I decided to give DC Universe Online two tries before writing a review, for two reasons: first, I really wanted to like this, to find an MMO that didn't make me grind my character, my gears, or my teeth in my sleep; and secondly, I am not the target audience.
|Not pictured: me.|
This latter reason is the main one. I am not a comic book fan, and especially not a superhero fan. I always took a casual liking to Batman and X-Men growing up, but they weren't much more than exceptions.
My first take on DC Universe Online was as a cursory fan of MMOs and a non-fan of superheroes, and as such, it disappointed greatly. This is because I have a conception of what a good superhero is, and this is not what a normal superhero fan conceives. I think Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and the Green Lantern are all goofy, and they are the stars of the intro cinematic.
But I tried to get into it; watching the opening was a treat, and I liked the art style, the attention to detail, the gritty realism of it (as far as superheroes can be realistic). Then I learned this cutscene is a flash forward, and the world I will be inhabiting will not be what is shown.
This was the first disappointment, and you can't blame me for that; regardless of fandom, showing a flash forward with a completely different art style and tone is a particularly poor way to open a game.
The next disappointment came from my origin story. Every player has the same story, whether you are a hero or villain: Brainiac is coming to take over earth, and Lex Luthor has decided to give as many people (players) superpowers as possible. He also requests the aid of superheroes, who are usually his enemy, like Superman.
Okay, there's two problems with that.
Firstly, why are the heroes and villains teaming up? It seems as though that pretty much defeats the purpose of choosing between hero and villain to begin the game. They're both trying to save Earth, so the villain is Brainiac.
|Ok, so it worked well here.|
The bigger problem, however, is that the player is forced to take superpowers because of the will of someone else. This completely changes my motivations. You cannot be an alien, like Superman; you can't be human and have an act of nature give you superpowers, like Spiderman, the Hulk or the X-Men (wrong universe, I know, sue me); and you can't choose to not have superpowers at all but just be handy with a utility belt, like Batman. (You can use gadgets primarily, but you still have some superpowers, like superstrength and supermovement.)
Well, I had every intention of following in Batman's footsteps, becoming a hero with gadgets, but this completely changes who my character was going to be. Heck, if I'm thrust into this conflict due to the will of someone else, I'm out for blood. With such a storyline, in fact, I want to be of neither faction, but anarchy.
So I choose the villain option, since that's at least closer to anarchy than hero is; I pick the traits and abilities that sound good, and I try to design my character to look more like an average joe.
This is completely against what a superhero (or in this case, supervillain) is, of course. I don't want to be caped, I don't want to wear spandex or tights or leather; I just want to look inconspicuous. I chose to be an acrobat as a method of travel, rather than flying or super speed, because at least parkour is something a non-superhero can potentially do.
Then I notice that average joe customization options are quite lacking. This makes sense, of course, considering this is a freakin' superhero game, and I'm the one who's got the problem so far, not the game.
|When I think 'superhero', I think of a suit jacket and a tie.|
But I think now is a good time to explain what I do like about superheroes, considering they aren't my thing in the least.
One of my favorite shows growing up was Lois & Clark, and I'm not a fan of Superman. This is because the show was about Clark
and his relationships, not
really about Superman fighting Lex Luthor (although he certainly showed up). Kent
Of the recent X-Men movies, I like the first and third, and the second was boring. This is the opposite of every other fan I've discussed this with. I liked the first and third because they were origin stories, and they were about the characters; the second, I felt, was a bunch of action scenes cobbled together, and it got boring quickly.
Overall, the part of superhero stories that I like is the part where they have to keep in disguise, when they have to deal with their newfound powers, when they have to learn to blend in in a society where they're different. The best two scenes in the X-Men movie are right at the beginning, when Rogue is kissing the guy and nearly kills him, and when Wolverine gets kicked out of the bar for exposing his claws.
So you can see where I'm coming from when I express my extreme disappointment in this game, right from the intro cutscene and the character creation, and we haven't even gotten into the game yet!
