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DC Universe Online Review

Updated Thu, Feb 24, 2011 by borticus



BIFF! BAZAM!! KAPOWEE!!!

Free valet service!

Being a superhero is intended to be a flat-out FUN experience. From smashing cars over your enemies' heads to scaling gigantic skyscrapers with ease, MMOGs in this genre have had a difficult time reliably delivering the thrill of being a hero or villain worthy of comic book pages.

I'll admit that I was furthermore hesitant about an action-based MMOG that would rely on frantic button mashing to defeat my opponents. I was even more nervous about such a bold move being taken in a relatively weak sub-genre of the MMOG community. Has DCUO managed to allay those fears? Can the fast-paced, hands-on combat deliver the excitement of superpowered combat without alienating traditional MMOG players, or is this really just a translation of a multiplayer console title? Take a look at how SOE's DC Universe Online pushes the boundaries of traditional MMOGs, and whether or not those gambles have paid off.

Cautions

This game is available as both a PC and PS3 title. For the purposes of this review, only the PC version was played and therefore some of the information contained within may be slightly askew from the experiences of those playing the console version of the game.

Also worth noting, especially for those interested in the console title, is that this game comes with a standard monthly subscription fee of $15/mo, and requires registration of a credit card or pre-paid game card before you are even able to make use of the 30-day free trial that comes with the retail purchase. Visit DCUO's Pricing Page for further subscription details, or check out Sony's Station Pass subscription to gain access to DCUO and a handful of SOE's other online titles, all with a single monthly fee.

Gameplay

95OutstandingWhen you think of superheroes, you think of high-energy combat filled with exploding environments, daring acts of aerial acrobatics and punches capable of sending foes flying across the battlefield. None of these are absent from DCUO and every last one is just as satisfying as they look on the pages of your favorite comic books.

Did somebody order a beat down?

Perhaps the best gameplay feature of DCUO is the design of its default UI layout and keybinds. Instead of the standard MMOG mechanic of "tab-target, auto-attack, fire-all-your-cooldowns-and-wait-for-refresh" that leaves you a slave to whack-a-mole style hotbuttons and timers, DCUO maps the entirety of your primary weapon set to a single button. Through a series of "clicks" and "holds," your avatar will execute different combinations of superpowered techniques that are the bread and butter of your life as a hero or villain. The additional powers you can use are yours to command at YOUR discretion, not the whim of a global cooldown, and you may find yourself going as long as an hour or two without needing to activate a single one. This combination of simplicity and freedom allow you to do something that has become less common in MMOGs - you can actually watch the action unfold instead of always having your eyes fixed to your hotbars. This also has allowed the DCUO devs to include clever boss fight mechanics that include a reliance on environmental awareness, since it's easier to see what's going on around you.



It's ironic that the UI is also one of DCUO's weakest features. In addition to the sparse default layout, there is also a 10-page UI panel which is used to access players' inventories, appearances, social interactions, mission journals, and more. This is, in my opinion, the single largest feature that makes the PC experience of this game feel like a lazy console port. Besides being difficult to navigate and poorly designed in some instances (mission entries take up too much space and the map and social interfaces are completely unintuitive), many of these submenus simply cannot be bound to keys requiring you to open a random menu just to access the submenu bar and then switch to the menu you wished to access. Given how much of a character's progression is determined by picking the right gear, queuing up for PvP or Alerts and choosing the right missions to complete, it's a shame that these tasks require so much work to accomplish due to poor UI design.

Foot, meet Face.

Integrated voice chat is a feature that has seen very little adoption in the MMOG industry as a whole, but SOE was smart enough to recognize it as a necessity in an action-based game like this. Combat is simply too fast-paced for you to take the time to type out instructions in the heat of battle, and even travel frequently requires your hands to be "at the wheel" much of the time. As such, DCUO features a fully-functional integrated voice system that can be used in groups and raids with ease, and even allows for different input and output devices to be assigned, as well as featuring an automatic volume reduction of game sounds whenever you or a teammate is speaking.

The ease and excitement of hands-on action, coupled with voice chat and the universal use of voiceovers (which I'll discuss more in the "Sound" section) have come together to give gamers an action-filled experience that many MMOGs lack. The feeling that a hard-won victory or a sudden defeat is determined directly by your actions, rather than just a string of random number generators, gives DCUO a tactile, visceral spirit that is deeply satisfying and completely enjoyable.

Graphics

95OutstandingWhat DCUO lacks in photorealism, it more than makes up for with style. Every single area in this game is meticulously crafted to immerse players in the experience of being a hero in the DC comic franchise. Gotham City is a brooding, dirty urban jungle shrouded in perpetual night, while Metropolis' shining skyscrapers are punctuated with destruction and mayhem befitting of the home of so many superpowered conflicts. Surprising visual effects await around almost every corner while exploring the cities, including a Gotham cathedral encircled with floating ice crystals and drifts of snow, or a gorgeous underground jungle at the heart of the tech-inspired Hall of Doom.



DCUO's character models have a distinctively exaggerated style that fits perfectly with the over-the-top action of the game. While the character art style is an obvious departure from reality in terms of proportions and range of motion, it perfectly suited to the suspension of disbelief required to live in a comic book world where gorillas wield laser pistols and demons are a part of day-to-day living.

Fluid animations for nearly all actions have clearly been given plenty of attention by the game's developers, as I've yet to encounter anything that seemed awkward or out of place, even while climbing the sides of skyscrapers or engaged in hand-to-hand combat with iconic heroes and villains. The only exceptions to this overall feeling of seamless fluidity are some of the jerky physics-bending motions performed by Acrobatic and Superspeed heroes when coming in contact with the edges of surfaces or corners of buildings, but such actions don't happen on a regular basis and aren't a regularly recurring part of every-day gameplay.

For more examples of DCUO's eye-catching scenery check out Ten Ton Hammer's Tour of Metropolis and Tour of Gotham City.

Sound

87Very GoodLet's start here with a hot topic that's been discussed at length in various DCUO communities: the voices.

First of all, I want to give SOE a big round of applause for implementing complete voiceovers for nearly every line of mission-related text in the game, and also finding the time to incorporate random 'flavor' dialogue for completely unimportant members of the DCUO populace. In addition to this skillful implementation of the voices themselves, they also have gone out of their way to bring in voice talent from well-known actors like Adam Baldwin (as Superman), Wil Wheaton (as Robin), and James Marsters (as Lex Luthor), as well as reintroducing us to the well-known voices of Kevin Conroy (as Batman), Mark Hammill (as Joker) and Arleen Sorkin (as Harley Quinn). The widespread use of voiceovers to relay mission information through an unobtrusive "communicator" UI widget allows the pace of the game to continue uninterrupted, filling you in on the details you'll need to complete the tasks assigned to you, and understand the story-related reason you're doing it, without making you stop and read blocks of text or interact with drawn-out dialogue options. The sole downfall of this is that many of the voices are either not very good, or a drastic departure from voices that fans of DC have come to know and love. The primary example of the latter is Wonder Woman, who in this game is voiced by Gina Torres instead of the more well-known voice of acclaimed voice actress Susan Eisenberg.


A small portion of the voice cast of DCUO (from left to right):

Adam Baldwin as Superman, Wil Wheaton as Robin, James Marsters as Lex Luthor, Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as The Joker, Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, Gina Torres as Wonder Woman


Sound effects for powers and abilities in this game are more-hit-than-miss, but occasionally come off sounding like random white noise rather than interpretations of the actual motions being performed. This is especially the case in many hand-to-hand moves, where instead of hearing the hard smack of fists against flesh you instead hear some sort of zippy-slashy-musically-augmented whoosh. Such cases aren't the norm however, and special care seems to have been given to making noises like gunshots and burning fireballs sound as realistic as possible, even when heard from a distance or within the echoey interior of an abandoned warehouse.

The musical score is mostly uninteresting and largely absent. But when it's there it manages to perform its primary duty of setting the spirit of the particular area while remaining completely unobtrusive. I haven't found the need to turn it off yet, but I wouldn't even spring for a download of these musical selections if they were offered free-of-charge.

(FYI: There are currently a couple different sound bugs in the game that prevent audio from being played simultaneously under certain circumstances. These bugs were not factored into the scoring as they were not present in Beta and will presumably be fixed in an upcoming patch.)

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