Super Smashing Great

We’ve had all these promises of “Next-gen” MMOs for some time now, but what exactly is “Next-Gen”. Is it graphics? New gameplay? Improved Social interaction? Unique Content? Novel settings?

It’s such a fuzzy term. “Current-Gen” is even fuzzier. World of Warcraft, the yard that all MMO’s are measured against, is surely not ‘current gen’, it’s been out for six years. A relic of the last generation MMO’s, Everquest 2, Anarchy Online, DAoC, City of Heroes. But yet, it’s not. It’s had graphics updates, they’ve honed their content creation with the last expansion, they’ve enhanced the social side with new guild mechanics, and while the content is hardly ‘unique’ any more, it’s setting though is a Fantasy Melange of High Fantasy, Steampunk Fantasy and even Gothic Fantasy now that the Forsaken have their own architecture.

So WoW has moved itself up to being the yardstick of current gen MMOs. Unfortunatly it’s still stuck in it’s ways and the engine is starting to loose steam. For all the updates it’s still the same game at it’s heart. It cherry picks the best ideas from other MMOs and allows others to experience them.

But this is not news. What is news is any new MMO contender trying to carve out a niche for itself in a now crowded market. Like a wind up toy, each game is given a couple of twists and let go. Every month a cheque comes in and if it’s good, the toy gets another twist and it keeps on going. WoW, for now, is getting cranked by a ten tonne dribbling giant with a train fixation, sooner or later someone’s going to let out the clockwork gnome that will derail it. The problem is, it’ll have so much winding from this big dribbling giant that it’ll keep thrashing around spining it’s wheels until the giant goes off and starts playing with a wind up spaceship.

So where does DC Universe Online fit into this little analogy? I’ve been playing it now since release (two weeks at best count) and I’ve reached level 27 (out of 30). I’ve managed to wheedle out of it’s bits and bytes through 50 hours of gameplay. Most of which has been entertaining.

  • Combat is awesome. My 2 Handed weapon/Ice hero Mitch Hellbringer leaps onto an enemy, then stuns them, then knocks them away, then goes into a slow-motion charged attack where he gets some epic hang time before cleaving an enemy in two. On normal enemies this ususally ends up as a finisher. It makes you want to yell “AAAAAAAAAAH” at the screen when he does it, and that’s just his basic power combo. Add onto it a visceral and thumping array of special abilities it’s just awesome
  • Combat is frustrating. As it’s designed for both a controller or a keyboard concessions were made for combat. It uses a lock-on system (similar to GTA or Crackdown) that sometimes doesn’t lock on to what you want. I’ve found myself accidently locking onto a barrel and performing a power combo on that rather than on the enemy. Or locking onto an enemy BEHIND an enemy next to me, and accidently pulling them. Combat is fast and frantic, but the targeting system could be tightened up
  • The graphics are amazing. Even on minimum they make decent screenshots. Each character is unique, even though I’ve complained about the lack of cosume pieces, you do unlock new ones as you level.
  • The graphics are terrible. Even on high spec (I have tried it on my work PC one lunchtime which has decent specs) there is texture flicker as the level of detail switches. Animations can be jerky at times even when framerates are high.
  • Quests are fantastic. The bosses are fun and interesting, each with a unique lair, unique abilities and unique mechanics. Some are too easy, some are too hard, but perserverence lets you solo anything. Aquaman and Harley Quinn being the most frustrating I’ve found. Interestingly, Aquaman was also the most fun, and most satisfying to complete, Quinn was just broken to be honest. This has the best solo boss fights of any MMO I’ve played. Possibly any game I’ve played. Not only that, but after every instance and solo quest chain you get a slick and stylish cutscene, very pretty and it’s a worthwhile reward for beating the fights ontop of the joy of beating a difficult boss.
  • Quests are predictable. Each instance is preceeded by two or three quests. The first two or three involve killing enemies, saving civilians, killing mind-controlled civilians and then saving them, carrying items to a drop off point, activating items, destroying things or collecting items. There may be a mini-instance in between two quests, but generally involves doing one or more of the above in your own special area. This is followed by a a set piece instance with a gimmick or two. Like traps, or a gauntlet, or nothing at all. Some bosses are an anti-climax. Poison Ivy, for one. I thought it was the pre-boss fight, but when I killed her minion she just gave up.
  • Social Interaction… hello… console centric game. The chat interface is tiny, unusable, you need to spam ENTER just to let you type and there’s no easy key-combos for group chat, guild chat, or even replying. The most viable chat is the VoIP, and that’s a mess. APB got it’s VoIP mostly right, and despite an almost identical system in DCUO is just seems terrible. I got put in a group with two Germans who wouldn’t or couldn’t speak English (Their perogative honestly) but there was no way I could find of muting them without turning VoiP off entirely.
  • Group play is nigh on pointless. The only things requiring a group are PvP – which is a clusterfuck. Fun, but uncoordinated – Alerts (instances), done through a version of WoW’s Dungeon Finder. you choose a role (DPS, Tank, Healer, Controller)  and then wait. The problem is that there appears to be no maximum level on the random choice. So at level 27 you can still end up in a level 10 instance. Something you could likely solo. Not only that, even if you’ve got a proper group of the right level, the instances are trivial until you get to about 25. Requiring no co-ordination between people. Even then when you get to level 25 and start doing difficult instances, there’s still no need for communication so long as you know how to block. Even standing in the fire can be negated by blocking. One instance also seems to be so buggy, Oolong island, that every time I enter it it’s at a different stage, and a seemingly unpassable stage each time. Requiring quitting and requeuing for a different instance. I can’t speak for max level but from what I understand it’s just hard-mode versions of the existing instances. Whether or not these hard modes are any challenge I shall find out this weekend (hopefully)

This game is still firmly stuck in the current generation of MMOs, the last of a dying breed (hopefully) before The Old Republic, and RIFT, and Guild Wars 2 and Project Titan. Not that there isn’t still alot of fun to be had. The quest chains reward you with some of the best bosses I’ve seen, the combat is fun and doesn’t wear down. It has some major flaws, of which most can be fixed through patches. The chat interface should be the first I think. Followed by the innane grind quests. 20 items/kills is your standard target. Make each enemy slightly harder, drop the total targets and you’ll keep the time padding but let you use more of that lovely combat engine.

For now, starting with a different mentor (of three) or a different alignment (hero/villian) gives you unique quests up until about level 10, when your quest lines merge. You’d thing, then that the only replayability is in playing a different alignment. However, it’s the same quests with different motivation. For example, the Joker/Batman questline involving Bane requires heroes to go remove bane injectors from his mooks, the villian requires you to go to the same place and overload them. Both actions have the same animation and result (they spazz out with green goo then sort of fall asleep). I’ve only done the Batman/Joker quests from each side, but the pattern emerged quite quickly.

You’d think with so many MMOs under their belt that SOE would know how to design good quests, but seemingly they don’t. Its another game of slightly failed potential. Nowhere near finished, but incredibly fun to play. 50 Hours for your £40 (or less if you shop around) is still worth it in my book. Buy it, you get 30 days free and you’ll get one of the best combat systems and one of the best series of boss fights I’ve seen. If you really like it, keep playing, I’ll be checking out the end game and reporting next week on what I think of it, we’ll see if it’s worth the subscription.

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