DC Universe Online Hands-On PvP Preview from Comic-Con

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Super hero MMOs are a tricky business. Unlike their fantasy brethren, the realm of super heroes is often very black and white: the good guys are very good and the bad guys are very bad. Their conflict is at the forefront of every issue, and even when the panel writers begin turning an artistic flair, the battle between the forces of good and evil still remains an ever-present figure.

For comic book MMOs, finding that PvP sweet spot is an absolute priority. While I was attending San Diego’s Comic-Con International ’09, I had the chance to take a swing at Sony Online Entertainment’s player versus player encounters in their upcoming super hero online game known as DC Universe Online. Unlike previous demos that the SOE team has run, Comic-Con’s entertainment was focused squarely on providing fans with quick spurts of (what appeared to be) high level PvP action, which was a different tact than what reporters and fans had seen previously in the quest walkthrough. To make sure all of my details and impressions were accurate, I grabbed DCUO developer Wes Yanagi to answer some of my questions whenever I was confused.

Before I jumped onto one of the available SOE machines at Comic-Con (all of which were constantly packed with eager participants), I took a few minutes to simply observe the game as played by others. The pace was fast, the combat was over-the-top, and the fights were frenetic. Explosions and earth-shaking effects were appearing at every turn. The heroes and villains were divided into three-on-three pairings with two “boss” NPCs also engaging in the fight. Depending on which encounter you were running, you had the potential to run up against Superman, Green Lantern, Batman, Lex Luthor, Bizzaro, Joker or Sinestro among others. According to developer Wes Yanagi, this PvP encounter was created specifically for Comic-Con and probably wouldn’t make it into the finished game, but was built to recreate the sort of PvP action players might see in the finished product.

Another notable aspect of this year’s Comic-Con was the fact that the DCUO PvP battle was being fought on both PCs and PS3s, making DC Universe the first MMO to successfully integrate an MMO experience into a next-gen console. While Yanagi still couldn’t confirm whether we would see PS3s and PC users being able to share the same world at launch, the fact that the demonstration at Comic-Con was achieving that type of gameplay showed that the potential will certainly be there. On that note, I grabbed the first open PS3 controller I could find and immediately set to work wreaking havoc upon my foes.

Unfortunately, I’m not a huge console gamer, so it took me a few minutes to really get the feel for the title on a gamepad. The general lack of precision there is while trying to target characters with a control stick rather than a mouse was disconcerting at first. Targeting, from what I could extrapolate and what I was told, is done in one of two ways with a controller. You can either turn on a sort of “soft target” mode where your attacks generally fly towards the nearest enemy to your targeting reticule (center of the screen) within a certain distance (no fiery curveballs from these heroes), or you can go into more of a hard target manual mode, that allows you to stick on one enemy to keep him locked into your display. With the controller, this was achieved through holding down one of the L or R buttons and cycling through your targets with the right control stick. There may be other ways to target your enemies in DCUO, but I couldn’t explore every option during my limited time with the demo.

Unlike most MMOs, DC Universe Online features physics-laden effects, which means that every attack and animation in the game has a “substance” to it. So if you’re targeting one enemy and his ally happens to jump in your way, your attack will hit that ally instead. So although targeting may not be as specific as other MMOs, this opens up a whole new level of strategy and tactics for gamer groups hoping to take down their opponents in PvP.

As I continued to play through the PvP demo and get a handle for my controls, the differences in the game continued to be revealed. Players that are used to having pinpoint control of their movements and attacks will probably be turned off by the controller functionality. Although it definitely has an ease of use that the keyboard lacks, the controller felt cumbersome in my hands... but then again I'm a fan of the PC, and even when playing on consoles I prefer the sleeker Xbox controller to its PS3 counterpart.

Still, the PS3 controls were relatively intuitive: each of the buttons on the gamepad lined up with buttons that you might be used to on any PS3 combat-oriented game. You had your basic melee and ranged attacks along with a heavier "scatter" power that could give players some breathing room. Special attacks - what we MMO gamers know as abilities or skills - are put in a deck that players accessing by holding down the L2 button and hitting the four main PS3 keys. The clickable items - like potions and rings - were activated via the R2 button and the four main keys. My character was more of a "fire" inclined individual, using bolts of energy and ground-shattering attacks to scatter my foes before raining destruction down upon them.

Along with being fire-based, my avatar also sported a pair of wings that I used to flap around the battlefield. Jumping from ground to flight was as easy as pressing a button and aiming my character in the appropriate direction. I could also grab some of the larger objects scattered about the room and waylay my enemies with thrown projectiles. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to truly get a feel for my characters strengths - whether he was an offensive, defensive, or support sort of character - so my blind fighting wasn't as tactical as it could have been.

In general, the combat encounter presented to the Comic-Con crowds by SOE was much, much more kinetic than anything I've seen in an MMO to date. Despite only having ten characters in the encounter, there was so much happening on screen that the fighting felt very intense, even when I wasn't being directly attacked.

Dying - at least in this PvP encounter - was little more than a speed bump. Without any punishment that I could see, my character could choose to "Rally" or "Flee", which meant I either jumped right back into the fray - albeit with lower health - or had to respawn at a resurrection point a short distance away from the main fighting. While Wes stated that again this would probably be changed before the final product, I was surprised when the "Flee" command only dropped me about three seconds from the fighting. All I had to do was jump off a ledge to continue the battle.    

Whether it was SOE's intention or not, I spent far more time watching the actual gameplay on the screen rather than my UI, which led to a few deaths that could have been avoided if I'd used the proper items at the correct times. It didn't bother me though - I was far more interested in simply "Rallying" and taking down my now debilitated opponents. Again, death was more of a breather than any sort of inconvenience.

At the end of the day, I felt like Sony Online Entertainment is certainly on the right track with DCUO. The graphics were gorgeous - more realistic than those found in Champions Online, for better or worse - and the action was certainly there. If I were to judge the potential of DCUO by the size of the crowd at the booth, I'd have to say that they could have a very, very solid hit on their hands. Couple that with the audience found in a console-based MMO, and they will - more than likely - have a winner on their hands.
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