Why I Play: DC Universe Online

DC Universe Online screenshot
I've played pretty much every superhero MMO that has come out since 1999. That means City of Heroes, Champions Online, Marvel Super Hero Squad Online, Hero Smash, and of course, DC Universe Online. There's something about superhero culture that speaks to all of us, and I think the feeling of roleplaying better or cooler versions of ourselves is the key. I tend to roll characters who are almost too much like me. They're superheroes, sure, but a bit weaker, smaller, and thinner than your usual caped crusader. Fortunately, almost every title has let me experiment, although sometimes my character has to resemble me... after working out for many years and wielding cosmic rays.

At first, DC Universe Online did not impress me as much as some of the others. It did have several issues when it launched, some that are still in need of fixing, but over time, SOE has shown just what a priority continuing development is. Patches are frequent and robust, the item mall is restocked with cool items often, and the transition to free-to-play gives players more choices than ever before.

But that's all technical mumbo-jumbo. This column is called Why I Play, not "Here Are Some Details About This Game." So why exactly do I find myself logging into DC Universe Online every week?

DC Universe Online screenshotLet's start with the character customization. At first it can be a bit confusing. When I first logged in, I had no idea how to change colors or pick different power sets. Now that I'm used to it, the character creation is subtle but very powerful. I rarely see two characters that look alike, and I am able to make a smaller, wiry individual who still seems to be powerful.

The lore behind the game explains just how all of the heroes in the game got the powers that set them apart from the rest of humanity, so I can accept playing a relatively tough-looking hero. My guy's glowing, bluish skin and hunched-over "ready-to-go" stance is offset by his relatively normal set of clothes. He wears a small backpack, a black hoodie, black pants, and some sneakers. He is, as I said, Beau in another time and place. My only gripe is that I cannot find any glasses for him to wear.

As I destroy my enemies or earn piles of loot, I come across even more ways to customize my hero. I can swap my looks on the fly, trying out new combinations between lulls in combat. The cash shop provides plenty of different options as well, but the process of playing the game provides quite a few chances to gain killer loot without having to pay a dime. I still contribute when I can, but I just haven't found as many reasons to buy from the cash shop lately. I am in the early levels of the game, so the drops come fast and furious. Within just one session of play, I might have gained a few new pieces of gear! The drop rates seem tweaked to just about the perfect pace, and I never feel overwhelmed with choices.

Next we should talk about control options. I have often covered disabled players and have spoken openly about my poor vision, migraines, and issues with wrist pain after years and years of art, drumming, and playing more video games than I care to recall. When DC Universe Online first popped up, I was worried about yet another action-based game that was going to send me running to the ice-water filled sink. Luckily I can plug in a standard Xbox controller, and the game instantly switches between the two control options. I can even leave the keyboard and mouse and controller plugged in all the time; the game knows when I am using one or the other. For more precise controls, like when I am chatting or shopping, I will use my keyboard. But once I am in full kick-butt mode, I switch to the controller, and all is well. I have found that the key to maintaining a low level of discomfort when playing games is to take breaks and give myself some variety in play. With the controller, I am able to switch when I want, as often as I want, giving my poor hands a chance to try something new.

DC Universe Online screenshotI can't talk about MMO gaming without mentioning linear questing versus open-world exploration. DC Universe Online is definitely a linear title. In fact, the best stuff, in my opinion, is the fantastic, fully voiced questing that sends players off into the city to take on legendary enemies. I'm not totally familiar with the DC line of comics (I'm a Marvel man, myself), but I don't feel as if I need to be in order to understand what's going on during my play.

My mentor or helpful robot-lady will pop up and explain what just happened or whom I am bound to see next. DC Universe Online is a great introduction to DC comics, it seems. I have found out more about certain characters within the hours I have played DC Universe Online than I ever have by hanging out at my local comic shop.

On the other hand, DC Universe Online has a ton of open-world options for those of us who don't always want to follow a path. There are tiny details like floating icons that represent explorable areas (which include voice-overs that give us details about what we've found) all the way up to actual open-world missions, sort of like dynamic content that is not so chaotic. When I recently played through some of the newer missions with a member of the DC Universe Online dev team, I was surprised at how fluid and exciting everything felt. My team jumped in to the open world in search of our target, but we were still able to help and be helped by others along the way. Most of the time in a "dynamic" world like RIFT or Warhammer Online, players run up, stomp the enemy, and run off. In DC Universe Online, I have seen more players sticking around afterward and helping each other, perhaps because it's still possible for all involved to gain loot or experience.

There are tiny, random events that happen as well. Bits of flavor, I call them. I might be in the middle of flying to a mission target when I'll spot a person standing on the edge of a high-rise. When I click on him, he comes to his senses; the mere presence of a hero talks him out of jumping. I'm also able to explore almost anywhere I can see. If there is a massive building in the distance, I can fly, climb, or leap my way to the top of it. DC Universe Online does not hold back. Remember, players are supposed to be massively heroic individuals with powers that are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals... so we should be able to go where we want.

DC Universe Online screenshot
I tend to return to games that offer bite-sized content because of my schedule of writing and playing as many games as humanly possible. I might only be able to play games a few hours per day, so being able to jump into DC Universe Online and finish up a few steps in a longer mission chain is custom-made for me. Later, on the weekends, if I feel like destroying a few hours of my life sitting a keyboard, I can easily do so in the world of DC Universe Online.

But really, the game is just beautiful to look at. Granted, I am enjoying it cranked up all the way on my new PC, but I ran it just fine on my older one as well. It runs smooth as silk but continues to impress me with its atmosphere, sound design, and special effects. It really has it all. This is why I play DC Universe Online: It makes me smile. I have other MMOs for scratching my chin and still others for releasing pent-up aggression. I turn to DC Universe Online when I am in the mood to have a good time.

There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.

This article was originally published on Massively.