Early adopters beware: DC Universe Online is typical of any subscription-based MMO that’s in its infancy. Though we’re promised an evolving world with brand new areas to explore, new characters to interact with and tons of new missions, it isn’t going to happen overnight. Likewise, the issues with server stability as well as the numerous bugs and glitches won’t be ironed out immediately either. Sony Online Entertainment’s aim in the long run is undoubtedly to deliver a game that’s worthy of its $14.99 monthly subscription fee, but having already forked out $59.99 for what amounts to a 30 day trial, committing further cash to the superhero cause still feels like quite a gamble.
That’s not to say our minds won’t be swayed over the coming weeks and months, because DC Universe does have a lot to offer. Furthermore, having played a lot of MMOs over the years, we’re acutely aware that things can change quite significantly over time; therefore we’ve made the decision to review DC Universe Online in two parts. This initial review, the one you’re reading right now, is based on our impressions so far. The final score we give may well differ in our second review, which will follow in a couple of months time, thus giving SOE ample opportunity to expand on the content, tweak things here and there and improve on existing issues.
At a time when superheroes are all the rage on T.V and film, gaining the official DC Universe license is an impressive feather in Sony’s cap, and one that immediately sets it apart from its PC rivals, Champions Online and City Of Heroes. With top writers and illustrators on board, the comic book art-style has instant appeal, as is being able to play as your favorite heroes and villains in the flesh. Needless to day, it’s a dream come true for comic book nerds. Characters are expertly handcrafted and sublimely animated. Voice-over work is impressive and the classic comic book narrative serves well to deliver a typically over-the-top, yet enjoyable tale that fits snugly into DC Universe’s magnificent history.
The storyline picks up after Lex Luthor returns from the future to the present day, having killed his archenemy Superman and other DC Comic characters. Luthor learns, however, that his magnificent feat wasn’t all his own doing and his plans for world domination haven’t quite worked out. Braniac, a time-travelling extra terrestrial android with attitude, has been sucking away at our heroes’ powers to facilitate his own plans of global domination. Luthor flees from Braniac having stolen nanobots from his mother ship, which he plans to use to turn ordinary humans into superheroes to create an army capable of taking him on. With some impressive cut-scenes, a suitably epic musical score and plenty of hectic fight scenes, the story serves its purpose well and delivers the perfect excuse for hundreds of heroes and villains to take to the streets of Metropolis and Gotham in preparation for the inevitable earth-saving battle.
Before you step into the action, you need to make the important choice of whether to be a hero or a villain. Your decision affects the people you meet in the game, as well as the missions you undertake and who you fight with and against. You get a variety of decent options to kit out your character, choosing from various powers, such as ice and fire. You then need to pick your preferred choice of movement, such as flight or acrobatics, as well as opting for one particular fighting style that will determine whether you’re the kind of superhero who likes to get up close and personal, or take your shots from a distance.
With your strengths and powers chosen, you’re next required to customize your superhero, choosing everything from the size of his body to the style of his haircut. Alternatively, you can pick a template, inspired by the likes of famous DC Universe characters, such as Batman, or Superman and then adopt it to your preferred look. You even choose a famous superhero mentor, who you get to fight alongside later in the game, but your choice also determines the type of rewards you gain from completed quests. There’s a decent range of options, ensuring that every type of typical MMO class can be chosen, from a heavy-fisted brawler to a gadget-focused heroine with telekinetic abilities. When you come to the point in the game where you need to team up with other gamers, the wide range of player-types comes in particular handy for co-op missions and raids.
In some ways, DC Universe Online tears up the typical MMO blueprint. It is, in fact, an action-focused MMO, which you could say has been simplified to adapt to the limitations of a console interface and controller input. That basically means it’s not as complex as some of the more renowned PC MMOs, such as Lord Of The Rings Online, or Everquest. There’s no complex crafting system, for instance, and you level up very quickly through mission progression – so you never really have to grind your way to the level 30 cap. There’s a heavy focus on fighting, and lots of enemies to crush, so reaching that next level happens regularly and often with fairly little effort.
There are, however, skill and power trees, plus tons of different weapons and abilities that turn your fledgling superhero or villain into a very powerful, well-oiled machine. The further you progress, the more you witness your superhero evolve, and the tougher the quests and enemies become to defeat. You soon find yourself teaming up for raids with other players and gaining some sweet loot, or joining up for co-op missions. Like any good MMO, DC Universe Online lays the foundations for a strong social community to embrace, which could stand it in good stead providing gamers subscribe and continue to play over the coming months.
