Over its 30 levels of BIFF! and POW! and KICK! and making things go SPLODE!, DC Universe Online gave me more awesome moments than any other MMORPG I've ever played. It also reinforced everything I hate about the genre. Let me explain, with words.
DC Universe Online is a MMORPG in action game drag, and the best compliment I can give it is that it actually pulls it off. Within obvious limits, of course. Get into a fight with anything a couple of levels ahead of you on the progression curve and it's going to spank you into jam no matter how fast your fingers are. Every item you gather is a collection of stats first and a deadly Atlantean battle-axe second. Under all the spandex, it's still 90% about maths.
Minute-by-minute though, it doesn't feel like it. It feels like a genuine superhero/villain game, and not just because you're playing as one. My villain for instance was an Acrobatics specialist, and if that sounds dull compared to Flight or Super Speed, believe me, it's not. At the absolute minimum, Acrobatics lets you clamber up any wall or vertical surface, then glide down from the roof crossing half the city. Throw in a talent point and you can unlock a grapple. Now, forget climbing. Just tap a building, hit the key, and you shoot right up on your own. Another talent point buys you the same thing horizontally. Another one gives you rocket propulsion, shooting you right up to the top of the skybox and keeping you up as long as you like.
These aren't just powers with cool names, but core abilities that make travel so fast, so fluid and so arcadey that it's actually enjoyable just getting from A to B in a cool way. There are even optional races to practice them, which are a great way to kill time while the lying, lying instance queuing system turns a "1 minute" wait to into a half-hour foot-tapping session. City of Heroes and Champions Online have fancy travel powers. Acrobatics destroys them both.
Want something deadlier? Meet my dual-pistols. It may seem boring to play a superhero game and take guns instead of something like hand-blasts or a mighty quarterstaff, but you haven't seen these. Simply hold down the fire button and they unleash the fury not just at a targeted enemy, but everything in a direct cone. Tap a direction key though and you can stay locked onto one target, and effortlessly turn the second gun in any direction. Not only does it look awesome, especially when the targets move so that the hero nonchalantly crosses arms without even pausing fire, it gives incredible fluidity to the action. You can target a specific enemy if you want to, locking on for ease of aiming and attacking, but you can just as easily stand in the middle of an enemy army like the Angel of Death, just spreading the love. When I activate my Venom damage buff, the bodies hit the floor faster than the spent bullets. Action is fast, frentic, and above all, kinetic, letting you grab the scenery and hurl it around, send enemies flying, and really cut loose, right from Level 1, when most other RPGs have you punching rats.
More than any other MMO out there, DC Universe Online also does a great job of giving you cool stuff to do with whatever powers you chose. Every few missions, you're sent to an instanced dungeon where you fight with or alongside pretty much every character ever to appear in a DC comic book, and almost all of them have at least one twist or interesting mechanic. Generally, MMOs save their interesting bosses for the higher-level content. Not here. I teamed up with The Joker, leading my own Insane Clown Posse through a police benefit before beating up Batman. I went toe-to-toe with The Flash and his silly-hatted predecessor, Original Flash, using one of Gorilla Grodd's machines to de-evolve them one at a time into apes that would help me crush the other. I beat up the Teen Titans, first picking a couple of members to bring over to the path of true evil, then fighting alongside them as we polished off their friends in a big battle royale. DC Universe doesn't simply use its characters, it rejoices in them. If you like the original comics, this is the most fan-service heavy game of all time, even ignoring the Power Girl costume piece that every other female hero seems to be sporting.
For all its good stuff - and believe me, I'm leaving out plenty, from the PvP that lets you play as signature characters, to the bounties scattered around the world that have you going up against the heroes/villains in groups - there's often something deeply unsatisfying about the experience of playing DC Universe Online, and usually from things that shouldn't be a problem, or whose absence nobody would ever have noted. Take the comic book sequences for instance. They're short, beautiful rewards for completing the story arcs, and should be awesome. In a way, they are. The problem is with their subjects. They don't actually form part of the story you're playing, but rather give you a character profile of someone you just finished dealing with. This is silly. Half the time it leads to you watching a grand, arrogant video of how awesome the hero/villain currently is, while said hero/villain lies quivering at your feet in a pool of their own pain. Even when not, shouldn't this stuff come before we're done with the story arc, when it can add context to the fight ahead. Or in a few cases, just explain who the hell people are. Joker? Fine. Sinestro? Okay. Black Adam? Eclipso? Brother Blood? Never heard of them, sorry.