I had hoped for being able to create two sets of clothes--a crime-fighting set and a streetwalking set. Unfortunately, the expectation is to create an elaborately, flamboyantly dressed cartoon. Even the options for making someone like Westley or Zorro are abysmally small, which I would have accepted as meeting me halfway.
|My kind of superhero.|
Well, I tried my best to make my version of a superhero (jeans and a t-shirt), and got plopped into the tutorial level, where I'd been abducted by Brainiac.
There was no subtlety, no learning to deal with my powers in a home-life scenario; just bust out of a spaceship. My disappointment grew.
But I went on, blasting through the tutorial, gaining a few ice powers, learning the combat system.
This is the first good thing about DC Universe Online. The action is very well done, considering the frustrating, turn-based-with-an-action-disguise combat of other MMORPGs. Attacks are pretty fluid, targeting is decent, special moves are ok. It isn't the best I've played, but it did an admirable job considering the keyboard-and-mouse interface they had to work with.
Movement is another story. You enter combat and movement modes, which I think is a rather silly idea. In combat, your weapon is out (if you have one), and you move at a normal runner's pace. In movement mode, you put your weapon away, take a different stance, and your chosen method of movement takes over, and you can move in ways you can't while in combat.
It would have been nice to be able to use your movement powers at all times, but I shouldn't be one to complain since I didn't want movement superpowers in the first place. As a designer, however, I definitely think it was an odd choice; though I can see both the technical constraints and the need to force conflict, otherwise you could always fly away from a fight and be nicknamed Supercoward in the Watchtower cafeteria.
After the tutorial stage, I got to be placed in a Metropolis nightclub and learned the ropes from Lex Luthor (who I had chosen to be my mentor).
Once outside, the first thing I saw was a little racing flag, so I decided to see what that was about. It was a test of my navigation skills as an acrobat.
I was supposed to run through rings.
Well, I completed the acrobat challenge and got a platinum rating on the first try. I guess they expected their navigation system to be a tad more difficult than it was, which is the kind of overcompensation I can get behind.
I ran round punching people and completed a few missions, and eventually I got killed (or "knocked out", since I guess only Captain
can die). America
And I had to wait to respawn.
What is this nonsense with MMOs forcing players to sit around twiddling their thumbs when they die? You can read a book in the time it takes to respawn. Is it to improve literacy?
And naturally, it shoves me back at the nightclub, miles from where I was.
This happens a few more times, before I decide to back out and make a new character so I don't break my monitor.
I contemplated quitting right here, but I decided to give it another shot, and this time ignore the disappointing origin story and just pretend it was the way I wanted it to be from the beginning. I chose new powers, changed my movement to running to mix things up, became a hero, and restarted.
And got plopped into the exact same tutorial.
Even though I was the complete opposite to my previous character in every respect, I did the exact same thing.
|Well, Superman helped me out at the end, instead of Lex.|
I even reached a point in the tutorial where I had to use my movement to reach a high place, and with acrobatics it made sense because I could climb walls. With flying, it would have made sense too. But super speed? Shouldn't super speed limit me to the ground? I ran right up the wall with super speed, so it basically was no different than acrobatics, except made more annoying because I went so fast I had difficulty pinpointing places I needed to go.
After the tutorial, I wound up in some
police station, and noticed the layout was identical to Lex Luthor's nightclub.
Okay, I know it's just a safehouse, and not a "real" level, but this is the third MMO I've played where they reused layouts and just retextured them (and I mean beyond the tutorial which is begrudgingly understandable).
This, under no circumstances, ever gives the impression of a new level. Pay your designers to make a new layout rather than your artists to make new textures, and I would be much happier. It's simply a better experience for the player.
So I walk outside the police station and there's that checkered flag again. I decide to try out the race just because I'm having a more difficult time with the running movement style than the acrobatic style.
|Because it's worth repeating.|
As I'm running the course, I suddenly slow down for no immediately obvious reason, and I die. It turns out this is because people are shooting me as I'm trying to complete the course.
Firstly, this is a test to get used to the movement, so there should be no bad guys. Secondly, what ever happened to "faster than a speeding bullet"?