Without meaning to sound patronizing to anyone who has already played an MMO, we think it’s worth explaining the difference between PvE and PvP play in DC Universe Online in case you aren’t familiar with them. Essentially, these are the two choices you have each time you start up the game, and the two types of server that you can join. In both modes, you’ll experience the same areas to explore and the same objectives and goals. However, in PvE you can do this alone without the fear of being attacked by someone of the opposite faction. It’s essentially like a single player campaign, although you can still interact with anyone, join up for co-op play and raids, and fight in specific PvP arenas. In the PvP servers, it’s a free-for-all battle, where you’re fair game to anyone of the opposite faction who wants to fight you. So not only do you have to contend with completing quests, but it’s likely that you’ll be attacked at random by someone, or a group of a people, who simply want to kick some ass.
While PvE play is great for building up your character, PvP play is where the real DC Universe Online experience lies. Here, it’s all-out war on a massive scale, and an intimidating place to be if you’re a low level character surrounded by powerful players who won’t think twice before wiping you off the face of the earth. However, there’s still a lot of slowdown, as well as the risk of being kicked out as servers struggle to cope with the amount of action on screen at one time. We’ve also experienced times when our fireballs haven’t caused any damage and even seen superheroes and villains appearing as nothing but black silhouettes on screen, but providing stability is improved it’s clear to see that this is going to be where the main thrill lies as people fight tooth and nail for bragging rights.
Aside from heroes and villains doing battle and showing off their range of powers, gameplay involves interacting with NPCs and picking up quests. There’s a lot of repetition and little variety in the missions, which generally involve killing ‘X’ amount of enemies before facing a larger boss. You’ll also find yourself drawn into side-quests that are relevant to your faction, such as going on the hunt for thugs if you’re a hero, or planting bombs under cars if you’re working for The Joker. You also get to loot enemies and pick up wads of cash that you can spend at vendors who sell anything from health items to knuckle-dusters. Though there are some quests that manage to draw you right into the universe, there are others where you feel you’re just going through the motions.
Fighting takes up the bulk of the gameplay and it does become fairly repetitive against A.I. opponents, who you can often just button-mash your way through. However, from a visual perspective it does get progressively entertaining. Having chosen ‘fire’ to be the main ability of our superhero, as we leveled up we assigned points via the skill and power menu in return for stronger abilities, like absorbing heat, a supercharge boost, and the ability to fly even faster. Despite having to carry out the same type of missions over and over, gaining access to this wide range of new abilities means that leveling up and looting enemies becomes quite an addictive process. As it stands though, it’s clear that there already needs to be more variety. Exploring Metropolis and Gotham City is fun for a while – and the instances where you head off to places such as Area 51 provide moments of excitement – but considering this is an MMO it still feels rather compact and lacking in substance and depth. Of course, this should change over time, but we still expected a little more content from the outset.
Having also played a fair bit of the PC version of DC Universe Online, it’s also clear that the interface is far more suited to the latter. On the PS3, it’s clunky to navigate and text can prove barely legible at times. Text chat is a total waste of time unless you’ve got a keyboard, and if you do manage to work out how to use voice chat, you’ll soon discover that a lot of people haven’t and it’s not the social arena that it has the potential to be. Nonetheless, Sony says it’s working on a patch, so fingers crossed this will change. One of the major talking points in the lead up to the release of DC Universe Online is the subscription fee. While the PC community have seen this as common practice over the years, this is going to be brand new concept to some PS3 gamers; and at $14.99 a month, it’s a big ask from the community to commit.
Indeed, while there is an abundance of positive aspects about DC Universe Online, there’s also a lot that needs to be addressed if players are going to keep coming back for more. The good news is there already seems to be a large group of players who are enjoying the experience, so we do have high hopes that Sony will make this work. In truth though, if you were to ask us whether we’d subscribe at this current moment in time, the answer would be no. We’d wait to see how things pan out over the coming months, keep an eye on some of the community forums for feedback from the users, and invest our cash when we know for sure that things are going to evolve. If that does happen, and SOE keeps in close contact with the community, DC Universe Online could have a long and prosperous future.