This isn't one-shot bizarre storytelling. DC Universe Online tries several new things, which is commendable, but few of them work particularly well. On a wide level, most struggle with the problem that the writing is usually bland, and the voice acting often plain bad. Stalwarts like Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker) and Michelle Forbes (Circe) do their usual decent job, but the majority are adequate at best, and often appalling, in both performance and direction. There are also diary entries scattered all over the city as part of a running collection quest, which is a great idea, but aren't usually worth listening to. And the incredibly short chats with various heroes and villains have them feel like cardboard cutouts of their comic selves.
By far the worst things that should have been good though are Booster Gold's phenomenally boring tours of Gotham and Metropolis. These could have been really fun, highlighting famous locations and making it clear that yes, You Are Here. Instead, they're pointless wastes of time in which you just run to a kiosk and sit around for a few sections of uninteresting, unfunny blather from a character who has no right to be so dull. Dammit, I like Booster Gold! This was a great atmosphere-building idea! What happened? What went wrong?
The cities are the most mixed part of the whole game. Structurally, both Gotham and Metropolis look great - Gotham's perpetual midnight with the Bat Signal up high contrasting perfectly to the lighter, late-evening gold of Metropolis. They're packed with good stuff, including most of the places you'll want to see, and wonderfully free-form. You can soar and speed and climb wherever you like, with the phenomenal draw-distance making it feel like the world is yours alone.
Unfortunately, it practically is. Both cities are almost deserted. Outside of mission areas, where heroes and villains stand around duking it out all day long, the streets tend to be a ghost town. You have motorway-sized road networks for a handful of cars, and hardly many more civilians. The silence isn't helped by the fact that the woeful chat interface means that nobody really talks much, except occasionally to get a posse together to take on one of the signature heroes/villains and claim a bounty. After several hours wandering basically empty streets, I realised I was actually feeling nostalgic for World of Warcraft's Barrens Chat. If that means nothing, let me explain. Saying that you miss it is the MMO equivalent of going to your doctor and saying "Thanks for the medication, but I've decided I actually prefer pissing blood."
Thankfully, you don't usually have too much time to notice, as you speed from mission to mission. There's a decent flow, and most of the quests are automatically given you, centring around either a nightclub for villains, or a police station for heroes. (Both use the same map with different decorations, which is a bit depressing, but does lead to the hilarious sight of a teleporter to the Hall of Doom, the home of the Society of Supervillains and the greatest bastion evil this side of Apokolips... with a safety-conscious WATCH YOUR STEP sign on its stairs.)
When you get to the quests themselves... well, this brings us back to what I said at the start about MMOs. DC Universe disappoints me most because it does so well at being different, only to end up shrugging and shovelling out stuff we all know is crap, simply because it can. Seriously. In a game with so much great content, so much imagination, so many options and so many things to do... why in the name of Superman's crimson pants are the vast majority of the open world missions, "Kill 20 of this. Use 10 of these. Oh, and collect 10 of those," type stuff?
They're... so... tedious. These quests are too long, very rarely offer anything interesting (a few exceptions aside, like being turned into a zombie co-ed at Gotham University, or facing off against Green Lanterns and their magic constructs), and don't even try to hide the fact that they're there because MMOs feel they have a God/Visa-given right to waste our time. Not only should DC Universe be better than this, it's utterly pointless. The levelling curve is already very short, and the absolute explosion of content when you reach it is genuinely impressive. Falling back on the traditional, boring, long series of solo-missions to pad things out is both pointless and stupid, since even a relatively casual player will easily hit Level 30 in their 'free' first month, or more likely give up midway through, like several people I know already have.
What else could it have done? Plenty. Unless you play on a dedicated PvP server for instance, there's exactly one open-world PvP event - a very tedious capture-the-stuff game called Ring War. How about some more things like that? Until Level 30, most of your missions are delivered automatically. That's perfect for generating stuff on the fly. Where are the random events? Why, for instance, is Braniac's invasion of Earth confined to one small area you only bother with at low levels? (Not to mention that it's only mentioned a couple of times, despite half of Metropolis and Gotham being trapped
behind Rikti War Walls in his bottles.) Where's the tug-of-war between good and evil? Where are the grand goals to push for beyond loot and rep points?
