DC Universe Online was exactly the game I wanted, in theory at least. I wanted to customise my own superhero, give him a needlessly complicated backstory and motivations, then teaming up with the greatest heroes in the DC universe to take on the baddest villains.
DC Universe Online delivers very little of that.
The story starts in the future, where a huge battle between various heroes and villains is taking place. After some impressive action, Lex Luthor emerges victorious, having killed the last of Earth’s heroes, only for Brainiac to descend on the now defenceless planet.
Finally seeing sense for once, Luthor travels back in time to warn the Justice League of the past about the danger. He then sends out “exobytes”, which are tiny robots stolen from Brainiac that hold powers from various heroes and villains, which give people powers. Thus the new super-beings must choose to be a hero or a villain and hopefully fight off the alien threat between robbing banks, saving civilians and camping each other’s respawn areas.
Character customisation in DC Universe Online is completely disappointing. Instead of being able to customise the size and shape of your hero, you have to pick from a small selection of body sizes. You can then select your alignment and personality, personality just changes the way your character stands when idle.
After that you choose your mentor, different mentors will give you different storylines to follow throughout the game, and represent where your powers come from. Batman and Joker represent tech based heroes/villains, Superman and Luthor mentor the genetically gifted, and Wonderwoman and Circe train the magically inclined.
Now we get to the meaty part of character creation, and where the game falls flat. You choose your powers, you can pick from eight power types: Fire, Ice, Gadgets, Light, Electricity, Earth, Mental and Sorcery. Except you can’t, because Electricity, Earth and Light are all locked in free to play, you need to purchase them. So new players are left with five powers to choose from, with no way to customise your powers beyond the initial selection. The DC Universe has a man that recited poetry to turn into a demon, a man that shrinks using a special belt, a man that wears clothes filled with unrepentant souls which give him power, and a super-strong ,shape-shifting, telepathic Martian. So why are the powers here so very limited?
Then you pick your movement style, and I love these. I deliberately made three characters just so I could try out every movement type. You have flight: fairly standard but easily the most useful of the three, super-speed which is a lot of fun but can be difficult to manoeuvre with in tight spaces, and acrobatics which basically means you run faster and jump higher.
Then you can pick your fighting style, there are significantly more of these, too many to list. There’s a good variety in them but what the game won’t tell you is that certain powers go better with certain fighting styles. You see each fighting style will grant your character different bonuses and stat boosts, so you could be crippling yourself right from the start if you don’t pick a good combination.
Finally there’s costume design. Originally I was severely disappointed at the lack of clothing options; I was completely unable to outfit my fire villain with an evening gown and sombrero, nor could my magical hero wear a hood that shrouds his face in shadow, but I soon found the solution. As you venture through the world and pick up new items to wear, you forever keep their appearance in your “collection”. This means that no-matter what you are wearing you can set your characters appearance as if he was wearing something else. Once I got out in the world I found a great variety of items to use.
After creating your character you need to name him. This took me ages because all the good names were taken, and I didn’t want to end up flying around as K177Z0Rxx like so many other heroes.
So I started by creating two characters: The Dapper Hat was my magical hero wielding dual guns, and Artic Flower was my icy fist-fighting villainess. This way I could compare the two and see how much variety there is in the gameplay. The answer is: surprisingly little. I took the time to level both characters to level 20 and spent most of my time clicking repeatedly on enemies to attack them. Occassionally I hit a number key to activate a power, but both characters ended up with a few long-ranged attacks, a few short-range and perhaps some knockbacks. The biggest difference between them was there movement style; Artic Flower’s super-speed was a lot of fun to play with, easily overshadowing The Dapper Hat’s acrobatic skill.
I have to say that the best thing about DC Universe Online is the fantastic storylines. Despite the masses of other players and the conversations concerning which DC and Marvel character should fight, the game always makes you feel like the main influential force in the world. You get asked (or ordered) personally by the greatest in the world, and why shouldn’t they ask for you? It was you that brought down Brainiac’s ship from the inside, it was you that stopped Faust, defeated Huntress and trounced the Teen Titans thus releasing Trigon into the world. Each questline is to do with some great plan that the Heroes or Villains have come up with, and it’s up to you to help or thwart it. After a few quests beating up minions and collecting items, you enter an instance where you usually team-up with one of the greats, like Catwoman or Zatanna to defeat whoever is inside.
Making the quests this personal and this grand might be the best way to stop, or at least put off, the grind that blights your standard MMO. Also having the quests described to you in sound and while moving means that you aren’t bogged down by lots of text and you don’t need to stay close to the npc.
Not that any of these acts have any lasting effect on the over-world. The game can sometimes shatter the hero fantasy if you dwell on such things for too long.
I personally opted to play on a PVP server, which was actually a lot of fun. Yes I occasionally got ganked by a passing level 30, but for the most part the heroes and villians leave each other alone. When I got in fights with players they were usually extremely one-sided, either I was being attacked by a small group or I was part of the group attacking. This probably wouldn’t have been such a big problem if I could have identified threats from a distance.
You see, everyone in DC Universe Online is a spandex-wearing colour explosion. So the difference between heroes and villains is expressed purely through the colour of their name above their heads or the colour of their marker on the mini-map. So there are plenty of times, especially early-game, when you’ll walk past someone and suddenly get an energy blast in the back of the head.
If you want a more equal footing you can play in the legends mode. This lets you play as an existing DC character and fight as part of a team against player opponents. Most of these missions take the form of capture X and defend Y; my first match was playing as Harley Quinn alongside The Joker against Nightwing and Bane. We were trying to capture the Bat-computer while they were trying to defend it. It was a lot of fun, even if we lost spectacularly.
DC Universe Online might be the best looking MMO I’ve ever seen. The cities are interesting and vibrant even with the perfectly flat buildings. Metropolis is considerably easier to look at than Gotham, simply because it’s always daytime in Metropolis, while Gotham is always dark. This made it particularly difficult to navigate with my super-speed character and difficult to see if the room was too bright.
Despite the complaints I have, I’ll be honest and say that I’m subscribing to DC Universe Online. I love interacting with my favourite characters, I love flying around the cities and I absolutely adore feeling like the star of a silver-age comic book. Sure the game isn’t perfect but it speaks directly to the geekiest parts of my brain and it’s the closest I’m ever going to get to my thirteen year-old superhero fantasies. Trust me, give this one a go.