I have been playing online multiplayer games since the MUDs and MUCKs of the 90s, and as such, I have experienced a great deal of variety in my online experience. When I got into the beta of DC Universe Online, I was very excited. Though as a lad I was more of a Marvel Universe fan, the fact that there was going to be a comic book MMO that actually got off the ground (no disrespect to the “City of” franchise, it was fun while it lasted) was good enough for me. DC Universe Online was unique, even among the action MMORPGs in that it was based on an active IP in the DC Comics. The art and stories are written by DC’s own talented staff, and the sounds and sensations could make you feel that you would be immersed into a unique world, where as a hero or villain you can make a bold impact on some of the biggest cities of the DC Universe (Metropolis, Gotham City and plenty of other landmarks to be sure). Still no game is without its drawbacks, and DC Universe Online is no exception.
Here Comes the New World, Same as the Old World
DCUO takes place in the world made famous by the DC Comics company, but does not take place during the main storyline. Instead, it is a new story, written by their fantastic staff in-house, with new character artwork included. Before you make your character, and pick a server, you get treated to the opening cinematic that explains the crux of the story. A pitched battle between good and evil, as one would expect, where the titans of the DC Universe do battle over a ruined Metropolis. However, Lex Luthor, who made a bargain with the extra-terrestrial entity Brainiac, would be betrayed as the heroes were finally put down. In his desperation, Lex would find a way back in time to warn the heroes of today of tomorrow’s impending disaster. Not out of a desperate need for redemption, but instead, a very realistic approach to his character: Lex still wants to control the world. This is just one more step.
You can play as either a villain or hero, and pick a variety of customization options that define what your character is. You do not pick roles such as “Tank, Healer, DPS”, as in traditional MMOs, but most styles of gameplay are better at some things than others. A good example of this would be some of the mystical powers are much better at healing than say a brawler style hero who just uses super-speed and fisticuffs. You also pick a mentor, determining the narrative of your storyline as they guide you through missions pertaining to their interests and goals. Above is a villain I created, using a power from one of the DLC (which I will cover later). I am fortunate to have a close friend who plays, who contributed several screenshots to this article. Many thanks to “Kamen Rider Mach”, which is one of his main characters.
Paying the Piper
DC Universe Online began with a subscription fee, as most MMOs tend to do. Like most of the competition (such as Star Wars: The Old Republic), it went to a free-to-play model, with perks for paying a monthly subscription fee. This to me is both positive and negative. Frankly, it is kind of nice to not have to pay to play an online game, as back in my youth, one did not pay to play a MUD, but perhaps occasionally donate something to server costs if the admin needed it. There are a variety of payment methods (monthly fees ranging from one month to a year), and there are of course, benefits for doing so. It is not necessary to pay, though the game waters down slightly if you opt to simply play for free. Most of the people I have come across choose to play for free, or purchase the DLC, to get the extra content that they want.
Personally, I do not mind paying to play a game that I enjoy, but finances are not always a thing I have control over! I was curious about one dread I have, say, paying a subscription fee, and then cancelling. Would I lose the cool Yellow Lantern ring I dole out the harshness with? Would I be forced back into a cubicle of mediocrity? Luckily, the internet provided me with the answers. While yes, I no longer would have my extra bag slots, the stuff that would be in those places would be sent to a type of overflow, that I could get it back from. Character slots that are over the limit would be locked, so that you could not make more, obviously. Characters with DLC powers are still available to be used, but you cannot respec (change your abilities) or make new characters with said powers. So I could not make a light-construct user if I stopped my subscription, until I put it back into place. Ultimately this is not a drawback, and the game is still completely playable without buying a thing. You simply lose out on a few powers and missions. The game in and of itself is still quite enjoyable for a F2P model, much better than some of its peers.
Action, Adventure, Spandex
There are two ways to play DC Universe Online: You can either use a keyboard and mouse, which is perfectly fine for those who play a lot of action games on the PC (Assassin’s Creed and its ilk), or you can plug a USB controller into your computer (such as the Rock Candy PS3 controller, or the Xbox 360 wired controller). I should take the time to point out that a 360 controller that has a plug-and-play charge cord will not work, unless your PC has Bluetooth. PS3 users can still plug a keyboard into their PS3 console to communicate with their fellow players. I tried using both keyboard/mouse, as well as controller/keyboard combo, and I prefer the controller and keyboard. The movement and attacks were very fluid on the controller, and I felt as though I were playing a traditional sandbox action RPG. Some of the other actions simply felt better on the controller, such as opening the map or my journal to see what to do/where to go next. The keyboard was clunky in comparison.
The action in DCUO is fairly fast-paced, where you fly, jump, or run across large cities causing mayhem or saving the day as only a superhero can. There are lots of options for missions you can tackle, though, as in any MMO, they can become tedious with lengthy time invested. The PVE Mission types are as follows:
Mentor-Based Missions: Heroes and Villains both have a trio of main characters that represent power styles: Metahumans (Superman and Lex Luthor), Magic-based characters (Wonder Woman and Circe), and Tech-based characters (Batman and The Joker). These characters determine your main storyline progression throughout the game. At 1, 15, and 30, you are given special missions by your mentor. You can have others join these with you, and you yourself can join others, provided someone in the party has access.
