DC Universe Online: Sony’s Second Wind
By Jake Winters (Kibeth), OnRPG Journalist
Holy Crucial Moment, Batman! DC Universe Online is now available to play for free, and comic fans everywhere must be delighted. Sony hasn’t had a great year, and neither has DC Universe Online. Dwindling player counts and a lack of enthusiasm from both gamers and developers has left the game stuck in somewhat of a rut, until now.
Less than a year after its release, Sony has decided to open their new “Speed, Fly and Fight for Free!” campaign, allowing players access to the DC Universe for absolutely nothing. The change has been staggering, and the game has once again become a thriving metropolis of superheroes and supervillains, all ready to take on Brainiac – and each other – in their fight for glory.
Shame lightning-based powers don’t actually exist… yet.
Customizable Payment Plans
Sony’s tiered game plan model allows gamers to pay and play how they want; the more money you pay the better the service you receive (generally):
Free players have access to the full game, but have severely limited inventory and character space, cannot trade with others, and can only hold a small amount of currency at a time.
Premium players are those who have spent $5 or more on the game (even as a one-off), and get significantly more inventory and character space, can send mails, and have an increased on-hand currency cap.
Legendary players must pay a monthly subscription fee, but get access to all DLCs for free, and have a huge number of characters slots and inventory space, as well as no on-hand currency cap. If they stop paying the subscription their account reverts to Premium access.
To accompany this, DC Universe’s cash shop has been significantly expanded to allow gamers to pick and choose services that they want, such as increased inventory space, the ability to retrieve stored currency (with an on-hand cap, any currency beyond the cap is put into storage and only accessible by paying through the cash shop) or a variety of cosmetic items.
It’s hard to find fault in the new model. Players are able to pay for what they want. While things such as a currency cap seem unduly harsh, the currency itself is rarely used (except for buying potions) and thus the cap shouldn’t make a significant difference to gameplay. On top of that, the population of each server has risen significantly, with Sony reporting 120,000 new players in the first week of release alone, not counting any returning players on top of that.
The game was getting a little lonely under its old subscription-only model; flying around Gotham or Metropolis and fighting off hordes of bad guys felt like a single-player game, and even group interactions were silent and monotonous. Sony claims that the move to a new model was not as a result of dwindling player numbers, but having played the game for a number of weeks before the conversion, this seems a little difficult to believe.
So lonely that I might have been the only Green Lantern in Sector 2814.
Setting aside the actual mechanics of subscription-free play, the game itself remains relatively unchanged from release date. Players are introduced to the game through an epic introductory scene, and then hurled into an even more epic character creator. Body height and definition, gender, idling pose, facial features, hair, and – most importantly – costume. There are hundreds of costume designs, some found through character creator but the majority are found through gameplay itself. At any time during the game players are free to mix-and-match their costume type and its colors, and this is ideal as new styles are unlocked regularly.
Players also choose a mentor (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman for heroes, or Joker, Lex Luthor, Circe for villains) that will act as their starting zone, as well as ‘powers’ and ‘movement types’.
Fire: Usually tanks, they scorch enemies and heal themselves with a vast array of explosions, flamethrowers and meteoric destruction.
Gadgets: Not so much super-power as super-technology, gadgeteers have the ability to crowd-control the battlefield and wreak havoc in the form of traps, robots, and bombs.
Ice: Defensive tanks that use ice to create body-shields and hailstorms, drawing enemies in then decimating them.
Light: The newest power set in the DC Universe; take up the ring of a Green Lantern and create giant claws, fists, guns, shields, and other whacky light contraptions to control the battlefield.
Mental: Crowd controllers who use their telekinetic ability to levitate enemies, hurl objects around, and create a variety of offensive and defensive force-fields.
Nature: Become a variety of animals, from giant insects to raging gorillas. Their healing form uses plants to create Area of Effect healing zones to keep themselves and their group alive.
Sorcery: By summoning pets made of raw magic, they can create vast force-fields and healing zones, or use their powers to wreak pure devastation on foes.
Iconic Powers: Throughout the game, players are invited to unlock a variety of iconic superpowers such as Superman’s heat vision, Batman’s Batarangs, or Green Lantern’s shield of pure Light. These add flavor and variety to existing power sets, and usually come with a number of powerful stat bonuses too.
Acrobatics: Fast running speed, wall-crawling, zip-lines between buildings, and the ability to glide. Combat benefits include being able to escape from tight spots, and hurl knives to knock enemies away.
Flight: Ah flight, the only reason anybody would be a superhero (right?). Swooping around Gotham at super speeds and being able to touch the sky is glorious, and being able to dive-bomb opponents isn’t too shabby either.
Super Speed: Run at the speed of light (almost), and dash up the sides of buildings to get across the city with ease. Combat benefits are mostly tornado-based skills such as knockbacks and stuns.
Brainiac ‘accidentally’ gave us the powers we use to fight back. Whoops.
While the character creator is expansive, the biggest concerns are the small number of powers, as well as the costume color variety. Costumes are only allowed up to three colors, leaving them looking dull and shallow; trying to recreate favourite characters such as Wonder Woman or Joker are almost impossible. Additionally, the power sets seem quite lacking, the most noticeable omission is a power set focused on raw might (like Superman), or lightning (like Circe). Power sets that do exist have no real interaction, so creating characters like Martian Manhunter with his super strength, intangibility, shape-changing and mental abilities isn’t going to happen any time soon.
