I’m More Than a Bird, I’m More Than a Plane…
A Video Game Review of DC Universe Online for PS3
By: Lawrence Napoli
DC Universe Online is the most highly anticipated MMO game (Massively Multiplayer Online) to hit home entertainment since the dawn of this genre of gaming because it takes full advantage of one of the most cherished caches of intellectual property by all the major houses of geek: video games, comic books, movies and manga. This game gives the player an opportunity to fabricate a unique superhuman with heroic or villainous tendencies and instantly place them on par with such icons as Superman, Batman, Lex Luthor and the Joker. Collaboration between DC and Sony Computer Entertainment seems like the no-brainer of the century considering how profitable the video game industry has become in recent history. However, the sub-genre of the MMO is far from a sure thing as the entire structure of this game type is only as strong as the player community that supports it. Put plainly: Star Wars Galaxies got it wrong and World of Warcraft got it right and the only reason for this is that one was a superior game to the other and people will always gravitate to that which is better.
DCU is taking a bit of a gamble by competing against Warcraft in an attempt to be one of the few thriving MMO communities that charges monthly fees for access to the game in addition to the initial software purchase. The monthly fee is a major reason why gamers rarely split their attention to multiple MMOs. It is very different from investing in several games that have been released in a certain block of time because the money has already been spent for those games and whether the player begins playing it right away or temporarily places it on his or her back-log is immaterial. With MMOs, you are paying all the time so the thought process is that you should be playing regularly, if not daily, to get your money’s worth. No one has been able to make an MMO succeed on a home counsel like the PS3 the way they have for the PC. Counsel gamers tend to be a tad more casual as opposed to rabid PC gamers who eat, rarely sleep, maybe work and then game with keyboard and mouse in hand with every waking minute. I don’t ever recall this manner of behavior consuming an individual video-gamer and perhaps some significant blame can be attributed to the existence of the monthly fee. If the individual was not compelled to pay a usage fee whether it is used or not, perhaps they’d be less compelled to use all the time? That, of course, is the subject of another article. Now, on with the review!
Story and Setup
As opposed to most narrative video games, story is not a significant hook to the player for an MMO game; it’s the idea of vicarious simulation and high customization in an enveloping fictional world. DCU Online produces a very generic setup that conveniently explains why the gamer is creating a super human for this world in the first place: Lex Luthor finally kills the Justice League while Brainiac invades and takes over the Earth, prompting Luthor to travel back in time to release “exobytes” that radiate the globe’s populace with super powers in an attempt to organize and repel Brainiac’s eventual invasion. Yep, you’ve probably heard, read or seen all this before in some form or another, but like I said, the overall story to this game is not very important. What is somewhat intriguing about the story is how it is fragmented into the various missions that players engage in while leveling up their character.
One may begin running sabotage missions for the Joker, only to break off to perform favors for Two-Face while at the same time preparing to backstab Mr. Freeze to steal something for Joker who has been manipulating your character all the time. On the surface, this example sounds quite exciting, but the execution of this chain of events is linear and the only choice given to the player is to stop doing that series of tasks in order to begin another. There is no ability to “refuse” a mission, complete it in a different manner or antagonize any alpha personality of DCU as a result that happens to share your alignment as either a hero or a villain. Thus, there is no way to alter the story that your character is privy to outside of the order in which the story is told through missions. What makes this situation even worse is that if one begins a character on the opposing faction, the missions are exactly the same with only some circumstantial differences. One example would be when Joker makes a villain kill Bane and sends in Killer Croc as back up. The heroic version has Batman sending you to “subdue” Bane while sending in Nightwing in as backup.
Once the nostalgia of DCU Online wears off, this kind of repetition begins to test the player’s patience. It becomes especially problematic if one plays the game to achieve all of the PS3 trophies by maxing out characters for each available mentor: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Joker and Circe. I have created all of these characters for my account and have max leveled only one and I am already getting bored of the same orders getting barked to me through different voices.
The full motion video cut scene (that also happens to be the trailer for DCU Online) is a very impressive CG interpretation of the DC characters in action. However, this sequence is the only cut scene of graphic brilliance that is currently available for this game at this time. Whenever players complete a series of tasks for any alpha personalities in DCU Online, they are rewarded with somewhat of a motion-comic sequence that explains a little about the character they just defeated. Even casual fans of DC like myself, know enough about the main characters to find these motion comics to be pointless and instantly skipped in order to return to gameplay. What truly would have been graphically remarkable is if the in game look of the world and the characters had the same level of detail as game like Arkham Asylum, a video game lauded for such detail. Unfortunately, even the limited scope of DCU Online is far too massive for such a code-writing undertaking. Despite the limitations of technology, the level of graphical detail is one or two steps below that of World of Warcraft. In fact, I’d place the in-game graphics of DCU Online at a level somewhere between N64 and Game Cube/Wii quality.
The sound effects for the various movements, weapons and powers throughout the game are more than acceptable, but I must say that the voice acting (short of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil as Batman and Joker respectively) is uninspired. In a game where the main interaction with the most famous DC heroes and villains is through radio contact, one would presume voice talent to be a priority. Every character’s voice not named Batman and Joker is just way off and that is a testament to the high quality voice work in both Batman and Superman animated series in addition to Justice League and Unlimited. Why all the original voice actors were not hired is beyond me, but I suspect an opportunity to cut costs as the culprit.
