The supervillain’s life: “DC Universe Online” reviewed

By Brittany Vincent
Contributor

Time constraints and an avalanche of games falling from my enormous backlog kept me out of the MMO fold for quite some time, but one title finally struck my fancy enough to bring my inner supervillain out of hiding: DC Universe Online.

I’d avoided MMOs for years, fearing the cost of addiction rearing its ugly head. But it’s 2011. It’s a new year, a fresh start, and I’m rockin’ shiny new spandex while l smear the good guys all over the pavement. It’s been about a month into my masquerading as a costumed supervillain, and I’m here to report back.

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The verdict? DC Universe Online isn’t a game-changer, but it’s overall a decent
option to get casual players into test-running an MMO, especially for
gamers like me who have all but abandoned the genre. I can’t say it runs
particularly well for a console iteration, like say Final Fantasy XI, a
perennial favorite for me when the mood strikes for grinding, but it
certainly has its moments.

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Here’s the story: After a brief introductory cut scene attempting to
explain what in the name of Wonder Woman is going on, you’re unleashed
to create your new superhero (or supervillain) persona. Plenty of
different customization options are available at the onset of your
journey here. Start by choosing your gender, your mentor (I chose the
Joker as a supervillain), your super powers, your weapons, your
hairdo…the list goes on. Skin type, facial structure, and body type
(how big are you going to be?) left a little to be desired, as I chose
from several different presets, including anthropomorphic cats and Dr.
Manhattan-esque beings of energy rather than crafting my own look a la
other more full-featured character creation tools.

The costume selection offered plenty of different styles for my dear
villain to strut her stuff in, including casual wear, gaudy superhero
default unitards, and other bric-a-brac assorted into different styles.
Little did I know at first that these clothing type options would turn
into exactly what I liked about the game, as initially I was hesitant to
venture out into the world wearing anything but something that looked
indubitably…”metal.”

I made my choices and proceeded into the tutorial space, where I was
quickly greeted with a powerful revelation: DC Universe Online is not
your typical MMO.

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Many MMOs rely upon the dreaded grind and careful crafting of each
character and class for maximum success. This one goes for the balls-out
approach: hit stuff, receive experience, hit more stuff, get more
experience, and then hit some more things. Things, people, other
players, etc. It walks, talks, and acts like a multiplayer online
extravaganza, but this more casual-oriented online affair plays like a
straight-up action brawler. Instant feedback from landing a punch or a
slash from your weapon of choice is gratifying in itself, though the
occasional latency did have me cringing at points — when I punch this
robot in the face, I want it to feel like it’s happening right now
rather than a few seconds later. Because of this, I ended up stringing
together sloppy combos rather than attempting to play with any sort of
real goal in mind. This ultimately lead to many untimely deaths and made
combat hard to look forward to, despite its relatively fast-paced
nature and draw toward gamers who just want to hop online, party up, and
beat the tar out of some supervillains (or superheroes).

The facade of a four-player brawler, a la “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance,”
which I felt the game channeled at times, was quickly shattered,
however, once I realized how shallow my questing accomplishments were.
DC Universe Online certainly errs on the safe side. Prominent DC
characters like Joker, Lex Luthor or Batman deliver brief mission
outlines of the “go to point A, defeat X amount of enemies, and return
for an award” variety.

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It’s certainly not cleaning (or dirtying) up the city streets or
changing the world. In fact, it’s actually kind of snooze-worthy if
you’re looking for a few more, shall we say, epic quests. Unfortunately,
your interaction with these heavy-hitters is quite limited, reduced to
snippets of text, quick voiceovers, and cameos in battle that feel
underwhelming at best. Since when does Batman need aid from a lowly
do-gooder such as yourself? And why couldn’t Lex Luthor fight his own
battles?

It’s also quite a shame that most of your interactions are reduced to
quest notes, subtitles, and directions.

Fortunately, you’re usually briefed well on where you need to head in
order to complete certain objectives, but one of the largest draws for
me for this game was working in tandem with some of my favorite
characters and getting that hands-on time with them. I have to say that
being their errand girl wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I signed
up for my account. On the other hand, once you’ve completed your
objectives, whether alone or with a party (as I chose to work alone,
lone wolf style more often than not) you are rewarded with some very
classy scenes that illustrate what your hard work hath wrought, serving
as a visual and aural “thanks for putting up with that!” that XP or
items couldn’t say alone, and I kept chugging along even when I felt as
though I wanted to turn off the PlayStation 3 for the night simply to
check them out.

Solo questing meets multiplayer with gameplay cleverly designed around
four-player combat. DC Universe Online includes areas requiring you to
travel to bizarre locations, complete quests, and take on immense
bosses. The action is not necessarily more engaging than the brawling
found  the regular line of quests, but if you’re looking to party up
with your guild and hunt for some decent loot, these instances are a
clever way to keep you multiplayer-oriented without hurling insults at
those around you who dare insult your fashion sense.

The fact that kill-stealing is avoided entirely is another plus —
anyone in the vicinity of your final culminating fight will receive
credit, or the item in question, so there’s no real reason to worry
about who you partner up with. I found that quite refreshing, as it
assuaged my reservations about playing online with strangers —
something I’m usually not wont to do, cooperatively, anyway.

Returning to an earlier point, the game boasts a brilliant customization
system. I was pleased with the sheer amount of options available to deck out your character, and as I progressed, I found a bit of
sheer genius nestled within. If you’re one who needs to stay true to a
certain “style” but want to reap the benefits of certain types of gear,
you can actually do so by equipping found items, then toggling them to a
certain gear “style.” Cosmetic options for hard-earned gear drops? Yes
please! It’s a fantastic way to keep your hero persona looking sharp
without sacrificing stats, which just might end up keeping you alive in
the long run.

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I found myself sincerely wishing that the superpowers, the things I had
wished for so desperately to be intriguing and innovative, were in step
with the great customization system. You may equip up to six powers at a
time, though most of your powers’ icons look just about the same. Vague
descriptions accessed via the sub-menu don’t do much in the way of
cluing you in on what power you should keep when receiving your seventh
slot, and in all honesty when you put a power to use in the playing
field, they’re not much to look at. I found the ability to fly (my own
choice when creating my villain) much more entertaining than earning new
powers, even though flying in and of itself was a bit too clumsy for
me.

The interface itself needs a bit more work as well, full of clunky
menu-switching and the larger-than-life PlayStation keyboard onscreen
complicates matters further any time you think of chatting with another
player. Voice chat is offered in groups, but if you’re wanting to keep
things short and sweet (or a little more formal), text chat is the way
to go, though navigating through all of the options and sub-menus gets
far too cumbersome with the PS3 controller. I often found myself
wondering how much smoother it might feel on the PC, longing for quick
flashes to different menus and the ease of movement a mouse and keyboard
combo provided.

DC Universe Online is not perfect, but full of potential. With a little
work and tweaks to fix up audio glitches and latency issues, I could see
recommending it to players as a “My First MMO” outing.  For hardcore
players or even those looking to pick it up for the popular characters
involved, I’d suggest passing and going for the PC version instead,
unless you don’t need the licensed heroes. In that case, there are
plenty of other great options to shop around with. As my time with the
game wears on though, I’ll be back with plenty more observations — this
is just the first month. I’ll be back with plenty of updates on my
plunge into supervillaindom. Here’s to tight spandex and a hopeful
upward shift in gameplay.

DC Universe Online
(Sony Online Entertainment, Warner Bros. Games)
PS3, PC
Rated T for Teen