Reviewed on: PlayStation 3 (Console exclusive, also available on PC)
When looking at a game like DC Universe Online for a review, it can be difficult. The game is immense and has so many different ways of playing, all you can offer up in a review is a review of your particular experience. To that end, we're doing something unprecedented for us here, and giving you a few (somewhere from 2-4, haven't nailed it down yet) reviews of DCUO.
DCUO is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), which means you step into the life of a character and play alongside hundreds and thousands of other real people. The way others play the game sometimes directly affects you, with players acting for or against your goals. The game is action-oriented, with fighting, blasting, shooting, and slashing your enemies being the main way of accomplishing missions. What sets this game apart from other MMORPGs, however, is the setting, which is the 75 year old DC Comics Universe.
That really is the first major point and major standout when looking at this game's strengths. This is definitely the DCU. Mission briefings come from Oracle, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, and other heroes (or villains like Calculator and Lex Luthor if you're inclined more towards the take-over-the-world side of the fence). You fight Brother Blood alongside Dr. Fate, Zatanna, and Raven. You fly by the Bat-Signal shining in the murky darkness of Gotham City. You run into Bizarro during another mission in Metropolis, and have to sidetrack yourself to destroy this supervillainous threat.
The mission structure follows a pretty clear a-b-c-d path through the leveling-up process of the game. There are 30 levels in this initial release, and they are worked through pretty organically; there's no real grinding offered or needed here. Each mission gives you an "ideal level" which you can should be at if you're taking it on solo. The great thing about an MMORPG, though, is that you can take on these missions with a friend or two, or even just team up with a stranger on the fly. The a-b-c parts of missions have you fly/run to point A, beat up X number of lower baddies, then move to point B, do the same with progressively harder ones (usually collecting some "intel" by opening boxes or destroying objects at the same time), move to point C and do similar. Then you'll get to point D, usually inside a building or structure, where you'll find the big bad of the mission hiding out. After a run through the level and many more grunts defeated, you will face off against the likes of Scarecrow, Bane, a possessed Raven, Harley Quinn, and more. For most of these major battles, you'll have the assistance of one or more familiar faces from the DCU, legitimizing your created character's existence in the world. After a major villain's defeat, you are treated to a narrated comic-book-art cinematic that delves a bit deeper into the character motivations and story; treat is the right word, as they're a just-plain-fun way to make you feel even more like you've entered the world of comic books.
In addition to these story missions in Gotham and Metropolis (and yes, you go to both regardless of where you start, which is determined by your heroic or villainous mentor), there are Alerts which open after your first several levels. On the hero side, these are triggered by Martian Manhunter, who contacts you to inform you of a sudden crisis elsewhere in the world. Alerts can take place in worlds like Oolong Island, Blüdhaven, and even The Moon. It adds the "Universe" from the title much more to the game, and helps sell the conceit that you're a burgeoning member of something larger.
The PlayStation 3 controller plays host to the gameplay quite well, especially in earlier levels. While you're building up your character, you add new special abilities to the cycle of controls, accessed by holding a shoulder button and pressing a face button. Menus are a little slow-loading, but easy enough to navigate. If you have a bluetooth or USB keyboard, you can use many of the same shortcuts as on PC here, allowing you to jump directly to your journal or the alert list, for example. Combat is fluid and action-oriented, and oh boy is it customizable.
Action fans and RPG fans alike have total control over how they will play this game. You don't need to be familiar with the class system of MMORPGs to navigate your abilities, just what sounds cool. There are immense powersets, each with two separate trees of powers. In addition, there are the Iconic Powers, like "Word of Power" that summons magic lightning to heal you and damage enemies, or the ultra-powerful "Heat Vision." Several movement-oriented abilities can also be mapped as powers, allowing you to create a powerful downdraft to hold enemies in place or a tornado to stun and knock them off their feet.
Beyond these powers are your weapon-based attacks and combos. With button sequences and charges, a startling number of weapon attacks are available in both ranged and close-quarters combat. If you master one weapon, as you progress you have the option of moving to others, giving a total number of attacks in the hundreds. For customization fans, between this and the costume options unlocked constantly throughout the game, you will never ever explore all the options, it's that simple. In past interviews, developers have hinted at adding many more as well in future upgrades.
So, for the first 20 or so levels, that's what to expect. A game firmly ensconced in the DC Universe, with solid easy-to-learn and infinitely customizable controls. The game has its well-documented flaws, however.
First and foremost is system-crashing freezes. These seem to happen at random, unfortunately, with personal occurrences from bursting into super-sonic speed to throwing a meteor at a collection of minor villains. It's known by SOE, and their forums do have feedback sections that allow this sort of thing to get worked on, but it can be jarring and frustrating at times. There are other, smaller glitches that seem mostly present in the Alerts. Gorilla Island took me an astounding 8 times to complete, not because of any great difficulty, but because anytime someone died in the final battle against Ultra Humanite, it would start a re-initializing loop and a never-ending fight. Chat is difficult without a keyboard, and I have not yet had a successful voicechat.
The other main complaint to be had is one of exclusion - why oh why is this game not available on the PlayStation Network as a wholly downloadable title? The game requires, obviously, an internet connection. It's large, but requires a large patch download before play anyway, something that could be integrated into a PSN version. Oh, and it's made by Sony so it seems like it'd be relatively easy to work out the licensing/fees/logistics. Having this game tied to a disc is the only reason I don't play it more than I already do, so hopefully this is something that will be made available in the future.
Overall, the initial experience of this game has been pretty spectacular. The glitches are only frustrating because I like playing the game; at no point did I stop play because of one, I just restarted the system and jumped back in. From the stellar voice cast to the awe-inspiring world design, it's an absolute thrill for a DC fan, as well. It's very easy to get caught up in the fact that you're taking a mission from Commissioner Gordon or directly from Wonder Woman.Next time, we'll talk about team-ups, PVP, levels 20-30 (when things get a bit more difficult), and the beginning of the "endgame." Plus, promises of upgrades, new content, and why you should continue to pay $15 a month beyond the initial package.