A Marvel Fan Plays DCUO
by Tyler Edwards, February 10, 2014
While researching our recent article on crowdfunded MMOs, I became rather intrigued by the concept of City of Titans, and it occurred to me that I had never played a superhero MMO.
This seemed like an oversight I should correct, but I soon realized the options in that area are quite slim these days. Of the superhero games that do exist, DC Universe Online seemed like the best option, but there was a problem: I'm not a DC fan. No offense to the DC fans among us, but I've just always been a Marvel guy. I prefer my men to be Spider as opposed to Super.
Still, my professional curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to soldier ahead, creating both a hero and a villain to respectively protect and terrorize the cities of Metropolis and Gotham.
I believe I can fly!
The first thing that really struck me about DCUO is that it really gets the "super powered" part down. Even as a new character, you quickly get the impression that your character could take on the world. Everything from movement abilities to combat animations exudes strength.
By far the most fun example of this is the movement powers, which replace mounts in more traditional MMOs. I must have spent half my time in DCUO running around aimlessly because the movement powers were just that fun.
Players have the choice of super speed, which allows characters to run at absurd speeds and up vertical inclines; acrobatics, which offers an eclectic mix of double jumping, zipping along on grappling hooks, and the ability to climb any surface; and flight, which pretty much speaks for itself. Each option allows you to traverse the cityscapes effortlessly, and in style. As a Marvel fan, I was amused to discover that acrobatics plays suspiciously like a certain arachnid inspired hero, and that quickly became my favorite, but they're all entertaining.
I tell you this: I never want to go back to boring old mounts after this.
Then there's the combat. DCUO features an action combat system, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it can easily stand with the likes of Neverwinter and TERA.
The combat has a very natural flow to it. Animations are very fluid, maneuvering is easy, and the game helps you target just enough to make things feel effortless without it seeming like the server is doing the work for you.
Instead of having static classes, your combat abilities are decided by a combination of your weapon choice, which determines your basic attacks, and your powers, which determine your more powerful skills. There's a dizzying variety of weapons to satisfy virtually any taste, but powers are a bit more limited - especially if you're a free player.
Like most action combat games, the number of abilities you can have equipped at any time is quite limited, but some extra depth is added through a combo system that allows you to activate devastating strikes by chaining together your basic attacks in the proper order. The combos can be a bit finicky to execute, but on the whole, they do a lot to make the combat feel deep but not overcomplicated.
The thing I most enjoyed about the combat was the potential for interaction with the environment. Most areas are filled with objects that can be destroyed by player attacks, or even picked up and wielded as weapons. Nothing says "I'm a superhero" like picking up a vending machine and hurling into a pack of evildoers.
I really wish more MMOs let combat and environments interact like this. Too often, the landscapes of MMOs are just static backdrops for our battles. And it just feels awesome to find your path blocked by a fence or stack of crates and simply punch it to bits instead of going around.
Super-punch ten super-rats:
Once you look past the core mechanics of combat and movement, DCUO loses some of its luster.
As with far too many MMOs, the quest design is quite generic. They're not the most bland quests I've ever seen - they still beat the likes of Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic -- but they're not winning any points for creativity. It's mostly just a lot of, "Go to a place and beat up a bunch of people."
The quests are also a bit too lengthy for my taste. I can live with killing ten rats, but killing twenty-five rats seems excessive. Now, it is true that most MMOs following up killing ten rats with killing ten of a different kind of rat, and the rewards in DCUO are proportionate to the effort, so really all they've done is reduce the required number of turn-ins. But psychologically, it's demoralizing to see such daunting objectives.
Something else that bugged me is that my quests as a villain didn't feel terribly villainous. Aside from some early quests harassing the cops in Gotham, I mostly did the same sort of stuff my hero did. I didn't become a super villain to save the world; I want to murder and pillage, dang it.
DCUO does have some small ways of spicing up its quests. One is that most storylines end with a solo dungeon culminating in a boss fight with a major character from DC comics, such as Bane or Scarecrow. These encounters are surprisingly complex and challenging, and they do help to break the monotony a bit.
The other thing that sets DCUO apart from the pack, albeit barely, is that most major quests are provided by iconic characters like Batman or the Joker, and you often get to interact with notable characters in the game world. I'm sure this is nerdgasmic for DC fans, but if, like me, you're not much into the DC universe, it doesn't do much.
Aside from quests, DCUO has a fairly standard compliment of group content options, including dungeons and PvP. I dipped my head into both and found them adequate, if not especially memorable. I will say that dungeon groups are quite easy to find thanks to a handy dungeon queue, and queue times seemed quite low.
There is one somewhat unique PvP mode called Legends PvP, in which players take on the roles of DC characters. This seems like a cool idea, but in practice, getting dumped into a PvP arena with a completely new set of abilities was mostly an exercise in frustration.
DCUO is a pretty nice looking game - I'm told the graphics were recently updated for its launch on the PlayStation 4. The lighting effects are lovely, the environments are very detailed, and everything looks very slick and polished. The art style hits a nice balance between the cartoonish and the realistic. Everything does start to look the same after a while, though, on account of virtually all the environments being cityscapes.
The music is unremarkable, but the plentiful voiceovers are entertaining in a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon kind of way.
I'm unsure how to rate its character customization. In some core areas, like facial customization, it's shockingly lacking. Facial customization is basically nonexistent. But then in other ways, the customization options are staggering. There's a dizzying variety of costume options, both in terms of the possible pieces and how to color them. So this is definitely a game where everyone looks quite different, even if they all have the same faces.
The business model is another oddly mixed bag. For the most part, I'd classify DCUO as a good example of free to play. The gameplay experience is not much inhibited if you don't want to pay, the cash shop doesn't contain anything that screams "pay to win," and the lockbox drops are mercifully rare.
But then there are a few isolated but significant ways in which the monetization can get quite obnoxious. For instance, your choices of powers are quite limited if you don't want to pay. Everyone has a different idea of what is and isn't acceptable to charge for, but class and build choices are one of my red lines. I can live with the occasional pay wall in game, but meeting one on the character creation screen is a step too far.
There are also in-game pop-ups to remind you of the cash shop's existence. These are extremely rare - thankfully - but still obnoxious when they do occur. A particular egregious incident had me undertaking a somewhat lengthy quest to be introduced to the game's housing mechanics, culminating with a pop-up that cheerfully informed me I had to pay to unlock many of the features of player housing. It felt a bit like a bait and switch to me.
Is it worth it?
Honestly, DC Universe Online turned out to be much better than I expected. It has its rough points, but it's very polished, and the core mechanics of the game are a lot of fun.
I'm actually a little mystified that this isn't a more popular title. If I weren't so disinterested in the DC setting, I'd be hooked. At the very least, I'd consider this a must play for those who are DC fans.