Review: DC Universe Online (One Month Check-In)

Time constraints and an avalanche of games falling from my enormous backlog kept me out of the MMO fold for quite some time, but one title finally struck my fancy enough to bring my inner supervillain out of hiding: DC Universe Online. I’d avoided MMOs for years, fearing the cost of addiction rearing its ugly head. But it’s 2011. It’s a new year, a fresh start, and I’m rockin’ shiny new spandex while l smear the good guys all over the pavement. It’s been about a month into my masquerading as a costumed supervillain, and I’m here to report back.

The verdict? DC Universe Online isn’t a game-changer, but it’s overall a decent option to get casual players into test-running an MMO, especially for gamers like me who have all but abandoned the genre. I can’t say it runs particularly well for a console iteration, like say Final Fantasy XI, a perennial favorite for me when the mood strikes for grinding, but it certainly has its moments.

Here’s the story: After a brief introductory cut scene attempting to explain what in the name of Wonder Woman is going on, you’re unleashed to create your new superhero (or supervillain) persona. Plenty of different customization options are available at the onset of your journey here. Start by choosing your gender, your mentor (I chose the Joker as a supervillain), your super powers, your weapons, your hairdo…the list goes on. Skin type, facial structure, and body type (how big are you going to be?) left a little to be desired, as I chose from several different presets, including anthropomorphic cats and Dr. Manhattan-esque beings of energy rather than crafting my own look a la other more full-featured character creation tools.

The costume selection offered plenty of different styles for my dear villain to strut her stuff in, including casual wear, gaudy superhero default unitards, and other bric-a-brac assorted into different styles. Little did I know at first that these clothing type options would turn into exactly what I liked about the game, as initially I was hesitant to venture out into the world wearing anything but something that looked indubitably…”metal.” I made my choices and proceeded into the tutorial space, where I was quickly greeted with a powerful revelation: DC Universe Online is not your typical MMO.

Many MMOs rely upon the dreaded grind and careful crafting of each character and class for maximum success. This one goes for the balls-out approach: hit stuff, receive experience, hit more stuff, get more experience, and then hit some more things. Things, people, other players, etc. It walks, talks, and acts like a multiplayer online extravaganza, but this more casual-oriented online affair plays like a straight-up action brawler. Instant feedback from landing a punch or a slash from your weapon of choice is gratifying in itself, though the occasional latency did have me cringing at points — when I punch this robot in the face, I want it to feel like it’s happening right now rather than a few seconds later. Because of this, I ended up stringing together sloppy combos rather than attempting to play with any sort of real goal in mind. This ultimately lead to many untimely deaths and made combat hard to look forward to, despite its relatively fast-paced nature and draw toward gamers who just want to hop online, party up, and beat the tar out of some supervillains (or superheroes).

The facade of a four-player brawler, a la “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance,” which I felt the game channeled at times, was quickly shattered, however, once I realized how shallow my questing accomplishments were. DC Universe Online certainly errs on the safe side. Prominent DC characters like Joker, Lex Luthor or Batman deliver brief mission outlines of the “go to point A, defeat X amount of enemies, and return for an award” variety.

It’s certainly not cleaning (or dirtying) up the city streets or changing the world. In fact, it’s actually kind of snooze-worthy if you’re looking for a few more, shall we say, epic quests. Unfortunately, your interaction with these heavy-hitters is quite limited, reduced to snippets of text, quick voiceovers, and cameos in battle that feel underwhelming at best. Since when does Batman need aid from a lowly do-gooder such as yourself? And why couldn’t Lex Luthor fight his own battles?

It’s also quite a shame that most of your interactions are reduced to quest notes, subtitles, and directions. Fortunately, you’re usually briefed well on where you need to head in order to complete certain objectives, but one of the largest draws for me for this game was working in tandem with some of my favorite characters and getting that hands-on time with them. I have to say that being their errand girl wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I signed up for my account. On the other hand, once you’ve completed your objectives, whether alone or with a party (as I chose to work alone, lone wolf style more often than not) you are rewarded with some very classy scenes that illustrate what your hard work hath wrought, serving as a visual and aural “thanks for putting up with that!” that XP or items couldn’t say alone, and I kept chugging along even when I felt as though I wanted to turn off the PlayStation 3 for the night simply to check them out.

Solo questing meets multiplayer with gameplay cleverly designed around four-player combat. DC Universe Online includes areas requiring you to travel to bizarre locations, complete quests, and take on immense bosses. The action is not necessarily more engaging than the brawling found the regular line of quests, but if you’re looking to party up with your guild and hunt for some decent loot, these instances are a clever way to keep you multiplayer-oriented without hurling insults at those around you who dare insult your fashion sense.

The fact that kill-stealing is avoided entirely is another plus — anyone in the vicinity of your final culminating fight will receive credit, or the item in question, so there’s no real reason to worry about who you partner up with. I found that quite refreshing, as it assuaged my reservations about playing online with strangers — something I’m usually not wont to do, cooperatively, anyway.

Returning to an earlier point, the game boasts a brilliant customization system. I was pleased with the sheer amount of options available to deck out your character, and as I progressed, I found a bit of sheer genius nestled within. If you’re one who needs to stay true to a certain “style” but want to reap the benefits of certain types of gear, you can actually do so by equipping found items, then toggling them to a certain gear “style.” Cosmetic options for hard-earned gear drops? Yes please! It’s a fantastic way to keep your hero persona looking sharp without sacrificing stats, which just might end up keeping you alive in the long run.dc_scr_plyract_hallofdoomarmory_010.jpg

I found myself sincerely wishing that the superpowers, the things I had wished for so desperately to be intriguing and innovative, were in step with the great customization system. You may equip up to six powers at a time, though most of your powers’ icons look just about the same. Vague descriptions accessed via the sub-menu don’t do much in the way of cluing you in on what power you should keep when receiving your seventh slot, and in all honesty when you put a power to use in the playing field, they’re not much to look at. I found the ability to fly (my own choice when creating my villain) much more entertaining than earning new powers, even though flying in and of itself was a bit too clumsy for me.

The interface itself needs a bit more work as well, full of clunky menu-switching and the larger-than-life PlayStation keyboard onscreen complicates matters further any time you think of chatting with another player. Voice chat is offered in groups, but if you’re wanting to keep things short and sweet (or a little more formal), text chat is the way to go, though navigating through all of the options and sub-menus gets far too cumbersome with the PS3 controller. I often found myself wondering how much smoother it might feel on the PC, longing for quick flashes to different menus and the ease of movement a mouse and keyboard combo provided.

DC Universe Online is not perfect, but full of potential. With a little work and tweaks to fix up audio glitches and latency issues, I could see recommending it to players as a “My First MMO” outing. For hardcore players or even those looking to pick it up for the popular characters involved, I’d suggest passing and going for the PC version instead, unless you don’t need the licensed heroes. In that case, there are plenty of other great options to shop around with. As my time with the game wears on though, I’ll be back with plenty more observations — this is just the first month. I’ll be back with plenty of updates on my plunge into supervillaindom. Here’s to tight spandex and a hopeful upward shift in gameplay.

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