Everything gets compared to the most popular thing of its kind eventually. So might as well get down to brass tacks. DC Universe Online, while certainly not perfect, is probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a Superhero branded MMO, and I’ve played both City of Heroes and Champions Online. Now, this isn’t meant to argue that CoH isn’t a good game. It’s success alone indicates that it has at least found a following, and for a time I was one of them. And Champions Online is not only based on one of the longest running, most successful pen and paper RPG’s (although to be fair pen and paper RPG’s are a niche market unless your name is “Dungeons and Dragons”) but is designed by Cryptic Studios, the same people who designed CoH in the first place. They know what they’re doing. In a way, DCUO could be seen as the sincerest form of flattery here, because it definitely follows in their footsteps. The innovation here is which steps they chose to follow, and which they leapt over.
The irony here is that Sony Online Entertainment, the folks behind DCUO, have done with the superhero mmo subgenre what Blizzard Entertainment did to them. They’ve taken the elements of successful games before them and refined the experience, stripping out a lot of the grind that serves as a barrier to entry for people unable or unwilling to invest hours of time at a stretch into the game. I help run a guild in and write about WoW semi-professionally, so I only have so much time in a day to devote to another MMO. And yet, I’ve managed to play through enough of DCUO to hit level 19 out of 30 available levels and I’ve never felt irritated with the game’s systems. Anyone who knows me knows that’s a feat right there. I am notoriously irritable. Everywhere that DCUO manifests a system, it does so through simplifying potentially complex ideas.
The character creation system is robust, but it lacks the wide variety of CoH. You can more or less design whatever costume or look you would like, but it isn’t nearly as flexible as those of its antecedents. The power/role system embraces the ‘everyone’s a hybrid’ mentality, with no dedicated damage dealing ‘classes’ as such. You chose from various power sets – fire and ice, for instance, are the ‘tank’ sets, while gagets and mental are the ‘controllers’ (what WoW players would recognize as CC, and other MMO’s have called the ‘mez’ for mesmerizer) and nature and sorcerous powers allow one to take on the healing role. Any of these can also be used as a damage dealer, so there’s no need for a pure damager and thus no systemic need for a damage handout or tax to any power set. There are also many choices you can make about your characters allegiance – up to six mentors are available, the ironic big three superheroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman and their villainous enemies Lex Luthor, the Joker and Circe. You can decide your personality which informs your character’s body posture and the type of dialog options, you can choose you form of movement (flight is slowest but it’s flying, dude, while super speed is of course the fastest but is entirely ground bound, while acrobatics is faster than flight and less restrictive than super speed) and so on. You finally can choose from a wide variety of ‘weapon styles’ which range from the obvious (big two handed weapons) to the subtle (brawling, bows, and martial arts).
Not having reached endgame yet (there’s 11 levels to go) all I have to go on is the missions I’ve been assigned. In general they’re not so easy that I can get away with rushing into a room full of enemies and gathering them all up, but as time has progressed and my powers (I’m playing a fire based brawler at the moment) have developed the missions have gotten harder and more elaborate, progressing from fighting Gorilla Grodd alongside the Flash to stopping Bane with Nightwing to defeating mind controlled Titans and battling alone inside Raven’s soul self and finally defeating Brother Blood where Doctor Fate, Zatanna and Raven all failed. (I get the sense I did that mission wrong, but a win is a win.) If you’ve played Mass Effect 2 and enjoyed the Shepard Effect of pure badassery in the dialogue, well, having Superman thank me for my help was a similar rush for me. Or for that matter having Batman tell you (in Kevin Conroy’s voice no less) that he’s counting on you! Batman! That dude doesn’t like anyone!
Now, the biggest draw for me in playing the game is the voice acting and writing. Marv Wolfman’s involved in the story, and if there’s one thing Marv’s good at it’s writing stories with huge casts of characters. Jim Lee’s doing a lot of the art and it shows up in some of the more outre character designs (at one point I swear I saw Perry White turn into a superhero) but love him or hate him, you know what Jim Lee is like as an artist. (I actually find his work pretty solid here.) The voice acting ranges from the superb (Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker? Seriously, these two are wildly unafraid of typecasting and I honestly can’t think of anyone who does these roles better at this point.) to the solid, there hasn’t been anyone I’ve outright cringed at yet. I think Adam Baldwin’s Superman voice here proves the dude should get to play him in a movie, and James Marster’s Luthor is actually better here than it was in the Superman/Doomsday movie, far more wide ranging and emotive. (It helps that he gets to be both evil Luthor and Luthor from the future, who sees the error of his ways.) Gina Torres is a fine choice for Wonder Woman, and Michelle Forbes positively knocks Circe out of the park, even if it brings me total Homicide flashbacks every time she talks.
It remains to be seen from my perspective if DCUO is deep enough to keep me playing once I’ve hit the level cap. So far I’ve been exclusively soloing my way through missions, haven’t done any of the alerts (effectively instances) that team you up with other players to defeat (or cause) a major threat. I have no idea how to effectively tank with the character as yet. So far endgame play seems to revolve around getting iconic gear, and I’ll admit the gear system in the game is a little confusing for me. CoH eschewed gear entirely, rightly pointing out that in most comic books superheroes don’t seem to change gear at all really (Luthor and Iron Man being examples of exceptions) but I haven’t found getting gear drops that jarring as yet, because most of it is themed in a way that makes it seem like I’ve simply changed my look a bit. Putting on a huge suit of Superman themed armor, though, seems kind of jarring and I’m not sure I like that in my Superhero game.
Overall I’d give it a solid B. I’ve had a ball playing it so far, but I do have concerns about the gear system and the control scheme was so bad that I had to get a Logitech controller just to play it. Seriously, I don’t understand how anyone plays this on a keyboard with a mouse, it was painful and disorienting. I haven’t a PS3, so I play the PC version, for all I know this is a non issue on the console.