This on-going feature serves as an evolving review of the game, complete with personal anecdotes and opinion. For more editions of Going Through The MMOtions, click here.
I've never played an MMO. Not a proper one anyway. The closest I've ever come was Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast. While technically not an MMO by current standards, the instanced co-operative gameplay melted my mind at the time. I loved being part of a world where I could communicate with everyone around me. Looking back on it, I'm certain I enjoyed the concept of Phantasy Star Online more than the actual gameplay. Either way, I've always wanted to try a true MMO.
But I'm a console gamer. Playing with a controller and analogue sticks is in my make-up, and nothing about any of the popular PC universes has particularly compelled me. Lord Of The Rings-inspired universes don't necessarily inspire me, and while Blizzard's World Of Warcraft is a sensation for millions of players, it's never grabbed me on anything more than a peripheral understanding.
That's why DC Universe Online is such a big deal. There are three notable components that open up Sony Online Entertainment's to an entirely new audience: it's on PlayStation 3, it's based on a popular universe, and its gameplay is infinitely more accessible than other titles on the market. It's part of the reason I feel so comfortable stating that I've never played an MMO; I'd hazard there are thousands more out there introducing themselves to a whole new gaming genre with this title. If you're still considering it, you're probably going to want to know if it's any good, right?
DC Universe Online opens with a pretty robust character creation tool-set. The underlying plot-line is convoluted but smart. The opening cinematic depicts a large-scale battle in a futuristic Metropolis. The conflict culminates in the death of a number of superheroes and the on-set of Brainiac's fleet. Travelling through time, Lex Luthor informs the present time heroes of their eventual fate, explaining that matters on Earth have blinded the heroes/villains to the true threat, Brainiac. Luthor explains that he was able to steal "exobytes" from Brainiac's ship before travelling through time. The nanobot-sized devices can project energy into a living host, allowing the creation of thousands of new metahumans, which the heroes must coach for when Brainiac eventually arrives. And that's where the character creation comes in.
You're able to select a range of traits for your character, in addition to aesthetics and clothing. Your mentor selection is an important component, allowing you to choose between Hero or Villain characters. I opted to be mentored by Wonder Woman, affecting my long-term quest-line. Other mentors include Batman, the Joker and Superman. Character creation also requires the selection of a power; while each power has a damage mode, it's the secondary mode that's most likely to affect the way you play the game on a long-term basis. Ice and Fire are used for defence, Gadgets and Mental are used for control, and Nature and Sorcery are for health. It took me a while to get to grips with these concepts, but it's pretty simple. When you're involved in group play later in the game, you'll need to use your specialist skill-sets to work as a team and help each other. Healers will need to revive team members, while control players deal with crowds, and so forth. In the early game, these concepts don't necessarily matter, and DC Universe Online does offer some explanation when you reach the point where you need them. We opted for the Mental power and moved on.
The penultimate stage of character creation defines your movement style. The options are: flight, super-speed and acrobatics. All are fairly self descriptive, with super-speed giving you the Flash style movement, and Flight turning you into a wannabe Superman. Movement types will also affect your eventual move-sets, and you'll need to select a weapon to compliment your type. We went for a Staff, giving us a quick range of strong medium distance strikes. Martial-arts, pistols, and bow-and-arrow attacks are also available. Reaching higher levels allows you to expand on your weapon arsenal, so there's no need to worry too much about what you select here.
The character creation process is slick if a little overwhelming. While DC Universe Online is a pretty accessible game, it still assumes some knowledge of MMO terminology. This has probably been my biggest stumbling block jumping into the game; clearly SOE understands this is going to be the first MMO for a lot of people, but it can still be confusing at times. Nothing is more confusing for complete newbies like myself than the server selection process. Here in Europe there are two servers available, PvE and PvP. Having zero understanding of MMOs, I'm ashamed to admit that I had to Google these acronyms. Turns out PvE stands for Player vs. Environment, and PvP means Player vs. Player. The difference between servers is attributed to whether other players in the world can attack you or not. I opted to start out in the PvE server, as my interests lie in the quests and world, rather than being attacked by my peers.
