Back in the lost mists of time that was 2006, I started playing a game called “City of Heroes”. That seemed like such a long time ago now. This was back in the day just before the release of WoW’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade, and during a period of time I call “The First Hiatus”. A period of six months where I got thoroughly bored of WoW and wanted a new MMO.
I played several MMO’s out at that time. Matrix online and EVE online stand out, but only City of Heroes was the one that stood out enough that I purchased a subscription for.
The idea of creating a character, with it’s own appearence and style was intreguing. Something no other MMO offered beyond gear upgrades. The Matrix Online came close, with all it varied clothing, but nothing on the scale the CoH managed. Your character was yours. Personal. One of a kind. Unique.
I had myself a Psychic/Empath Defender. Yes, a choice I regreted almost instantly when I found it impossible to Solo. Forced to group to advance was simple, as everyone wanted a healer, with Empaths being the best. So levelling wasn’t a problem, but the gameplay was nearly identical to WoW’s. The only difference was that you were a super hero. You were stuck with your class, with less flexibility than Wow’s respeccing allowed (Despite being notoriously restricting for hybrids, by the time I started CoH WoW was starting to embrace all hybrid specs)
CoH lacked so many things WoW had, and while I enjoyed it for a time, it was really starting to wear thin. No crafting to speak of (at that point), no player-economy. The rudimentary Super group bases. Litteral Grinding levels, the only way to gain at max levels was in groups, and the only groups available were instance grinds.
After the first Hiatus, a few years later, came the second Hiatus. Where I played numerous other MMO’s, including going back to CoH shortly before Champions came out.
What a step forwards Champions was for MMO’s. While quests were the same as WoW, kill quests, gather quests, escort quests, they took a few new things from Warhammer Age of Reckoning, namely Public quests and events, like controlling the jailbreak in millenium city that could be done solo, or by a group, or just by random passers-by. It introduced voice acting to important quests, and the best character creator in any MMO to date. Almost limitless creativity for costumes, and incredibly intuitive to use as well. A power set creator that was both simple and complex at the same time. It was easy to get lost in the creator and inadvertantly ruin your ability to level by choosing the wrong powers, but the ease of Respeccing by removing one power at a time eased that somewhat.
Champions however fell down with it’s same-old quest design, lack of end-game content (however, what was there in the form of Nemesis was quite fun to play), and lacklustre crafting that, while better than CoH’s was (when it got it), still felt unsatisfying. The final area of Lemuria smelled faintly of being untested and lagged in both graphics and network, often making people feel ill with the amount of rubber banding.
I’ve talked alot about previous MMO’s I’ve played here because I want you to understand what made previous Super-hero MMO’s special, and what made them fail. The cracks that ruined each game for me, and that drove me back to WoW as my MMO of choice.
Each Super Hero MMO has been a leap forwards in terms of production values and in terms of a cohesive coherent game.
Now, into the spotlight comes DC Universe Online. For the last week I’ve been playing it, and from my experience with it, I’m not entirely sure where it falls.
In many ways it’s a step backwards from Champions Online. Firstly, the UI is clunkly and slow, even with mouse sensitivity at maximum it still takes an age to cross the screen, loading elements takes time, the map is unintuitive and cluttered, with seemingly no zoom function and is split into sub-areas per city with no real way of telling which areas are attached to which. To complete a quest you have to open your journal, even if you’re standing next to the NPC, you have to go into your journal and then select the completed quest, then click complete, and considering how slow the mouse is this just seems like a chore each time you do it. In some ways it’s also a step backwards from City Of Heroes. Oh, and if you’re on a low-spec PC (like I am) you have to load the game, create a character and log into the game before you can adjust the Resolution and graphics settings. The settings panel on the Launcher does exist, but does not appear to work.
Secondly, there’s absoloutly no crafting. None. This is definitley a step backwards from City of Heroes, although there is reason for it being left out. The only character you ever really see ‘crafting’ is Batman, and he certainly doesn’t use tech that he finds on enemies, but when has “realism” ever affected MMO Mechanics.
