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After playing World of Warcraft for half a decade and finding no other contenders to its mighty money throne, I was resigned to the idea that Blizzard would be getting $15 a month to fill my MMO addiction. I had high hopes for Champions Online, since I’d rather be a superhero than a gnome warrior but, to put it bluntly, that game was a monstrosity, completely uninteresting and at times unplayable. Soul-crushing as it was, its failure can be contrasted by the great experience that is DC Universe Online
First off, I despise DC Comics. It is a confusing mess, and other than the Batman Family and their rogues gallery, not a single character in that universe is compelling. That said, the writers at DC put together a rather interesting story that actually puts a world where an invincible alien lives is at risk. In the future, Lex Luthor kills Superman and most of the Justice League, only to find that it was all part of Brainiac’s plan to conquer Earth. With its greatest defenders out of the way, Brainiac takes over, with only Lex surviving. In order to prevent this grim future, Luthor goes back in time to a more recognizable time period (where everyone is still alive), and attempts to prevent his apocalyptic future by releasing nanites that will create a multitude of new meta-humans. This backstory is actually a clever way to explain problems that were ignored in other hero MMOs, such as why the meta to civilian ratio is so out of whack, and why there is a massive battle of every single street. It also is a story the layman, who does not read DC Comics, can understand. You’ll also play out mini-story arcs as quest lines during the game. So far, all the quests follow a relatively similar pattern: kill some dudes at one place, go to another place and pick up some stuff, go to another place and kill more dudes, go into an instance and kill a boss. The quality of the story during these fights vary however, at least in earlier quest lines, as you’ll find yourself fighting alongside D-listers like Parasite or Wonder Girl.
The gameplay of DC Universe Online is the greatest distinguishing factor between itself and Champions, in the sense that it is genuinely fun. It is a cross between the traversal and combat elements of the Spider-Man games (at least before Shattered Dimensions) and the powers and RPG elements of a Marvel Ultimate Alliance. You are granted one of three travel powers right from the get go: flight, super speed, and acrobatics. Each travel power has their own strengths and weaknesses, but all of them tend to even out despite acrobatics seeming underwhelming compared to the other choices. It’s not as customizable as Champions, but honestly who used the flying disc or burrowing? Traveling the city and using travel powers in combat is pretty exhilarating, especially since the cities are so fucking massive, with little bonuses and unlockables littering it. The combat works exactly like a Spider-Man game, with attacks being assigned to the Square and Triangle buttons and powers assigned to a shoulder button with a face button. The basic attacks system works essentially like a Spider-Man game, with different combinations of button sequences leading to different attacks, which can be augmented by leveling in the weapon’s talent tree, leading to stun combos. It’s a blast of fresh air from the usual “stand still and watch dice rolls” combat of normal MMOs. The superpower management is lifted from the MUA series to great effect, allowing for an 8 power action bar. It’s so effective that you never really feel at a disadvantage using a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard. Most importantly, combat is fun, and PVP is more than the normal rock/paper/scissors level comparison of most MMOs. Unless there is a massive level disparity, it is not uncommon for lower level player to beat a high level player if they are better at the game. Combat also looks pretty cool too, with enemies getting knocked away thirty feet or exploding or what have you. My only gripe is that it’s a bit difficult to target specific enemies, sometimes choosing to target a box thirty feet away instead of the Ultra-Gorilla punching out your soul.
Character creation is a mixed bag. Being able to use the character “influence” set, which generates you a character whose look is based on an existing DC character, is a good idea, because most people who aren’t batshit crazy maniacs who don’t want to make a dapper mummy street thug will likely think “I want to make a guy who looks like Batman” or someone else. Character influence allows you to make a Batman template, and then tweak and alter it to make it more personalized. Of course, this leads to a lot of flamboyant Supermen or Green Lanterns, but it’s good for people who don’t want to spend three hours making a completely original character who looks like a pile of garbage. The powers are a bit limited however. Compared to other MMOs, there is very little choice in what superpower your character will have: ice, fire, gadgets, nature, mental, and sorcery. I’m a bit biased about this, however, since I originally wanted to make an electrical guy. Each power has two different ability tree is can go down, technically doubling the variations in powers. For example, for gadgets you can either go into the traps tree, which involves a lot of control abilities, or the tricks tree, which also involves a lot of control abilities. The lack of powers is made up for by the boatload of weapon abilities, with pretty much every base being covered. Weapons act as a separate power set, with each one fulfilling a different role in combat. For example, going into staves allows your character to get a lot of stun combos, essentially letting you be a controller, while hand blasters give you ranged attacks, giving you decent ranged DPS. As per the hero MMO genre, the character creator combined with a weird player base leads to some truly terrifying and awesome spectacles. Sometimes, you’re treated to a Street Fighter-inspired Sagat character, complete with Tiger Knee. Other times, you’re fighting robots with “Super Slut”. One of the better implemented ideas for your character look is the fact that you can choose which loot changes your look and what doesn't depending on gear you find in the game. The big gripe for Hero MMOs is that, in other MMOs your character looks plain in the beginning, but as you progress you look more and more badass. In Hero MMOs, you spend two hours making your character look cool but after that you always look the same. In DCUO, as you collect gear, you unlock that piece of costume, which permanently inventories that style for your character to be used whenever you want. So, if you find Scarecrow's Mask, you can choose to display it on your character right away, never, or whenever. Potentially, you can look the same the entire game, have all your current gear displayed on your character, or a mix.
