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Joystiq hands-on: DC Universe Online (pre-alpha)


You will not play DC Universe Online as a licensed hero or villain. You'll create your own character, inspired by or dissimilar to the familiar NPCs you'll see soaring and tromping around Metropolis and Gotham. While SOE wasn't ready to show us the full breadth of the game's character creation system, creative director Jens Andersen did fill us in on the basics: you choose (a) a super power; (b) the source of that power; (c) a movement mode; and (d) an initial ability (you unlock more as you level up). For example, Green Lantern would answer: (a) light; (b) ring; (c) flight; and (d) strong will power. Or the Flash: (a) electricity; (b) hands and feet; (c) speed; and (d) fast metabolism.

SOE dropped us into a midtown Metropolis instance (game event) involving Lex Luthor, Doomsday, and ostensibly Superman (we didn't encounter the Man of Steel, thankfully), and handed us a PS3 controller (technically, we were playing a pre-alpha build of the PC version). We were put in control of a user-created super villain, "Kid Something-or-other" (we neglected to note his full name), who wielded a pair of ice-powered pistols and had some zingy acrobatic movements. We were tasked with collecting "DNA" samples from heavily guarded crates, oddly secured in the middle of several separate streets, and then it was onto and into a room in Lex Corp where we fought alongside Luthor to subdue an escaped Doomsday for some sinister purpose.

Gallery: DC Universe Online | 35 Photos

Crackdown came to mind as we took our first turns around, up and over the city's blocks.

DCUO is very much an action MMO, with few game mechanics decided by the roll of the algorithmic dice. The game controls much like most third-person action titles, with standard light and heavy (charge-sensitive) attacks, a jump action and an interact button (notably, used to pick up cars). Super moves are mapped to the same four face buttons (when using the PS3 gamepad; a keyboard and mouse will be compatible with the console version, too) and are activated using L2 and R2 toggles. In total, up to eight super moves are easily accessible at any given time. Our character could fire ice balls and freezing rays at opponents, melee them with blocks of ice, or conveniently freeze them inside larger blocks, for example. A simple targeting mode (accessed by holding R1) locks the game camera onto an opponent for focused attacks.

Crackdown came to mind as we took our first turns around, up and over the city blocks. Specifically, the verticality of the environment was reminiscent of Realtime Worlds' super-cop sandbox. It seems that most, if not all characters will be able to access and do battle in the high reaches of the city, as speedsters can race against gravity, acrobats can continuously jump and grapple up buildings, and those blessed with flight ... well, just fly. Perched on top of a skyscraper, we got a clear view of DCUO's respectable draw distance (Metropolis is not marred by much smog, apparently) and a sense of the map's scope. The district we were playing in -- and never felt compelled to venture out of -- was supposedly just one-eighth of the total size of the city that stretched out into the unseen distance -- and that doesn't include unconfirmed "adventure areas" within the cities surrounding boroughs. (Reality check: One can't move seamlessly beyond the borders of a game map, including up into outer space.)

DC Universe Online isn't trying to strictly clone today's success models.

Admittedly, when we weren't taking in the sights, we were spending a lot of time on the move. Read: fleeing. (When we're finally able to build our own character, we'll likely opt for superhuman speed; though, the acrobats have an effective mid-air dash, useful for losing those pesky, lesser NPCs.) Our cowardice was not the game's fault, but our own. Once we realized that we were in control of a ranged character (three "KOs" later), we responded by getting out of folks' faces -- like really out of their faces. We should note that the punishment for "death" seems rather insignificant; we were subjected to about a six-second-respawn wait, at which point we arose from the exact position we had fallen on. SOE claims that instances will be time-based, and that getting KOed limits your and your team's ability to complete objectives.

It's hard to judge any game in less than an hour, let alone a game designed for hundreds of hours with hundreds of other players. And did we mention this was pre-alpha code? SOE sure did -- about a dozen times during our session. Still, to reduce this hands-on to a one-word sentiment, we'd say: impressed. There's an already playable, solid core action game. There's a promising character creation system (we saw at least ten very different characters created by SOE -- of course, the creation mode will have to account for tens of thousands of characters ... ) and some great talked-about ideas: dynamic gameplay instances that can bring players together or spread them apart in the gameworld.

While the pricing model will ultimately decide the fate of the PS3 version, we walked away confident that the themes and content were fit for a console audience largely unfamiliar with MMOs. PC players? Well, they've been force fed too many MMOs already, and we're not convinced, barring avid DC fanaticism, DCUO will offer a compelling reason to quit the current addiction -- just know that DC Universe Online isn't trying to strictly clone today's success models. SOE is making genuine efforts to build what could be the best superhero game ever conceived, and we're excited to watch it grow.

For more DC Universe Online details, check out our interview with senior producer Wes Yanagi.

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