Obscured by a thick covering of clouds, the moon over Gotham is but a ghost and it seems law and order has taken flight on the streets beneath the shadowed night. Bane's minions own street corners and Harley Quinn has taken Robin captive at what was once an amusement park. Meanwhile, in Metropolis, Circe is bending time and space to revisit lost worlds while Gorilla Grodd is warping humans into his own form.
In short, chaos rules the day and game developers could not be happier. DC Universe Online is in beta and players are streaming into the game. Because this is a beta, the game is not yet perfect. Several elements are still in the process of being solidified, which seems to include the control scheme for the PC. The general controls seem more geared to a console right now and a few players have complained about the finger stretching necessary to effect routine actions on a keyboard.
But this is a beta and as such, there are bound to be areas that are not quite as polished as others. So instead of dwelling on the areas still in development, instead let's touch on an overview of the game itself, which brings the world of DC Comics to fans in an all new way.
Character creation and the world
While the game has deep powersets and skill trees to climb, including iconic powers from the DC superheroes themselves, the character creation process is a bit weak and will likely get a facelift (pun intended) prior to release. Actually, aside from hair and giving created characters either an elder or youthful appearance, there are few options for detailed facial customization. The starting armor is superfluous to the game as players will immediately upgrade and change costume appearance, even as early as the tutorial.
The problem with the costuming is that it seems rather linear at the game's onset. Players can either choose to equip new pieces as they become available or bypass bonus buffs on armor for the sake of keeping a certain look.
The powers and skills are set into trees with options for fine-tuning according to personal preferences, and other skill trees can be unlocked as players progress. The actual skills and powers seem to bear a similarity to the same sorts available in other superhero MMOs. A player can, for example, begin with a martial arts-style melee combat style before moving into brawling or using a bow. In addition, while every new character begins with a travel power, points (which are gained as players level) can be spent to fine-tune those powers as well.
There are three starting worlds for the players to find quest lines in--Gotham, Metropolis and the Hub, a space station that has vendors and general exploration-style quests. Each of these worlds is visually impressive, with instance zones dotting the environments. Quest mobs can be shared, and SOE's dev team has done a very good job of allowing players to attack instead of ninja looting kills and drops.
In a departure from other games that allow multiple skill bars with all available skills at the player's disposal, DCUO has only one hotbar with eight slots, though players can create loadouts of skills for archetypes or specific instances with the ability to instantly load different ones as the game moves along.
Quest Lines and Arenas
As players begin the game, they can choose from one of six iconic characters as a mentor--three for the hero side (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) and three from the evil side (Joker, Lex Luthor and Circe). These characters will set players on quest series that include arch-enemies, and will--at times--fight alongside the player. Additionally, there are arenas that have storylines and are great for instant groupings and gaining extra experience.
There is an over-arching storyline that involves Brainiac and an attempt to invade and rule a world already battered and on the brink of corruption. The quest lines build on each story and end with a boss battle and a pretty decent reward. Of course, the idea is to level, gain more powers, more prestige/reputation and more definitive and buffed armor.
There is a decent flow to the story threads and the quest journals can fill up pretty fast.
The Other Competition for Would-be Heroes
There are several other games in current release that allow players to create superheroes. "City of Heroes/Villains" (CoX) and "Champions Online" are both solid games. CoX was the first game with an incredible character creation system, setting the bar that other MMOs will certainly be judged by. Champions is also a compelling visual treat, but what both games lack is that deep franchise experience that is solidly tied to pop culture.
"DC Universe Online" offers exactly that. Players can run missions for superheroes, team up with them and fight beside them as equals. There is a larger picture in play, to be sure, but there is a true guilty pleasure in fight alongside The Flash against a boss mob that has a well-documented back-story and winning the day.
Perhaps the first question that needs to be answered is if this is a game that is fun and will last. The storylines are compelling enough, and the game looks terrific and plays reasonably well. While the travel powers allow instant access to all areas of the cities, there is still something wonderfully realized with flight. With one glitch in particular--and it is an issue that is certain to be addressed--there is something amiss in the way a character will stand on a wall or fly upward after the body becomes, inadvertently, parallel to the ground.
But overall, "DC Universe Online" has an amazing look and vibe. There are servers for all types of players (player-versus-environment, and player-versus-player), and the game has the potential for leagues (clans).
No solid release date has been set, and there are some aspects that either are not being discussed yet, have not made it into the game or simply need to be fleshed out. It is, after all, a beta and might even bear little resemblance to the release product. But what is in place portends a fine future for the next wave of superhero games.
"DC Universe Online" is scheduled to arrive in stores January 11, 2011