Friday, December 31, 2010

Adventures in DC Universe Online

A few weeks ago I got an email invitation to join the DC Universe Online beta. This gave me the (free) opportunity to take the game for a spin before it became publicly available. For all my game playing I’ve never spent a lot of time with a massively multiplayer game. Here are my impressions, playtest notes, and wish-list.

At first I was quite disappointed by the MMOness of it all. It feels very much like World-of-Warcraft-with-tights. There are lots of fetch quests and beat up X guys missions. There are loot drops and raids. Weak character development and very weak story all around - even by deeply diminished video game standards. The well-populated persistent world mean nothing really changes. I’m supposed to beat up Scarecrow’s thugs and rescue my fellow citizens from his fear gas. But an infinite stream of bad guys and infected bystanders keep showing up as fast as I deal with them. I knock out baddies and free bystanders to make my quota and leave the rest for the next guy. It doesn’t feel very heroic.

Character generation is flexible and fun. You choose hero or villain and have a wide variety of costume and appearance options. Choose a power set, a weapon, and how you get around. Choose your awesome super-name. Realize that your awesome super name was already taken. And your first 6 somewhat less awesome backups are also taken. Settle for some kind of vaguely appropriate but available name. Now you’re ready for action!

The graphics and combat are only OKish relative to their single-player counterparts (like Prototype or Batman: Arkham Asylum). But they are solid and enjoyable for a game of this scope. Combat feels more more kinetic, twitchy, and action-oriented than what I would expect. Giant spring-loaded boxing gloves send characters flying. Attacks can be dodged with a quick acrobatic roll. Rhythmic button combinations lead to spectacular, leaping, flourishes of Demon Fist’s deadly power-quarterstaff. At its best it feels like you’re playing a fighting game or a brawler.

Many of the MMO conventions are present. To a superhero fan and MMO novice like me they can seem out of place or are simply baffling. Having loot drops seems odd for heroes. The appearance changes are kind of fun. But the stat changes you get from the super-pants you got from beating up Doctor Psycho are too subtle to really get excited about. Having decaying equipment seems pointless. And facing the Queen Bee with a bunch of busted gear can be especially frustrating. Collecting money seems inappropriate for the genre (if you’re a hero). And there’s not that much to buy. So I’m not really sure what the point is.

Characters can have different roles (Damage, Control, Tank, and Healer) that seem like nods to knowing WoW fans. But I wish they were more intrinsic to the characters rather than different roles my character is supposed to take on from mission to mission. Character generation provides a wide variety of power and weapon selections. Fire and ice. Flying and super speed. Magic and brawlers. But then, they all get kind of homogenized in the name of balance. Everyone seems to wind up with similar offense and defense options to work out to the same amount of damage points per second.

The biggest advantage a MMO has over a single player game is the availability of all these other players as heroes and villains. This remains my greatest disappointment with the game. I hate chat windows and can’t imagine spending my precious gaming time typing in one. All my players interactions so far have been incidental, brief, shallow and random. I wish the game did much more to encourage player interaction and helped form enduring partnerships and rivalries between the players.

If I’m dong a mission and another hero is doing the same mission right next to me, the game should ask us if we want to work together. If we do, scale the mission, open a audio chat channel, and make us a team. If we complete the mission, ask us we want to be friends. If we say yes, let us find each other and team up in future sessions.

If a villain comes along and beats me up, offer me a revenge mission that let’s me track him down. If I succeed at the revenge mission, ask us we want to be enemies. If we do, let us track each other down and do battle in future sessions.

Instead of a “Tank” mode, I want a “Social” role. When in social mode characters should not be able to attack or be attacked. Their controls  should allow them to strike a variety of poses and make a number of canned, context relevant, statements. Before a battle (or even in the middle of one) heroes and villains should be able to target each, go “Social” other to swap some banter and strike poses for a few seconds before the action resumes.

What I really want is more, deeper, more personal mission-based PvP. Give a villain a mission to go rob a bank. Tell my hero that I need to go stop the bank robbery. We both have to get to the bank and get sent to the same instance. I fight my way through henchmen. The villain fights through the guards. We meed in the middle and only one of us can be the victor.

Unfortunately, DC Universe Online doesn’t offer much of that kind of social-engineering. It does offer a lot of flash,  fireworks, power progression, and different ways to be super. I think it’s probably a good MMO. It's just too conventional for my taste. I might buy it when it comes out. But I’ll continue to look to the skies and search the rooftops. Someday a real hero will come. Someone will serve up some real stories and save us from MMO grinding and drudgery. But who? And will they be too late?


  1. But Who? Sounds like a job for a super programmer or two... :-)

  2. I wish it only took a super programmer or two. Making a modern MMO is a more like making a big movie.

  3. It's sad but not surprising that another MMO is trying to crib notes from WOW and is set up for a big fall. The fact that they're licensed is going to hamstring them even more. Everyone wants to play Batman but you can't have a city with a hundred Batmans (Batmen?). Even in Dark Knight, Batman himself was pretty pissed at low-level PC's trying to copy his act.

    Oh, and you only get to name your character Speedballer if you kill John Belushi.

  4. Ben -

    Have you played either of the two big PC superhero MMOs, City of Heroes or Champions Online? I wonder if they meet (or fail to meet) your expectations of interaction and variety.

    I've never dipped a toe into the MMO field myself; the never-ending grind is not why I play games. However, if you find one that is more about the roles and interactions than the grind I might be willing to try.

  5. I played City of Heroes when it first came out and tried Champions for just few minutes. They both seemed pretty conventional and grindy. My sense is DCUO is probably the best of the bunch.

  6. Matt, how did you know his name was Speedballer? Are you looking for secret messages in my HTML again?

    Speedballer is villain with super speed and guns. But I only played him to level 5. If he fought Belushi for the name I might put my money on Belushi.

  7. If this had been cross-platform compatible I would have picked it up to play as your sidekick. Alas, it's two separate DC Universes for PC and PS3.

  8. Ben: Clicked on the image, saw the file name. Not really a lot of detective work. And the reference is to the "Speedball" combination of drugs that killed John Belushi, not a name John Belushi would choose for himself.

  9. I picked this up on PS3 and it's fun. Just a beat-em up, and not a perfect super-hero game, but with a few friends it's a good time.

  10. I didn't end up getting the retail version. I felt like we had seen what there was to see in the beta. But I bet it's fun in a group. What's your character Erik?

    My main was Demon Fist - Hero, Batman mentor, quarterstaff, and gadgets.

  11. Sorry this reply is less than timely - I forgot to check back in.

    I have two - one, a female villain named Tawny Kitten (Lex, martial arts, ice) on a PvE server, and a hero called Kid Charlemagne (Wonder Woman, one-handed, magic) on a PvP server.

    I think if this wasn't my first MMO I wouldn't play past the first month, but the quests, arenas, alerts and stuff are all new to me. It's fun teaming up (I have a friend on the same PvP server) and the stories are decent if repetitive. I do like how the quests build upon one another (the Raven/Brother Blood/Trigon line really hit my early 80s Teen Titan fandom hard). The DC setting is definitely a hook, moreso than WoW would be; the lore and easter eggs for fans are great.