Hands on: DC Universe Online

By Kieron Gillen on August 1st, 2008 at 6:44 pm.

It's lucky I don't write Superman as I'd have him punching right through anyone who looks at him funny.

I’ve been away, having adventures, only a few of which are of any relevance to you gentlefolk. This is one of them. At San Diego Comic Con, I managed to take myself to a DC Universe presentation and had a half-hour or so of all-in-combat in the game. And I was surprised. Not in a They-called-me-Mr-Glass-oh-that’s-rubbish kind of way, but in a “Actually, this looks quite fun kind of way”.

You see, I had somewhat low expectations. The reason why? The original trailer…

Which some people did get excited about, but I suspect that’s mostly a little fanboy joy of seeing the super-chap and the bat-guy on the screen. It’s acceptable enough, but the combat animation looks more than a little twitchy and uninspiring. The moment where Bane hammers the floor and everyone falls down neatly, for example. Equally, on a conceptual level, the idea of fighting alongside superman and friends didn’t strike me as enough to really interest them. In the actual speeches the argument’s made that what superhero fans really want is to be recognised by the characters – as in, the fantasy is to be Superman’s mate rather than be Superman himself. Which is a brave argument, but one that was all too clearly born of necessity than anything else – that Supermen 1 to 172,003 on a server would be terribly silly.

(I’m also not convinced that a more untraditional MMO structure couldn’t have managed it somehow… but that’s a games theory argument)

So, as I put my fingers on the mouse, I’m left with a lot to be convinced about. Except then the miraculous happens – within a few seconds, it all makes sense.

Talking to Cryptic, at work on Champions, they talk about being inspired by the fighting games and action-RPGs like Ultimate Alliance. Which I can totally see as a valid route. However, diving into DC Universe Online, and another comparison comes to mind:

This is Crackdown… the MMO.

Being PC-gaming-first here, you may not know Crackdown. It’s RealTime World’s of the forthcoming APB’s first game, a sort of superpowered Cop Game in a freeform city where you generally fucked shit up with increasing fuckitude. It kind of struck me as some kind of evolutionary step on from games like Final Fight or the city-based Brawler, via Urban Chaos and GTA. Hypermacho feats and chaos on tap.

DC Universe is a bit like that. Maybe the animation is twitchy. Hell, it probably still is. But I don’t notice, because seeing a car, picking it up and then throwing it at Lex Luthor makes immediate, emotional sense, on at least a couple of levels.

The first one is basically the key THROW CAR AT PERSON thing. I am very strong. I can pick shit up and lob it, which demonstrates the games’ key physics system which they’re making a big deal about. It seems to work – the interactions from powers which create objects like that are pretty nifty. For example, my character had ice powers. One of them was creating an enormous ball of ice and lobbing it at someone – except the ball of ice was an actual object, that flew and hit them, and flew off, perhaps causing more chaos. Freezing someone in a block of ice doesn’t just immobilise them – it turns them into a block of ice, that can be then interacted with. You swiftly end up weighing up whether you want to use it as a weapon, or throw it at someone else or just leaving them alone – as obviously enough, using it in some way is going to shatter it and free the person inside swiftly. It’s obvious enough stuff, perhaps, but it hasn’t been applied to the MMO space but seems at once natural and appealing.

Secondly, it’s attacking Lex Luthor. And, despite my cynicism described above, this works too. I see Supergirl over there being hammered on by Braniax. I step in to help, freezing the computer-chap. It actually works, in an iconic way. I don’t need to be the character – just actually sliding into their world in a Mary-Sue self-insertion-fiction sense is actually a real pleasure.

Another element to note is how the actual combat abilities of the player immediately seems paramount here. While character peristence and growth is there, what you do with the abilities is seems more important than the raw numbers chugging away. It’s especially shown off when I was wrestling with my movement power. I was a speedster, and as well as being able to zoom everywhere on the floor, I was able to run up vertical surfaces. The ability of being able to loop around a skyscraper, keeping out of line of sight of an enemy until a power is ready to fire, for example, is a real skill. It’s easy to see how creative uses of the abilities – especially with the physics-based component being so central – emerging. That I don’t know how the powers are going to end up interacting at a glance is another major point in its favour, at least for those who are interested in emergence of games.

That’s the first take on it anyway. Here’s a little cam-footage from the floor, which shows off the level I was playing…

The message I’ll take away? For people who don’t like the DC Universe – for the amount of mayhem and the chance of a MMO game with a far more action bent, it’s worth watching closely. For a DC fan – it’s different enough from City of Heroes (and Champions) to make you consider it for reasons other than really fancying Green Lantern. And for fans of random trivia? The DC-liason and general artist Powerhouse Jim Lee had Epic-class stuff in Everquest, which you theorise may explain some deadline slipping back in the day.

__________________

« | »

, .

27 Comments »

  1. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    I’m very mildly impressed by that… doesn’t look quite as bad as originally perceived. Plus the fact that it’s like Crackdown is a big plus, as that game was ace.

    Kieron… when is the post mortem of your beard going up?

  2. Kieron Gillen says:

    This weekend, at some point. Clearly, not here.

    KG

  3. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    *stakes out Kieron’s twitter.*

  4. danarchist says:

    This is one of those games where the marketing guys screwed the hype o meter up by putting the wrong crap in there trailers. A friend of mine does game reviews too and had a chance to try this, his first reaction was “…why the f___ did they not put THIS in the F—ing trailer man?” he then went on to ask if i thought a mustache would be enough of a costume to get more time with it hehehe
    I am very jacked up to try something new in the mmo world, I am about as sick of swords and sorcery crap as any guy can get.

