that you'll hear during your journey. Not all of the voice work is spectacular but it's surprising how much of it there is, especially for an MMO. Some of the best include: Adam Baldwin as Superman, Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as Joker, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn and James Marsters as Lex Luthor. Less wicked is when the audio cuts out, repeats and overlaps, happening way too frequently to do the voice talent any justice. Hopefully, they're able to work out those kinks because I think a lot of people will be attracted to the idea of hearing their favorite comic book heroes talk to them directly.
The Killing Joke
As mentioned, leveling up to DCUO's built in level cap isn't really an issue, and I would expect nearly every semi-dedicated player to do so in the first (free) month of their subscription. There's plenty of incentive too, as the end-game is where most of the good content is. The biggest chunks of endgame PvE content are missions that the player can take on alone, duos for two to tackle, and hard alerts that will take four skilled teammates. You'll be rewarded with marks that go toward unlocking different content for yourself like weapons and alternate suits. There are also Raids that will take eight well equipped players to complete and that are only for the most hardcore. My favorite, however, is the PvP arenas which you can start midway through the game in Legends PvP, where you play as one of the iconic characters that you've unlocked as you've progressed. In this game mode specifically, you might play as Batman, Wonder Woman or Bane for instance in a fight over a set number of control points.
So there's the rub - there's a lot of stuff to do from start to finish and there will undoubtedly be more on the way - but is it enough? For those newer to the genre it may be, but for those that have already tailored their tastes in MMO's it's unlikely they can look at DCUO as anything but a poorly constructed mess that's monotonous, clunky and, at times, broken. The most indicting feature is that the games action angle is ultimately one that doesn't work well enough and doesn't distinguish itself enough throughout the game to stay fun.
DC Universe Online might be a game worth checking out; it might even be a game that's fairly fun to play for a dozen hours. But by charging full price for the purchase and an additional $15 a month to play it Sony is lining up with some hefty competition. The novelty of a working MMO on a home console isn't even close to enough to justify a purchase either, even more so because the game doesn't always work properly. If you play this, however, play it on the PC. Given its current state, I cannot recommend DC Universe Online - not as long as Sony charges so much to play it. The MMO landscape has changed and there are just too many, better, and cheaper options available to choose from.
How does it Sound: Voice work is good but the audio doesn't sync right. 7/10
How does it Look: Wonderful art work; Metropolis and Gotham are great to explore. 7.5/10
How does it Play: Slow and sloppy targeting; action is easy enough to learn. 6.5/10
How is it Presented: The story opening is great, and comic cutscenes are cool. User interface it utter trash. 6.5/10
How long it Lasts: A few great moments, but too much of the same for too long. 6.5/10
Final Score: 67%
Final Score is not an average of grades but a rating of the entire game.