Online role-playing games have already given you the chance to act as a triumphant superhero or dastardly villain, but DC Universe Online marks the first time one has used a well-known superhero license. In this new massively multiplayer game, you create your own hero or villain and run about the streets of Gotham City and Metropolis, aiding your allies while fending off evildoers--or doing some evil of your own. As with all such games, reviewing DC Universe Online will take some time, though at the current pace of leveling, I suspect that this game doesn't hide many aces up its sleeve. But so far, it's light, breezy fun, with a smooth feel and a charm that is sure to delight fans of the license. I don't know that it's the right choice for someone looking to find a new long-term virtual home, though I have yet to experience all of its features. In the meanwhile, I thought I would share some thoughts regarding my experiences thus far, as well as some screens and movies to help tide you over before I deliver a full evaluation.
It's hard not to compare DC Universe Online to 2010's Champions Online, given their obvious thematic similarities. If you've played last year's superhero funfest, you may be somewhat disappointed that DC Universe's character creation isn't as flexible as that of Champions. There are fewer cosmetic options, nor can you create your own personal origin story, since the game's narrative provides you one. Don't fret too much, however, since you still get the opportunity to create a great-looking character using a variety of skin types, belts, boots, capes, tops, and so on. Of course, what makes DC Universe immediately rise above its recent competition is that you can play as either a hero or a villain, which enhances its appeal. Your choices aren't just cosmetic, however: you choose a basic power set (gadgets, for example, or ice, or fire) and an initial weapon. My magic-focused villain uses a staff to beat up her foes, while my hero gadgeteer wields dual pistols. (Note that you are limited to your initial weapon choice for the first nine levels).
You also decide upon a method of travel. On the PC, I went with acrobatics for my villain, which allows me to glide and quickly scale surfaces; on the PS3, my hero takes to the skies in full-fledged flight. My fellow reviewer Tom Mc Shea chose super speed, and it's a hoot to watch him flash across the screen while we travel together. You also must choose on a mentor. There are three mentors for heroes and three for villains. If you feel particularly virtuous, you can side with Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman; scoundrels choose from Lex Luthor, The Joker, and Circe. After you make these choices, the game opens with a quality tutorial that introduces you to the story and combat. The battle system is striking for its clicky/mashy action, which is a refreshing change from the more usual, less direct, massively multiplayer online combat. DC Universe feels like an action game, which gives it an immediate user-friendly appeal, though you may find that the appeal wears thin over time.
DC Universe Online mixes up its open-area questing with instanced scenarios in which you enter private areas and beat up on adversaries and interact with non-player characters and objects as you make your way to the end boss. One thing I appreciate about playing as a villain is that there's a definite evil (but tongue-in-cheek) twist to the missions that 2005's City of Villains sometimes lacked. For example, in an early quest you convert helpless citizens into less wholesome beings, and there's something awful and wonderful about hearing their cries for help before channeling a demonic presence. The main quest chains culminate with those instanced quests, which reward you with a sharp-looking, narrated comic cutscene. There's a lot of voice acting in DC Universe, and most of the beloved DC characters sound quite good. (As you can imagine, Mark Hamill is impeccable as the Joker.)
I've tried other types of content as well, including player-versus-player battles. Your introduction to PVP play has you and your teammates taking the roles of iconic characters and capturing key points while fending off an opposing team. I prefer using my own characters, however, since I am beginning to develop a bond with them, as I would in any online RPG, and have had more fun in the arena as a result. The PVP is flashy and enjoyable, though I haven't played enough of it to know if it has lasting appeal or if it's balanced particularly well. I've also taken part in alerts, which are extended player-versus-environment team missions. My first alert's end boss took some time to defeat, but that was due more to an inflated health bar than to an actual challenge. Most of the PVE content I've seen has been rather easy, which has led to a certain sense of shallowness. That impression is enhanced by other aspects of the game--the simple combat, limitations to how many powers you can equip at once, the fact that there are only two major locations (though they are impressively large), and certain interface and feature quirks. (For example, you can't share your quests with teammates as you can in most similar games.) Some of those limitations make sense from the console perspective and make the game friendly for those using a controller. Keyboard jockeys, on the other hand, may miss many of the interface standards and the flexibility they've grown used to over the years.
One of my favorite aspects of the game is that you loot new gear and weapons, but you can choose whether or not those items should appear on your character when you equip them. This way, you can get the stat bonus without messing with your physical appearance. My flirty she-villain doesn't look so hot in a flouncy blouse, but I enjoy seeing different looks appear on her as I progress. On the other hand, I love the appearance of my mysterious gadgeteer so much that I refuse to change it. This was a smart way to allow players the satisfaction of collecting loot without forcing a new look on them. And speaking of looks, DC Universe has them. This isn't a technical stunner, but the game's art is colorful and captures the spirit of the source material, and DCUO has performed admirably on both my work and home machines. I've experienced some performance hitches on the PlayStation 3, but nothing particularly earth-shattering.
Mind you, these are top-level impressions based on a dozen-plus hours of play, and I expect that my weekend will be spent spreading my online infamy. I'll have a review ready soon, but until then, I'll be posting screens and videos for you to feast upon. And if you're already cavorting about Metropolis in a cape, I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts!