DC Universe Online may not be the first superhero-themed massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (that's a mouthful, isn't it?), but it certainly looks poised to make a mark nonetheless. At E3 2010, we had a chance to see a behind-closed-doors demonstration of the game in action. The game is due to be released in November 2010, but even at this stage, it looks incredibly slick and action packed, full of colorful moves and exciting battles. The E3 trailer informs us that DC Universe Online is about "your story, your legend," and based on the game's excellent E3 showing, we think it might do just that.
The demo took place inside one of the game's episodes. Episodes are essentially story arcs in which you join (or fight) well-known characters from the DC universe. The episode we saw took place within an amusement park run by The Joker (of Batman fame, obviously). The player's goal? Defeat Harley Quinn and rescue Robin, the Boy Wonder, who seems to be having a hard time extricating himself from his own sticky situation. (As a side note, there were several humorous references to the Boy Wonder's apparent uselessness, which makes us hopeful for lots of funny, tongue-in-cheek dialogue from our favorite superheroes.) The bosses you fight and heroes you assist will change as you progress through the game. You'll start off by fighting lesser villains, but eventually, you'll be taking on the big boys. So while Harley Quinn will put up a fight, you can expect an even bigger one from The Joker himself.
Combat is centered on combos. The character we saw in action had a single sword equipped, but with that single sword, you can combine attacks and other moves into lethal combos, as well as juggle enemies in the air. The action is fast paced and looks much more like what you'd see in an action game than in a typical online RPG. You aren't stuck with a single blade, though. You can take up a bow and arrow; take aim with dual pistols; or use a staff, among other options. You can also use environmental objects to your advantage. Physics are an important part of the experience, and that focus means there are more tactical considerations than you might expect. For example, Joker's funhouse was littered with giant wrapped gifts that exploded when tossed. You can pick up objects like those presents and toss them at enemies, and the items behave in authentic ways when you do so.
There are other ways to bring the hurt, of course. A gadget-focused character like the one we saw in action can use objects like sticky bombs and implosion grenades, but movement is also an important aspect of the action. Characters might be able to fly, move at superspeed, glide around, and even go invisible to sneak up on enemies. You might leap from above and land in the middle of a group of enemies, sending them flying with a ground slam. And when you’re in trouble, you can roll out of the way. Sony Online Entertainment sees battlefield tactics as split among three important pillars: weapons, powers, and movement. Using these aspects together, you can survive and thrive in the game. The producers were also quick to point out that player skill is an important factor.
After a series of impactful fights, our hero discovered Harley Quinn, and a boss fight followed. The main dialogue was all fully voiced, and all of the acting we heard was very impressive. Harley's craziness shone through in both the dialogue and the voice-over, though it was most apparent in the attacks she unleashed. She uses a funny boxing-glove-on-a-spring attack to bash foes in her path and spins wildly about with her hammer jutting out, knocking down anyone in her path, among other choice moves. After a series of sharp-looking attacks, Harley was down and ready to be tied up until law enforcement could arrive. However, she did manage to drop some loot: a crazy-looking helmet. Fortunately, if you want to keep the helmet's stats without seeing the silly thing appear on your character, you can use appearance collections to customize the way you look without losing the benefits of the loot you collect.
Finally, the player set Robin free, who seemed both relieved to be free and humbled by his total uselessness. (Again, the voice acting makes a great impression.) A fantastic-looking comic-book-style scene followed, accompanied by great pulsing music and a trippy Harley Quinn voice-over in which she professed her love for The Joker--and relished her own insanity. Of course, you can't rescue Robin over and over again, forever. What happens when you reach the endgame? Well, it seems player-versus-player battles are one great way to stay invested. This is where heroes can tackle villains in a controlled environment, though PVP enthusiasts may also want to note that PVP servers will let heroes and villains freely beat up on each other.
The high-level character we saw in action was decked out in some pretty impressive-looking gear. According to SOE, this gear was given to the player by Batman, and other heroes will bestow similar gifts upon high-level characters that do them important favors. The map on which the PVP match took place was in the Australian outback, and teams were required to capture control points while beating each other to a pulp. Again, physics will provide an important tactical element, letting you pick up and throw objects at your foes with ease. SOE stressed that the goal was to make the game as fun as possible. As such, powers and combos are balanced based on the circumstance. You might be able to juggle enemies in the air indefinitely, for example. But if you are on the receiving end of a string of knockback attacks, you know that that kind of inescapable damage loop is anything but fun. As such, those types of attacks will bring diminishing returns, and skills will be balanced to make things fun and fair for everyone.
It will be exciting to see the DC license come to life in SOE's upcoming MMOG; after all, this is the world in which both Gotham and Metropolis exist. And as far as we can tell, DC Universe Online captures the essence of the license without relying on it to provide all the entertainment. The game looks fun and furious, and fortunately, we only need to wait a few more months before we get to try out the final product. GameSpot will work faster than a speeding bullet to bring you more on DC Universe Online before then.