The CBR Review: "DC Universe Online"

Platform: PC

There was huge potential for "DC Universe Online," but -- unfortunately -- the release product seems to fall a bit short in many departments. Before getting to the less-than-desirable aspects of the game, lets begin with a quick overview, calling out what really sets the game apart. "DC Universe Online" (DCUO) is a massively multiplayer online game released by Warner Bros. and Sony Online Entertainment, and was designed under the wonderful artistic eye of comic-book veteran Jim Lee.

In the game, players take on the role of a super hero or super villain, building the character from scratch through rudimentary costume choice, establishing color schemes and then picking from a variety of powers and skills as well as movement powers. As the character levels up, more skills and powers can be added to the base set to create a more powerful being. Once the creation is done, it's off the tutorial. The overview of the game involves Brainiac's invasion of Earth, with both super heroes and super villains are called to stop it. But as the game itself sports player-versus-player combat, the main thrust of the story (and the reasoning why so many new empowered humans are running about) seems to get lost.

It's also important to note that this is a subscription-based game that released on the PC and PS3. The reason for noting that is simple -- the PC control scheme seems awkward and might be more suited for a PS3 controller, and with the level cap at 30 (which can be reached inside a week), spending money each month to run the same missions, raids and alerts to gain currency to buy better armor to run the same -- well, you get it -- might not be something everyone is willing to do. But we'll come back to that in a moment.

The wonder of it all, and some not-so-wonderful elements

Put bluntly, DCUO is an impressive visual treat, from the moody skies of Gotham to the vast landscape of Metropolis. Great care was obviously taken to make this world look and feel amazing. The water effects are superb, the power animations are marvelous and the game's flight dynamics are exhilarating. Receiving missions from or fighting beside the iconic characters of the DC Universe is certainly a thrill and the stuff that dreams are made of; unfortunately, this bogs down a bit when you find that you are repeating efforts inside a storyline, and no matter how hard to you try, you are back to battling through waves of the same enemies and trying to accomplish the same basic task over and over. Take the Superman story thread, for example. It begins with beating on Gorilla Grodd's apes on a beach, then moves inside the wreckage of waterfront property, then on floating platforms, then downtown before finally getting to instanced zone that is Grodd's hideout where -- yep, you beat on more minions before the showdown (with Flash helping). And in this instance, there is not even the satisfaction of taking down Grodd. Your character and the Flash can beat him almost to the point of submission, then he will get away. This, however, is not the case in all instances when it comes to the boss. Some you will actually be able to apprehend (think Arkham and you'll tumble on some of boss types you do get to put away).

Still, the storylines really link up well with general thoughts and visions of life within the DC Universe. Some liberties were obviously taken to streamline it a bit, and it can actually come off feeling a bit shallow at times -- especially when in the course of grinding the levels. But players can always bounce through the Watchtower (from the hero's perspective; if a villain, you use the Hall of Doom) to the other cities and take on storylines that are not from your mentor just to pull in more experience and propel towards that next level and power or skill point.

The quests are generally well done. Usually, when you head for a quest, you find additional quest givers nearby that allow for parallel adventuring -- as in, you get more experience points for running their quests by taking out the same mobs as the original quest required. Also, for the main quest lines, there is no need to hunt for them. They appear in the quest interface merely by entering the zone. The way the quest activates and points to the location for that specific quest is nicely handled.

Of course, fighting on the side of evil is a different matter, and can be a bit unsettling. In some MMOs, there are shades of gray when it comes to playing "evil." You perform the missions, but they don't really infringe on morality much, and are, instead, just the same type of mission from the other side's perspective. Not in DCUO. In working for Lex Luthor, Circe, or the Joker you are actively doing nasty things to people, whether it is turning them into parasitic monsters or transforming them into demons. You want evil? DCUO has it.

The idea is to get to the end-game content, which are the raids and which require a group to undertake. That's when the battle against Brainiac also begins, but there are other quest types to unlock, such as more PvP areas and new alerts. At level 30, there are also the daily missions, which are rehashes of missions in the lower levels (they play out exactly the same) but that pay out in the currency that will help buy better gear. Those missions pay a couple of tokens (there are different tokens for the different areas of the faction HQ) and the really good armor starts at 30 tokens for lesser pieces, and can go up to more than 100 tokens for the game's best stuff.