Thirdly, the costume creator is woefully inadequete. For each gender there are 3 body types. Large, medium or small, and there are no sliders for individual parts. So you cannot have a short, fat baby-like gangster, or a tall, lanky, scrawny mage. The costumes are on par with City Of Heroes, but, naturally, better looking and higher quality (what with this being 2011, not 2006), however, it lacks the complexity of Champions, indeed, it takes the ‘4-colour pallete’ option of Champions and enforces it, while stripping it down to 3 colours.
You can still make pretty unique characters, but frankly, it doesn’t feel all that creative. Indeed, with the slow, plodding UI it makes you just want to get it over and done with.
All this aside, the core mechanics that make the game playable are excellent. For example, Every quest is voice acted, and decently so. Even the unknown voices of Oracle and Calculator (your voice-in-your-ear Quest givers) are superbly acted and realised. Then there’s the special times when known heroes pop up. Batman (as voiced by the same man who’s voiced every animated incarnation since the 80s), Joker (Mark ‘Best Joker Ever’ Hammil), Superman (Adam ‘Jayne’ Baldwin), Wonder Woman (Gina ‘The angry woman from Firely’ Torres), Supergirl (Summer ‘yet-another-firefly-alumni’ Glau), Robin (Will ‘alt.wesley.die.die.die’ Wheaton) or… hell, just read the IMDB list for the full list of voice actors. They’re surprisingly common in appearence, especially the Joker for the villians. Nothing really beats Mark Hammils cackling comic maniac. Voice acting is let down by the mook and citizen chatter though, which seem to have been voiced by people fresh out of the 60s version of Batman, some of which are very grating.
So far the gameplay is solid. Meleeing is satisfying and on the whole very hack-and-slash. Ranged is just as fun too, there’s no standing still and waiting for a cast bar (from what I’ve seen anyway). It’s set up with an ability bar at the bottom for ‘castable’ abilities, and your weapon abilities are done with the mouse. Left mouse is melee and Right is ranged. Clicking will do one thing, holding does another, and various combos are availible for different weapons. For example, Two hander has a chain of melee attacks that starts with a lunging attack (Hold Left x1) then a knock-up (Hold left x2) then a knock-away (Hold Left x 3) the next hold being another lunge, meaning you can batter and control a single opponent really well, while your single attack was a swipe that damaged anything infront of you. All of these build up a combo meter. I’m still not entirely sure what the combo meter is for, I think it improves your castable spells (as casting a spell resets your combo meter) but it hasn’t really hampered my ability to play. I’m almost certain I’ve chosen the wrong abilities in my power pools (I have an ability to drag people towards me, which is nearly useless with my lunge ability), but it’s not totally gimped my performance (yet, that may change). Bosses, unlike other games, are still vulnerable to some of your status effects. I was able to juggle Bane with my knockbacks for a time (until he let out his own knockback).
Speaking of bosses, there are some very unique fights, right at the start. The tutorial has enemies that charge at you and knock themselves out (a recurring theme of Braniac enemies seems to be power-up abilities that leave the unit vulnerable to attacks). Scarecrow has a boss-wave event that I won’t spoil, but it involves some interesting mechanics (that’s for heroes only, in Gotham ofc). Bane (as mentioned above, and also in Gotham) rips out support struts and tries to whack you with it, while the ceiling collapses down on top you. All before level 10.
I’ve hit level 10, so yes, I’m not that far through, and while first impressions were of a game decidedly backwards and unwieldy, I’ve since changed my mind, and it feels so much of a refreshing change from the normal MMO’s. Despite it’s flaws and clunky UI (all these are fixable in patches, honestly, and are an annoyance rather than game breaking) , DCUO has done what no other Super Hero MMO has done, changed the core gameplay and made it work. Solidly. Out of the box. On day one. Quality is high, and production values and quest design seem to be the number one focus of the developers.
I will report three weeks down the line when it comes to paying a sub for it whether I will, but for now, colour me impressed. Impressed, intregued and excited. I’d go on, but, unfortunatly, I’m only alowed to use 3 colours.