It’s almost exactly six years since World of Warcraft was released in Europe. In those six years Blizzard’s behemoth has conquered everything in its path, leaving a bloody cleave in the chest of every triple-A MMO that dared to challenge it. There have been a few minor successes, MMOs that have forged their own niche and remained profitable, but there are far more horror stories – games that disappeared without a trace, or collapsed under the weight of their own expectations. None have come close to WoW’s player numbers, none have managed to cultivate such a fervent and dedicated fan base and none have found their way so successfully into the public consciousness.
Into this barren wasteland, a new challenger strides, sporting a license that can boast a fan base that’s just as rabid, if not more so, than WoW’s – DC Universe Online. Created by Sony Online Entertainment, with input from plenty of artists and writers from the DC stable, DCUO has a decent pedigree behind it, but with such a mountain to climb it’s going to need more than that to succeed.
The game lets you choose to play either as a villain, mentored by the worst of the worst of DC history, including the Joker and Lex Luthor, or a Hero, guided by Batman, Superman and a whole swathe of other household names. The character creation itself is superb. You chose one of three styles of movement – flying, speedster or acrobat – and one of three builds – giant, normal or small, and from there are given free range to create whatever twisted perversion of humanity you’d like. Some of the creations wandering around the game, even at this early stage, are mightily impressive, but if building a look is not for you, there are some presets you can use to bypass that part of the process.
Then you pick your fighting style, your powers and your mentor. The fighting styles range from rifles to kung fu, via bows and arrows and giant hammers. Your powers determine your role within the game, whether you’re a damage dealer, a healer, a tank or a controller, there are plenty of different options available. The mentor you choose determines what iconic powers you have access to and who you’ll hear yabbering at you throughout big parts of your crime fighting/creating career.
The game world is made up of Metropolis, Superman’s home city, and Gotham, Batman’s base of operations. Instances take place in all manner of other DCU staples, including Arkham Asylum and Stryker’s Island. Each faction also has its own central hub, with heroes stationed on the Justice League Watchtower and villains housed at The Legion of Doom Headquarters. All the trappings of an MMO are on show here from fetch and carry quests to dungeon based instances, from PvP arenas to steadily filling XP bars.
DCUO is certainly dressed in MMO clothing, but it avoids a lot of the problems of other games in the genre. There’s none of the grinding of the asian-centric MMOs, rather a focus on completing short, story based quest bursts. There are side quests, but they’re almost always grouped in and around the main quests you’re dealing with, meaning you can complete them whilst you deal with the story. There’s also none of the makeshift look of WoW where your character can end up looking like a multicoloured, violence hobo. You can lock your original clothing choices, letting you keep the same look all the way through the game, if you’re so inclined.
Exploration is encouraged to a far greater level than it is in any other MMO, with quests handed out by vending machines in safe houses that task you with visiting famous locations around the world. There’s a lot to find as well, with Metropolis in particular a truly massive playing arena. Quite often the game plays more like a sandbox title than a true MMO, and with the whole of the city as a playground it’s an enjoyable diversion from the quests. There are even races to participate in, if that’s what tickles your fancy, with quicker times getting more XP.
This is certainly the best console based MMO out there. That’s not saying much, but if you’re looking for some online action with a controller instead of a keyboard and mouse, then look no further. The frenetic combat is perfectly suited to a pad, and the more pick up and play nature of the experience sits better with the console market than it does on the PC. But, and this is a big but, DCUO has some problems.
Firstly, as large as the playing area is, it often feels utterly devoid of life. Skyscrapers tower over you, but the streets are almost always empty. The odd car drifts past, ghost-like, but other than that the only people in the game are other players. It may seem like a strange thing to pick on, but an MMO needs to make you feel like you’re part of a living, breathing world, and DCUO fails to do that.
Then, there’s the problem with repetition. Sure, the game has got rid of one type of grind, but after a while, you realise it’s replaced it with another. There are some excellent, exciting set pieces, but they’re rare, and in between them you’re killing people and collecting things ad infinitum. When you’ve beaten up your millionth drone you start feeling less like a super-powered legend and more like unappreciated hired muscle.
There are bugs too, from overlapping audio to some huge texture pop in. More than once as well, the game suffered some terrible slowdown, making it almost impossible to play until after a restart. Also, for some reason the game makes you accept its terms and conditions every time you want to play it. A lot of these problems can, and hopefully will, be patched soon, but what really needs to be dealt with is a far more fundamental issue – a crisis of identity.
DCUO just doesn’t know what it is. As an action game it would be perfectly average, but as an MMO, and with the subscription fees that entails, it’s a more difficult proposition. It’s a lot of fun, and at times definitely justifies the £9.99 a month asking price, but at others the lack of polish makes it a tough sell. For DC fans, playing with your heroes is a real treat, but for the rest of the world there’s no real hook, save for the novelty of playing an MMO on your PS3.
It’s entirely possible that in six months time DC Universe Online will be a must have. If the niggling problems are cleared up, and SOE get a better hold of the direction they want the title to be heading in, then there’s no doubt that the game will be a classic. As it stands, the foundations are in place, and when you’re playing with your friends it’s a good experience, but it lacks the spark to push it into the upper echelons of the MMO pantheon.
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