DC Universe Online Review

  • First Released Jan 11, 2011
  • PS3

Fun combat and great looks make DC Universe Online entertaining for a while, though various limitations keep it from being a long-term destination.

If you've never played a massively multiplayer online game before, DC Universe Online is a good place to start. This isn't just because of the DC Comics license, though that might be what first draws you to this light and breezy take on the genre. After all, this is your chance to take to the skies above Metropolis like Superman or skulk in Gotham City's shadows like Batman himself. But it's the way DCUO mixes action-game sensibilities with traditional role-playing progression that makes it immediately enjoyable. If you're a seasoned role-player you'll find it refreshing as well--but only to a point. The speedy level progression and focus on all combat, all the time might prove tedious if you're someone who enjoys exploring new worlds for the thrill of mystery and discovery. The largely instanced, repeatable endgame content is fun, but it's not inviting enough to make it worth paying a monthly fee for it. But even if it doesn't provide enough new content to sustain you beyond a couple of weeks, DC Universe Online is generally entertaining, and comic book fans will be happy that the license was handled with care.

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It's hard not to compare DC Universe Online to the comic-inspired games for PC that came before it: City of Heroes, City of Villains, and Champions Online. If you've played one of them, you might be disappointed that at least initially, DC Universe Online doesn't offer the cosmetic flexibility for which those other superhero-themed games are so well known. That isn't to say that the character creation isn't robust, though you might have your imagination somewhat stifled. Of course, DC Universe Online instantly stands out by having heroes and villains alike share the same world. Once you tailor your creation to your liking, you select a weapon (if you want to play with other weapons, don't despair; your options expand later); choose a basic power set (gadgets, ice, fire, and so on); and choose one of three available mentors, such as Lex Luthor if you're a villain, or Wonder Woman, if you're a hero.

Fortunately, if you are disappointed by the initial creation options, you aren't stuck with this vision of your hero or villain forever. You earn and buy new gear as you play, but equipping a new cape doesn't mean you have to change your physical appearance. You can equip that cape for its improved stats without removing your demonic wings if they're more consistent with your overall look. In your main headquarters (the Hall of Doom for villains; the Justice League of America Watchtower for heroes), you can purchase additional cosmetic items, and when you hit on a look you really like, you can lock the entire costume--or just individual aspects of it.

It's fun to shoot dual pistols. It's more fun to shoot them while you leap backwards.
It's fun to shoot dual pistols. It's more fun to shoot them while you leap backwards.

After character creation, you are treated to DC Universe Online's fine tutorial, which does a great job of explaining why the world is burgeoning with superpowered individuals and demonstrating just how different the game's combat is from other online role-playing games. This is an action game in online role-playing form. When you press a button on your controller or mouse, you swing your blade, shoot your bow, or fire your rifle. There is the slightest amount of latency between your actions and the ones onscreen, but it's not enough to diminish the immediacy of battle. In most MMOGs, your key press doesn't necessarily translate to immediate contact between your weapon and your foe. DCUO's directness makes it fun for almost anyone from the get-go and a refreshing change of pace from typical entries in the genre. Superpowers are limited by your power bar (RPG vets might think of this as their mana pool.) Weapon skills, on the other hand, can be strung together with abandon, whether that means whipping your staff around like an overly enthusiastic drum major or leaping backward while you fire your dual pistols as if you're auditioning for a John Woo film.

Fluid combat animations, sparkling visual effects, and the combat's general responsiveness keep DCUO fun for quite a while, though it loses some of its luster over time. As you level up, you spend points on new combos, which not only make you more effective in combat, but also make battles more visually appealing. Nevertheless, the button presses/mouse clicks required to pull off grandiose moves aren't complex, and some attacks are effective enough to repeat over and over without throwing in too many variants--particularly when those reliable combos result in stuns or other such effects. A main drawback to the combat is the targeting. You can't choose your target--only hit the auto-target button and hope for the best. In the early going, this isn't such a big deal. In endgame raid dungeons filled with foes, on the other hand, it's too easy to select the wrong target and pull a group of enemies you'd rather have left alone--especially when the action gets really hectic and your view is obscured by bright flames and jolts of lightning.

Don't ever make Batman angry. This is what happened when Robin brought him Diet Coke instead of regular.
Don't ever make Batman angry. This is what happened when Robin brought him Diet Coke instead of regular.

