A Single Player Experience in a Multiplayer Universe: The 'DCU Online' Beta
This new MMORPG is huge fan service. While players design their own heroes and powersets, the game does not skimp on giving a sense of being part of the DC mythology with very regular encounters with famous and infamous characters.
In the first few hours of playing the DC Universe Online Beta, I'd KOed Dr. Fate. Yeah, Dr. Friggin' Fate. To those less familiar with reading DC Comics, I promise this is more impressive than it sounds.
In fact, in the week or so that I spent in this virtual version of the DC universe, as a hero I tangled with Batman, The Joker, Harleyquin, The Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, even Giganta and Dr. Psycho. In this sense, the new MMORPG is huge fan service. While players design their own heroes and powersets, the game does not skimp on giving a sense of being part of the DC mythology with very regular encounters with famous and infamous characters. Additionally, the two main areas of the world, Gotham City and Metropolis, offer a host of familiar sites from the comics, but more importantly, a very authentic sense of place in terms of both. Metropolis is sunny and bright, Gotham is dark and dreary. While I may never have heard of Amusement Mile in Gotham, this place that the Joker's goons inhabits has a twisted, carnival-esque feel that is right in line with expectations about what the Joker's base of operations should “feel” like. Areas of Crime Alley are overridden by hallucinations produced by the Scarecrow's fear gas. Good stuff.
Beyond this sense of familiar “comic bookish” place though, a number of details are added that strengthen the connection to funny book mythology. Cutscenes that close out mission arcs are all hand drawn by Jim Lee, and the missions themselves are smartly scripted pieces. Rarely have I seen so much storytelling in an MMO, with individual missions that actually sensibly relate to the overarching plot threads that your hero or villain is pursuing. If you are charged with taking down 10 of the Scarecrow's goons, for instance, there is actually a reason for doing so. Interrogation of these thugs will lead to information that will take you to the next hot spot in a mission arc.
Missions themselves also feature some unique things to do that go beyond merely offing large groups of enemies or just getting through another “dungeon,” as one most often does in standard MMOs. I was transformed into a rhinoceros creature by Circe and had to stave off her forces in this new form, I had to fight an invisible Dr. Psycho, I had to solve riddles to locate the Riddler. The game has smart, thoughtful level design for an MMO and actually surprises the player at times with clever twists based on the personas of the characters from the comics. There are some great moments that involve Scarecrow hallucinations (that I won't get into specifics concerning, as you should be “scared” by them yourself) that give missions an illusion of dynamism that scripted sequences like these usually don't provide.
While playing, I was reminded a lot of playing another MMO that seemed more focused on telling a story than the more traditional formula of an MMO (grind for loot, make friends, find stuff to do with and for them). However, Age of Conan was plagued with less than clever missions and vaguely boring storylines. DCU's commitment to the universe that it emulates results in a very different experience.
That being said, the other commonality with playing Age of Conan was that there seems very little reason to group up in the game. Characters can charge right into throngs of foes and survive quite handily. Bosses like the aforementioned Dr. Fate or even the Joker can be handled solo. While traditional MMO roles exist for players, like Tank, Healer, and Controller, nevertheless, barring instanced missions, there is little reason to approach most situations with much strategy. The game employs an unusual character building system with powers that can be acquired as the character levels, powers that are limited by a kind of mana pool and cooldown (a la City of Heroes) as well as a secondary set of “Skills,” which consist largely of weapons sets (guns, bows, martial arts weapons, and the like) or brawling sets that are controlled by clicks of the mouse (in the PC version of the game). This pairing of powers and something like chained attacks allows the player to plan assaults with powers but also button mash in combat in a pretty unrestrained way. Again, this results in a powerful hero that can take on three or four opponents of a similar level quite handily (kind of unheard of in games that require tanking and crowd control), but as a result, a hero has little need to “team up” in the classic comic book sense.
All of this does, of course, adhere to some kind of comic book logic with players frequently soloing the main content (as if they are a hero in their own comic book title) and only requiring the need to team up for more difficult instanced missions (as if one were now occupying a team-based comic book). Not only that, but due to the rather unintuitive chat interface and grouping options, it is actually somewhat difficult to run main content missions with other players. It appears that you basically have to be running the same mission arcs with folks that you want to play alongside, which is fine if you and your pals get on at the same time of day to start a set of missions but is awkward if you were to drop in and out at odd times or just want to group with someone that you met in the Hall of Doom. Instanced missions make a bit more sense in this regard, and there are some neat instanced missions to play (what DC fan wouldn't want to fight the Ultrahumanite on Gorilla Island?), but these are queued missions and a much smaller part of the overall experience. It also makes playing them somewhat tricky as “tanks” may not really understand what a tank is supposed to do -- because they have spent all their time soloing. They won't know how to work on a team.
Some players might really get into this notion of a highly “solo-able” game, but I actually enjoy the need to join a group, figure out how to work with them, and strategize a plan of attack as you would in a standard MMO. For those accustomed to “feeling needed” on a team or just really interested in the co-operative group dynamics of MMOs, the game may be less appealing.
My other main complaint lies in the character creation system, which is both extremely unintuitive as well as extremely restrictive in its ability to craft a specific look for a character. After City of Heroes set the benchmark for crazy amounts of options for designing a hero or villain, DCU's options seem extremely minimal. There are only three body types for each gender. For men: very tall and bulky, medium sized and bulky, and childlike. For women: tall and super busty, medium sized and busty, and small and pretty busty. There are no slider options to create a tall, lanky hero or a big brained heroine. You are also basically restricted to three colors on your uniform. This may seem like a minor issue, but really, creating a unique look for a super hero is pretty central to this kind of role playing, and the character creation system feels kind of like an underdeveloped afterthought, especially given the quality and variety of art assets spent on the rest of the universe and its characters.
All in all, this is clearly going to be a crowd pleaser for fans of DC Comics. The game itself contains a much more “actiony” approach than any other MMO that I have ever played, which makes its play very accessible but less deep than veteran MMO players might like. I really would prefer a bit more emphasis on the second M in MMO, but I have to admit that this old school DC Comics fan was pretty wowed by the names and places that I finally had the chance to experience not on the page, but on my own little screen into the DC universe.