This was always going to be a tricky prospect. Carving out a niche within a comic-book inspired MMO space that already includes the likes ofChampions Online and City of Heroes would be a daunting task for any developer, but securing the full DC license at least gave Sony Online Entertainment a sliver of a chance to produce something that wasn’t just another me-too cel-shaded grind. Indeed, on hearing news that DC promisedno grind at all and a fully-featured PS3 version that played well at trade shows, it all seemed a little too good to be true.
On sampling both the closed beta and the final release for a couple of weeks, in some respects the legion of forum-dwelling console MMO nay-sayers now hold more than enough ammunition to prove them correct. Whilst in others, SOE should be commended for the job they’ve done – at the very least in crudely attempting to shake up the formula and inject a little action.
It all begins as if cast directly from a standard MMO template though, and DC’s flimsy story is set in an alternative universe in which Lex Luthor effectively destroys the world before handing everybody superpowers to gang up against Braniac’s hordes of invaders. Character creation is deep without ever matching the legion of costume options offered by its peers, and you also get the chance to align yourself to a hero or villain mentor from several iconic choices including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Joker. These essentially act as your selection between the two major factions within Metropolis and Gotham, whose well-formed streets act as starting zones and the hub of most of the questing activity during a quick 30-level content run.
Dropping into these cities after the lengthy tutorial will feel immediately familiar for any seasoned MMO player. Storyline quests are clearly marked, side-quest characters hang around in each of the combat zones, and a variety of shops, information points and transportation systems litter the remainder of the environment. Instances are sparingly used at lower levels, and the game funnels heroes and villains together at intelligently designed quest locations that encourage PvP sparring. Ganking can be frequent at times, but the pace of recovery and frenetic flow of incoming players usually ensures a successful return and a swift delivery of justice.
The lower levels of DC Universe essentially see all players acting as damage-dealers, with the ability to swap out for support and healing varieties later on. Character progression is handled with tried-and-tested XP bars and skill points to throw into whichever facets of the fairly dense tree that you wish, and a cheap reset can be purchased at any time from the spectacular Justice League Watchtower or Legion of Doom headquarters. There is a general lack of variety here though, and with so many of the skills and attacks mimicked between the various classes, much of DC’s playerbase ends up animating from the same basic toolset.
So far, so MMO-lite then, but DC does at least attempt to move in a different direction when it comes to its core combat engine. Attacks are mapped directly to a third-person action control setup, with ranged and melee separated onto different buttons and skills accessible by pulling either trigger and a corresponding button. Given the setup, combat encounters have a little more rhythm than your average hotbar-queue as a result, with dynamic blocking and combo-chaining required to finish off many of the trickier enemies. Juggling your foes Kratos-style is occasionally possible with good planning, and PvP benefits no end from such a relatively fluid system.
The problems soon mount however. This is, after all, an MMO, meaning that much of that same combat is hampered by the general input lag that centers around all games in the genre. When the frame-rate holds up and the player population is sparse, combat in DC Online can approach the feel of a middling action title, but it never progresses beyond that, frequently falling back on hammering the same few skills over and over. For all its good intentions, the revamped engine ultimately fails to be the crucial hook that SOE needed to make the experience a success, but it is nevertheless an interesting experiment in a fairly moribund genre.
Unfortunately the rest of the faults are a little less forgivable. Quest content suffers from a dearth of innovation, and usually comprises ‘killing x number of enemies’ whilst ‘carrying x number of objects to a designated area’ in order to progress. You’re treated to instanced encounters with DC’s major characters at preset levels, but again these fall flat, and the legendary heroes and villains that fight by your side are never revealed to be any more potent than a standard NPC. There’s a real missed opportunity there to flesh out those encounters for the better, and a world of cinematic set pieces that could have been conjured in place of the drab sequences in the final product. That oversight is made all the more apparent by the attention lavished on the rest of the environments, which are spectacularly rendered and moodily lit.
And whilst it’s true that there is no real grind to speak of in DC Universe and you’ll not be repeating any quests to level up, there’s not a whole lot of content available as an alternative. Plotlines and side-quests soon begin to run together, and just before the entire experience begins to feel like one long grind in itself, you’ll max out your character to level 30 and discover that’s pretty much your lot. High-level instances and hardcore modes will entertain a select portion of the playerbase, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a draw for other subscribers that can effectively max out a single character and see everything there is to see within a week or two. Or a few days, if you invest the time.
It’ll be interesting to see where DC goes from here then, because – despite my misgivings over structure and content – there is the genesis of an entertaining experience within. Even if you end up playing as a content tourist for a couple of days, the environments and PvP experiences are worth seeing, but expect to be reaching for the cancel button unless some extensive content is patched in post-release. The locations are lovingly designed and interesting to explore by foot or air (however PS3 owners, beware a choppy frame-rate and some bad pop-in), but once you’ve taken that diverting holiday in DC’s Universe, beware you might not ever want to return.