DC Universe Online may not always escape the tedium that comes with its button-mashing combat, but it does a good job of masking monotony in a number of different ways. One such way is the tactical use of the powers you earn. These powers come from a few different trees, including one that focuses on so-called "iconic powers," inspired by the famous abilities of various heroes and villains, such as Batman's batarangs. You can only equip up to six of these powers at a time, though you can set up a couple of different loadouts and switch between them. For example, if you look to Circe for magical guidance, you might be able to switch between damage and healing roles, and have a separate set of powers for each loadout that complements those roles. This setup recalls similar limitations in the PC game Guild Wars, where individuals and groups could exploit their tactical potential with interesting, varied skill sets. And in the same way, playing with your loadouts in DCUO might reveal effective combinations that make you a more helpful teammate. It's too bad that the result summaries that appear at the end of certain player-versus-player matches and group dungeons don't recognize the hard work of those playing a controller role or supporting their team in other ways. (Only healing and damage stats are revealed.)

You can spend some in-game cash and "respec" your character--that is, reset your powers and skills and allocate your points elsewhere. But you stop earning experience (and thus, fancy new abilities) once you reach level 30, and unfortunately, you encounter that ceiling very quickly. You could conceivably reach that point after only a few days of play, and even playing casually it might only take a week. The downsides to reaching the level cap so quickly are perhaps obvious to longtime MMOG veterans: a diminished sense of progression and the tedium that arises when exploring familiar dungeons and PVP arenas many times over. And, you can't ease any tedium by exploring the various diversions you might expect to find in an online RPG, such as crafting or a player auction house.

The upside to the compressed leveling curve is that you never encounter content gaps in which you have to search for things to do or grind until you reach the point where new missions become available. Missions come to you fast and furious from the talking-head heroes and villains anxious to push you toward your next task. Or, you might receive assignments from various non-player characters strewn about the cities and elsewhere. Almost all of these characters are fully voiced, many of them rather well. Mark Hamill does an excellent job as The Joker, as he so often does in other games and on television. The mentors all sound quite good, as do a few other lesser heroes and villains. Other voice-overs sound as if they were performed by the local junior high drama club and lack the tongue-in-cheek comic timing of the better performances. The beautiful comic-book cutscenes that conclude instanced story missions and other missions, on the other hand, are consistently superb. Some are funny; others are legitimately moving. But all of them are gorgeously detailed and colored, and they're animated as if multiple cels were layered on top of each other.

The crime rate in Metropolis is so high, it's a wonder the property values haven't fallen.
The crime rate in Metropolis is so high, it's a wonder the property values haven't fallen.

The missions themselves aren't as vibrant as the scenes that close them. Kill a bunch of these things and interact with some of these other things is usually the extent of what you do, sometimes pausing to carry this thing over to that glowing spot. These copy-paste objectives can get old, though the mission voice-overs do provide an interesting context to some of these tasks. Villainous objectives are particularly enjoyable, as they often entail doing some horrible thing to an innocent bystander. These mission chains end with the aforementioned instances, where you get a chance to fight alongside a famed hero or villain--or beat up on one. These instances are usually more varied than your other tasks. For example, you might need to destroy computer terminals before Supergirl can utilize them. For even more mission variety, you can join other players in group instances called alerts. Alerts are longer--and more spacious--than story instances and might have you (for example) beating up on HIVE drones, taking down their mothership, and then facing a boss that may not be all that challenging but nevertheless takes a long time to defeat.

PVP arenas and group dungeons send you to a few iconic locales, such as the batcave and Bludhaven, though you will spend the majority of your time in DCUO's two main cities: Gotham City and Metropolis. Missions send you from one hot spot to another in either of these two urban centers at a slick pace, and you won't find any wondrous new vistas when exploring the nooks and crannies. Yet there is a good reason to keep a keen eye on your surroundings. Orbs dot the landscape, and investigating them unlocks little bits of backstory and other narrative scraps to collect. When you complete a themed collection, you earn new loot. There is another good reason to pay close attention during your travels, however: Both cities look lovely. Toxic yellow clouds hover over abandoned parking structures in a darkly lit Gotham. A derelict roller coaster is a stark contrast to the skyline in the distance. Green parks, sunny lighting, and tall skyscrapers make Metropolis a joy to travel in--and above. Some instances--warehouses, offices, and the like--aren't particularly eye catching, and many character models are devoid of detail. Yet these aren't huge faults in a game that excellently re-creates famous fictional cities and then encourages you to gild them with glowing rings of fire and colorful balls of energy.

