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Hands on: DC Universe Online

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...

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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...

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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.

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