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An MMO with New Tricks?
The formula for MMOs has long felt etched across the sky by the gods. Thou shalt have auto-attacking. Thou shalt have a fantasy setting. And thou shalt most certainly have hotkeys. The success of World of Warcraft hasn’t just inspired a few clones – it’s dominated the genre. The few games that do not emulate WoW’s style are diamonds in the rough.
DC Universe Online is one such diamond. Although it doesn’t completely alter the MMO formula, it does make some significant changes to movement and combat. You’re a superhero (or villain) after all – even at level 1 you’re far more powerful than your average citizen. DCUO reflects that.
Merely altering a formula does not mean that the outcome will be good, however; indeed, such changes can easily blow up. So is DCUO a true hidden gem, or does it have flaws that damage its luster?
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Storyline and Questing
The plot of DCUO is classic comic-book material. Sometime in the future, heroes and villains have been engaged in all-out war. The villains, led by Lex Luthor, win this conflict – but only at great cost, and the eve of their victory is spoiled by the arrival of an even greater, and entirely alien, villain – Brainiac.
Lex, pissed that someone conquered his planet, travels back in time to warn the heroes and villains. This doesn’t stop them from beating the snot out of each other, but it does give Lex the opportunity to release some bugs that transform normal humans into superhumans. And so we come to your character.
There are a lot of loose ends in the story, but by MMO terms it’s a unique premise. DCUO capitalizes on it, and on the comic book world DC has been crafting for decades, by providing a constant parade of familiar threats from DC comics. The story throws you into important affairs quickly. On the villain side, for example, you’ll have to fight and defeat Powergirl (Superman’s cousin) by level 7.
DCUO’s low number of “collect bear butts" quests is refreshing, but unfortunately it’s replaced by another problem – a general lack of content. I found at several points that I was lacking in quests, and there are generally just a handful of quests to do at any one point. Being forced to stand around and wonder what you’re supposed to do next can kill an MMO, and DCUO doesn’t avoid this pitfall.
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Once you do figure out what you’re supposed to be up to, you’re likely to find the actual mechanics of gameplay – and specifically the combat – enjoyable. DCUO is essentially a console brawler, which means that you have two basic attacks (one ranged and one melee) and a number of combos, which are unlocked as you level. You also have abilities that are triggered via hotkeys, but you can only have a handful at a time.
The fighting mechanics are incredibly refreshing. I don’t mind pressing hotkeys, but the clunky movement and mechanic combat in most MMO titles is an obvious flaw that no one had corrected. Taking down foes in DCUO feels far quicker and more exciting, so much so that you may find yourself beating up opponents you don’t need to fight just for the hell of it.
But while the combat in DCUO is quick, I’d hesitate to call it smooth. The main problem is the port to the PC, which does everything wrong. The interface is clunky, the combat controls are terrible, and movement has a jerky, disconnected feel. Even plugging in an Xbox 360 controller doesn’t resolve the issues entirely; the default gamepad control scheme is terrible, and while movement feels a little better, the interface remains a maze of options that takes far too long to navigate.
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You might expect that the warning from future Lex Luthor about an impending invasion by an alien intelligence would give the heroes and villains reason to work together, but you’d be wrong. The two sides are happy to continue fighting despite the warning, which gives rise to the game’s competitive gameplay.
PvP combat is a big part of DC Universe Online. Even on PvE servers there are a number of instanced PvP arenas to choose from, and they play a big part in the end-game content. The only difference between the PvE and PvP servers is that the latter has open-world combat.
The combat of DCUO actually lends itself better to player-on-player combat than it does to PvE. The different combos and abilities players have access to consist of strengths and weaknesses, and this provides depth to the combat. Is your opponent blocking? Use a powerful block-breaker combo. Is your opponent charging up a big attack? Interrupt him with a leap attack. And so on.
The main problem with the PvP element of DCUO at launch is balance. Some combinations of weapons and powers are substantially stronger than others. Those that provide players with a large volume of stuns and knockdowns are always nasty, but some of the DPS roles just deal way too much damage. This will probably get better with time, however, and once balanced this game could be one of the top titles for those who enjoy PvP.
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Graphics and Sound
The look of DCUO is fine for a console title, which means it isn’t anything special by PC standards. It is noticeably superior to many other MMOs, however, and the comic-book universe has given the art team plenty to play with. The costume unlocks for player characters deserve particular mention – some of them are absolutely stunning. My level 85 character in World of Warcraft looks like a vagabond compared to a level 5 character from DCUO.
Another feature that sets DCUO apart from the competition is the voice-acting. Almost every quest has voice dialog to go alongside it, which means you don’t have to spend much time reading quest text. The voice acting isn’t bad, either. As usual, Mark Hamil’s rendition of The Joker stands out as a masterpiece.
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I have mixed feelings about DCUO. But ultimately, my verdict comes down to this; having written this review, I doubt that I’ll ever play the game again.
No one is more disappointed about this outcome than me, because I’ve wanted an MMO with a unique combat system for some time. The problem is that DCUO’s poor port to the PC saps much of the energy from the game. The combat is fun, but it can be only be obtained through a less than ideal set of controls.
As an avid PC gamer, this is simply unacceptable. I play PC games because a computer allows for more precise control and a more detailed interface. It’s a shame, really; DCUO has a lot of potential, but control and interface issues are one element of an MMO that are rarely patched. What we see now is likely what we’ll be forced to deal with three years from now.