A Gritty Reboot for MMOs
It’s all the rage in the film industry: Take a prominent series of comic books (ahem, “graphic novels”), and give it a gritty reboot. Then, watch the money come pouring in.
Well, DC Comics and Sony Online Entertainment see no reason this formula couldn’t work for MMOs, too. The scary thing is that they may be right: Judging by its early hours, DC Universe Online is the best MMO to debut since World of Warcraft, and many gamers will like it even better than that king of online RPGs. Its only major problem is that its player-vs.-player modes rely too much on button-mashing.
MMO launches are notorious for their slow downloading and unpolished products (just look at the troubles Square Enix has had fixing up Final Fantasy XIV), but everything went smoothly for me right from Day One. The download was sizable (12 GB) but fast (just a few hours), and I haven’t come across any serious glitches. Sony deserves some major credit for fixing a problem that many have written off as unavoidable. I, for one, am glad they didn’t rush to avoid delaying this title.
When you boot up the game for the first time, the opening cinematic (which has been online for some time) explains the story. It begins in the future. In a large-scale fight between good and evil, Lex Luthor brutally kills Superman. However, it turns out that while Earth’s factions were beating each other up, Brainiac was hatching a plan to conquer the world. He invades. Luthor goes back in time to the present day, bringing with him technology that can turn anyone into a superhero or supervillain. You play as a one of these new superbeings. The primary goal is to fight off Brainiac, but good and evil are still going at it on the side, too.
At that point, you outfit your character with various attributes. The customization process is simple and quick, but also deep: You choose your sex and physical appearance, in addition to aligning with good or evil; selecting a weapon, mode of transportation, and fighting style; gaining a superpower; and picking a famous superhero or supervillain to mentor you. I went with an evil character who brandishes two pistols, controls fire, flies, and works for the Joker. After a quick introductory sequence in which I fought my way out of one of Brainiac’s ships (How did I get there? I somehow missed that part…), I started taking orders.
If this isn’t clear enough from the opening cinematic, let’s make it clear now: This is not a game for children. Our first few hours with the game were a delirious orgy of fistfights and cop-killing, the female characters are all half-naked tough girls with plastic-surgery bodies, and the streets of Gotham are rife with the signs of urban decay. (You can start in Metropolis as well.)
That said, if you’re mature enough to handle it, the action here is superb. This game takes some of its fighting system from World of Warcraft — for example, you can’t avoid a projectile by running out of the way, and there are cooldown times on your special abilities — but otherwise it feels a whole lot more like a standard third-person action title, right down to the controls. (PC owners will be glad to hear that they can turn their character with the mouse, for example.) Melee combat is pure button-mashing, just the way it should be in a superhero game, and overall the fighting always feels hectic and visceral. Perhaps the only frustration that remains is that it’s too hard to run away once you’ve triggered an enemy; words cannot describe how irritating it is to die just because you walked too close to a couple of guys, especially when those guys spawned while you weren’t looking.
Even the death system is improved. Those who read my Cataclysm columns know how furious it made me when I’d walk into the middle of a bunch of enemies, die, and then have to walk right back into the middle of those same enemies to revive my character. Here, you’re still sent to the nearest checkpoint/graveyard when you die, but you don’t have to find your character to revive him. This isn’t perfect — you still don’t lose any progress most of the time, and the punishment still amounts to wasting your time intentionally — but it had me screaming at my monitor a lot less frequently. If you like playing as a lone wolf, leave WoW and come to this game.
Another aspect that sets DC Universe apart is graphics: The visuals here put World of Warcraft to shame. The opening cutscene is photorealistic, and the in-game graphics are terrific, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of a city under siege. We did notice some pop-in (especially when flying above the town), some bad lip-syncing, and the occasional weak texture, but that didn’t detract from the overall experience.
The voice acting is good as well. Many of the characters are voiced by their long-time actors (such as Mark Hamill as the Joker), and most do a great job of drawing you into the story. We haven’t been able to confirm whether Catwoman is Kelley Huston or Adrienne Barbeau (who’s 65!), but whoever it is did a really sexy job. Perhaps the only issues here are that some of the dialogue clips from low-level characters (street thugs, etc.) are overused, and that some of the lines are cheesy.
The quests are fairly simple and repetitive; typically, a new story development will require that you go to a certain part of town and beat up a certain number of people, or defeat a boss. Other times, you’ll have to work your way through an indoor environment, killing everything that gets in your path. Usually, you’ll also have to collect some small items from the foes you defeat, and/or perform some sort of menial task along the way. Nonetheless, thanks to the addictive fighting system and the well-told story, the action doesn’t get old quickly, so this isn’t much of a problem.
Most of the lower-level MMO systems are stolen directly from World of Warcraft. You have to constantly update, repair, and sell your equipment, for example, and your spells take some time to recharge. When you join up with other players, it’s called a “league” instead of a “guild.” Your health and mana bars look uncannily like the ones in WoW.
Unfortunately, the problem with button-mashing gameplay is that it doesn’t translate well to multiplayer. There are player-vs.-player modes in which you can play as your own character (Arena) or a famous one (Legends), but I found PvP action to be relentlessly hectic, so much so that it was actually boring.
I have to end this review, as I do every MMO review, with a caveat: It’s early yet, and the quality of an MMO depends on how well it can update its gameplay and maintain a solid player base. However, enough money has been sunk into this project ($50 million) that Sony won’t abandon it easily, and the early signs are that it’s a terrific game. If you’re a fan of action, MMOs, or comic books, and if you’re looking to commit a lot of time to a single game, DC Universe Online will not disappoint you.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
They put World of Warcraft to shame, though there is some pop-in. 4.7 Control
This feels more like a third-person action title than like an MMO. 4.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music and voiceover work are for the most part great, but there are some cheesy lines. 4.3 Play Value
Only time will tell, but this looks to be the next of the great MMOs. 4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best