Here's the problem with DC Universe Online: do you score it for what it is, or for what it might have been? As a superhero MMORPG, it's a qualified triumph, taking the crown from the dated City of Heroes/Villains duo and effortlessly outclassing Champions Online. It's also the first MMO to hit the PS3, and as such it's a superb entry point into the genre. If we have reservations, it's just because the likes of Crackdown and inFamous have spoiled us, giving us new expectations of what to expect from a free-roaming superhero game.
DCUO (our typing fingers aren't superpowered, you know) works more like a standard console action game than any MMORPG we've played before it, and it's not short on character or drama, but when it comes to delivering the kinds of believable worlds and exciting freeform gameplay as Crackdown or inFamous, it can't compete. For a game Sony Online Entertainment is billing as a revolutionary MMORPG, it's actually surprisingly conservative. It's progressive, sure, but revolutionary? Maybe not.
The game takes place in a DC version of the Earth where Superman's old enemy, the villainous Brainiac, has invaded with a fleet of battlecruisers and generously distributed a mass of little bugs that turn ordinary folks into caped crusaders or costumed crims. As one of these newbie crimefighters or evil-doers, you'll fight the good fight against Brainiac while simultaneously dishing it out to the opposition.
After a good hour or so of installation and patch-downloading, you'll find yourself creating your first protagonist and Sony Online Entertainment has done an excellent job with the designer. You can either follow an established template or build up your own character from scratch, choosing a mentor, a personality, your fundamental power (e.g., fire, ice or sorcery) while also selecting your physique, your face, your hair, your colours and your costume. The designer is extremely configurable, with a vast range of options available, and whether you prefer your goodies/baddies in the classic 50s/60s mould or in the newer, more hard-edged style of modern comic-books, you won't struggle to create something that looks good. This variety also helps keep the game interesting. While there are plenty of would-be Supermans and Batmans on the streets of Gotham and Metropolis, you'll also see all kinds of weird, wonderful and downright whacky super-folk. Marvelling at the local populace is one of the great pleasures of the game.
With design over, you're straight into a tutorial level on one of Brainiac's ships. The game eases you into the basics of combat, powers, levelling and the menu system, and it's all quite easy to pick up. Movement works very well, and DCUO wins friends quickly by not making you wait to fly around or crawl up walls - you've got these options from the start, with solid, intuitive controls. By the time you've escaped the ship and found yourself on the streets of Metropolis or Gotham City (depending on your mentor) you'll be more than capable of fending for yourself.
And it's at this point that a slight feeling of "is this it?" starts creeping in. During the first few hours, DCUO seems to be a very conventional, even grind-heavy MMORPG. You wander the streets, take on quests from various heroes, villains, criminals or cops, and practically every one you accept will focus on those old stalwarts of MMORPG quest design: beat up 10 of these, collect 10 of this or interact with these 10 objects. This is a very combat-heavy game, and while the combo-driven fighting is fun, it's also a bit heavy on the button-mashing. DCUO has a stronger combat system than City of Heroes or Champions Online, but put it next to most conventional third-person action games, and it struggles to match up.
Luckily, the classic MMO reward cycle, where you fight to loot and level, then use your new powers and gear to fight some more, is as potent as it ever was, and it's still all too easy to get hooked in. Both Gotham and Metropolis have different districts, offering a little scenic variety, and the quests are nicely organised into distinct plotlines, each going through several phases and culminating in a showcase battle against an established villain or hero. It might not have the polish or depth of Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft, but DCUO is definitely fun.
Initially, its biggest failing is a lack of variety. There are investigation markers hidden around the city, but little in the way of real investigation or non-combat activity, and you rarely get the same sense of exploration that you do in WoW or LotRO. Bashing ten of Gorilla Grod's apes on the boardwalk isn't a vast change from bashing ten of Felix Faust's acolytes In Chinatown, and interaction with the scenery or the tiny AI-driven population is minimal, to say the least.
However, this doesn't mean that DCUO hasn't got a lot of things right. The game continually drips rewards in terms of new gear, achievements and boosts to your personal renown, and it doesn't punish you for falling in combat by making you walk miles into the middle of a hotzone to reclaim your stuff. Best of all, DCUO is entirely happy to let you play as a solo player or join up with a team, and as the majority of the missions take place in public spaces, you'll often find yourself working in ad-hoc groups, helping fellow heroes or villains just by sharing the work of bashing baddies. DCUO has been cleverly designed to focus on the fun stuff, and keep the dull stuff and the housework to a minimum. We just wish that some of the mechanics, like fast travel or grouping were better introduced and explained.
And the more DCUO goes on, the more its scope widens. Hit level nine and you can go on Alert missions, where you'll find yourself joining up with a crew of superheroes to take on a special mission in Area 51, Gorilla Island or the crime-ravaged city of Bludhaven. You'll also find yourself invited to the Watchtower - the Justice League's fortress orbiting the Earth - which is an extensive location in its own right, but promises to be a gateway to future environments as time goes on (villains have the Legion of Doom HQ instead). You'll also find your hero or villain becoming embroiled in the game's Player vs Player modes, either teaming up with allies for objective-based match missions, or guesting as an established hero in the game's Legends matches. The Alert and PvP matches give the game the variety the main campaign lacks, without feeling like an entirely separate game. With them in place, nobody can argue that DCUO is lacking in places to go or things to do.
DCUO also has an edge over Champions Online and City of Heroes/Villains in that (a) it's modern, Unreal Engine-powered graphics look much better and (b) it has a more familiar and well-established universe to play with. Visually, the game isn't quite up there with inFamous, but it is nicely-lit, cell-shaded graphics have plenty of colour and detail, and both the scenery and the characters look great. Once you have umpteen heroes whaling on umpteen villains using all kinds of energy beams, magic hammers, sprouting thorns, plasma cannons, blasts, shields, martial arts and plain fisticuffs, it all gets pretty spectacular.
What's more, the game packs in plenty of interaction with key characters from DC's comic-book universe, whether it's heroes like Superman, The Flash or The Titans, or villains like The Joker, Gorilla Grod or Lex Luthor. You don't have to be familiar with any of the comic-book stuff for the game to work, but it's all the more enjoyable if you're vaguely familiar with the Superman or Batman mythos, and even better if you're au-fait with The Flash and Wonder Woman, not to mention more obscure stars like Zantana or the Titans. Fans can feel entirely reassured: this is anything but a City of Heroes in a Superman T-shirt. It's a game rich in love for comic-book lore.
All MMORPG launches have their problems, and DCUO has seen our hard-working PS3 freeze up on several occasions, while heavily populated areas can cause the game to glitch and stutter. As with many Unreal Engine games in the past, we've also seen plenty of examples where you enter a new area and have to wait for the textures to pop in. Overall, though, this is one of the smoothest launches in a while, queues for the PvP elements aren't agonising (and you can play on while you wait) and game-breaking issues are few and far between.
We should make clear that, even with many hours of play logged in both the retail version and the Beta, and having played as both heroes and villains, we're still in the relatively early stages, and it's impossible to say how things will play out as weeks and months go by. As with any MMORPG, things evolve, more content is added, and the experience changes as the community beds in. Bearing all this in mind, DCUO is in a good place. Once you get used to the idea that it's another MMORPG, and not a massive mulitplayer version of Crackdown or inFamous, it turns out to be a very good one, and one that's bursting with potential to improve. As a “My First MMORPG” for console owners, it's practically ideal, but PC gamers looking for a next-generation City of Heroes could also do far worse than sign up.