While I've never been much for the traditional superhero, there's something superficially appealing about the notion of DC Universe Online. For me, that largely comes from the idea of a more action-oriented game, one that's more about skillful manipulation of a gamepad than waiting for your turn to strike and carefully managing a set of additional abilities. But that's probably the first, and most disappointing thing I noticed when I started playing the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
DCUO's combat looks like an action game, but it definitely doesn't feel like one. Actions feel latent--you know, like the sort of latency you'd expect when connecting to an MMO server instead of a four-player action game or something. While you start to earn more powerful melee combos as you gain levels, the mushy, unresponsive feel of the attacks make you quickly mash out the full combo, rather than employing any sort of timing or, God forbid, want to decide mid-combo that you want to hold down a button to go for a different attack. With some attacks having extra effects, like interrupting an enemy that's in the middle of casting, the imprecise nature of your attacks can make combat frustrating. They never seem to work right when it counts. Still, it's usually fine enough for just mashing your way through mobs and soloing instances.
The quest design has a few very right, well-implemented ideas surrounded by a ton of filler. It starts with quest dialogue, which is usually spoken... except the PS3 version of the game currently has a bug that occasionally interrupts speech, and if you play long enough, the speech (and a lot of the other audio) eventually just sort of stops working. While some of the dialogue surfaces in your chat log, it doesn't always do so, and I've missed a few mission briefings, as a result. Not that this is a game-breaking issue. The game is usually pretty good about telling you where to go and what to do for each quest. The problem there is that 90 percent of the 100+ quests I've completed aren't any more complicated than "go to this area and kill 10 of these things" or "go to this area and collect 25 of these things." The only thing that makes some of them stand out is that you're being given quests by real characters like Superman, Batman, The Joker, and Lex Luthor, who have all been recast as middle managers that pop up in small bubbles to introduce new quests. I feel sorry for those guys, going from big-name superstars to hero-traffic controllers, but then, it's also a little strange that, at the start of the game, you basically hold your own as a lowly first-level hero in a fight against a bunch of Brainiac robots while alongside Superman or Lex Luthor. Shouldn't those guys be saving your pathetic ass instead of sitting in a room somewhere and directing traffic? In the limited cases where you do fight alongside named DC characters, they don't feel special. They seem like they're incapable of getting the job done by themselves and need to rely on shlubs like me to save the world.
Many of the quest lines eventually lead up to an instanced encounter against a named character. So, after beating up a ton of plant creatures and collecting spores and beating up a few more plant creatures, you'll go into a greenhouse, fight through some more plant creatures, and eventually fight Poison Ivy, who's somehow managed to capture Robin. The instances aren't especially memorable on their own, but when you complete a quest line like this, it ends with a brief, lightly animated clip that's at least well-drawn and serves as a passable payoff for killing all of those plants. These clips are one of the best things about the entire game.
But the best thing about the entirely of DC Universe Online, from what I've seen, has to be the way it handles character creation and customization. Faced with the issue of having you create a character at the beginning of the game and having that character look identical from start to finish or having your look entirely dictated by the gear you're wearing, ruining any hope of a cohesive design for your hero or villain, the developers have decided to split the difference. Most pieces of gear that you'll find are associated with a specific style, like "Fourth World" or "New Genesis" or "Biker." Once you've equipped an item with that style, you can swap that part of your look to that style any time you want. So if you collect a full set of Biker gear, but don't want to wear it because the stats for it are are all garbage, you can still go toggle the biker look on as a cosmetic option. You can also lock down any or all of your gear to a specific style, so equipping new back items won't remove your cape or putting on some new head armor won't cover up your sweet Final Fantasy-looking hairdo. While this creates the issue of not being able to tell which characters are bad-asses just by looking at them, it lets you play dress-up more effectively, which is probably the most engaging thing DCUO has to offer.
You'll find those additional costume parts as items that drop from enemies and as quest rewards, and the menus are at least good at telling you if an item has better stats than what you're currently wearing. In addition to actual gear, you'll also find vendor trash and items that recover health and power. The act of looting is surprisngly easy, also. Orbs that represent loot, XP, quest items, and money pop out of enemies when they die, and a quick tap of L2 and R2 will suck in all the nearby orbs. The game's also very kind about what counts as completing a quest task, avoiding the issue of kill stealing entirely by giving credit to anyone that got into battle near the quest item in question. So if you're fighting the guys that are guarding a quest item and someone else runs in and grabs the item while you're busy, you'll still get credit for it.
