Choose My Adventure: Get out of here, DC Universe Online
Those of you who have followed my writing for a while know that I’ve played some games I didn’t much like before, but that’s different. Lord of the Rings Online and Black Desert, for example, are games that were not my cup of tea but still had obvious merits I could praise. I’ve played games that I dislike or ones that deserved more criticism than praise when I played them (Ryzom, TERA, the beta period of The Elder Scrolls Online), but still had positive sides. (And in the last case, ESO turned itself around quite well and earned plenty of kudos from me.) Heck, I played Scarlet Blade with as open a mind as I could possibly have.
But not so DC Universe Online. No, this game deserves a pretty thorough drubbing. I can understand why it has fans, but it’s still just not a good game. I can only hope it’s an outlier rather than the norm on Daybreak’s overall catalog, because… wow. This is not fun.
You might be surprised that I’m really kind of heading into outright vitriol here, when it’s not as if my non-summation column have been just about negativity. The reason is simple. Up until this point, I’ve been giving the game as many chances as I can, trying my best to see the good in it. I haven’t been enjoying it, but I figured maybe there’s a point where it turns around, where it starts to get good, where…
I don’t know. It transfigures itself into a game I might want to play.
Perhaps that does happen eventually. But after the time I’ve put into it, I’m not inspired to try any further. I could honestly spend another week or month or year banging my head against the game waiting for that point, but my time on Earth is short and there are other things I want to use that time for.
See, games like Scarlet Blade are bad, but they wear that badness on their sleeve. DCUO seems like it’s in that worst class of game where it clearly was assembled with effort, and yet it feels like every bit of effort went into all the wrong directions.
The combat system, for starters, is an unpleasant mess. It’s an example of all the worst parts of action combat mixed with the worst parts of MMO combat. Powers and their effects feel insubstantial at best and irrelevant at worst, while weapon combos relied on the “tap/hold” mechanic, which I find rarely feels satisfying. (By contrast, I point to the weapon combos in DmC as an example of how to make things feel more satisfying; different abilities and combos required different buttons and juggling weapons, with only one or two moves that even incorporate a pause rather than a long sequence of tapping sometimes and holding others. It makes it much easier to plan on what you’re doing and what you need.)
That’d be bad even if it didn’t feel glitchy and horribly affected by lag, but it does. Combat would be frustrating even if worked correctly, but it doesn’t. I kept finding myself thinking of the game and wishing that it had more traditional combat — it would still be messy, but at least it would feel as if I were in control of the game.
And all of this would be bad in and of itself if you were presented with this combat system. DCUO has this problem, and then it has… virtually nothing else. It has awful combat at the beating heart of the game, and then it has no other real tricks to show you to convince you that it’s still worthwhile.
In some ways, it baffles me. Bad combat happens sometimes; you try to avoid it, but it does happen. Star Trek Online, a game I’ve expressed a deep and abiding love for, has two combat systems, and one of them is probably just as bad as DCUO’s combat. The thing is that as much as that system is a slog, the game also has a lot of other things to recommend it that more than eases the sting of the ground combat. It might be a disjointed mess there, but it has other spaces to grow and be fun.
DCUO has… nothing. It has the same endlessly bland combat, some races, and then you’re just about done. I am sure there is more to the game, eventually, once you slog it out, but combat is at the beating heart, and outside of a handful of races, I was never presented with anything else.
Comparing every superhero game to City of Heroes might be unfair, but CoH was another game that for a long time had combat and not much else; crafting was a later addition, and you certainly never had housing for individuals. Heck, the game had less-detailed models than DCUO gets to work with; characters had hilarious mitten hands and painted-on faces. Plus, it didn’t have the benefit of an ultra-famous IP to work with.
Yet CoH had combat that was fun. It had a cast of characters it developed over time. It was a superhero MMO that was trying, on every level, to be a superhero MMO. It watched people doing fun and ridiculous things and found ways to encourage that. By the time it shuttered, it had really succeeded in finding the joy of playing a superhero.
Despite the fact that DCUO has been out for six years, it feels like a beta version of itself. It feels like names and faces have been plastered on a game that does not, in fact, feel very much like a superhero game at all. Playing it feels like a slog, and it’s not as if there’s a lot of really cool lore or storytelling waiting at the end of it that isn’t already much more accessible in comics or movies; it’s just more of the same, and it wasn’t fun the first time.
I know the game has its fans. I know there are people for whom this is their MMO, and I feel genuinely bad jabbing at it for those fans. But the reality is that a bad game is a bad game, fans or no. Even the best parts are just kind of there, and it’s an experience I’m glad to put behind me.
I’d always thought of Daybreak games as being short on lore and creative settings but at least given to solid gameplay, but DCUO has proven to be the disappointing exception.
Shrouding and moving along
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, our next month is going to be a case without opening up a vote. I’ve never actually played Shroud of the Avatar despite having interviewed Richard Garriott on a couple of occasions, and quite frankly, I’m curious.
While Garriott has done things to rub me the wrong way from a design standpoint before, he’s also an extremely genial and approachable man in person, and I’ve loved every chance I’ve gotten to talk with him. The fact that bits of SOTA are inspired by the touches of Tabula Rasa that I was originally interested in? That provokes further interest.
And let’s be fair, this is one of the first Kickstarted MMORPG projects that’s really at its delivery point. The game isn’t totally finished, but it’s closer to finished than not-finished. Until subsequent updates, anyhow.
So let’s take a spin through Shroud of the Avatar as someone who still thinks of Ultima as a spell name. We’ll talk more about that next week; until then, leave your feedback in the comments below or hurl invective directly at me with mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.