While this column will no doubt be looking at the superhero MMO releases that are currently in development, it’s also here, as we said, to look at the past and present titles in this genre. One question that’s been nagging me is why we are so keen to see one of the upcoming titles come out when we already have two games on the market right now.
Is it just a desire to see something new? Are City of Heroes fans holding out for a title that mimics their former favorite haunt? Or are the current offerings — DCUO and Champions — not satisfying that caped crusader craving?
One of my biggest video game pet peeves is when we’re playing titles that are obviously designed to be compatible with the smaller input scheme of consoles (for example, every Bethesda game ever). DCUO reportedly has seen greater success in its console incarnation, and so I shouldn’t be surprised that the whole control scheme is incredibly console-friendly — and incredibly annoying to PC users.
I mean, look at the character creator. This is usually the crown jewel of superhero MMOs, but DCUO has one of the most awkward series of menu prompts that I’ve seen trying to tackle this complex of a creator. Instead of all of the options for any particular category being onscreen at once, you have to scroll up and down with only a handful showing at any given time. It’s poorly laid out and executed, and as such, trying to make the character you want is more of a bother than a joy. I’m serious when I say that after a while, I almost wanted to click on a randomize button and be done with it because none of this was fun.
To give the system credit, there is a decent amount of flexibility to make the type of character you want and give him, her, or it a distinct look. Some of the visuals are really well-done, and I appreciated that I could choose to side with the villains as well as the heroes and get an appropriate mentor. Although why anyone would choose anyone other than the Joker is beyond me. They got Mark Hamill to do it, for Pete’s sake!
DCUO needs a better tutorial. Oh, it’s not the worst tutorial ever, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t accomplish its aims on any level very well. For starters, for players who want to get right into the superhero setting, throwing us on an alien-looking ship fighting androids or whatever doesn’t exactly fit the expectation bill. And whatever story they were trying to go for here with Brainiac isn’t served well by this confusing architecture and bland approach.
It also made me feel very restrained, with little in the way of exploration, useful teaching on key systems, or immersion. Plus, no matter what travel powers you’ve selected, these closed-in corridors and chambers hamper the joy of using those.
At least there’s an option to skip it if you’ve done the tutorial once so that future characters won’t have to endure this before getting to the MMO proper.
Powers and Combat
Once the game dumped me out in Gotham, I felt like I could breathe and start to enjoy the game at my own pace. One highlight was getting that travel power right at character creation, as it encouraged me to treat the entire city as my own playground. I went with flight (because, again, why would you not?) and probably spent the next half-hour zooming around and getting a feel for the movement and sights.
DCUO has its own “feel” to its controls that’s not exactly as tight as I’d expect for a mouse-and-keyboard setup but is on par for what we see with console titles. It’s a little loose and slippery, but once I got the hang of jumping into the air and then flying around buildings as if they were an obstacle course, I found that it was all well within my parameters for fun.
This is definitely an action MMO, top to bottom, and it handles combat in a different way than I’ve seen in Champions or City of Heroes (although it is very similar to Neverwinter). I had a main attack using my melee weapon (in this case, a staff) that could trigger different types of combos if I had the patience to memorize them. Probably like most players, I just mashed away and got a thrill out of seeing my character beat the living tar out of the “good” guys with style and grace.
But the idea is to weave powers into this melee mix, kind of like special skills popping up in between regular attacks. So as the game went on, I learned how to utilize my mental powers to, for example, grab an enemy and pull him right to me, whap him on the head a few times with my staff, and then finish him off with a powerful psionic blast. I’m not always an action combat proponent, but DCUO kind of pulls it off. I found myself playing longer than I had anticipated because the core combat loop is satisfying.
This being the catch-all DC title, DCUO makes good on its implicit promise to feature some of both the greater- and lesser-known characters from its world. I definitely applaud how it got me running missions for and interacting with the Joker, Catwoman, and the Huntress early on, and getting those fully voiced interactions brought this whole experience to a higher level.
I should put a shout-out for some big-name voice actors who appear in this game, since this is an aspect that isn’t often exalted about DCUO. Gina Torres, Adam Baldwin, Wil Wheaton (as Robin!), James Marsters, World of Warcraft composer Tracy W. Bush, Michelle Forbes, and Kevin Conroy are just a few of the more recognizable names that you’ll be hearing.
And as comic book fans know, the setting is just as much of a character as the people, and from what I’ve seen, Gotham is marvelous. It’s a little cleaner than some of the film or TV incarnations we’ve seen, but it’s still dark, brooding, and full of deco art style that gives it a timeless quality.
Coming into my own as a supervillain
For the first couple of hours, I simply followed the main storyline wherever it would send me. DCUO might not have the best-looking UI (it’s chunky and obtrusive), but it is remarkably clear as to where you’re supposed to go and what you should be doing.
I found myself shutting off my analytical mind and instead responding to the questing prompts and combat situations. The quests weren’t incredibly special, but they had a public quest-like feel to them as you went into an area and had to accomplish certain tasks. Having the environment often interactive and destructive made it pretty cool — especially when I had a quest objective on the other side of a fence, which I just kicked through instead of flying up and over.
Something that really took some getting used to is how DCUO handles gear. Unlike most superhero MMOs I’ve seen that let you create and stick to a specific look, DCUO skews more to the traditional MMO route of having gear with its own look. So as you get rewards, your outfit is evolving — and I actually like this a lot! It was cool to see how my character’s looks would change from mission to mission, from the visuals of her staff to the presence of a smooth-flowing cape.
There’s certainly a lot more to learn and discover about this game, and now that I’ve put in several “blind” hours into playing it, I might need to buckle down and really learn about how it works. But for now, I can say that I want to keep logging into it, not out of duty or obligation, but because it’s a thrilling experience in its own right.