NYCC: "DC Universe Online" Demo

At New York Comic Con, Sony Online Entertainment debuted new footage from "DC Universe Online's" opening movie as well as an exhaustive character creation system that lets players define their hero's (or villain's) appearance, aptitudes, and secret origins. CBR News attended a private demonstration of the hotly-anticipated massively-multiplayer online (MMO) game, which features a slew of popular and unsung characters from DC's vast library and is currently set for a release on PC and Playstation 3 platforms in early 2011 following a delay from its previously-announced November 2 release date.

The demonstration began with the game's opening movie, as futuristic versions of DC Comics villains Lex Luthor, the Joker, Black Adam, and other villains complete their conquest of Earth's greatest heroes. A number lay slain as the scene begins, and by the end of the intro Batman, Wonder Woman, and finally Superman lay dead. But even as Luthor celebrates his ultimate victory, Brainiac's ship appears in the sky, marking the beginning of a successful invasion. Luthor travels into the past, our present, to warn his sworn enemies about the impending invasion and unleash exobytes, stolen Brainiac technology, to bestow powers on a new armada of super heroes and villains, with the hope that this new generation will be able to repel Brainiac's attack. Several seconds at the end of the scene had audio without accompanying visuals, suggesting there is yet more to reveal.

The character creation system was the big reveal for "DCU Online" at the convention, giving fans something new to get excited about following the recent announcement that the game would be delay from November until sometime in 2011. Beginning from a basic male/female template and the ability to be "inspired by" several heroes or villains, players are greeted with an extraordinary level of customization options. The expected options are all present - hair, skin color, body type, and so forth - making it easy and enjoyable for gamers to customize their hero. Within these categories, the modularity of available options makes for myriad possibilities. Want green skin? Fine. Green metal skin? Sure. Green metal skin with lava rippling through its seams? Why not? Of course, the anything-goes customization allows for some rather garish designs as well as the super sleek; some heroes might be worthy of Project Runway while others will land on What Not to Wear. There are measures in place to prevent overly outlandish compositions, as outlined in the "DC Universe Online" panel, but slapping a beard on the previously-described character still looks a bit silly, and there are worse combinations available.

Beyond the aesthetics, several pieces of the character customization process significantly affect how a player experiences the game. The first and most basic is the choice to use one's power for good or evil. Heroes will find themselves foiling the Scarecrow's machinations and other dubious plots, while villains will train with the Joker or other bad guys blowing up police cars, aiding the Falcone crime syndicate, and so forth. Of course, the reward system varies depending on which side you're on. Chris Cao, Game Director at SOE and one of the hosts of the demo, said players who choose evil and study under the Joker will have an opportunity late in the game to betray the Clown Prince of Crime, "because you don't really want gold stars for helping the Joker." Also because betrayal is a rite of passage for baddies.

Whether hero or villain, the choice of mentor will determine a character's origin story and affinities - Batman represents technical heroes; Superman, meta; and Wonder Woman, magic - and the site of their first adventures. Even so, a hero with ice powers can still tag along with the Dark Knight, a master of science can follow Wonder Woman, and so on. Players can also choose their avatar's personality (comical, primal, serious, flirty, etc.), style of movement and combat (acrobatics, flight, super-speed, etc.), weapon (brawling, dual pistol, hand blast, staff, etc.), and so forth. You can wear a quiver even if you're not an archer, or a suit jacket with underwear and a cape. But this would perhaps be saying more about the player than the game.

The danger with so many options, though, is the possibility for overload - it felt like many screens had to be navigated through just to start the game. Conversely, there was the sense that this could be a game in itself - endlessly creating characters just to see what they look like and what they can do. Having created a beast-man with a club, how could a true fan resist going back to create an alluring Amazonian goddess? Endless possibility is a beautiful thing, but the sheer volume of options could lead to hasty design choices and frustration that equally-intriguing combinations cannot be viewed side-by-side.

For the gameplay demo, SOE provided a fire-based heroine on her way to helping Batwoman defeat the Scarecrow. Shifting through menu options, more customization options became apparent - equipment acquired during the game either does or does not affect the character's appearance at the player's discretion. The demo character wore a helmet that is part of her costume but bestows no statistical advantage; if she were to don an acquired helmet at some point, the player could choose whether or not this would replace the costume helmet or simply add its effects without changing her distinctive look. On a more practical note, a function of the heroine's fire powers is that, in addition to projecting fire, she can also detonate objects that are on fire- in other words, she can set bad guys on fire and blow them up. With two fire-based players, it is also possible to detonate each other's fires, or any fire that happens to be raging in the area.

Though the game's iteration of Gotham City will be a fully-realized environment, for the purposes of the demo the SOE hosts entered a developer code to skip right to the confrontation with Scarecrow's minions in the sewers beneath the city. Fighting through the level, the player must contend with Scarecrow's fear gas, which creates "hallucination" villains in addition to the ones already lurking about; disposing of fear gas canisters reduces the effects. Fighting the Scarecrow himself, though, requires a good deal of juggling - the character at first appears gigantic and holds Batwoman captive with his gas. When the player arrives, Batwoman recovers enough to help fight the terror bats, hallucinations, and run of the mill thugs that appear, and all the while both heroines are dodging the Scarecrow's distance attacks. After finishing off the boss, a cut scene illustrated by DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee sends the Scarecrow back to Arkham Asylum. Cao, the Game Director, said that upcoming episodes would have the player square off against Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze before venturing into Arkham to fight all three. Cao also compared the player-character's progression to Dick Grayson moving from Robin to Nightwing and finally Batman. "When you start, you're helping out Batwoman," he said. "You start as an apprentice and move up, until there's finally a point when you're fighting Harley alone."

Given that "DC Universe Online" had been slated for a November release until it was delayed, it should not be surprising that the game looks just about complete, certainly more polished than the already-impressive version seen at previous conventions. It should be mentioned, too, that while the PC version is in closed Beta and the Playstation 3 Beta has not yet begun, SOE's demo showed the game on both platforms - gameplay on the PS3 and character creation on PC; both look like finished products. The character creation system, a central aspect of the game, appears every bit as robust as a fan could hope, and the roster of NPC heroes and villains should delight DC devotees and serve as a solid introduction to gamers delving into this universe for the first time.

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