DC Universe Online Beta

When it comes to comics, I’m a marvel fan. Those in the know will remember there was, at one point, a Marvel MMO in the works. With its cancellation I decided that since I’d built up a small amount of hype for a superhero MMO, I might as well transfer it over to the publishing house responsible for Superman, Batman, Wonderwoman, Green Lantern and many more. Jump forward several years and we are now a few of the darkest nights away from DC Universe being release on both PC and PS3. Ready Up was granted access to the PS3 beta, so how does it fair?

When it comes to MMOs in beta you have to give a little slack. After all, the intention of a beta is to help find and solve problems and fine tune the experience for the full launch. With this in mind I delved into DCU ready to fight bad guys and meet Batman. After a very lengthy download (PS3 users will agree that downloading anything over PSN takes longer than on any other platform) I got in.

DC Universe Online - Power Girl
This is Power Girl. I had no idea who she was. FYI, she's a big deal.

Every tale has a beginning, and what more fitting a way to start than for you to meet our hero. Character creation in this game is excellent. I went in with a character in mind. I wanted to make a super-speedster who fought for good. I wanted him to look like a British army general ripped from the late 40s/early 50s. A beret, blonde combed-back hair with a stylish moustache, his costume colour akin to the union jack. I wanted villains to look upon my character and fear the British justice that was about to befall their evil-doings, and by god I could. After tweaking, fine tuning, selecting powers, giving him metal skin (for extra badassery) and, ultimately, spending way too long making him, “The Kolonel” was born. A British born hero granted the powers of fire control and super-speed, he looked excellent, or “dashing” if you’re a fan of Golden-age-of-comics wordplay. Selecting powers was easy, you can either fine tune them exactly how you’d like, or take a pre-set based on existing DC Super-humans (The Flash being The Kolonel’s basic template). The creation tools feel as limited as your imagination, which feels massively important in a game like this.

So, suited up and fit to meet the queen for a knighthood, The Kolonel was ready for action. Through a stunningly rendered cut-scene, it is explained that long time Superman nemesis Lex Luthor has granted the people of earth superpowers to fight off the invasion of Brainiac. Armed with your new powers, you start off by fighting back against the invading force inside one of their own spaceships. At first, DC Universe seems perfectly suited for the console. You are quickly and effectively taught the basic controls; X is jump, Square is melee, Triangle is magic, Circle is grab. Cleverly, they’ve made an MMO out of a third-person brawler. Your skill-bar is controlled by holding either R2 or L2 and then another assigned button. As an example, for the Kolonel to engulf himself in flames I would hold R2 and press square. This system feels pretty intuitive; a clever way to achieve the classic MMO style of having more skills than a standard game pad has buttons. However just as quickly as you realise the cleverness of the control scheme, you realise its futility. A common problem with third-person brawler/action titles is that you can mash attacks willy-nilly without any remote idea of strategy and still obtain a win. DC Universe suffers a similar problem. No, sorry, not similar, identical. For the most part, I felt that there was no need to ever use my magic or my skills. Both were slow and clunky, and simply mashing square was getting it done just fine. Even as I levelled up and attained crowd-controlling abilities, the need to use them only occurred when I was overrun and needed to escape quickly, not for any effective combat.

Perhaps in that last paragraph you felt my tone change. I assure you the timing of doing so was intended. The speed at which the game began to feel vapid and empty of, well, content from that point on was overwhelming. Once soaked in, the environments become stale, and as you exit the confines of the tutorial level and into the game world this feeling never truly leaves. Even though you are fighting a few different styles of enemies early on, the strategy doesn’t change, and becomes a grind. Ah MMOs, where would you be without your good pal Monotony? Probably off being Batman: Arkham Asylum in this particular case. There is something for the fanboys in the way of familiar voice actors from DC Comics’ games and TV shows returning to voice their characters in this new outing. Hearing Mark Hamill (whose name you can’t spell without ARKHAM. Fun fact!) cackle and address you maniacally is, as always, a treat. Even if it is contained within a bizarre area of the game, a random loot room you can enter once a day and receive one random item and some cash, it’s still nice to hear those familiar strains, even if all they do is remind you of better games.

Fan service seems rampant here. Due to the loose way in which story is told within MMO based environments, you occasionally find yourself dealing with someone you’ve never heard of and feel like you’re expected to either care or “get it.” I say with confidence that knowing who obscure characters in the Warcraft or Conan universes are isn’t important, but it feels so in DC Universe. One of the game’s better features is an arena PVP mode where all combatants select a “DC Legend” to fight as, instead of their own avatar. I can say that I honestly had more fun playing capture the flag style fights as a team of three Robins than as The Kolonel at any time. It really sucks that, at least from what’s provided in the beta, the best content isn’t even the point of the game.

Missions are the standard for MMOs. “Kill 15 of mob X” “Examine 5 of item Y,” wash, rinse, repeat, reach level cap. Again, the rapid pace at which everything becomes a mediocre chore is astonishing. Quickly I realised factors that were making the whole effort boring. Why let me create a character exactly to my liking, only to give me gear within 2-3 levels that make him look like everyone else? Why, given the opportunity to make things new and different, would you stick to the safe routine? Why would you have lots of options, but no means in-game to learn what they are or how they work? Why have NPC guardians stand outside quest hubs and then have them do nothing whilst newbies get grief from PVP internet tough guys? Why have a camera that can be moved freely around, but not be zoomed in and out? That last one may not seem important, but when you’re running at super-speed and your character gets lost in the architecture of a building and all you can do is stop moving, let your character fall and try again is frustrating. Plus, who doesn’t like to be able to see spawning NPC enemies appearing whilst fighting, allowing you to avoid being overwhelmed? Me, since this is a common problem. Many times I would watch from afar, pick my moment to attack and then discover that I’m standing on a spawn point and have just been surrounded by 4-5 other enemies I hadn’t anticipated, who decimate me in seconds.

Harley Quinn
For me, Marvel > DC. Hands down. Although DC does get a bit more creative with the ladies…

I look at DC Universe as an investigation of the genre. Over in MMO land, WoW is king. DC Universe never stood a chance of overthrowing the patriarch, but it did have a chance to suggest amongst his subjects that not all was well in the castle. Instead of a revolutionary born from a want of change, we see a cunning trickster using all the kings tricks, but wearing a cape and a mask whilst imitating. Why would you grind in DC Universe when you could grind in WoW? Most MMO fans already have level 85s, tonnes of items and massive investment on many levels, why just drop that for more of the same with a shiny new skin? It’s hard to recommend that you pay £9.99 a month to play the PS3’s most likely MMO success story, because being the best of a bad bunch doesn’t make you good. When I look into my crystal ball, I see a free-to-play model being introduced in the near future and middling success, but without a huge content patch and a feel of it being more than a third-person brawler with online components, it’s not going to work. The game goes live January 14th 2011 in the UK.


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