DC Universe Online Review (PC)

Many believe that passing judgement on an MMO at its release is unfair given that games of this nature tend to be expanded on by its developer on a regular basis. One that’s bad at launch therefore can be salvaged in time.

Personally, I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking. More missions, areas and story can be added to an MMO post release but very rarely are core tenants like game play ever revamped. If the basic feel and mechanics aren’t engaging on day one, chances are they won’t be in six months, twelve months or even years’ time.

The gigantic Metropolis and Gotham City are DCUO’s primary playgrounds

Thankfully, for all its minor problems DC Universe Online is one such example of the genre that provides a solid foundation that’s not only engaging to play right now but also stands the game in good stead for the future.

For those who don’t know, DCUO is the long-awaited MMORPG set in the universe of DC Comics, the company behind some of the most popular superhero series created such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

It takes place in an alternate universe in which Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor has travelled back from a war-torn future where the interstellar villain Brainiac has enslaved all of mankind. Luthor unleashes the Exobytes, a stolen technology from Braniac, across the Earth causing superpowers to emerge in the populous, effectively creating a new army to fight the future invasion. As someone with newly awakened powers you’re tasked with becoming the next best hero or villain in the world.

As you’d expect character creation is one of the game’s strengths. While it isn’t quite as insanely customisable as rival superhero MMO Champions Online (there are only three body sizes per gender, for example) it comes surprisingly close. Better still, you can lock your character’s appearance so that any gear you equip in the future won’t effect your immaculately designed hero or villain.

DCUO’s crowning glory is definitely its combat. Even in the opening tutorial stage it’s clear how much more like an action game it is than most MMOs. You start out with a basic melee attack which can be chained into combos, a projectile attack and even block and evade abilities.

As you level up you earn more skills which for the most part are new moves rather than passive stat boosts. You’ll add combos to your basic attacks and special moves which will use a chunk of your power bar (the game’s equivalent of mana) to execute. You’ll soon be performing elaborate combos, air juggles, knock backs and stuns on enemies, all with impressively fluid animation.

There’s still a slight delay between your commands and the action on screen but it’s no more than you’d expect from an online game populated by hundreds of other players. All-in-all the combat is fresh change of pace for an MMORPG and surprisingly good fun. It’s obvious that developer Sony Online Entertainment designed DCUO with console controls in mind what with it also available on the Playstation 3. I was able to plug in my official wired Xbox 360 game pad (which of course is laid out exactly like a Playstation pad) and assess the control differences.

First off, the game immediately recognised the device and it didn’t require any setup which was great. Furthermore, I could switch between pad and keyboard and mouse at anytime without needing to fiddle with settings meaning that I could even use a hybrid of the two control methods.

The differences in feel were immediately apparent. Camera control, now mapped to the right stick, became a lot smoother thanks to its analog nature. The mash-heavy combat wore less on my fingers than the mouse thanks to the pad’s comfortable buttons. The game’s simple yet clunky menus also became a lot more intuitive.

Soon enough I was using the controller exclusively. Though it doesn’t break the game not having one I’d highly recommend plugging in a 360 or PS3 pad especially if you’re serious about staying with the PC version for the long haul. Hopefully over time SOE will finesse the mouse and keyboard controls further.

The novelty of seeing famous DC figures quickly wears off since they’re everywhere

The mission design is where the game makes its big misstep, relying on the same grind-heavy simplistic quests as most MMORPGs. Ninety nine percent of your given tasks are literally kill X amount of enemies and collect Y amount of items. Occasionally you’ll have to physically pickup large objects and dump them into required zones but that’s the extent of the variety here. As a result, the player versus environment content becomes monotonous fast and never changes.

You’d hope the appearances of famous DC characters would inject some excitement into the proceedings, especially for franchise fans. However, due to the way the game treats these figures this aspect also becomes pedestrian pretty quickly.

For one thing, the likes of Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor and the Joker are constantly chattering away at you and giving you orders through your heads up display. They become even more mundane when you realise that most of them are standing around as vendors, quest givers or just decoration in either faction’s headquarters.

They’ll often turn up in your missions and when they do they’ll usually be about the same level as your character as opposed to some awesome elite rank. Furthermore, due to the game’s basic AI they normally end up being completely useless, becoming a distraction for your foes but little else.

Compounding this problem is the game’s poor voice acting. Mark Hamill easily steals the show as The Joker but that isn’t hard when even other reliable DC voice talent like Kevin Conroy end up sounding bored. And that’s not to mention the lacklustre dialogue of the general NPCs littering the world.

The player versus player interaction does help break up the monotony of the PvE. You’ve got two choices when it comes to instanced clashes, Arena or Legends. The first is a standard range of objective based game types. The latter and more interesting of the two allows you to assume the roles of famous DC heroes in series-specific scenarios. I couldn’t help feel that these PvP instances were unbalanced though. Perhaps I kept getting assigned to rubbish teams but every time I played the villains side would always emerge triumphant.

Another problem with the game at the time of writing is its limited amount of content. It features a relatively low level cap of thirty that can easily be reached within a week. Also, the endgame content is a big disappointment asking you to grind through the same missions over and over (some which are recycled from earlier in the game) to build up enough reputation to unlock the game’s high tier armours.

Furthermore, the game suffers from several functionality problems, some which might stem from the alleged publisher push to launch the game ahead of its original release date. Some elements that you’d expect from an MMORPG released in 2011 like the ability to delete or share quests with friends are absent while others (like the clunky chat integration) simply aren’t up to scratch.

The combat and character creation systems are the game’s triumphs though the visuals also impress on high end PCs

So DC Universe Online isn’t without its problems but by and large these are issues that can be fixed with time. Indeed, SOE have already promised significant monthly additions to game so it’ll probably be worth sticking around at least until the first content update lands.

But is it worth the initial investment? Due to the impressive groundwork laid by the excellent character creation and combat, I’d say yes. That’s coming from someone not particularly into comics who mostly soloed the game. If you’re into the world of DC and willing to dive deep into the social side of things, DCUO could be one of the best purchases you make all year.

Top Game Moment: Laying the smack down on enemy players. It never gets old.

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