Review / DC Universe Online (PS3)

It’s been quite a week; I’ve scaled skyscrapers, transformed into a gorilla, teamed up with a giant crocodile and even taken down Batman. Not bad for seven days in Metropolis.

No, don’t call for the men in white coats; I’m talking about DC Universe Online, Sony Online Entertainment’s super-powered MMO for PS3 and PC. SOE’s aim – if you didn’t already know – was to create a world where you can make the super hero or villain you’ve always dreamed about, then team up with or take down your favourite DC characters. It certainly delivers on a lot of this promise, but does that make for a fun game?

Just a quick side-note, TVGB played the PS3 version for this review. We’ve got a little experience on the PC side of things but for the most part, issues stressed here may relate directly to this version of the game.

DCUO is a landmark title even before you pop it in the disc tray/console. This is the PS3’s first MMO. I’m also not much of a PC guy, so it’s my first MMO too, putting me in the same shoes as many other PS3 players. SOE have several MMO projects lined-up for Sony’s system, but DC Universe feels like it was the right place to start, pulling in comic book nerds such as myself and keeping them there with what feels like a simple introduction to the MMO genre rather than hugely confusing fantasy titles with spells, potions, and classes to wrap your brain around.

When you boot up the game you’ll jump straight into character creation (after a massive install that is). Here’s where you make the major decisions; you’re faction, your powers, and your mentor. Mentors serve as your primary quest givers, and there are three for both heroes and villains. Heroes choose from Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman while the baddies have Joker, Lex Luthor, and Cirque. They’re the obvious choices for mentors, although we’re guessing not many people have chosen poor old Cirque. Once you’ve made a character you’ll be dropped into the world and they’ll give you tasks almost straight away.

Character creation itself is easy and quite fun, although missing a few features. You’ll pick from a range of super power types such as ice, fire, or a mastery of gadgets. These powers will dictate your move sets for the rest of the game, and there’s a good variety on offer, although I was immediately disappointed to find the lack of an electric class. There’s also three movement types, speedster, flight, and acrobatic. Again, these are all fun to use, although with so few available it prevents your character from being totally unique.

After that you can pick a weapon for your combo and standard attacks and then it’s off to design a costume. There’s plenty of costume pieces for you to hand pick and perfect your character’s look, but without the option to add custom pieces you’ll never move far away from the generic bad guy tough look or noble super hero stance.

Once all of that’s out of the way it’s finally play time. DCUO plays out as a third-person RPG that’s actually comparable to Knights of the Old Republic, with a hint of action games like God of War thrown in. Battles are real time with your character carrying out attacks as soon as you press the button. After a boring tutorial that tries to explain the near non-existent plot to defend the world from Superman villain Brainiac, you’re dropped into the big wide world of DC to do pretty much whatever you please.

Primary quests take up the bulk of your time, which always consist of a group of smaller tasks that build up to a mini-dungeon with a famous DC character acting as a boss. Each set of objectives comes with a secondary task that you’ll get from characters standing near your destination. You’ll move to one area, complete about three or four objectives, then move to the next, and so on until the quest chain is complete.

You’ll notice this formula quickly and get bored of it pretty quickly too; DC Universe is the very definition of repetition when it comes to mission objectives. You’ll always have to kill a certain amount of enemies, fix a certain amount of one object, and then gather one or two more items. The game throws a few defense missions in later on, and even some objectives that transform you into zombies, gorillas and demons, but it never strays too far from the same old objective types.

That doesn’t write the game off though, as fun combat and fast levelling quickly make quests more of a fix than a chore anyway. You get two standard attacks through simple button presses, and then a power tray at the bottom gives you six different moves based on your chosen super power. Using powers depletes a meter that gets filled back up as you beat enemies or recharge away from battle. Each power set has a range of offensive and defensive abilities, easily allowing you to fine tune your character. You’ll also have access to Iconic Powers, letting you use familiar attacks from DC characters.

Standard attacks can build up combos to pile on more damage or pull a move that stuns your enemies. With a combination of powers and weapons you can build a really cool character, like my (now level 30) ice ninja that tosses out icey shurikens which freeze enemies where they stand.

Constant levelling really helps the pace; you can reach DCUO’s level cap at 30 in a week with ease, and if you group up with friends it’ll take much less time than that. Levelling up every few missions always gives you the desire to push on. Each time you complete an objective the game will drop a healthy amount of experience points on you. When you earn enough to level up it usually means you can either spend one power point to level up your powers, or a skill point to upgrade your weapon attacks or movement type.