  5. Sprafa says:

    I’m wondering, after reading that bit about Pcgamer and you guys being mostly from there, if these “hands on” features are part of that job or does this website already have the clout to make developers give you guys access to those games?

  6. Noc says:

    Just to clarify . . . Kieron, you were a super-strong speedster with ice powers?

    One one level, this is a game. But on another . . . remember all those arguments we had back in our preeteen years over what superpowers could beat each other? This thing is a tool of SCIENCE.

  7. Scandalon says:

    Noc – you actually made me laugh. That is a difficult thing to do. +1 charisma.

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    Sprafa: With the right dev, yeah, we do. I did a Fallout 3 hands on today for RPS. The Champions trip was solely for RPS. In this case, the game was actually on the show floor so anyone walking past could play it.

    Noc: I was actually. I don’t think I was THAT strong though.

    KG

  9. somedude says:

    The physics angle and power interaction does indeed look good. Did they mention how you select powers? Is it a skill system or class system? What about character customization?

  10. Alex says:

    Supermen 1 to 172,003 on a server would be terribly silly.
    (I’m also not convinced that a more untraditional MMO structure couldn’t have managed it somehow… but that’s a games theory argument)

    There are two main reasons not to do it, even if it’s technically feasible.

    The first is gameplay related — Superman is the most powerful hero in the DC Universe, so being able to start out as him offers little in the way of a leveling system, not to mention you’ll be able to defeat any villain from the very beginning. Having access to the existing characters as anything other than NPCs means not having to introduce some lame reason for depowering a low-level Superman.

    The other reason is legal — DC/Warner Bros. are allowing people into their playground but they don’t want to surrender control of their billion-dollar properties to the public. The last thing they want is for someone to play Superman in a public forum and be less than 100 percent heroic, let alone playing him as a city-razing jackass who ass-humps puppies and shouts obscenities at grandmothers, which would be the version of Supes you’d see on about half of the servers.

  11. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    Well yeah, the whole idea of having millions of people playing the same few characters has already been done… I mean look at WoW… for the most part I couldn’t distinguish one night elf rogue from another, apart from gender, so hell, why couldn’t they have a ‘Batman’ class, and then have different suits and equipment loadouts to differentiate….

  12. Ginger Yellow says:

    “he last thing they want is for someone to play Superman in a public forum and be less than 100 percent heroic, let alone playing him as a city-razing jackass who ass-humps puppies and shouts obscenities at grandmothers, which would be the version of Supes you’d see on about half of the servers.”

    I don’t know. It’s a well known fact that Superman is a dick.

  13. BJ Blazkowicz says:

    Looks pretty bad.

  14. Cyberpope says:

    Ginger Yellow: yes, yes he is
    http://superdickery.com

  15. Solario says:

    How’s the costume creator?

    Hopefully it has some variations on the spandex.

  16. Kieron Gillen says:

    Haven’t seen the costume creator, but they talk about it having a lot of things you can do with it – not able to create exact copies of DC heroes, but enough to create ones “inspired” by them, etc.

    From what they say, I’d expect something on par with CoH, but probably lagging behind Champions. Though that’s just impressions rather than any facts.

    KG

  17. Rath says:

    If, judging by the screenshots I’ve seen so far, the Robin is Tim Drake, are Nightwing and the Titans going to be featured?

    EDIT: Ok, bothered to watch the trailer, and yes. ^_^

  18. Chaz says:

    Super heroes aren’t really my cup of tea, but it looked OK until I noticed the SOE logo at the end, which instantly rang alarm bells in my head.

  19. Acosta says:

    I wonder if there will be room for the “dark” side of DC, Vertigo ine, with Hellblazer, Sandman, dimensions, hell and heaven, all that stuff. Probably not, but I hope the magic side is on the cards at some point.

  20. Rath says:

    Wiki article has a list of confirmed Heroes and Villains set to appear.

  21. somedude says:

    Haven’t seen the costume creator, but they talk about it having a lot of things you can do with it – not able to create exact copies of DC heroes, but enough to create ones “inspired” by them, etc.

    That sounds pretty good. One of the things I’m concerned about is the IP getting in the way of the project, similar to what you describe. One of my favorite aspects of CoX is the creativity in the aesthetic design of the villain groups (especially the Lost and the Freaks) and I imagine DC Universe will have a hard time topping that because it has to stick to the guidelines of.. well the DC Universe.

    Thanks for the impressions.

  22. R. says:

    Yeah, it would be superb to be able to make a John C knock off but I can’t see it happening either. Pity, I always did dig the simple suit, trenchcoat & Silk Cut look.

    And seconding the earlier comment – why the hell didn’t they show all this sort of stuff in the first place instead of that terrible trailer?

  23. Sal says:

    SOE has how many mmos going. I agree with Chaz…the whole SOE thing…Once the hype wares off, it’ll fall into the cracks. pirates online? Matrix online? Vangard, SWG, the Angency is coming out soon, EQ and EQII…did i miss any? Like with all SOE mmo’s, one the hype is over…only EQ and EQII gets all the attention

  24. Cryptor says:

    SOE or not damn this is DC Online ! I used to be a big DC fan when younger, this will be right my alley ;) Can’t wait to play it.

  25. nathan says:

    hopes it comes out to download free for pc users at least by the end of december 30th 2009…hope there are tons of powers an travel abilities to choose from …i really dont wanna see to many of flashes running around that will ruin it for a tru flash lover.

  26. ammogame says:

    I started reading from the first issue and bought from the third. I was wondering what happened as I haven’t been able to find it in the book shop for ages. Sigh. It was THE BEST gaming ammogame along with Mean Machines from England. A part of my youth died today finding this news! I just read online now that the mag might be coming back on Dec. 1st.

  27. Access Password Recovery says:

    You have some interesting points..