As mentioned before, the world is huge. There are three gigantic cities: Metropolis, Gotham, and Wonder Woman Metropolis (I don’t know, its Metropolis but like Chinatown). Even with the speedy travel powers, the cities feel absolutely gargantuan, and would probably take 30 minutes to travel one side to the next. Buildings are also nice and towering, making the world feel suitably big. One thing that I didn’t like was that there didn’t seem to be a ton of civilians around. Once in a blue moon, you’ll see a mugger or an armored car getting jacked, but its infrequency and lack of rewards make the world seem barren, although I guess if there was an army of man-rhinos hanging around Starbucks, I’d stay indoors too. It was also a nice touch to put little Easter Eggs, reminiscent of Spider-Man games, around the world. Collectibles and lore investigations litter the world, giving you new clothing, information, or just a reason to climb the thousand story towers of Metropolis. There are also hub cities akin to Stormwind. There’s the lazily named Hall of Doom for the villains, and the iconic Watchtower for the heroes. It’s a bit confusing to get around in those areas, and is the only time where the large scale of the game is a detriment. It’s big to the point where it’s unnecessary. The quests for the heroes and villains also overlap at times on the map, which creates some rather pitched battles between the two factions at important quest spots. However, this can sometimes can be more of an annoyance than anything, since max level characters seem to enjoy coming to these areas and just dusting anything that moves. Generally, though, this creates a lot more situations for PvP mayhem for those on PvP servers. There are also instanced areas much like dungeons from other MMOs, where you are cut off from the outside world beyond your group. Its always topped off with a nice boss fight, although they all consist of you just beating the hell out of said boss with a famous DC character helping.
The game looks good at times, and broken in others. It’s on par with most action games from this generation. The character animation is great, with your character doing some awesome flips and kicks and so on. However, the frame rate gets pretty bad pretty often, and anything further than 20 feet away from you looks very choppy. Also, other characters render very slowly when entering a new zone, first apparently as black shadows, then coming together piece by piece completely bald, like newborns. Some heroes you talk to also have a very visible black line running down the center of their face, which sort of ruins the illusion of fighting alongside Nightwing, instead fighting alongside someone wearing a poorly-made Nightwing mask. The worst part is that, since this is happening on PS3, you can’t just update your computer to make the game run better. The might be able to patch out some problems, but many of these problems will last forever.
If there is one terrible flaw to DC Universe Online, it’s the awful voice acting. Other than getting the cartoon Batman and Joker (Mark “I’m sick of being Joker” Hamil), every else is pretty terrible. Adam Baldwin, who wasn’t terribly great in Halo ODST, plays uninterested Superman, Gina Torres of Firefly plays oddly voiced Wonder Woman, and whoever played Lex Luthor did an admirable impression of one of those MS Voice apps, with dialogue sounding disjointed and awful. And NONE of the voice acting for the non-big name quest givers matched what the character looked like, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it was all done by the same guy. They had Jennifer Hale around playing Zatanna, who has like three lines in a random Wonder Woman quest. You might want to give her more to do.
The UI is also a bit wonky. If you don’t have a USB keyboard, good luck trying to communicate at all. Of course, almost everyone does have a USB keyboard, and since any will work with PS3 it’s not a huge problem. Otherwise, you have to use that awful on-screen PS3 keyboard, or use voice chat which either seems to be down or filled with amateur rappers. Imagine World of Warcraft’s trade chat, only audible. Also, in order to do anything in the menus, your character will be immobile and helpless, which is a definite problem since you have to consult your quest log to complete any quest. It’s also pretty slow, and seemed to turn off inexplicably at times when I went from one side to the next. It’s the only time you really start to notice that you’re using a controller and not a mouse.
Despite the usual set of problems inherent with an MMO Launch, DC Universe Online is easily the best console MMO, the best superhero MMO, and an excellent alternative to those seeking more action than World of Warcraft type MMOs have to offer. At its core, it is already an exceptional superhero action game that could compete with any out on the market right now. Combined with the limitless co-op options, its well-worth a purchase.