With the character creation complete, I was thrown into a tutorial mission within Brainiac's ship. This gives you a quick taste of the controls and concepts, allowing you to cycle through a couple of levels and get an early taste of the gameplay. This area is a unique instance, so unfortunately I had to wait for my first taste of the overall hub-world. It did allow me to get an initial appreciation for DC Universe Online's stream-lined combat, though. The game relies on a lot of Square pushing, and plays a little like a traditional action RPG. Enemies can be locked onto while holding the L1 button, and powers can be accessed with the L2 and R2 triggers. My first power allows me to shoot spinning discs from my characters torso, and while it's not the most effective move in the world, it provides a taste of the type of magical attacks I can expect to get out of my character as I progress. The controls feel well suited to the DualShock 3, even if there is a little bit of input lag.
The tutorial closes with a climactic battle against a series of robots, where an AI controlled Superman turns up to help me out. Clearly the ability to drop in random encounters with real superheroes is where DC Universe Online's strengths lie; just randomly happening across one of DC's superheroes and feeling part of their story is exhilarating. In just over 8 hours with DC Universe Online I've fought alongside Nightwing and Zatanna, while starting quest lines with Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman.
Once the tutorial instance is complete, I'm teleported back to Metropolis' Chinatown police station. The police station serves as a hub for a whole manner of gameplay interactions, including access to the infinitely confusing Watchtower, the game's mailbox system (which allows you to communicate with other superheroes), and vendors.
After a short perusal of the police station, I took my first steps into Metropolis, one of the game's main environment types. The first thing I noticed was just how big the hub-world is, it's enormous, and it's truly impressive watching as other player super-heroes fly around the universe completing their own quests. Whatever sorcery SOE's used to get a game of this kind running on the PlayStation 3, they've used it to good effect. While the frame-rate stutters and the visuals certainly aren't to a particularly high-standard (the fidelity's akin to a PlayStation 2 game in high-definition), the scale of the game is outstanding. While some people are reporting issues with freezing, I'm personally yet to experience any problems with the game crashing. There are definitely moments where you think it's going to lock-up, but the game tends to recover. One issue I've been having is just how slow the game's main menu is to navigate, but this certainly doesn't affect gameplay.
While DC Universe Online doesn't look particularly astounding, the comic-book vibe of the DC Universe does come through with the colour palette and scenery. Having progressed into Gotham as well as explored Metropolis, there's a good variety between the two locations with plenty to see and experience. I'm not the biggest comic book fan, but there's clearly plenty of fan-service packed into DC Universe's world, which makes it all the more interesting to navigate.
Completing quests is probably the best method of levelling up. While defeating foes rewards you with two to three experience points, they're not really worthy of grinding. Quests reward you with anywhere upwards of 200xp, and that's fine because they are more interesting than grinding anyway. I've spent around eight hours with DC Universe Online now and have experienced a variety of quests ranging set by a number of different DC Universe characters. A current quest-line I'm pursuing has had me communicating directly with Batman, defeating a bunch of Bane's Venom juiced bad-guys. Quests usually require you to beat-up a set number of foes, or destroy a number of land-marks, but while the gameplay can be repetitive, it's exciting to experience it alongside a number of random player characters. Just coming into contact with other people's super-heroes, and watching them carry out the same tasks as you is exciting and unlike anything else on PlayStation.
None of the quests I've completed thus far have been particularly memorable, but there's definitely an addictive quality to them. I'll be curious to see as I progress through the game how SOE manage to change things up (if at all). Right now I'm happy levelling my character and unlocking variety from different attack patterns and play styles.
I feel like I'm only just beginning to scratch the initial layer of DC Universe Online and that can be both exciting and daunting. My understanding of the game and MMOs in general has grown exponentially over the last 48 hours, and while that's partly down to SOE's ability to direct me, I've also spent a lot of time reading FAQs and interacting on various message boards. The next stage of my journey will probably take me into a more traditional MMO domain. What I've played thus far has been very much akin to an action RPG in an MMOs clothing, and I think that's what makes DCUO so accessible. But for traditional MMO players there is still plenty to explore. I've just unlocked the ability to go on Alerts, small instanced four-player co-operative battles where my selected role will play a bigger impact.
While I'm definitely excited to check out what else DC Universe Online has to offer, I'm more keen to continue on the path I've currently been exploring. Completing missions for the various superheroes has genuinely been thrilling, and while the missions lack the variety and clout of a standard game, there's something about being involved in the periphery of thousands of other people's game that's got me hooked. I'm playing DC Universe Online in bursts, and that certainly seems like the best way to experience it.
I'm eager to see where my journey takes me next.
Current Character Details:
Mentor: Wonder Woman.
Server: "For All Seasons", PvE.