Admit it – you’ve daydreamed of donning black latex-covered Kevlar, crashing through a bank skylight and single-handedly stopping a horde of would-be bank robbers with a handful of well-timed elbow strikes and sweep kicks. We’ve all daydreamed of being a superhero at some time or another, so it’s nice when a game like Sony Online Entertainment’s DC Universe Online comes down the pipe and gives us an outlet for our thug-pummeling, spandex-wearing fantasies. Of course, DCUO isn’t just any old superhero game, but a full-fledged pay-to-play Massively Multiplayer Online title – the first of its kind for the PS3 and one of the few ever released for a home console. SOE clearly aimed high when developing DCUO and the game does excel in several key areas, but the overall game experience is undercut by wave after wave of niggling flaws and a general lack of polish that makes the fee requirement hard to swallow.
First let’s start with the good. The DC license is used to great affect in DCUO. Superheroes and villains from nearly every corner of the DC universe make an appearance, and their related storylines are fun, engrossing and steeped in more than half-century-old lore. Your favorite DC characters pop up all over the place in the game – sometimes hanging out in Metropolis and Gotham City (the two main open world environments in-game), beating up their enemies, while other times they show up in specific quest events where they fight along side you against an arch-nemesis (or against you). The icing on the cake is that all of the characters look and sound fantastic, from Donna Troy and her mesmerizing night sky tank top, to iconic heroes and villains such as Batman, Aquaman, Lex Luthor and the Joker (voiced, of course, by the always amazing Mark Hamill). Fans of DC Comics will undoubtedly find themselves grinning from ear-to-ear quite frequently, at least during the initial, story-heavy leveling process.
Leveling your character(s) is also made enjoyable due to the game’s simple-yet-engaging combat mechanics. With a good balance of superpowers, basic abilities and weapon types available to the player, the combat is quite customizable and just complex enough to keep things interesting without being overly confusing. Whether you are a long-range rifle expert, nimble martial artist or in-your-face berserker, the timing-based combat system (think Phantasy Star Online on steroids) makes performing precise aerial juggles and devastating combos feel fluid and satisfying. The targeting system can be a little finicky though, especially in large-scale fights (sometimes your character will target a barrel or other environmental object instead of the slew of enemies right in front of you), but this niggle can be minimized with proper positioning, and thus doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience.
So DCUO is a DC fan’s dream, with tons of lore, fantastic combat and all of the DC characters you could ever want crammed into one game, right? Well, not quite. Frustratingly, DCUO is not a finished product. SOE would like you to believe it’s finished, but just because the game had a beta period and an official launch does not mean it is so. Granted, as an MMO, there is an expectation that a certain number of bugs and issues will exist, with the hope that these can be ironed out down the road in the form of patches. But the number of frustrating bugs and critical omissions in DCUO far exceeds what the consumer should have to deal with in a pay-to-play game, especially two months after said game was released.
It’s not that any one of these glitches is singularly devastating – it’s just that there are so many that can randomly (or in some cases, systematically) pop up, that the game can seem hardly worth playing at times. Take the game’s Alert/Duo system for example. Alerts and Duos in DCUO are like dungeon instances in World of Warcraft – places where you beat groups of enemies on a way to a boss battle. Also like in WoW, DCUO’s instances earn you emblems which can be redeemed for epic gear, trinkets and other useful items. Sounds great, right? Well, oftentimes when joining these instances, you are placed in one that has been made impossible to complete due to a glitch. Maybe a boss fell through the floor or clipped through a wall. Or perhaps it just disappeared entirely (I’ve personally had each of these situations occur). The point is, you can’t complete the instance and must re-queue. This means you have to wait several minutes (the game disables the re-queue option for several minutes if you quit an instance) to try again. Even then, the game might just toss you right back into the same glitched instance, or a different broken one. This vicious cycle can play itself out over and over until you either get lucky and get in a valid instance, or get disgusted and log off.
And even when you do make it into a “good” instance, the chance of some kind of bug popping up to ruin the experience is alarmingly high. Sometimes at the end of the instance you aren’t given any emblems (pretty annoying, considering earning these is usually the entire point of completing an Alert/Duo). Other times a door that must open to advance stays shut (sub-boss or boss room doors are especially finicky). The frustrating part about all of this is that when things are going smoothly, these Alerts and Duos can be quite fun – especially during the first several attempts and with a group of people who know what they are doing.
Sadly (back to negative here), there are far too few people who know what they are doing (though this does, admittedly, vary from server to server). The number of people running around with little-to-no knowledge of basic MMO principles (e.g. – tanks take damage and keep aggro, healers stay with group and heal, etc) is disheartening for those veteran players who want to use the instance queue system instead of having to rely solely on League (i.e. – guild) member availability when trying to jump into Alerts/Duos. Part of this is due to DCUO being an MMO on a home console and a lot of players are learning the ropes, but a good deal of the blame falls on SOE and the nearly complete lack of in-game tutorials to help new players along – especially in a group setting.
SOE has emphasized that DCUO does not force the player to get sucked into the “grind-fest” trap that occurs in many other MMOs, and in a way, they have succeeded – at least when it comes to character leveling. A solid week of casual play should be ample time for most players to get their hero/villain to the current maximum level of 30. This snappy leveling is laudable, but puts a heavy burden on the quality and longevity of end-game content. As people quickly hit the level cap, they are greeted with the reality that DCUO is, in fact, quite the grind-fest – the grinding is just for gear and reputation as opposed to levels. Simply put, you will be running the same instances over and over and over to earn enough emblems to purchase (minor) gear upgrades. On the plus side, the balance and tuning for end-game content is generally very good, so the various Alerts, Duos and Raids will keep most gamers adequately challenged and busy for at least a few weeks, but the limited number of instances is definitely disappointing, as is the fact that most “new” content updates (promised by SOE to come monthly) are simply rehashes of quests already encountered at lower levels.
DCUO’s PvP (player versus player) game modes do serve as a nice distraction to the game’s PvE (player versus environment) content, but some long queue times and a very rigid “rock-paper-scissors” balancing system may frustrate some. Certainly, frantic impromptu battles in open world environments between scores of player-controlled heroes and villains are invigorating and, overall, pretty fantastic, but with declining server populations, most PvP-loving players are being forced into instanced battlegrounds. This in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means a player’s enjoyment will largely be based on how short the queue times are (sometimes quite long) and whether or not they are tiring of the game’s handful of PvP instances (an inevitability for most).
It’s painful to see a game with so much potential come up so short. There is no question that DCUO is a fun game with engaging combat mechanics and a plethora of customization options (people have made some pretty awesome-looking heroes and villians) – it’s just that that fun comes in fits and spurts and is entirely at the whim of how many bugs pop up during any given gameplay session. If SOE would’ve kept DCUO in the oven for another six months or so, perhaps they would have had enough time to bolster the end-game content and squelch most of the rampaging bugs that are currently hurting the title’s overall appeal. As it stands (and at the time of this review) DCUO is a heavily-flawed-yet-fun action MMO that has a ton of potential, but there is no guarantee that that potential will ever be fulfilled. DC Comics fans, take the plunge if you must, but realize that you will be paying money for a not-quite-finished product that will only partially satisfy your spandex-wearing, world-saving fantasies.