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DC Universe Online review: Heroic trials

Judging solely by its list of features, you know DC Universe Online is a heroic feat. Sony Online Entertainment has included every facet of the now traditional World of Warcraft-style MMO, including skill trees, loot and instances, raids and open-world PvP (and soon, an Auction House). The developer has even shoehorned it all into a console-style interface, transferring a whole mouse and keyboard of functions and abilities into basically four buttons, two toggles and a set of detailed menus.

But as an experience, DCUO (as it's been labeled in the acronym-loving MMO community) is more Aquaman than Superman. The game is buggy, and even with sizable updates already released and more on the way, I've still experienced multiple freezes, almost constant sound issues, terrible menu lag, and lots and lots of UI and gameplay frustrations. DCUO is a respectable MMO, but the console version is far from being an ideal way to play it.
%Gallery-108233% The game's at its best when letting you just live in the storied DC Universe, fighting with and against many of the comic' classic characters. Rather than selecting from the standard "race" options for created characters, players instead choose "mentors" from among the DC icons -- Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman oversee the Tech, Meta and Magic hero types; while Joker, Lex Luthor and Circe handle those responsibilities for villains. Mentors not only influence the abilities players can access, but they determine the starting area and the heroes and villains you'll interact with as you play.

Things start well enough with an excellent expository cinematic (in short: "exobytes" have been unleashed on the world, turning normal people into super-powered beings of all types), and then jump right into combat aboard a Brainiac-controlled ship. The storyline eventually funnels into either Gotham City (for Batman protégés) or various parts of Metropolis. From there, you're thrown into a series of questlines, each culminating in an instanced boss battle and an animation drawn by real DC artists upon completion. Predictable, sure, but this is a time-tested formula that works just as well here.

Structurally, DCUO is standard MMO fare, but it's ahead of the pack in terms of combat. The Square and Triangle buttons (on the PS3 gamepad) are mapped to a melee and ranged attack (which can be leveled up for more damage and variety), and pulling the left or right triggers toggles abilities like stuns or heals. Since quests basically only have two goals -- either kill something, or interact with it in some way -- they risk getting repetitive, but move briskly enough to avoid it. You're a superhero -- why shouldn't it just take you a few punches to knock out a Sinestro Corps Sentinel and move on? Plus, quest credit is given out generously: A fallen enemy gives all of its rewards to everyone who did any damage to it, so you never feel cheated out of work.

There's plenty to do on your own, but also plenty of opportunity to fight along iconic heroes like Batman. It can also be fun just to explore the vast, familiar spaces of Gotham or the Justice League's watchtower satellite and perhaps spot one of your favorite minor DC characters. As you level up, you're eventually introduced to an arena player-vs-player mode, Legends PvP (which allows you to actually play as the famous heroes, instead of your own super guy or gal), and Alerts and Raids, which is a standalone set of group instances that takes you to classic DC locations like Oolong Island and Smallville.

Unfortunately, a lot of that fun is hidden underneath a set of incomprehensible menus and fun-killing bugs. It starts early -- the character creation screen is powerful but ugly, and some textures are just plain unlabeled ("Human_skin_03" appeared as an option for me). Fights will bug out, bosses and players will get caught in the walls and enemies that are supposed to spawn won't (or won't load visually, causing you to take damage without realizing why). Various channels of sound almost constantly cut out, ruining immersion. It's great to hear and interact with familiar DC personalities (many of the voices are straight from properties like Batman: The Animated Series), but no fun when their lines cut out mid-sentence.

The text chat window uses the PS3's XMB interface, so it lags while loading, making chatting to teammates during a fight completely unfeasible. Many of the social functions aren't listed in the manual or the social screen at all -- it was only because of my previous MMO experience that I knew to type "/shout" or "/g" in the chat channel to speak on various tabs. In many MMOs, deficiencies in documentation can be shored up by social interaction, but no one I played with was using a microphone, and even with a USB keyboard, the chat interface was slow and painful to use.

The instances (or missions) are a whole other mess -- the matchmaking works quickly, but it would often dump me and other players in an instance that we couldn't finish at our current character levels, leaving us to die over and over until we zerged the boss down. Precious little mid-mission direction is doled out -- outside of the options to attack or interact, my parties often had no idea what they were supposed to do.

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Fortunately, many of the social features are being tweaked and updated quickly, and SOE is experienced at maintaining and running an MMO. The PS3 provides a new wrinkle, but I see no reason why DCUO can't grow and support a significant following. (It's worth noting that it was actually hard to find a copy, so it would seem the game's enjoying an early popularity boost, which is always important for an MMO and its community.)

Until then, it's tough to recommend even the basic DCUO experience on the PS3, unless you're a real MMO or comic enthusiast. It's fun to make a superhero, and it's great to wander around the world, see the DC sights, and take down Poison Ivy or Bizarro with a few friends. But especially on the PS3, the menus and various engine bugs really make it tough to justify the initial purchase (with one free month of gameplay), much less the eventual monthly fee.

DC Universe Online
may prove that a full-featured WoW-style MMO is possible on a console interface, but it also confirms why the genre has been so PC-centric in the first place.

This review is based on the PS3 retail version of DC Universe: Online purchased by the reviewer. The review was based on 24 hours of play in which the reviewer's character reached level 20. He was mentored by Batman but did quests in all three zones and played all modes except raids (which require players to reach the maximum level).

This article was originally published on Joystiq.