It won’t directly change your stats though, rather your stat modifiers. This means that gear like armour completely controls the strength of your character. As you upgrade, your stat modifiers improve the usefulness of your gear. I’d have preferred to work with the traditional stat-boosting levelling, as I don’t really like the fuss of organising and maintaining gear, and it’s hard to know how much progress you’re making between levels, but it’s easier to manage than I expected.

If you want to get through the game fast, then you’ll need to group. It makes quests super-easy and speeds up the levelling ten-fold. However the biggest problem with the PS3 version arises here. For a new player that doesn’t know anyone online, grouping is just too hard. Your best bet is to stand near your objective, use the awful PS3 interface to type in a message asking for help, and pray that nearby allies respond.

More often than not, they won’t. I wasted a good few days stuck on level 20, asking a ton of people to help me out with the Flash, but it took ages for me to finally group up. This is obvious easier on PC and by the time I did group up, I ripped through that level and advanced all the way up to 25 in the space of about two hours. It’s a little unbalanced for someone wanting to go solo to say the least. SOE should really implement the queuing system used elsewhere to get groups of people lining up to tackle the missions they need to do together.

Primary quests aren’t the only thing to try out in DC Universe; you can find a range of scenarios and PvP matches to play out on your menu. Alerts are like WoW’s instances, sending you to a new area in a group and setting you a bunch of objectives. It’s cool to see new places and play team-focused battles, but it gets struck down by those same old objective types yet again. You’ll end up playing them because they drop a wealth of XP, not because they’re fun.

PvP leaves a fair bit to be desired, too. Capture the Flag and Zone battles are bland mission types that don’t exactly inspire you to keep up with this side of the game, and Legends PvP, which lets you finally control the famous DC cast and crew is just a fresh coat of paint on the same modes. Reaching the level cap also unlocks new modes like Raids (essentially bigger Alerts), and these do prove to be a bit more fun.

DC Universe works best when you stick in the over world, and I advise you stay there unless you’re in desperate need of XP.

Exploring a little will mean you stumble upon bounties, offering XP and money to take down specific characters, or races (which is a little odd given the genre). Tokens are dotted around the map that provide collectibles, or back story, giving you incentive to take a little down time in between quests.

It’s the use of the license that kept me coming back to DC Universe. The gameplay is certainly fun, but it’s bolstered by the fact it’s all taking place in iconic settings like Metropolis or Gotham, with Batman fighting by your side to take down The Joker. At times like this it really is a thrilling title, it’s just a shame you can hit a road block every once in a while, killing your progress.

I don’t just mean difficulty-wise either. There’s still a fair few glitches that need to be ironed out, even with SOE’s impressive job of patching in the game’s first two weeks. A couple of times the game outright froze up on me, or objectives didn’t trigger. Most disappointingly, the voice acting completely disappeared during an important level pitting me against the Titans. I had absolutely no clue why I was seemingly in hell and punching Nightwing in the face, which was a shame as it was the otherwise one of the cooler levels in the game. Still, the game isn’t anywhere near as plagued with these problems as I imagined it to be.

It runs at a solid frame rate though, never lagging too much. When you combine that with a great art style that really compliments the character models in the game, DC Universe gives off a great comic book vibe. Seeing your favourite characters roam around the screen is awesome, especially considering SOE has done justice to nearly every one of them in terms of voice work and models. Oh and yes, that is Mark Hamill you can hear playing The Joker, and yes, he’s awesome.

The soundtrack is a little dull, usually playing second fiddle to the big comic book WHACKS and POWS that come with every punch. Other than that the presentation meets a surprisingly high mark for an MMO, with good graphics and a large amount of voice work. It really nails the feeling of being in the world and being caught up in all of the super hero mumble jumble.

As a PS3 owner who never plays MMOs and loves comic books, I guess I’m pretty much the exact target audience for DC Universe. I found it to be an addictive, fun, though flawed and overly simple experience. I can understand more experienced MMO players wanting more, but it should serve as a strong entry-point for those looking to get into the genre. It’s got a tonne of content and a n00b-friendly structure, but it’s let down by failing to nail the most important parts like grouping.

It ends up feeling a little shallow despite how well some of it’s been put together. Missions need a little more excitement to them and Instances should prove to be completely different from the main game. But if you’re a DC fan that’s anywhere near experienced in RPGs, I’d say this one is definitely worth a look.

Most importantly DC bodes well for the future of MMO’s on PS3. Can SOE’s The Agency take it to the next step?

+ Strong use of license really carries the game
+ Constant levelling allows for an addictive pace
+ Strong technical performance that gives us confidence in the future of MMOs on PS3

– Mission variety is really lacking
– Grouping on PS3 is a pain and often unsuccessful
– Quests outside of the primary ones fail to inspire