Alerts: Alerts are instance-style missions where a group of four heroes or villains work together to accomplish a series of quests/goals within the instance. The first one you gain access to as a player is solo-only, but all others are group-oriented. These alerts take the players to a variety of areas, such as Bludhaven, the H.I.V.E. Moon Base, and plenty of others. At level 30, there are tiers of difficulty in these missions, which have requirements of increasing combat strength (similar to World of Warcraft’s item-level requirements).
Bounties: Bounties are encounters in the safe houses or in the Central City, which are harder than normal grunts or villains. They are expected to be group encounters, and after an initial completion, they become a daily quest that you can complete for small rewards and faction reputation. The bounties are a host of major players from the DC Universe, ranging from Power Girl, Solomon Grundy, to low-level characters like The Top, or obscure characters such as Doctor Fate. The cast is quite varied, and offer a fun, interesting challenge.
Freelance: Freelance missions are not assigned by important characters, but by typically men and women made up for the sake of the game. These are standard MMO quests that the characters can choose to take or not to take, and do not necessarily impact the game one way or another.
Exploration: Exploration missions were probably my favorite, but not for the reason that one might think. Scattered throughout areas are kiosks with video cameras attached to them. These are coupled by a narration by Booster Gold, my favorite character in the DC Universe, good or evil. These missions are essentially tours of Gotham City and Metropolis, and were an entertaining way to learn more about the world, and get a good idea of where things are in the cities in general.
Mass Murder isn’t so bad:
There are two servers for DCUO: PVP, and PVE. In Player versus Player (PVP), the game feels more like a comic book, with heroes and villains able to duke it out in the streets, attacking each other at a whim. While this can be incredibly challenging if one is not skilled at action RPGs, and the griefing and spam-killing can certainly be an issue, it is a more authentic experience of being a hero or a villain. Characters in comics that have died (with the exception of perhaps Uncle Ben, and the Human Torch? Did he stay dead?) have come back, and so do you! I would recommend at least giving the PVP servers a try, to see if it fits your gameplay style.
Player versus Environment (PVE) and Player versus Player servers are the same in all aspects, except for open-world PVP, which is described above. However, the PVE server has an option, just as the PVP server does, for those who wish to whet their combative, competitive whistle. There are PVP Arenas scattered throughout the world that have a variety of settings, from 2v2 to 8v8, and a few modes to choose from, each arena having its own. Safehouses and Headquarters have random rules, while the others have familiar faces such as “Team Deathmatch”, “King of the Hill”, and “Capture the Flag”. However, Safehouse/Headquarters PVP requires DLC (The Last Laugh).
And of course, there are Raids. Much like any MMO, there are End-Game raids where a group of players (in this case 8) get together to team up and fight a variety of challenges presented to them by the game. Raids are only accessible by setting yourself as On-Duty, and being level 30. Additional requirements are Combat Rating, and DLC. Having a subscription nullifies the DLC requirement, but the Combat Rating does not change. There are tiers of raids as well, progressively raising the bar on requirements as you progress.
Final Judgment: Great
Taken for what it is, a F2P MMO based in the fictional world of the DC Universe’s Earth, DCUO is a fantastic title. It does not penalize you too harshly for not choosing to pay, and there are rewards for choosing to do so. You can also simply purchase the DLC, for a flat one-time price, and resume your gameplay. While it is certainly no “WoW-killer”, it is this writer’s opinion that no MMO is truly “better” than the other. Each has its own merits and flaws. There is a lot to be said about flying around, and it feels fantastic punishing villains and heroes. It is sort of like relieving the youthful excitement of comic books.
The graphics are certainly no Skyrim, but it is no Runescape either. The graphics are decent, and certainly have a comic-book appeal, and this is nothing to be scoffed at. The game has a certain look and feel that truly encapsulates what it needs to, but they could certainly be sharper.
Being able to use a controller for this game was the best thing about the controls. While the menus are a little wonky with just a controller, coupling it with a keyboard maximizes efficiency. If you as a player are skilled at using both at the same time, or switching between the two, you will not have any problems. But still, they are a little clunky from time to time.
While the customization is not as strong as I would like, there is quite possibly always something to do in your play of DCUO. Some of it might get a little tedious or repetitive, but such is the nature of MMOs at large. Gameplay is fun and interesting, and you can make quite diverse characters with the two free slots allowed in the base game.
The music is suitably heroic and solid, but that is not where I got the score from. The sounds are what really sold this category for me. The sound effects feel like a super hero cartoon should, or what you might see in bubbles in a comic book. The voices are a collection of some of the greatest voices in Hollywood. Mark Hamil (Joker), Adam Baldwin (Superman), and Wil Wheaton (Robin), just to name a few. All in all, the sounds really sound authentic.