With the way the game's menus are designed, I found myself wishing for full mouse support, as navigating the menus with a gamepad and the occasional keyboard shortcut is clunky. Though the game supports voice chat when you're in groups, a keyboard is practically required if you want to communicate with other players, though even that support feels a little half-finished. Any time you go to chat, the big PlayStation 3 on-screen keyboard pops up on-screen, completely blocking the action. It's pretty lame. Without using keyboard shortcuts to get to the menus faster, you're left tabbing from one menu to the next with the gamepad, then waiting for it to pop up, then clumsily moving from one menu item to the next. It's a poor way to handle the numerous menus and sub-screens that an MMO requires.
Some tooltips for your powers would be nice, too. You can equip up to six powers at any given time, and they're primarily done with the gamepad (though you can use the keyboard to trigger them, too). But considering how interchangeable the powers look and how similar the icons that represent those powers sometimes appear (at least on the ice tree), it's easy to forget what does what, especially when you buy your seventh power and have to start making hard decisions about which ones you want to equip on your hot bar. You can go into a submenu to view the descriptions for each power, but even those descriptions don't necessarily give the information I want. They all just read like vague iterations on the phrase "it shoots ice at enemies," with no real numbers that say how much damage each power does. Instead, they just display a confusing percentage that claims that my attacks with increase by 35 percent until the hit counter resets or something. So, then, I should trigger my 60 percent increase power and then just start wailing away with my regular attacks to keep a combo going, right? After 20 hours or so, I'm still not entirely sure.
In addition to the quest-related instances, you can also jump into specific instances, like alerts, which are instances designed for four-player groups. These whisk you away to spots like Area 51 or the Moon and give you a set of quests to complete in a smaller area. These also culminate in boss fights, such as a large, Brainiac-affiliated robot or Ultra-Humanite, a big gorilla that keeps shouting about how his adds need to fix the turrets you keep breaking. These alerts don't seem any better than the quest-line instances, though they, too, end with video clips.
There are also PVP arena-style instances, like a two-on-two control point battle in the Batcave or a four-on-four skirmish at Arkham Asylum. Playing these sorts of modes with the way this game controls wasn't much fun. Also, the game never seems to want to let you into these instances. You queue up for them from the menus, and then wait... and wait...and wait some more. I found myself waiting over an hour for one instance when signing up alone. Perhaps it's better if you group up ahead of time instead of relying on the game's player matching? The whole system feels a bit broken right now.
If that's the case, it certainly wouldn't be the only technical issue currently facing DCUO. There's the aforementioned audio bug, and also the game seems to take its sweet time when it comes to player and enemy positions. Once you get flying (or running or gliding, depending on your character's movement power), dropping into a mission area results in you standing all alone for 15 seconds or so, while the game figures out where you are, what's supposed to be standing near you, and what players are in the area. So you're standing around in an empty parking lot, taking damage from enemies that you can't actually see yet, waiting for it all to slowly fade in so you can start fighting back. Frustrating. Also, player character designs also take a good, long time to appear in some cases. I've spent a lot of time in police stations surrounded by grey, featureless heroes as the game struggles to catch up and stream in everyone's unique look. Lastly, the frame rate can get intolerably slow, to the point where I could start counting them... putting the frame rate at around three or four frames per second in one particularly awful spot. The frame rate issues often come along with dropping into new areas from above or flying high above the city, which is a shame because those would both be pretty cool things to do, otherwise.
Overall, DCUO feels like a PC game that was hastily thrown onto the PlayStation 3 without properly adapting it to the console. With the PC version offering better graphical performance for a cheaper price, it would be the version I would recommend, if I were willing to recommend it at all. But the game's combat feels limp, the quest design is immediately monotonous, and the whole package manages to make being a superhero or villain feel like the most mundane thing in the world. Considering the game's "everyone's a hero/villain" plot, I suppose that makes perfect sense.