While World of Warcraft is the most popular MMO on the planet, there are plenty of others that are not quite as popular but are still pretty darn good. Of these, the one that always comes to mind for me is City of Heroes, where players are allowed to create their own superheroes (and in later expansions, villains) and save the day with amazing powers. It's a nice variation from the usual swords-and-sorcery tropes that make up most MMOs. When I play City of Heroes, I always feel that the heroes don't quite measure up to the real thing. The player-created ones are fun, but getting missions from Statesman isn't quite the same as meeting up with Superman or Spider-Man. In a way, it's surprising that it has taken this long for DC or Marvel to jump on the superhero bandwagon, although there have been previous failed attempts. DC Universe Online is the latest online multiplayer game where players can make their own heroes and go up against the forces of evil. Perhaps intelligently, it's not quite a City of Heroes clone, and that prevents it from feeling too derivative.
DC Universe isn't even quite a MMORPG; although it has a lot of expected features, such as guilds and raids, it's actually more in line with a hack-and-slash title. The game is heavily instance-based, and the quests are called issues. You fight through waves of adversaries and then beat up a boss. The action appears to be skill-based, so who and where you hit depends far more on your timing and actions than it does dice rolls and stats. Depending on your set of powers, you can use different gadgets and abilities. For example, we saw the player create a giant ball of ice that could be tossed at opponents. We could also whip out dual katanas to cut our foes to pieces or freeze an enemy solid with a rain of ice. Other heroes can pull enemies closer with a Batman bat-grapple or trap a foe in a ball of energy, which can then be lifted and hurled at another baddie. There are also items that can be used, such as iconic fake DC soft drink Soder Cola, which grants a recovery effect. Skills run on a cool-down timer, so you can't spam your best moves over and over again. There will be a leveling system in place, so you can also upgrade your moves and gadgets as you get more powerful.
The reason for the lighter RPG mechanics seems fairly straightforward. DC Universe Online isn't only a PC game, but also a PlayStation 3 title. While there will be no cross-platform play, the game has to be designed to appeal to both audiences. It's relatively easy to make a multiplayer online RPG for a PC, but making one for a console is a lot tougher. It's really important to have access to all your powers at the touch of a button, and that's a lot harder to do on a console. We got a little hands-on time with the PS3 version, and it works quite well. We had a relatively limited set of gadgets and powers, but we could access all of them by using a combination of the shoulder and face buttons. This contributed to the hack-and-slash feel, but it also makes the game easy to pick up. Even when I jumped into a higher-level PvP instance, I didn't have trouble figuring out how to play. I can see this game being a hard sell to PC players, but it has the potential to be something that console gamers don't often get.
In our brief demo, we got to see a Batman-inspired hero in a Waynetech suit trying to take down Harley Quinn. It seems the villain has kidnapped Robin, and Batman would rather we save the Boy Wonder instead of doing it himself. The player must beat up hordes of enemies using his close-combat powers and his nifty bat-gadgets. Blocking and dodging properly play into the game, as opposed to the positioning and stat crunching that you usually see. We eventually reach Harley, who is a boss fight. She starts off functioning like a stronger version of the foes we'd seen thus far, but after taking enough damage, she begins to flip out and chase us around the room, smashing her hammer like Mario in Donkey Kong. We have to keep our distance because getting caught by the hammer means you get pounded painfully into the ground. Defeating Harley lets the player rescue Robin and earns a rare loot drop.
An interesting element is how your costume works. By doing quests in the main game, you'll obtain new pieces of equipment for your character. Doing quests for Batman can make him build you a suit of Bat Power Armor, which you can equip for nice stat boosts. On the other hand, if you beat up Harley Quinn and steal her hat, you can wear it yourself. Seeing a grim dark avenger wearing Harley's hat is pretty silly, even if you can recolor it to look less goofy. The nice part about the game is that what you wear is separate from the stat boosts that you get from equipment. When you find something, you can choose to equip it or just equip the stat effect. If you wanted the effect of Harley's hat while still keeping your current look, it's entirely possible.
After defeating Harley, we got a glimpse of our first story sequence, which is a brief, self-narrated autobiography of Harley Quinn, told in semi-animated comic book art style and with art done by Jim Lee. It was short but gave a pretty clear and concise summary of who Harley Quinn is and why you should care that you're beating her up. It's not a particularly huge surprise to comic fans, but it's a nice way to introduce more casual players to the DC universe. The cut scene was interesting for some backstory, but it also gives players an indication of their power level. Since you're fighting The Joker's sidekick and rescuing Batman's sidekick, you're not exactly a big-name hero, so it makes it interesting to see what the game does when you finally reach the point where you're fighting Lex Luthor or The Joker.
In fact, we're told that's actually going to be a big part of DC Universe Online. You can choose to play as a superhero or supervillain, but that doesn't mean you're instantly in the big leagues. You start out fighting the lesser-known baddies and helping out the weaker heroes, and you slowly build your way up to the big time. While low-level adventures may pit you against weak foes, higher-level content may bring you against guys like Doomsday, the terrible monster who killed Superman. Your main story is supposed to take you through your hero's journey, from newbie to legend. Afterward, there will be content for players who've become heroes, such as PvP and cooperative raids. The latter are supposed to be similar to the adventures of the Justice League, so one hero can't save the day on his own.
The cast in DC Universe Online is currently based on the "classic" versions of the characters. It's not based on a particular story line but tries to familiarize players with the heroes and villains of the universe. As such, the Batman who appears in the game is Bruce Wayne, even though current comic books have Dick Grayson as the man behind the cowl. That doesn't mean that the title will forever remain in an era of Silver age nostalgia. We were informed that while the initial version of the story will have classic heroes, they intend to update the content regularly with new superhero stories, including some based on the comics. It was stressed that DC Universe Online is its own thing, and just because a major event occurs in the comic books or movies doesn't mean that it will be mimicked in-game.
DC Universe Online may not be exactly a full-fledged MMO, but it's close enough to be interesting. Most of the changes appear to have been made so that it's more palatable for console gamers, and the PlayStation 3 version actually feels exceedingly natural. The concept of a massive multiplayer hack-and-slash for the PS3 is a deeply welcome one, and if the game can provide a constantly updated MMO-style world with easy-to-learn light RPG mechanics, it'll be ridiculously addictive. I'm a little more worried about the PC version and how it will feel with a game so clearly made for consoles, but what we saw looked fairly solid.
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