We've spent a fair amount of time with Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming DC Universe Online at various events since it was announced in July 2008. The massively multiplayer online game has typically shown well, although it has yet to make good on its promise to let players live the life of a budding superhero or villain in the DC Comics world. On a recent visit to SOE's Austin studio, we had the chance to play a meaty chunk of the game's opening levels, which included a face-off against Gorilla Grodd. The biggest question weighing on our mind during this most recent demo was whether the game would finally deliver on the promise hinted at since its debut.
Our demo began after the same kick-off cinematic that debuted at this year's Comic-Con, followed by the character creation interface. The development team is still fine-tuning the latter to ensure that it is both accessible and faithful to the story setup. The team also briefed us on what we didn't see, which revealed more of the game's story. The Lex Luthor from the future did something at the end of the intro cinematic that caused a wave to ripple out across the world--the explanation we received was that Future Lex brought a valuable prize back with him when he escaped Brainiac, namely all the superpowers the latter had absorbed from the world. At the time of Future Lex's escape, there were almost no heroes left, meaning Brainiac had absorbed just about every power there was to grab. Future Lex's theft was an attempt to empower the citizens of the past to not only fight back against Brainiac, but also help the DC Universe heroes in the battle to drive him away.
The wave seen at the end of the intro cinematic is in fact the aforementioned superpowers spreading across the world, homing in on the population and powering them up, which is where the character creation comes in. You play as a recently juiced civilian who has to escape Brainiac's ship and make some important choices regarding the future: Will you fight on the side of good or evil? What will your superpowers be? We've previously touched on the way you'll be able to map out your powers and how they’ll break down into different types, but an interesting new feature is how you'll specialize. Our time with the game cast us as a hero, which meant Superman served as our initial guide. However, once you get a bit further in you'll actually choose an allegiance to different heroes: for example, tech-based heroes will follow Batman; magic-based heroes will follow Wonder Woman; and so on. These choices will affect how your character develops. Your choice of good or evil also determines which city you'll start in, while the heroes you'll follow will yield unique leveling opportunities and some story variations that will offer plenty of options to explore as you progress.
Our hands-on demo began in Metropolis in the Little Bohemia police station, where we got a quick tour of some important locales. Despite its action focus, DC Universe Online is still very much a role-playing game. During our demo, we had a good look at the shops that will allow you to buy and sell gear. The mechanics seem pretty standard: you get loot and sell it to buy new gear. Once we sorted our gear out, we left the police station to look around the city. One of the first things that caught our attention was an icon for racing challenges--we immediately tried this out. These challenges are good primers to get you up to speed using your character’s mobility modes. To participate, you have to run through a series of markers set along the city. It's simple, but the game rewards you with a rating on your performance, so it's likely you'll be working overtime to earn the highest rank. Besides gaining a feeling of accomplishment, you'll earn some cash for your dedication.
After poking around the city and indulging in a race, we had the chance to start a quest chain that paid particular attention to the city's simian problem. As is usually the case with superpowered simian monarchs who hate humankind, Gorilla Grodd is on a tear, and the city is in peril. To make matters worse, the Flash has gone missing. What's an aspiring hero to do? If you answered, "Stomp every ape you find and look for clues," then you're on the mark. The first chunk of the quest was very focused on stomping a modest quota of ape soldiers causing trouble at a nearby pier. We were then offered a side quest by another character on the scene; switching between the quests was simple and worth the minor detour for the sweet loot we got for our troubles. In terms of ape-stomping, we had a good number of options: first and foremost, our own abilities. At the start of the game you have only a single power and slowly gain more as you earn experience--standard stuff. You have three branches to your powers and abilities, tied to the type of weapon you choose, the power you choose, and the movement mode you choose. Your weapons are tied to your melee attacks, which can be specialized along different branches.
Interestingly, your powers break down into three different power pools, two of which are specific to your character and one that's drawn from a pool of powers that all players can choose from. The communal powers are exactly what you’d expect, letting you pick from classic DC abilities such as Superman's heat vision and Green Lantern's power ring. The different variations of powers and how you can combine them lend themselves to specific play styles. The game also allows you to set up different ability loadouts so you can keep your role fluid in combat, which is key for group play. Choosing powers and skills will be tied to leveling up and the points you earn. The game also ties your ability to choose powers and skills to skill points and power points that you earn upon leveling--during our demo we found we could earn one set of points at alternating levels, which kept progression even. We also found that with our fire-based character, we had the option to choose very specific offensive abilities from the start, such as a direct fire blast. However, as you upgrade this ability, you begin to set foes on fire, which is a perfect lead-in to a more passive ability that simply causes an explosive damage boost to enemies on fire. In addition to our natural talents, we had the option of picking objects up and hurling them at our enemies. The presence of explosive barrels made this an especially fun thing to try.
As we completed the mission with critical and optional quests in the chain, we moved deeper into the city and dealt with a new challenge: citizens being converted to apes by machines peppered throughout the city. This complicated the ape-stomping, as our targets became hapless people in need of rescuing. The chain featured three key components to rescuing: destroying the ape-creating machines, smacking the citizens in ape form senseless, and turning them back into humans.
Once we had worked our way through a few more quests, we finally arrived at Grodd's secret lair. While our main mission was to take out Grodd, finding the Flash was also important. The lair offered a change of pace from the outdoor ape-stomping and had us working our way through an underground facility. When we finally found the Flash, we were able to free him and have him team up with us to take on Grodd. The battle offered the first real challenge of the early quests: in addition to his size and strength, Grodd's telepathic abilities allowed him to perform psychic attacks that had to be avoided by hopping around the room. The Flash was on hand to help, but ultimately, we had to do the heavy lifting when it came to taking out the troublesome ape. One of the especially nice touches to the battle was a comic-inspired cinematic that filled us in on Grodd's history. These short but informative cinematics will happen throughout the game, allowing DC Universe Online to educate the masses on the backgrounds of some of the lesser-known heroes and villains.
The work-in-progress version of the game that we tried on the PC handled nicely, even when using a PlayStation 3 controller. The game is definitely made with console play in mind and has a smart control scheme to keep it accessible. Although the development team is obsessing over the game's menus and interface, we were pretty pleased with what we saw. Taking on quests, forming a party, spending our points, switching weapons, and changing gear were all easy to do thanks to an intuitive cluster of menus that are laid out logically. Although the team is still doing some tweaking, we have to say the direction they're going in works nicely.
DC Universe Online's visuals are still looking good and do a fine job of laying out the massive playground SOE is creating for players. The PC game is done well and looks very sharp. Now that the game is in the home stretch to its November release, we can see the final layers of polish being added to good effect. While the PS3 version of the game isn't an exact match for the PC visuals, it's still looking very good. Metropolis looks like Metropolis, right down to a respectable number of bustling citizens. In addition, inquisitive players should find a pleasant number of items to collect and clues to investigate peppered throughout the city both at street level and higher.
Based on this deeper look at the game, we have to say that after two years of waiting, we’re probably even more eager for DC Universe Online than we were a year ago. The chance to get a look at the deeper elements of gameplay, which had been laid out for us only in abstract terms previously, has left us eager to dive in. The game really does appear to be on its way to delivering what was promised when it was announced. The cities, quests, cameos, and little nods to DC lore all appear to be coming together nicely. Like most of the fans following the game, we're eager to get our cape on and tear into the public beta, which is due in the coming months.