Launching a new, high-profile MMO must be a brutal nail-biter if you're one of the developers. Everyone wonders: Will your game be the fabled “WoW killer?” While it's probably unrealistic to expect any game to topple Blizzard's behemoth (especially at launch), DC Universe Online might very well be able to siphon off a decent portion of the World of Warcraft community, as well as bringing into the fold those gamers with no interest in orcs and wizards. With it's generally stellar graphics, fast-paced action, and stable of iconic characters, DCUO at least offers a viable alternative.
To be honest right from the get-go, I've not spent any time with the endgame of DCUO. My experience has been entirely with low and mid-level characters, and while I've dipped into the frenetic PvP content, most of my time in the world has been as a soloer (which is my generally preferred way of playing MMOs), for which this game is ideally suited. Of course, joining a League (Guild) or grouping can (and should) be part of the experience.
The roster of famous characters and villains is a bit of a come-on: while they occasionally appear in the story and fight along side (or against) the player, you can't actually play as Superman or Wonder Woman—though you can roll a pre-made character that comes awfully close. Character creation allows a choice of alignment (good or evil), selection of costume and physical attributes, and a half-dozen or so starting “classes” and special powers that are basically the same for both good and evil heroes. Not surprisingly, leveling characters earns points which can be applied to weapon, armor, and power upgrades, though many of the options are the same for all character types. The result (at least at the lower levels of the game) is that all the characters feel and play like minor variations on a theme. Even the opening tutorial level is nearly identical (which seems odd, given that some characters are good, and others are evil).
DCUO has clearly been designed as an action-oriented MMO, and combat is a fast and furious, bloodless buffet of button-mashes and mouse clicks. Players tired of the more stately-paced combat in traditional MMOs will welcome the change, but the downside is that fights can get repetitive with relatively little strategizing necessary. Because so many of the special abilities and powers are the same from class to class, playing as a dual pistol wielding bad guy pretty much feels the same as a sword swinging good guy.
There is no real grinding for XP in DC Universe. Story or side missions provide all the experience, loot, and cash needed to progress. Other MMO staples, such as vendors, quest-givers, mailboxes, etc. will make the player feel right at home. I haven't mentioned the story, because, not long past the awesome opening CG cinematic that sets up Brainiac's bid for world domination, the story collapses into a series of missions that are rarely comprehensible as part of a bigger arc. Why am I sucking the soul out of innocent civilians? Why am I fighting these robots? Oh yeah, it has something to do with Brainiac's mothership hovering above the city, I guess. Disappointing—though a common fault of MMO worlds—is that the environment never feels like a real place; it's mostly populated by mobs that stand around waiting to be killed, so they can respawn almost immediately and die again.
Aesthetically, DC Universe is a mixed bag. In general, the Unreal-powered graphics look very good and the overall art style is like a bright, colorful comic book brought to life. Player-characters are animated with fluid grace—though some of the fighting moves and weapon animations are stilted—and the large-scale battles are a visual treat with surprisingly smooth frame rates. Although many interiors and “dungeons” are detailed, atmospheric and interesting, the cities (Gotham and Metropolis) are lacking in visual panache and the character models for citizens and enemies are recycled ad nauseum.
Although there is some big-name voice talent at work in DC Universe Online, lending authenticity and character to the brand names like Joker or Batman, most of the smaller roles and incidental parts are voiced rather blandly: they're not comically bad but neither are they engaging enough to really attend to. Overall, the sound scape of DCUO (voice-acting, music, sound effects, weapons) just didn't make much of an impression.
So: the graphics are a cut above most MMOs; the action certainly fast; and the comic book world and characters are rendered with attention to authenticity. The code is stable (though I had more than a few issues with the launcher) and the player base seems strong. What's not to like? My biggest issue with DC Universe is really a conceptual one. A superhero, by definition, is someone with extraordinary powers or abilities, who stands out from the general population and is in a unique position to save (or threaten) the world. But, if the world is populated entirely by superheroes, what meaning does the word even have? It's hard not to see the world of DCUO as one big cosplay convention.
Still, there's no denying that as MMO launches go, DC Universe Online is a success, and though City of Heroes/City of Villains has been covering this territory for quite some time (without the cache of licensed characters), Sony's game stands out with its fast-paced, action-game combat, slick visuals, and authentic comic book vibe. As with any newly-minted MMO, the game now is probably not what it will become, and whether there is enough depth and content to sustain the monthly subscription price is an unanswered question. For certain though, fans of the beloved DC comics, action gamers, and MMO veterans will all find something to enjoy in DC Universe Online.
What's your stance on the MMO space? Does there need to be anything beyond WoW? Should super heroes/villains take damage in games? Let us know over Twitter @gamers_hell