Field Journal: Across the DC Universe

The Slappiest Place On New Earth
Funny story: DC Universe Online was the first superhero MMO I played to any meaningful extent. I briefly dabbled with Champions Online when it went free-to-play, but it didn't grab me enough to make me continue past the introductory area. A couple of months later I gave the still-fresh-from-launch DCUO a try. The game gripped me for the next four months, and though I would eventually find City of Heroes to be the crown jewel of capes-and-tights massively multiplayer games, DCUO is still one of my favorite MMOs.

Why is that? There are several factors: the feel of combat, abundant collections that satiate my compulsions to find all the things, a costume system that lets me change any part on the fly, the inclusion of an achievement system that actually means something, and a vigorous update schedule including quite a lot of new power sets over time. Even little things contribute a lot, like how much of a badass I feel running at super speed up the side of a building and flinging myself from the apex for several blocks to land running up the side of another huge skyscraper. The biggest reason for me, though, has to be how well-realized the setting is in the game -- how Sony Online Entertainment has capitalized on the license to present a snapshot of the DC Universe at its best.

Yes, that's right. I don't just have to write about gameplay in this column! Any one element worth talking about in an MMO without a frequent, devoted column is fair game. I guess this is pretty much the weekly column for games without a weekly column.

Flying through the atmosphere

Metropolis! City of the future! Home of the Man of Tomorrow! Gotham. City of shadows. Home of the Bat. Apart from the New York City of Marvel Comics, these are the most iconic cities of superherodom, and both do draw a great deal of their fictional character from different interpretations of the real New York. DCUO distills the essence of each city into something iconic so that you have no doubt what city you're in at any moment. It's literally always sunny in Metropolis, just as Gotham is caught in an endless cloudy night. Perfect weather for Bat Signals.

The overall image of Metropolis as a gleaming, golden art-deco city built up in the middle of the 20th century is evident throughout, yet each district is distinct and recognizable at a glance. Wherever you go in Little Bohemia, you're always in spitting distance of a park, be it amusement park or ballpark or university campus park. China Town has mostly smaller buildings, many with obvious Asian flourishes to their architecture. The Tomorrow District is filled with towering high-rise buildings that are among the most modern-looking designs in the game.

Metropolis may have no room for darkness, but that doesn't mean there's no ugliness. There's the destruction wrought by Brainiac's invasion, the metahuman prison sprawling over Stryker's Island, and the evil concealed by the shining edifices of Lexcorp and its subsidiaries, all in addition to the Suicide Slums, which made the crossover from the comics. An industrial area with low-rent accommodation packed in between the smokestacks, it's an open sore on the city that reminds visitors that there's no such thing as Utopia. It probably doesn't help the place much that it's currently inhabited by an army of angry Atlanteans attacking air-breathers. (I don't recall why. Maybe Aquaman felt snubbed at not getting to be a mentor, and that was the last straw? He is plenty qualified for guiding and issuing orders to large groups of people, what with being a king.)

Dun-ta-DAH! Da-da-da-dun-TAH!
By contrast, Gotham is fairly consistent in the general grimy, run-down, Gothic look across the various districts. Some are wealthier, and some are poorer, but all are a potent mix of decadence and decay. This isn't to say that the buildings are generic or cut-and-paste by any means -- rather, the character of an area is dependent more on large landmarks that draw the eye amidst the gloom.

The Amusement Mile screams (sometimes literally) that it's a Joker hideout. Gotham University is a sprawling old Ivy League fossil, a stark contrast to the open and modern Met U. The Giordano Botanical Gardens are grown over with untamed plants, some of them animate, amid crumbling ruins. The Ace Chemicals plant isn't just a blocky factory but an open-air processing facility full of gantries and vats of weird stuff. Arkham Island and its famous asylum sit in eerie isolation just offshore.

The two cities are literally like night and day, and it really works.

Bring back what once was mine

Not all that long after DCUO was released, the editors at DC Comics made an impulsive decision to reboot their universe yet again, only this time more thoroughly than usual. Almost everything but the Batman family books was dramatically affected, and the Vertigo and Wildstorm comic universes were merged with the main DC universe. In fairness, there were some very good books in the wake of the event, but there was a lot of poor decisions and a lot of good old material thrown away.

This is important to DCUO because the game is based on the main universe presented in the comics, but a short time before that reboot. Of course, it's a divergent timeline from the comics, where the Brainiac invasion and release of Exobytes never happened, unless you count the short-lived DCUO spinoff comic.

Gotham City! Where even the trees will mug you!
The point is, the characters of DC Comics are presented in the game in fine form. Continuity snarling reboots aren't mentioned and will likely never play a part since totally redoing all the content of the game is a ridiculous proposition. All characters are fully voiced, I believe a first for MMOs, and the cast is largely excellent. Mark Hamill's Joker and Kevin Conroy's Batman are as wonderful and pitch-perfect as ever. James Marsters' Lex Luthor voice drips with more arrogance and disdain than I thought humanly possible, and I can't get enough of the cackling megalomania of Michelle Forbes' Circe. I could go on, but I don't want to try my editor's patience.

The canon characters are fairly iconic representations, drawing on the best ideas about them but never delving too deep into their psyches. After all, it's not their story, it's your story about interacting with them. That and the focus on fighting big threats to the world means we don't have to suffer through misguided attempts to be dark and edgy, with such events in canon history unmentioned rather than explicitly dealt with or discarded.

I'm not saying it's perfect, but in terms of respect and reverence for the source material, it's doing better than the comics themselves often do. Or the movies. Or executives deciding the fate of cartoon series based on sexist assumptions. If I want to enjoy something good and current featuring DC Comics characters, I either log in to DCUO or watch Arrow.

Next time I'll probably be looking at either Age of Conan or Fallen Earth, but I don't want to promise anything until I settle on one. Feel free to scream at me about the things I should totally be looking at, of course, because it helps to know what you want to tour next.

There are so many weird and wonderful destinations to visit within the MMOscape, and Massively's Matthew Gollschewski hopes to chronicle them all for you every Thursday in his trusty Field Journal. Grab your camera and your adventurin' hat and join in on his next expedition, or just mail him some notes of your own.

This article was originally published on Massively.