Yes, it's true -- you are a genetically altered being with superpowers but it's actually the armor that carries the defensive capabilities or add to your power (mana) base, your health, defensive capabilities or precision and might. Some armor is tailored for specific character types, like healers. Every player has a couple of different class types that he or she can play. For example, as a brawler (main weapon class), there is a damage and defensive set of powers. What this means is that each player can tailor the eight hotkeys to a certain build type and then switch between them in non-combat situations with the simple press of a button (in this case, 't'). For those with power classes that are heavy on heals, it's rather nice to be able to go into an offensive mode for soloing, and then switch over to a control or healing class for groups.

The combat system, despite a few bugs, is very dynamic, featuring combos that can be rather devastating. It is fast-paced and entertaining. The cities are, unfortunately for them but fortunately for you, overrun with targets, and getting in to slug it out, or however you attack, can be a really bright moment in the game.

And then there are the movement powers -- flight is absolutely a blast, and both super speed and acrobatics can be quite entertaining. Taking the Nature power set will allow shapeshifting into animal forms that employ acrobatics and flight, so that allows for a taste of other movement skills.

Aye, there are bugs -- a lot of them

Let's just make it a short list of everything that has not worked properly since the game was launched:

  • The targeting system is atrocious (you can have a mob right in front of you beating on you, and because it is tab targeting, you end up locking on a car or container 10 feet behind the mob -- say hello to death)
  • The chat system is convoluted, filled with a big font that cannot be adjusted; the social interface needs a lot of help
  • Some of the combat requires that you hold down a mouse button, but this can -- though it is rare -- drop out and the big power attacks go with it (relogging fixes it)
  • There are brokers in the game, but they are not implemented yet; you can lock in certain looks (style) but, unfortunately, adding a new piece of gear might show up and make you go back into the style tab and start all over
  • The list of hotkeys that are in the manual don't all work in the game.

Another problem is that the game is built to dual class. In the Skills tab, there are two starter skills listed, your primary attacks and your movement. At level 10, you can select other classes and build your character into a multi-attack machine. This is worth mentioning because being tied to one certain style, like brawling (for example -- there are 10 skills in the weapon tree), does not work for very long. Once a character reaches the level 20 range, most of the really effective skills in the first weapon tree are exhausted.

If you are on the PC, and find that you have to go through finger acrobatics for some of your skills, and think that maybe you can use a gamepad, you may find that you open up another can of worms. The 360 controller for the PC had problems working. Using a generic gamepad will work, though you will have to program all the keys.

The Battle of super hero MMOs

Note, up front, that having not played "Champions Online" except a long time ago in early beta, an opinion cannot be formed in regards to that title. However, having played "City of Heroes/Villains" for a long time and now DCUO, those two can be pitted head to head. There are some that say that DCUO plays better and incorporates the iconic heroes and storylines well, and they are correct in that. But when it comes to the little things, like character customization or the flawless integration of user interface and powersets, CoX wins. Sure, it may not feature fighting alongside Superman or the Teen Titans, or working for the JLA, or even for Lex Luther, but the game does not have the video crashes and sound that resembles CB chat trying to break into it that has been experienced in DCUO. In defense of DCUO, CoX is an established game that has been up and running for more than six years (going on seven years, it launched in April of 2004) and it should have things pretty solidly down by now. DCUO has style, and had the potential (maybe it still has) to be the definitive super hero MMO. Unfortunately, rather than close the door on the subject, that portal is still wide open for a new challenger to step through and claim the throne.

Final Verdict:

DCUO may one day become the game it was hoped it would be, but it currently falls well short of that mark. This feels like playing a polished beta and not a game that is in retail release. There are too many bugs that were reported in beta and not addressed before release. That said, there is no denying the jaw-dropping visuals and how fun the combat can be -- when it all works right. To be fair, MMOs take a while to polish, settle in and get it right before new elements are introduced to expand the world and make it much more entertaining. DCUO is at the toddler stage in that cycle of an MMO's life, and has a ways to go before it can start to walk and then to run. As stated, the potential is there; hopefully, sooner rather than later, everything will fall into place and this will be as big a superstar as the iconic characters that appear in it.

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