I have to wait ten seconds to respawn, so I just quit there. I'm too frustrated with it, and tired, and beyond annoyed.
I briefly try Champions Online, another superhero MMO, as a comparison, but the character customization annoys me even more, the art style is worse, and the controls are awkward (this is a five second review of Champions Online, and I doubt I'll ever give it an hour of my time).
I go to bed.
The next morning I'm refreshed and decide to give DC Universe Online a second chance to woo me. I know I'm not the target audience, so I decide to clear my head of my initial disappointment that it doesn't cater to my whims (really, what the hell did I expect?), and go back in with a fresh perspective.
|Makes games better.|
I delete my old characters and create a new one. I'm back to acrobatics (easier than speed and by god I refuse to fly), and pick new powers again. I create a character than is more conventionally superhero-looking (I refuse the spandex, but I'll be okay with a cape and a hood), and restart.
I chose mentalism powers this time, along with an axe as a weapon, and both are decent to work with. I think the first two characters I created really had powers I simply didn't like playing with, and this time I struck a good combination. The action and combat are even better than they were before.
I smashed the tutorial to pieces, and felt pretty good about myself. Then I started with a few missions, and to my surprise the game played much better. I haven't died yet with this character; I'm able to handle many more enemies at once than previously (like, I don't know, a superhero or something), and my abilities are much more fun to use.
I think that, as long as you don't "get knocked out" and go on a killing spree while you're waiting to respawn, DC Universe Online is actually pretty decent.
This coming from a guy who just spent three quarters of the review complaining about it.
|Okay, maybe this is me after all.|
But it's true; while it's not the best MMORPG in the world, it does have quite a few things going for it. The key (for me anyway) is to eliminate all expectations about what it should be. Even if you like superhero comics, the universe that is created is more like the Justice League than a lone superhero who fights crime by himself. You have to accept that while you are a superhero, technically speaking, there is nothing extraordinary about you, since there is every other superhero from DC running around, and millions of other players who have created their own superheroes.
Really, I think there are more superheroes than regular citizens. I was expecting to be able to be a Batman-style character who is a lone wolf fighting crime; instead, I was thrown into a superhero network with bases, more like Professor Xavier's
than . Gotham City
The main thing you should concern yourself with is making a few characters with different powers and keep the one that works for you.
And despite the problems I had with character customization, once you do make a character, you can keep them the way they are. Unlike many other MMORPGs where your outfit doesn't mean anything after you complete the first quest (because you get new armor that completely undermines the time you spent giving your character an outfit), DC Universe Online allows you to turn on and off the visuals of the outfits you acquire, so you can gain the benefits of the armor without having to look like an idiot.
Another cute feature of character customization is that you pick three colors for your outfit (at first I thought it was restricting, but how many colors does your average superhero have, really?), and when you gain new armor and wear it, it matches your color scheme no matter what it is.
|Even ugly colors, which is what I went with.|
This definitely helps differentiate players, so that even if everyone were wearing the same armor (and nobody is), the colors would be different enough to prevent cloning.
I must've gone on for a page in my WoW review about how poorly they did character customization and armor rewards for quests (and brought the topic up again in another article), and I think DC Universe Online fixed all of those issues. This is character customization done right (limits based on the fact that it's a superhero game ignored).
Overall, the visuals are pretty solid, the missions really mix things up beyond fetch quests, and the action and controls are above average for an MMO.
I still have my gripes, of course, like the level design, respawn woes (the only truly game-breaking mark of Satan to be found), and a few minor issues I haven't mentioned. But once you accept the universe, a few of the bigger issues go away.
So despite my initial disappointments and frustration, it turned out to be a much better game once I cleared my head, gave it a second chance, and went with the flow rather than letting my expectations guide my experience.
While it's not as good as it could be, it's high above average when I'm grading on the curve of what's out there. It's a game with potential, and is heading in the right direction. I hope it pulls the MMO genre along with it.
|And then we have another company pulling in the opposite direction.|