Massively takes on the heroes of DC Universe Online

Holy non-disclosure agreement, Batman! Yes, Robin, you are right. We can now talk about DC Universe Online. Sony Online Entertainment, Warner Bros., and (of course) DC Comics have collaborated to make one of the first physics-based action MMORPGs. Now with the NDA lifted, we can finally give our impressions of this ground-breaking online game.

A few of Massively's staff members have beta-tested DCUO for about a month now. We have been biting our tongues for just about as long as we could. We have seen the highs and lows of this game. Making an MMO with proven mechanics is hard enough, but when a developer delves into unexplored territory, there are always huge risks. As with any game in still in production, not everything will be perfect. I will keep this in mind as we step into this DC Universe.

Prepare to be amazed by the exhilarating graphics, excited by the high-octane mechanics, confounded by surprising glitches, and flabbergasted by the astonishing voice work. Step past the cut for the whole story and the screenshots I took as I was playing through the first six levels of DC Universe Online!

After my talk with Chis Cao a few months back, I was not surprised to see a PvP server as an option on the opening screen. I am not a PvPer by any stretch of the imagination, but for some reason the idea of seeing PvP in a real-time physics engine intrigued me enough to make me try out an open-world PvP server for the first time. I did not regret that decision.

If I may digress here for a moment, I will tell you of an encounter I had that made the game more interesting, one that would not have happened if I were on a PvE server. There is an encounter at a fairly low level in which villains and heroes were tasked with removing the Venom tubes from Bane's goons outside the Gotham city lighthouse. It took a while, but eventually, a villain and I stared down the same thug. Once this thug was beaten down, the villain and I ended up fighting each other over who could claim the prize. I won that round, but there were other rounds in which I was out-skilled. It was not about who rolled the right number on a die, but rather about who hit the right move or combination of moves at the right time. That was exciting to me.

Digression over.

After you choose your gender and body type, the first decision you make that has an impact on the actual gameplay is the choice of your mentor. If you could not guess by the first picture, I have been a Batman fan since Micheal Keaton was asked if he ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. How could I not choose him as my mentor? The next important choice is your power type. These range through fire, ice, gadgets, mental, nature, and sorcery. This choice determines the group role you play: defense, healer, or controller. (Everyone can do DPS.) It was very tempting to choose fire, but the Batman fan in me wanted gadgets. Next was the movement mode choice. Flight and super-speed looked fun, but Batman was an acrobat. I had to choose that one. This allowed me to climb walls and glide from rooftop to rooftop. Of course, I had to choose my weapon after that, which controls the attack speed, range, and style. There were so many choices that I was not exactly sure which direction I should go: bow, brawling, dual pistols, dual swords, one-handed, rifles, martial arts, or two-handed. I would think that Batman would choose martial arts, but I was not personally fond of the look of that weapon. The character carried two bladed-knuckle-type weapons. So I stepped totally outside the box and picked dual pistols.

The first place this game falls short is the character design section. The character designer is certainly not short in color choices, as the image above demonstrates, but unfortunately, when it comes to the physical shape of your character, gamers who have played Champions Online or City of Heroes are going to be a bit disappointed. To be clear, the quality of graphics are on par with, or maybe even above, the graphics of Champions, but the choices in gear and especially body shape are more limited. However, there is quite enough gear to distinguish yourself from other players, and as you finish quests in the game, you will receive more and different gear. I venture that this limitation is to ensure the quality of combat mechanics, because even a minor mesh change requires more information be sent to the client, thus requiring more bandwidth usage. I am still on the fence as to whether this was a quality decision.

If you have seen the Blur Studio trailer for DCUO, then you know that a future version of Lex Luthor (voiced by James Marsters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) released Brainiac's exobites onto the Earth to help prevent Brainiac from destroying all life as we know it. These exobites contain the genetic information of all of Earth's superheroes. When these microscopic robots connect with a human host, they change the genetic structure of the host, morphing the human into a super-powered being. Unfortunately, Brainiac has caught on to future Lex's plan and has been capturing some of these new superheroes and villains and placing them in stasis pods. This is where our story begins.

I was instantly greeted by Oracle, who as you may know used to be Batgirl but who now operates as a superhero computer hacker. She was attempting to get me off the ship and safely back on Earth. I was in a room by myself with a single NPC robot. This gave me a chance to test out the controls. My left-click performed a pistol whip move, and the right-click alternated firing the right- and left-handed weapons. As with most PC games, the mouse controlled the camera movement and the aiming reticle. A red box would surround an enemy target if it was in range and within the aiming reticle. If I hit the tab key, the controls would lock onto the current target in the reticle and create a distinct crosshair on the enemy. Later I would learn that a yellow reticle indicated a non-enemy target and gray indicated a target out of range. For those who are interested, every weapon has both a melee and ranged attack, even the ones that would seem to be strictly melee.

As with most opening quests in modern MMOs, this Brainiac ship instance served as a tutorial. I learned about the gadget power sets, which are divided into Tricks, Traps, and Iconic powers. At level 2, either a Trick or Trap power was available for me to choose from. I picked the electric grapple under Traps. The Iconic powers were not available to me until a later level, and movement mode could be toggled. Climbing walls was a bit tricky at first, but after a bit of time, I found it quite fun. (Later I was able to try out both super-speed and flight on other characters, but acrobatics is by far my favorite.)

Eventually, the tutorial led me to the main gunnery room where Brainiac's guardian waited for me. After I removed the couplings from the gun turret and defeated the guardian, Superman was able to teleport in. Superman (voiced by Adam Baldwin -- no, not one of those Baldwins, rather the one of Firefly fame) defied Brainiac and invited me to help him hold off Brainiac's forces until Oracle was able to hack the ship's transporters. The Supes and I finished off those robots without breaking a sweat, and eventually, Oracle opened one of the transporters, sending me down to Gotham City.