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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Starting fresh in DC Universe Online

Eliot Lefebvre

I'm not going to lie to you, gentle readers -- I did not have high hopes for DC Universe Online when I signed in.

Why not? Lots of reasons. For starters, Champions Online turned out to be very good, and I'm not in the habit of expecting good luck twice in a row. My last outing with a licensed superhero game left me pretty cold. I already knew the game broke from a lot of accepted superhero conventions, and it sure didn't seem like a game that would encourage the same sort of roleplaying atmosphere I love. Last but certainly not least, it's always dicey playing a game designed for both consoles and computers, since frequently one or the other gets the better interface.

Despite all of this, I am happy to say that these fears were unfounded. Or at least unfounded enough for it not to matter, which is close enough to the same thing. DC Universe Online is certainly not a successor to City of Heroes, but it's a lot better than I would have guessed, and it's certainly an interesting game thus far in its own right.

Neat costume, but you're half a twist away from being an Escher Girl, miss.Of course, it's still going to throw a lot of people off because it's a stark contrast to the usual superhero template. Instead of being given a blank slate for your origin, you get a very specific origin story that you share with the other PCs. Nor do you get the same kind of freedom of choice that you get from other games. Every character has one of three movement modes, every character uses some sort of weapon in combat, and every character has one additional power set that defines his or her potential roles and overall character focus. Coming directly from Champions Online, the shift from "be whatever" to "you are this; choose your options" is prone to inducing whiplash.

However, this also has a distinct upside in that the game knows exactly what it is and what it's doing, and as a result, it can do things that other games with a wider focus just can't. Your movement mode, for instance, contains several skills and abilities. The result is that more than in City of Heroes, it feels as if you can legitimately make your travel method a major part of your character's design if you want to, compared to having a power that at best doesn't clash with your primary superpower.

I remember the tabletop game Brave New World taking a similar approach, eschewing the usual laundry list of superhero powers in favor of a different system on the basis that the "traditional" approach had been done very well several times and didn't need another imitator. This is like that, only good.

You also get to choose your starting costume, but the game lets you pick up the style of pieces you equip through the game, allowing you to mix and match your costume on the fly while keeping gear with unique appearances. Is this better than the wide-open costume creators you get from other games? It gives you less freedom to look awesome at the start of the game, but it also keeps you working toward better visual options, and because of the way the game color-matches everything to a user-defined palette, you never look like a mismatched riot. It's a different way of doing things, but for what the game wants to be, it works very well.

One thing I did notice during character creation is that the female models at least are... kind of weird. Chesty to the extreme, for one thing, and prone to contorting at odd angles hither and yon. I felt the lack of options here more keenly than anywhere else.

Combat is spry and responsive, albeit with one or two weird parts (like how powers reset my combo counter). The emphasis is much more on button-mashing and situational awareness with the occasional blow compared to dodging and timing your attacks, which is a bit unfortunate in my eyes; part of me had kind of hoped against hope that the overall feel would be closer to the Arkham City/Arkham Asylum engine. Thus far, it's also tuned pretty easy, or perhaps I'm just good at it. Either way, I don't find large packs of enemies challenging or threatening to handle.

Ignoring someone visibly hallucinating seems like a survival technique in Gotham City.Beyond that, it's largely standard fare with a few flashes of brilliance. Quests are mind-numbingly standard, but someone on the design team has realized that running around to turn them in is boring as heck and made most quests pretty much just completable from your journal. I've also run across the first few races in the game, which I think represent just plain brilliant design that other games should have adopted by now. And some of the voice acting is pretty good, although there are bits here and there that sound stiff.

I don't mean to say it's perfect thus far. For starters, the game doesn't appear to lend itself very well to roleplaying. This makes sense in parts, as DC has always been a setting where people are heroes first and people second. (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all put on facades to integrate into human society.) But it's kind of disappointing; regular readers know I love to roleplay and would likely guess that I'm not thrilled about the fact that I can't even get a walk toggle.

Please, if there's a walk toggle that I just missed, tell me in the comments. I am happy to be wrong here.

The other major issue that I've noticed is that the game feels like a single-player title. People have complained that a lot of MMOs feel that way, but I'm going to say that nothing else holds a candle to DCUO in that department. The mechanics all contribute to the feel that the game is like some sort of super-powered open-world sandbox, like Saint's Row The Third set in the DC Universe with slightly less sociopathy.

Overall, it's pretty darn good from my admittedly limited experience. It's not in the same vein as CO/CoH, but it isn't trying to be. What it actually tries to do strikes me as pretty awesome. And it's worth noting that it's also free and hitting the one two-year mark on Thursday, which I would celebrate in depth now if not for the fact that I didn't even start playing until a couple of days ago. Oops.

Feel free to tell me how I am wrong down in the comments or via mail to Next time, we've got some interviews. After that, I think I ought to talk about anonymous sources and how this might be a good year for superhero gamers.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.

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