The true strength of DCU Online lies in the gameplay and specifically the feel it gives you as you navigate your avatar through this virtual world. Moving with the ability of flight, or super-speed or the agility of an acrobat are all very balanced, not difficult to master and quite satisfying as you leave non super-powered NPCs (Non Player Character) in your dust. Basic combat evolves at the player’s discretion based on which skill tree he or she wishes to explore. What’s great about this game is the fact that one is not compelled to construct a character (and limit movement options) based purely on the power type that is chosen at the onset. In fact, one can customize their character to have movement and attack options based on their powers, their weapons, their movement style or any combination in between. Want to be able to dual wield pistols like Neo in The Matrix? Check. Want to be able to lay waste to the ground like a meteor? Done. Want to be able to run up the side of the tallest building? No problem.
Combat against NPCs is relatively user friendly as an auto target option is selected as the default for every character created. Simply facing your character towards the closest enemy will work most of the time, but is not nearly as crisp as the ping/counter combat of Arkham Asylum. The ability to toggle between auto-aim and click aiming is a welcome option especially to character builds that focus on ranged attacks and prefer to stay away from the epicenter of a brawl. What makes the combat of DCU Online superior to World of Warcraft is the fact that it mixes cool-down commands (hit a button and cast a spell) with a combo system (hit buttons and hold buttons in the right order to produce specific effects). This adds a much more frantic pace and sense of urgency to combat situations and forces your character and your thumbs to be nimble in order to survive.
Character movement in and out of combat is somewhat of a mixed bag. Let’s say you unlock supersonic flight in your flight tree of skills. If you are engaged by even one NPC, you will not be able to perform that speed until you kill it or run away/float away at a normal (slow) pace where the NPC gets out of range, or returns to its spawn point. Basically, pulling off moves like Flash punching Darkseid in the gut and then running around the world to follow up with a kidney blow from behind is impossible for this game, but by no means a deal-breaker. There are more than enough movement options in this game to maintain a very specific sense of being “super” throughout which is extremely satisfying and rarely gets old whether you’re fighting Gorilla Grod himself or his ape peons.
Unfortunately, not all of the controller commands in DCU Online are as fluid as combat and the menu system is perhaps the worst example of this. Even if your character is in a non-combat environment where there isn’t a lot of animation happening in the background, simply bringing up the menu is consistently laggy. Continuing to navigate through the menus to tinker with your powers or your equipment is frustrating as it often requires multiple clicks to get the menu to respond. Also when new gear is actually equipped, the game sometimes does not recognize a change and you need to un-equip, then re-equip in the menu at least once to make sure you are using what you want. Another menu option is the appearance tab that allows you the option of having your character’s appearance altered by the gear they use or not by locking or unlocking everything from the shoes you wear to the sword you wield. This too is unreliably responsive as I always have the “looks” options locked in every category only to find the game making character changes on its own whenever I equip anything new. Lastly, the in game chat system is an absolute chore where you not only have to deal with the regular menu lag, but sometimes losing the option highlight all together within the chat tab to what I presume is even more lag. Communication in the DCU Online community outside of inviting strangers to your party is a big hassle and unless you are using a mic, you won’t want to talk to anyone!
And speaking of the mic option, this too is another problem with functionality within DCU Online. Before I log on to each and every session, I reconfigure my mic through the PS3 main menu to assure that the mic is engaged and the levels are appropriate. When I log in and join my party, no one can hear me and I cannot hear any of my party. This is a big time problem that has recently developed as it had been a non-issue in the first week of this game’s release. I am uncertain if loading Ventrilo to my PS3 and using that as the communication option is either reliable or available, but I am currently looking into any option to make party communication less of a plague to my existence.
DCU Online is not a very polished game. It is a very flawed game that gets a pass from me at various levels due to its strong nostalgia and gameplay features. At this point in time, I can state with certainty that I will shelf this game as soon as I earn all the trophies and will only consider reinvesting when expansions are released or they re-patch the entire game. I will not subject myself to $15 dollars a month to further enhance my max level character(s) in a community that has recently become so sensitive to server crashes, maintenance and severe lag. I still have about 2/3 of a month left on my free trial to earn all my trophies, but if need be, I’ll fork over one additional monthly installment. After having witnessed this game’s many faults, I can see why the one time subscription fee of $199 dollars was not, and I presume will never be, an option for PS3 players. No one would take it.
At this point I am certain the reader is detecting a faint sense of negativity in this article. I don’t wish gloom and doom on this game because what I have experienced thus far has been quite enjoyable. Beating down the big blue boy scout (Superman) with a bunch of your friends is truly rewarding. Making characters inspired by the Marvel Universe or anything else for that matter (I saw “Kanye West” the other day) is extremely amusing as some players showcase some serious creativity with the limited create-a-character options in the beginning. At the same time, there are too many aspects of this game that holds it back from base functionality. Getting kicked from the server randomly is extremely frustrating as are the occasional moments where the game just freezes up whether you are engaging a menu option or not. I just want the bloody thing to work and I find it quite ironic that I am currently finding the time to compose this article because the servers are down.
I would not recommend this game to MMO aficionados. I would fear for their violent reactions. I wouldn’t even recommend this game to casual gamers because quite frankly, there are better action games out there (Uncharted anyone?). I do recommend this game to the in-betweeners: the people who know enough about DC, MMOs and video games in general to be allured by the experience of actually being a super human in some limited capacity. I haven’t black-listed DCU Online yet, but the clock is ticking and my budget for disposable income is dwindling.