Don't hang around for those textures to fade in; you might be waiting a very long time.
Don't hang around for those textures to fade in; you might be waiting a very long time.

Whether you prefer to stay solo or group up, DC Universe Online goes out of its way to be friendly. In some cases, simply standing near another player that performs a mission task--successfully defending a pedestrian, for example--gives you credit for the same task. Kill stealing is rare because you get credit for the kill as long as you landed a single hit on your target. Furthermore, your travel options (flight, acrobatics, and superspeed) make it easy to get across town in a relative hurry, particularly if you upgrade your travel method in the associated skill tree. Even when you're on your own, missions stay relatively easy, though the frequency with which enemies respawn can lead to occasional frustration if you're adventuring alone. Of course, you can always group with friends or join a league (DCUO's guild equivalent) if you want company. And you need company if you want to take on bounties, which are familiar, powerful superheroes and villains that pop up in Gotham City and Metropolis. You can also take down opposing players by joining a player-versus-player server, temporarily activating your PVP flag to make you vulnerable to the opposition, or by joining others in the competitive arenas.

DC Universe Online's player-versus-player arenas aren't as potentially unbalanced as those in Champions Online, but stuns and knockbacks are prevalent, so skills that deliver and protect you from such punishment are more helpful than when you're dishing out pain on non-player enemies like OMAC cyborgs. PVP is one of DCUO's late-game mainstays, rewarding you with currency that can be spent on better gear, which makes you more powerful and, of course, then leads to even more gear. Grinding arenas to earn new items isn't the only endgame option, however. Once you reach that upper limit of level 30, you gain access to some of DC Universe Online's more entertaining options. These include larger raid dungeons, new four-person instances, and two-person dungeons called duos. Duos are particularly enjoyable, such as one in Gotham University in which you slash up (or beat up, or shoot up) swarms of mummies and scarabs before confronting a histrionic Isis. If you were hoping for a greater challenge from DC Universe Online, the endgame content is where you will find it. Don't expect to bring down Chemo, for example, without a game plan and a good player in the tank role.

The city is so dark and brooding. It's no wonder villains flock to it.
The city is so dark and brooding. It's no wonder villains flock to it.

Which version of DC Universe Online you choose to play depends entirely on which quirks you're more willing to endure, though some issues are common to both platforms. Voice chat is a nice feature when it functions, though that only happens to be some of the time. Sound effects sometimes go missing or get muddled when there is a lot going on at once. Neither platform allows you to drop missions or share them with your groupmates. PC players will be immediately struck by the console-focused interface and the overzealous profanity filter, which inexplicably can't be turned off. However, loading times on the PC are zippy, and the game runs smoothly as you soar across the skies. The PlayStation 3 version is noticeably more sluggish. Menus take too long to pop up; the frame rate chugs along every so often, or the game might freeze for a second or two; and the telltale texture pop-in common to games using Unreal 3 technology is all too prevalent. Yet all things considered, the menus are simple enough to navigate using a controller, and the combo-focused combat feels natural on the platform.

These and a few other scattered glitches aside, DC Universe Online is relatively stable at this early stage, which makes it an even more attractive option for anyone who tends to shy away from these sorts of games. If you are one of those people, DCUO's flashy, combo-driven combat and visual pizzazz will draw you in from the beginning and keep you entertained for a few weeks. It's also hard to ignore the license's appeal, which is best showcased in the excellent scenes that play at the end of instanced story missions. Yet DC Universe Online tips its hand early on; in all too short a time, it stops offering any real surprises, remaining approachable but never wading too far from the shallow end of the pool. If you've been around the block and are looking for a new virtual world, this isn't the universe to call home. But if you long to face off with Mr. Freeze or stop The Flash dead in his tracks, this is a fun way to flex your superpowered muscles.

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The Good

  • Action-packed combat is fun from the start
  • Both Metropolis and Gotham City look great
  • Beautiful comic-book cutscenes punctuate story missions
  • Changing gear doesn't mean you have to change your looks

The Bad

  • You reach the level cap and stop earning new powers incredibly quickly
  • A variety of interface and voice chat issues
  • Combat and missions get predictable
  • Not enough content to keep you invested beyond the free month

About the Author

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.