Sony Online Entertainment has spent a ton of money on DC Universe Online, and boy does it show. The massively multiplayer online universe has so much to do, you can and will spend months trying to get to it all. Of course, not everything is required of players; in fact, DCUO‘s diversity of options might just be its greatest strength. That, and the enormous playground that you’re given total freedom to explore and enjoy.
First things first. DC Universe Online presents players with the chance to create their own superhero or supervillain. You can customize almost everything about your avatar, including not just physical attributes and costumes, but down to even their fundamental styles of movement and fighting. There are hundreds of possible combinations, which is more than enough to ensure that no two players play the game exactly the same. You also select a mentor, who will be sort of your “coach” throughout the game and will influence which kind of abilities you have. Heroes can choose from Superman (meta), Batman (technology), and Wonder Woman (magic). On the flip side, respectively, villains get Lex Luthor, the Joker, or Circe.
The scenario is set up by a gorgeous CG animatic (viewable above) that reveals an Earth in ruins, torn apart by heroes and villains locked in a devastating war — which is when the evil Brainiac shows up with an invasion force. Lex Luthor, one of the few survivors, steals some of Brainiac’s technology and travels backward in time five years, where he disperses Brainiac’s “exobytes” across the Earth. This creates of thousands of new heroes and villains — aka, you and your fellow players — who can be trained to defend the planet from the impending invasion. (Yes, even the villains must fight Brainiac’s forces.)
This is the world in which you’re planted as you begin. Right off the bat, you’ll see that there are two fully realized, gargantuan cities to explore and play in: Metropolis and Gotham. These mega-cities are stunning in size and scope, with entire neighborhoods and skyscrapers dotting the sky — and everything in the cities is playable from the first minute you’re in the game. The game’s designers really let their imaginations run wild in coming up with the architecture of Metropolis and Gotham, and I enjoyed simply exploring these amazing cities.
There are missions awaiting you everywhere (accessed via the handy heads-up display), which almost always involve NPC enemies to dispatch. (Unless you’re playing on a PvP server, which is obviously a far more dangerous kind of play.) The differences between the two cities are day and night — literally. It’s always daytime in Metropolis, sunny, art deco, and optimistic. Gotham exists in perpetual night, all gloom and industrial machinery. There are some buildings in both cities that are inaccessible because they’ve been “bottled” by Brainiac, or essentially claimed.
Death for players is never a possibility. The worst that will happen is that you’re “knocked out,” which results in a few seconds of downtime while you regenerate. You’re returned to your starting point, or a nearby waypoint, forcing you to backtrack your steps to your enemies — during which they usually have time to do some healing. But that’s it: you’re not penalized by losing cash, inventory items, or power-ups.
To get around the cities, you’ll use one of three modes that you selected during your character’s customization: flying, speed-running, or tech-running. The latter two use speed or technology to allow you to run up the sides of buildings, and tech players can glide down from heights. But there’s really no substitute for flying. It’s smooth, intuitive, and really instills a sense of power. Once you try it, you’ll wonder why anyone bothers with the other two modes.
Both heroes and villains get their own safe houses and central headquarters, where they can go to interact with other players, buy cool exclusives, and take on specialty missions. But be warned that all of the exclusives you’ll be offered here can only be bought after you reach Level 30, and then only after you’ve completed a whole new slew of level grinding on specialty missions that significantly raise your renown with the item’s manufacturer.
One of the biggest draws of the game for me was the ability to choose what I wanted to do at any given time. There’s leveling to be done by fighting NPCs, and the requisite exploration and treasure-hunting missions, but you’re never required to do anything. This leaves you free to select an activity that suits whatever mood you’re in.
As for those levels, there’s a good variety of missions that mix things up in fun and satisfying ways. And every mission ends with you getting the chance to team up with one of DC’s known heroes or villains to fight against one of their established enemies. DCUO‘s developers wisely made extra sure that fighting beside these treasured comic book characters is just as awesome as it deserves to be. Each of these main characters is voiced by a mainstream actor — most of whom will be familiar to genre fans. Firefly and Chuck‘s Adam Baldwin makes a great Superman, while Mark Hamill takes on his familiar role of the Joker. Michelle Forbes (Battlestar Galactica‘s Admiral Cain and True Blood‘s Maryann) chews through her words as the villainous Circe, and Star Trek: The Next Generation star and geek guru Wil Wheaton appears as Robin. You’ll also hear from Dwight Schultz (TNG‘s Barclay and The A-Team‘s original Murdock) as both The Flash and Martian Manhunter, Buffy‘s Spike, James Marsters, as Lex Luthor. Firefly‘s Gina Torres effects an odd, almost-British accent for Wonder Woman.
Aside from generic leveling, there are raids, PvP arenas, loot vaults you can buy entrance to, and story-driven co-op missions that take place outside of the two main cities in cool settings like Smallville, Chemo-blasted Bludhaven, Area 51, a base on the moon, Arkham Asylum, and more. There are daily contests, races, Legends matches where you play against other players in the guise of major DC heroes, duo missions, bounties to collect, player leagues to join, feats to accomplish, and so much more. Frankly there’s more to do than I have room to list in this review. In short: you’ll never get bored playing DC Universe Online. It’s impossible.
Level grinding maxes out at Level 30, though I imagine that cap will be raised by a future update. My one and only complaint about the game is the drastic leap in difficulty that occurs when you finally reach Level 30. While leveling up, the game presents you with missions that complement your current power set, but once you reach the maximum level, enemies suddenly become radically harder to take down. So hard that it’s simply impractical to complete any further missions without teaming up with other players. Gamers who prefer to go it alone will find virtually nothing left to do once they reach Level 30.
For many players, this won’t be a problem. A lot of gamers join MMOs for the social aspects. Personally, I’ve never had a good experience playing alongside others in MMOs, and DCUO is no exception. On one occasion, I waited in a queue for hours to get into a dungeon (aka an “Alert Zone”). I don’t typically enjoy dungeons, but this one sounded cool — the level was set in the Batcave. But it was at least two hours before I finally gained access to the dungeon, and when I did, the seven other players, who were standing around the entry point doing nothing, immediately asked me to leave. It turns out they were all real-life friends who wanted to play through the dungeon together, and their eighth friend was having trouble with his Internet connection, which kept dropping him out of the game. The game had put me in the Batcave in his place, which prevented him from returning.
I understand the desire for friends to enjoy some virtual playtime together, and I know how difficult it can be to arrange such a thing in cyberspace, but the experience still left a sour taste in my mouth. Anytime I tried playing alongside others, there was never any communication among my “team,” and every player was pretty much just in it for themselves, refusing to work together.
Admittedly, these issues had very little to do with the design of the game, so Sony Online can’t be faulted. These were just my personal experiences, and could have just as easily happened (and usually does) in any other MMO.
I had my share of lockups over the course of a month of playtime. But given the complexity of constructing an MMO and keeping it running, my downtime was remarkably small — particularly when compared to other MMOs. Sony has definitely invested plenty of time into testing and stabilizing the game. I played the PlayStation 3 version, and DCUO was easily the best reason I’ve found yet for buying that console. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but once you get past that, it’s an absolute thrill to play. It’s simply the best MMO I’ve ever played.
Even though I’m not playing DC Universe Online anymore, I don’t regret one minute of the time I invested in it, and often find myself missing it, even now, weeks later. If that’s not the mark of a great game, I don’t know what is.