Also available on: PC
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Video games and comic books should make ideal bedfellows, though glimpses of the union's true potential have only emerged in recent years. 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum was a breath of fresh air in genre rife with mediocre film tie-ins and uninspired clones. Rocksteady Studios served up a winning concoction of unique stealth mechanics and effective license usage, and the result was the Caped Crusader's definitive console outing. It was a sign that developers are finally waking up to the possibilities on offer in the pages of comics, and hopefully the best is yet to come. Last month, DC and Sony Online Entertainment put their heads together to launch the most ambitious comic-inspired game to date, multiplayer online project DC Universe Online. Console MMOs have had something of a troubled history, but with heavyweights like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman on its side, this one can't go far wrong... can it?
First off, the PS3 edition of DCUO will be a hard sell to sections of the platform's demographic, simply because it resides in a genre better suited to the PC. However, the DC license - and the fact it's handled with the care it deserves - should be enough to reel in the comic fanatics at least. Complex user interfaces and the gradual pace of traditional role-playing progression don't lend themselves particularly well to console gaming, so it's good to see the developers counterbalance this with an action focus, swift levelling system and a streamlined control scheme. This heightens its pick-up-and-play appeal, making it a great place to start for MMO virgins. That isn't to say that this is a watered down experience. Even seasoned veterans will appreciate the character customisation options and vast cityscapes on offer. Both Gotham City and Metropolis are faithful recreations of their comic counterparts and rich in scope, if a tad under populated at this early stage in the title's lifecycle.
One of the game's most appealing aspects is the option to choose where your allegiance lies. Creating your own super being from scratch, it's up to you whether you battle for truth and justice with Superman, or raise hell with the Joker. While DCUO isn't the first game to let the player choose between good and evil, having both sides operate within the same world makes for some interesting contests. Character customisation is the first port of call. With the option to select fighting style, weapons, powers, accessories and physical appearance, there's a world of possibilities here. There are templates based on iconic DC creations, but those with a penchant for originality can design their avatar manually. Once all of your bells and whistles are in place, you're treated to an impressive cinematic before the game throws you into a tutorial.
The training stage, which sees you on a sabotage mission on Brainiac's spaceship, serves as a comprehensive introduction to the game's core mechanics. Bringing you up to speed with combat, special abilities and the option menus, you'll spend much of this level reducing the supervillain's robot army to scrap and scaling walls through either your flight power or superhuman speed, depending on which attributes you selected. The game's action-heavy approach is apparent from the off. There are buttons for both melee and projectile attacks, so there's no waiting around during battles just to land a blow. You'll acquire items that unlock a variety of special attacks and powerups fairly quickly. These can be assigned to a menu bar along the bottom of the screen and activated using the L2 and R2 buttons. Scaling structures via the super speed function, or flying over them is of fundamental importance as this is your primary means of traversing long distances in the overworld. You'll become acquainted with these mechanics during the introductory stage, along with basic mission structure and storyline.
With your training done and dusted, you're planted in a safehouse (police stations for heroes, seedy nightclubs for villains) from which you can access quests, join forces with other players and trade with vendors. Quests are the bread and butter of the game, and their content might feel overly familiar to anyone well schooled in MMOs. The majority of them involve taking out a predetermined number of enemies or interacting with them in a particular way, before locking horns with a boss (usually a familiar face from the annals of DC Comics). One of the game's biggest problems is that this structure becomes repetitive after a while. Although there are side quests to tackle when you reach the higher levels - such as hero and villain bounties and races - the core objectives could have used more variety. There's good deal more strategy involved when taking part in missions as a group, although anyone expecting the kind of strategic depth of World Of Warcraft might be disappointed.
On the plus side, the source material has been used to its full potential. Myriad characters from DC's illustrious back catalogue make an appearance, many as cameos, others as instrumental plot devices. Voice acting from fan favourites Adam Baldwin, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill help breathe life into the cast, and the hand illustrated cutscenes from DC artists adds an air of authenticity. As we touched upon earlier, locations from various comics have been recreated faithfully - from the Batcave to the Justice League Watchtower - the only problem is that user activity is confined to certain pockets of the map, leaving others feeling lifeless and under-developed. That said, the atmosphere is incredible when you are questing in a thriving region. With dozens of other players scaling buildings, taking out computer-controlled characters and unleashing their unique powers, the in-game environment feels nothing short of absorbing.
Unfortunately, the way players interact with each other is hampered by technical issues. SOE has already issued a patch to stamp out some of the major bugs in the system, but some glitches still prevail. Voice chat suffers the most and is often unreliable. Some general faults and server issues also crop up on occasion, and the menus are painfully slow to switch between, so expect a further update to be released in the near future. Along the same lines, new content is also essential if Sony wishes to ensnare players beyond the trial period. While there are ample mission to work through in the pre-subscription phase, you'll reach the level cap relatively quick and be left hungry for more.
While your average PS3 owner might be deterred by the subscription costs and lack of content offer, it's important to keep in mind that DC Universe Online is very much a work in progress. In this regard the game has a great deal of promise, particularly if you're a comic book fan or a newcomer to the MMO genre. Further bug fixes are needed to iron out some lingering creases, but whether DCUO will fulfill its superhuman potential depends solely on how the developers build on its framework in the long run.
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