Monday, January 31, 2011

DC Universe On-Line: First Impressions

This review is mostly going to deal with the story, character-design, presentation and solo-gaming experience for heroes. I'll be getting to the villains, the PVP and other things later on.

Right. So everyone has seen the preview trailer setting up the reality of this particular incarnation of the DC Universe, right? You haven't! Well, check this out! Or skip down to the summary below if you can't play the video the video, for some reason.

With the threat of an impending Brainiac invasion hovering over the Earth, a version of Lex Luthor from a future where humanity lost the battle returns to our past with insectoid nanites called Exobytes that bequeath superpowers upon those people they infect. Dispersed across Earth in equal amounts, an entire new generation of superheroes and supervillains is born - ready to be recruited to save the Earth... or conquer it! Or maybe just watch it all burn. It depends on who your mentor is, really.

Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love (Throwing) The Bomb

As utterly awesome as the opening movie is, I don't believe it was strictly necessary to explain away just why there's suddenly a whole bunch of new heroes and villains who need training and organization. For the die-hard superhero fans, it should be enough to find ourselves lurking in the alleys of Gotham or patrolling the skies of Metropolis without needing a default explanation for how we got our powers.

Having a cookie-cutter "you were bitten by nanotech bugs from the future!" explanation is a major annoyance to the roleplayers among us, who might have wanted to come up with our own character backgrounds. Indeed, unlike City of Heroes and Champions Online, DCUO does not give you the option of writing a backstory or profile for your character.

Another issue I see is that while I - as a comic fan - can easily see technology by Brainiac being sophisticated enough to give a person magical ability or extraordinary technical skills, (to say nothing of forging a special weapon for them and change their clothing into a thematically appropriate costume), I can see some people being confused as to why Exobyte infection should suddenly cause them to become really good with a bow and have a full arsenal of trick arrows.

Why, yes - that IS what I elected to play. Meet Beau Hunter.

A little derivative of Green Arrow? Without a doubt. And yet, I'd bet that Beau here is more original than many of the characters you are likely to see running around the streets of Gotham City or Metropolis. This brings us to the issue of character creation...

Or Attack Of The Clones!

The biggest problem with character creation in DCUO is that there's really no way to avoid being derivative, given how limited your choices are. Indeed, one of the character creation options allows you to choose an inspiration and start out with your sheet and costume modeled on your favorite hero or villain. And not a damn thing can stop you from starting the game there once you've picked out a name. I personally saw at least two Catwoman clones - one named Selina K and the other one KITWOMAN - running around the Gotham Ninth Precinct.

After choosing your gender and body type (small, medium or large), you choose a heroic or villainous mentor, who determines where you start out and what your opening missions involve. Nominally you're supposed to pick the character who shares your origin type, but there's nothing to stop a tech-based hero from spending time in Metropolis training under the watchful eye of the Big Blue Boy Scout.

In my case, I chose Batman because... well, come on! It's Batman!

Next comes powers. You have only six general options for powers (Fire, Ice, Mental, Nature, Sorcery and Gadgets) and each of those have two sub-types. Gadgets, for instance, is broken into Tricks and Traps. You also choose a travel power, which is limited to the three choices of Superspeed, Flight and Acrobatics.

I must admit to being disappointed by the lack of variety in power selection. While I know it isn't possible to account for every single superpower there is (how many of us would really want the power to shrink or talk to fish?), you'd think such things as electricity control or shadow manipulation would be possible. Perhaps those are being saved for Static and Ebon in the inevitable (we hope) Static Shock expansion. :)

Costumes are similarly limited, though you do have the option of picking up different "styles" later on and defeating certain enemies can give you the option to take their costumes as your own. This is why, after defeating The Scarecrow as part of the first series of missions for newbie heroes in Gotham, I was rocking The Scarecrow's hat.

Thankfully, the game does give you the option of keeping your original costume appearance while still reaping the benefits of using the improved armor and weapons dropped by your fallen enemies. So I can keep my snazzy stealth-suit and hood while still getting the improved bonuses granted by my Amazon-manufactured bow, my New Genesis forged breastplate and my demonic boots.

Or Why I Still Love This Game Even After Tearing Apart The Character Creation and Storyline

I've made quite a few comparisons to City of Heroes and Champions On-Line and so far those comparisons haven't been very favorable. However, I'm afraid these comparisons are unavoidable even if it is somewhat unfair to compare DCUO to COH, which has had the better part of a decade to develop, evolve and expand past its' original release version.

Thankfully, there is one area where DCU Online DOES beat the competition hands down and that is in the arena of action.

From the very first mission onward, you are thrown into the middle of the action immediately and it doesn't let up for a moment. You start out with Oracle (or Calculator, if you are a villain) guiding you out of a Brainiac ship, where you had been taken hostage. Eventually, you must fight a swarming mob of robots after taking out the main weapon for the ship... only to have Superman himself (or, again Lex Luthor if you are a baddy) show up to back you up.

And after that, you don't get to rest on your laurels. I fully expected to be getting sent out on patrol, looking for muggers or graffiti artists. Instead, I was fielding a call from Batman himself, who called my work so far "impressive" before ordering me out into the streets to stop Scarecrow's minions from releasing a new strain of fear gas on the public!

These missions are a real treat, since part of the running battle across the city will have you rescuing HAZMAT teams from the thugs, giving comfort to hallucinating citizens and - as the gas takes hold of you - fighting random hallucinations of your own, like suddenly giant henchmen and - in the final battle against Scarecrow himself - your own fears made manifest!

Other MMOs have doldrums where you become desperate for missions and quests to get to the next level and are eventually forced to grind XP from random mobs in order to advance. With DCUO, I'm having the opposite problem. I just hit level 11 this afternoon and I still have a quest journal with half-a-dozen calls to duty that I haven't answered yet.