The game world itself consists of a very small number of very large maps. Iconic locations such as the Halls of Doom, the Justice League Watchtower, Gotham City, and Metropolis set the scene for the main game, with smaller maps such as Area 51 and the HIVE Moon Base setting the scene for group play.
Superman’s statue and the Batsignal are some of the most significant locations.
Graphically, there is no doubt that DC Universe will make the jaw of most gamers drop. Characters are vibrant, and power effects and combat really strike out of the screen (like any good comic book should!). There is a hint of cloning in the maps themselves, but building a city several game miles across is going to come across that problem in the best of games.
One of DC Universe’s crowning features is its voice acting, including legends like Mark Hamill (the voice of the Joker) and Kevin Conroy (the voice of Batman). Reprising such valued assets as well as comic-book style art makes the numerous and in-depth cut scenes a pleasure to watch.
Joker’s left hand. Bet you didn’t even notice.
Despite being visually appealing, combat itself remains rather clunky and prone to abuse (animation clipping allowing a flurry of back-to-back attacks comes to mind). Weapon combat is initiated through a combination of mouse clicks, while power combat is done using eight assigned hotkeys. Given the number of abilities available, and the fact that two of these hotkeys are reserved for a trinket and potions, the game feels very limited in allowing players only six active abilities at a time. Any character reaching level 20 and starting to explore their character roles (DPS, Controller, Tank, or Healer) will soon realize that they have to choose to bring one important ability over another. While this was no doubt designed to bring tactics to gameplay, it just makes combat less fun and a little frustrating.
While such a major flaw cannot be overlooked, the game goes some way to make combat interesting by providing a wide variety of weapons to augment powers, ranging from rifles and pistols to giant axes and dual-wield swords. The choice of weapons is mostly cosmetic, but certain weapon choices benefit one role more than another (healers, for instance, may find dual pistols attractive because of the stat bonuses provided).
Group Play and PvP
One of the striking issues about free play and Premium members is the inability to create their own League (similar to a guild or clan). Leagues are supposed to offer a place to meet others and chat, as well as participate in alerts and raids together, but are only creatable by Legendary players. The Leagues themselves aren’t actually as useful as the game makes out; the game’s difficult interface and chat input means that constant conversation is difficult (the UI’s tiny chat box doesn’t help much), and the lack of language-specific servers means that communication is stringent at best.
Alerts and raids are very much the same, silent affairs except for the occasional “lol” or “wtf noob”. Players can use a group-finding tool to be placed with three others to take on a themed mission chain (such as Gorilla Island or Area 51). With the new influx of players, finding an Alert should be a simple task (compared to the previous wait times of up to an hour), assuming those players stick around.
Even a year after release, the game suffers from the same bugs and errors: doors not opening or bosses not spawning. Despite being easy fixes, developers seem to overlook them in lieu of poorly designed and recycled world events (Halloween comes to mind).
An example of a force-field not fading when it should.
One of DC Universe’s biggest criticisms is the lack of end-game content. Getting to level 30 (the current maximum) is hardly difficult due to simple combat and a mere few hours of required playtime. End-game content consists of recycling all previous Alerts and creating a “hard mode” of them, as well as unlocking a number of raids – similar to Alerts but with more players and more action. End-game activities and daily quests reward ‘Marks’ rather than currency, meaning that the on-hand cap that Premium and free players are stuck with is not a huge issue. ‘Iconic Battle Suits’ are among the rewards for Marks, and look similar to suits worn by generic heroes (such as Hawkgirl or The Flash).
The amount of end-game content feels disproportionately small compared to other MMOs. The game seems to encourage casual play (a few hours a week), and does not cater well to gamers who wish to spend a few hours a day playing. Asides from daily quests and the occasional alert, the game pretty much ends to anybody who manages to buy all of their gear (not a difficult task); asides from its issues, the biggest contributing factor to DC Universe’s loss of players is straight-up boredom.
The End is Nigh
Brainiac is closing in and this review needs wrapping up. DC Universe is by no means the perfect game. The months-old bugs and clunky gameplay, as well as a lack of power diversity and previous fall in player count meant that the game felt like a beta-version single player game.
Sony’s new model will no doubt change things. New players bring new life to the game, and on top of the cited 120,000 new accounts, a countless number of veteran players may have also returned. The big question for Sony is whether they can keep the game interesting enough for those players to stay. Despite their reinvigorated marketing campaign, it seems they are continuing to ignore the actual issues (the bugs, mechanics abuse, and lack of end-game) and instead just glossing over it with some ‘good’ PR.
Because the new payment model is so new, the direction of the game is totally unknown. Depending on how well Sony uses this second wind, the game can either become great, or spiral back down into the dust of MMO history.
In the meantime, have a go and let your wildest super-powered imagination take over. After all, every inner child still wants to wear a cape and underpants on the outside. Right?
Graphics – 5 (vibrant comic book style graphics, and beautiful cutscenes)
Controls – 3 (can use a gamepad or mouse and keyboard; lack of hotkeys disappointing)
Features – 3 (game lacks end-game content, and much of the levelling content is solo work)
Customization – 4 (huge number of costumes and weapons; needs more power types)
Community – 4 (many players during transition, but no promise it’ll stay active.)