Field Report: DC Universe Online

By Xav de Matos, Feb 03, 2011 11:45am PST Field Reports provide our first-hand experience with the latest games, but should not be considered a review.

Over the last few weeks I saved Supergirl's life, foiled a bomb threat concocted by the nefarious Harley Quinn, sent the menacing Bizzaro soaring away in anger along with a few friends, and starting hanging out with Wonder Woman. This isn't the diary entry of a lunatic but my experience playing DC Universe Online, the latest MMO adventure from Sony Online Entertainment.

Since the game launched on January 11, I've been exploring the world on both PC and PS3--with the majority of my time spent on the console iteration. With so much MMO action under my belt it may seem like I'm a huge fan of the genre. The truth is, I've never been able to keep my attention zeroed in on any MMO; until now.

The story behind DCUO does a good job of making sense of the overall conflict: in a future world where Lex Luthor finally defeats his enemies (shown uncut, above) Brainiac invades earth and decimates life as we know it. In an effort to save the planet, Future Lex travels through time to warn our "present day" heroes: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. To aid them in their forthcoming battle, Future Lex unleashes stolen Brainiac energy known as "exobytes" to give normal humans "superhuman" abilities.

From there, the player selects to be either hero or villain and fights behind a mentor; Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman for heroes and The Joker, Lex Luthor or Circe for villains. Players can explore the world without fear from being attacked by players on the opposing faction (Hero vs. Villain), or toggle the option to always be on the defensive against "evil" players. The game also has executable instances where players can take on the role of famous characters from the DC Universe for "Legendary" missions.

Combat is based on melee and ranged abilities, mapping melee strikes to the square button on the PS3 controller (left mouse) and ranged attacks to triangle (right mouse). As players level up and select new weapon upgrades, powers, and skills, the simple presses can be used in various ways to unleash devastating combos and to execute more detailed attacks. Holding the melee attack sends my hero soaring through the air with a powerful disabling strike, for example. On the keyboard, selected powers are mapped to the 1 through 6 keys while PS3 users can use the shoulder and face buttons to execute the mapped powers. The PC version also has support for gamepads. As I played, I found that the action became so varied and quick that the game started to feel more like a third-person, action-adventure game rather than a mouse-click-powered MMO.

DC Universe Online offers the same simple encounters as other games in the MMO genre: "Go to A and collect B number of C" or "Go to X and defeat Y number of Z." It's a simple concept that MMO gamers have come to expect from most new titles in the genre and an exercise in tedium that detractors of the genre point at with fierce objection.

DCUO--as it's referred to by the community--includes the same structure; however, the missions never seemed to drag to a point where it became a personal annoyance. It's not that I feel the decision to clone the same tired mission concepts from many preceding games in the genre was an acceptable element for me, it's that the DC universe itself is so well represented that any cause for exploration became a fanboy dream. "Sure, I'll go beat up gift-wrapped boxes to save trapped police officers! I might run into The Joker!" I thought during one long stretch of game time.

DCUO is encyclopedic in its presentation of characters throughout the famed comic universe. Yes, your bigger name characters are there but you'll interact with some of the smaller players in the license's history, too.

For lack of a better term, the interaction with DC characters is extremely cool. During an exploration mission set up by futuristic-showboat Booster Gold, I bumped into Bizarro walking the streets of Metropolis. Quickly, the high-level "mirror image of Superman" attacked and knocked me out, forcing me to flee (DCUO's version of death). Thirsty for revenge, I flew back at top speed--a movement upgrade flying characters can at later levels--and came face-to-face with the menace again. This time, other heroes were in the area and we joined forces to take the confused behemoth down. Eventually, Bizzaro was defeated--but not before thinning our ranks--and soared away in anger. Myself and the other heroes who fought were all rewarded for our valiant efforts. There's no fighting among good guys for loot and experience in this world.

There are countless encounters like this strewn across the worlds of DCUO. In boss battles, players leave the open world populated by those signed into your selected server and enter instances. Inside, it's largely a "kill room" scenario, where heroes or villains must defeat everyone who stands in the way of their final encounter. Thankfully, optional objectives are available to you in order add a little more meaning to the mindless pummeling of cannon fodder. But the interaction and thread of the DC universe is always present and welcome. Characters will get missions from characters as important as Superman to as secondary as Gotham City police officers. You're constantly reminded of the world around you and the characters that make up the universe and, for me, that was a great thing.

But the game has complications, especially on PS3. It suffers from multiple freezing issues. Menus are sometimes painfully slow. Also, the game doesn't do a great job of explaining its features, you have figure out some some elements work and fit, such as the game's multiple power meters.

As, what I would consider, an entry point into the genre for many players--considering the console connection--DCUO doesn't do a good job of directing and explaining character paths to its players. As raids open up at the game's top level (30), it will be important for teams to have the correct elements in place to succeed. Unless you already have an idea of how your decisions will categorize your character, you may be left looking like a genre newbie. Albeit, one with a sweet cape.

DC Universe Online has captured my attention because of its dedication to utilizing its attached license. Had this game been one of the other superhero MMO titles already available, I don't know if my reaction would be as strong. It has technical issues and its structure isn't taking any major chances with what's already available but I'm still playing the game. For the gamer in me, DC Universe Online has struck a longevity chord that few MMO titles have been able to sustain in my personal experience. Admittedly, what keeps me coming back is the game's fantastic use of a legendary world that I adore. As a overall package--when it's not marred by technical issues--DC Universe Online has been an absolute treat for someone who isn't known for sustaining interest in the genre.

The adventure doesn't end there! I'm going to continue to play DC Universe Online for a semi-regular feature tentatively dubbed "A Day In The Life of a Superhero." Reviewing MMOs is a tricky beast because there is so much content we can miss based on our level and decisions. This is my extended "first-hand" experience with the game. The upcoming and ongoing feature will focus on detailing my ongoing exploits with a fresh character on PC and my current PS3 character as he inches in on level 30. So stay tuned! Same Shack time! Same Shack, well you get the idea.


This "Field Report" is based on retail versions of DC Universe Online for the PC and PS3 provided by Sony Online Entertainment.

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