Or Other Random Thoughts

Combat is surprisingly simple and intuitive. Melee attacks are made with the left mouse button. Ranged melee attacks are made with the right mouse button. As you advance, you'll gain the ability to do charged shots by holding down the mouse buttons, doing more damage.

Your powers are assigned to the number keys, just above the WASD keys which are used for movement. The Shift Button is used for blocking/dodging in conjunction with the movement keys, allowing you to move out of the way of enemy special attacks in a way familiar to most action gamers and console owners.

Indeed, the game play and controls are such that you almost forget you are playing an MMO at times. Jumping around the city, exploring all the nooks and crannies as an acrobat (well, I just HAD to climb to the top of the Wayne Enterprises building!) I couldn't help but be reminded of the Spider-Man 2 game where half the fun was just moving around the city, looking at everything and finding your own adventure.

Incidentally, there's a kiosk in the Gotham City Police Department (and, presumably, the other police stations) where a recording of Booster Gold will give you a guided tour of the various points of interest. I don't know who was cast as the voice of Booster Gold but he was cast perfectly, sounding perfectly smarmy and cheerful as he is describing how horrible Gotham's East End is before basically saying "Wow, this place is a wretched hive of scum and villainy and I hope you have enjoyed our time touring it!"

The voice acting is very hit and miss, with the cast containing a variety of seasoned voice-actors from other video games, American Anime dubs and... well, some of the technicians who worked on this game if IMDB.COM is accurate.

Some of the casting is perfect, with Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker. I'm not sure who does the voice of Oracle, but it sounds like the same actress from Batman: Arkham Asylum. And Adam Baldwin - while not my first choice for Superman - isn't bad. Nor is James Marsters as Lex Luthor.

And then you have characters like Martian Manhunter, who is voiced not by Carl Lumbly but by someone doing a truly awful impression of Carl Lumbly. Harvey Bullock sounds like someone doing a bad impression of Burgess Meredith in Rocky. And the less said about Hawkman and The Flash, the better.

DCUOline has the most fluid load times of any-online game I've ever played, with hardly any lag at all. The only bug I've encountered so far - apart from some minor targeting issues - was the game crashing on me when I tried to switch between it and my Firefox browser to answer an e-mail.

The communication system is a royal pain in the neck. Chat currently requires you going into a whole separate menu just to say hello to someone since the interface doesn't allow you to click on a person and use the mouse to initiate a conversation, like in... oh, every other MMO out there. This doesn't bode well considering how much of the later game content is supposedly based on Dynamic Duo missions, PVP arena games and group instances. I can only imagine what a pain it is for the PS3 games who don't even have a keyboard to type with!

All in all, I am enjoying my time in the DC Universe so far. I think most gamers and comic fanboys will, provided you can relax about the storyline and don't get too worked up about the lack of role-playing options. If you're enough of a kid or a geek at heart to thrill at the idea of Batman calling you impressive and asking for your help... you will love this game.


  1. I read the name as "Meat Bow Hunter", which, let's be honest, just makes more sense.

  2. Well, I was going to write him up as the Texas recruit for the newly reformed Green Arrows Of The World - a plucky young archer eager to prove that not all Texans are gun-totting rednecks. :)
    But since there's no background system...

  3. Man, more superheroes should gank hats and stuff off of the baddies they punch. Sure, Batman has the whole 'trophies in the Batcave' bidness, and maybe the Flash museum comes off as a distant second, but blatant trophy-taking and attention to detail would be freaking hilarious if done right.

  4. Oh, it's pretty hilarious here. My villain just stole the leggings off an unconscious Huntress. Which is really funny because it's Huntress in the Jim Lee costume. The one with the booty-shorts and the thigh boots? :P

  5. Fashion-bandit villainy is EVEN BETTER. 'Soon, Robin, I will steal your elf-shoes, and then GOTHAM IS DOOMED!'

  6. Sadly, it's the Tim Drake Robin. With full pants and boots.

  7. Wait.. no martial artists??? *sigh* Suck.
    I will be able to rock the fishnets right?

  8. Oh no! There ARE Martial artists.
    One aspect of the combat system I didn't mention is that everyone chooses a combat/weapon style which determines all of your default attacks with the mouse. Bow. Martial Artist. Brawling. All of these and more are options.
    I haven't seen Dinah in game yet but I did see Zatanna and she totally has the fishnets to rock. I've yet to play with the female costume options to see what is there...

  9. I looked at some screen captures and it looks like both Zee and Dinah in game have fishnets, so it should be an option for female characters... although it could be one that has to be unlocked. Like the Scarecrow hat.

  10. Well let your tempestuous gaze flit across this for a moment...

    Didn't see a fishnets option among all the legs options when I made this one. I'm almost certain it has to be unlocked later. But that's not a bad likeness at all, is it?

  11. If nothing else, Sonic Cry and Sonic Blast are two of the special power options on the Iconic Powers list. To put that in perspective, I think Superman is the only other character who has two powers on that list (heat vision and freezing breath)

  12. Did you invest in the lifetime membership?

  13. Not yet. Can't afford it. Especially after today.
    Boy howdy pneumonia is expensive to treat!

  14. Dwight Schultz is doing .. Martian Manhunter and Barry Allen.. its like.. yeahh no.. that sucks.

  15. awesome! And I did sort of figure out a fishnet type look..

  16. Yeah. I didn't realize who it was until I was reading the DCUO entry on TV Tropes and it noted Howling Mad Murdock was Barry Allen.
    I will say that Wil Wheaton is perfectly cast as Robin... because after the second mission where I had to save him, I was perfectly ready to slap the hell out of him like he was Wesley Crusher.