They're not here, that's where. DC Universe has a great setting and two awesome sides with decades worth of celebrity to play with. More than any other new MMO, it had the chance to do something special, and more than most, it's a game that often tries to do exactly that. Given this, it's a real shame that it feels like it lost all interest and plumped for the laziest way out for its basic levelling template - the one everyone is cursed to spend far, far too much time with.
Still, there's always the expansions. Hope definitely remains.
The other great MMO failing that DC Universe seems bizarrely happy to live down to is being quite staggeringly opaque. From start to finish, it'll flash up reminders of things like pressing CTRL to pick up loot or SHIFT to block and break out of roots, but don't expect any detail on, say, what tanking is, or advice on how to play in a group. The power-sets you can choose from, including Fire, Sorcery and so on, are geared around specific character roles - the standard DPS, Tank, Healer/Controller set - none of which are properly explained in character creation. (You can respec individual skills, but not your core choice.) You get vast amounts of loot during the game, all of which features stat-modification, but which stats matter to your role?
"Er," DC Universe Online mutters. "Press SHIFT to block and stuff."
Again, this is something that MMOs all feel free to do, casually assuming that the fans will fill in with a wiki or similar, and by god, am I tired of it. No game should make you read a wiki to pick up the basics of going BIFF! and POW! DC Universe Online doesn't do it any worse than the others (with the notable exception of its lack of tooltips, especially when suddenly shapeshifted); its arcade style and console-feel just makes it more obvious that it didn't bother doing anything to fix it. And as we all know, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good games to do nothing.
Or alternatively, for evil to wander into a low-level instance and celebrate getting to Level 30 by one-shotting everything, like I did yesterday. But I digress...
Despite this grumbling, I did get to Level 30 - and it's worth repeating that for all the generic rough, DC Universe Online has no shortage of sparkly bits. These actually increase as you work through the game too, with simple stuff like battling Bane's Venom-powered goons on the Gotham docks giving way to some wonderfully ridiculous later levels, like turning into Greed personified and leaping around giant floating chunks of rock high above the city. It's by far the most enjoyable of the superhero MMOs to play, and if Sony keeps to its word about there being a constant stream of regular content updates, it's a terrific base for some really solid, innovative MMO design over the next few years. The opportunity is there to be seized.
It's not however a game I think I'll be playing next month. My biggest regret with my character was not creating her on a PvP server, but attempting to fix that by creating an alt and playing alongside Comrade WasteManager, I quickly realised that I had absolutely no desire to climb through the 30 ranks yet again, even with the added fun of being ganked every few seconds. (I could have ganked back, but I'd chosen to play a hero. Such things are a No-No according to the Big Book of Justice.) Likewise, as cool as much of the endgame looks, from raids on Arkham Asylum to new co-op game mode called Duos, I'm just not really in the mood any more. I'm an official member of the Society of Supervillains, which means I get to hang out behind the big glass window in the Hall of Doom, flipping the bird at rookie villains as the omnipresent villain-helper Calculator explains to them that one day, they'll be as amazing as me and my main man Mr. J. That's the achievement I was playing for all this time. Now I've got it, I'm done.
Ultimately, I easily got £30 worth of value out of DC Universe Online, and clocked up roughly 35 hours playing it over the last couple of weeks. That's roughly 34 hours more than most MMOs that aren't an anagram of 'Carrot Dwarf Wolf' usually get out of me, which says a lot about how good the good bits are. Even the bad bits, with a few exceptions, are mostly disappointments rather than core, tooth-grinding problems. As much as I bitch about the generic quests and the storytelling, the cool bits more than made up for it. I've met almost everyone in the DC Universe. I've beaten up most of Gotham and Metropolis. I've worked alongside the Joker. I've sucked souls for Circe. I've even kicked Batman in the balls. I was a proper supervillain.
And in the end, I enjoyed myself. Grumbles aside, I had a good time with DCUO, and don't hesitate recommending checking it out for a month if you're at all interested in a new comicbook MMO. It's one of the most refreshing I've played for ages, a much better superhero game than either Champions or City of Assorted Superpeople. When it dares to be different, it does so damn well. It's just a shame that it doesn't quite go far enough to break out of its MMO roots, and truly become the legend it comes so close - so close! - to being.