DC Universe Online sets itself in the ‘old’ DCU as seen in the comics prior to Flashpoint and the advent of the New 52. If none of those things mean anything to you it summarises easily as ‘Superman wears his traditional costume and Wally West is still a red-headed Flash’. For people of my age that means a lot because ‘my’ DCU doesn’t exist anywhere else any more.
The question with DC Universe Online was always going to be if it was better than ‘City of Heroes’. Developed closely with DC artist Jim Lee with cross pollination between desktop and console platforms the game launched as a purchase to play model before becoming a free download with multiple player models based on if you want to pay anything or not. Buying any of the expansion packs will add a ton of content to the game based on major older DC story arcs and I’d recommend it, but going in pay-free gives you all the base games content with no hassle as well as seasonal events. At this time the game plays across desktops as well as Playstation 3 and 4 support, allowing for a whole lot of playing depending on your platform of choice.
Graphically the game is very stylistic. Entirely 3D rendered with character models that have begun to show their age but are also representative of the stylistic designs of Jim Lee. There are varying levels of body type and sizes, adding a great deal of difference between characters before they have even been skinned and clothing, etc has been assigned. Superman is considerably more bulky than the Flash, Batman is bigger than Robin, etc. The game is split across two cities (Metropolis and Gotham) which are both grand in scale and extremely close the being characters in their own right. They are opposite sides of the coin with one being bright and hopeful and the other grim and depressing. Draw distance, especially when flying at speed, is amazing and really helps to pull you into a sense of immersion. Characters created by players fit the look and feel of the DC universe for the most part, with some jarring you out a little with their custom takes on licensed characters from both DC and its rival Marvel amongst others or having set out to make something deliberately strange, but ultimately everything fits the fabric of the MMO world they are trying to build. The PS4 edition uses a new HD skin to upgrade the graphics, but overall things remain much the same.
Sound effects have a weight to them but repeat a little bit too frequently when you’re in the thick of combat, and although many events or missions have their own custom sounds you hear them more times than you’d care to before you’ve cleared the objectives in that area. Musically the themes for Gotham and Metropolis are good long pieces that don’t loop frequently and set the tone perfectly without infringing on John Williams or Hans Zimmer movie scores. Voice acting is the star of the show here, with an all-star line-up voicing the most famous faces. Adam Baldwin as Superman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, Will Wheaton as Robin and many more, including the definitive Batman voice himself in Kevin Conroy. The experience truly feels enriched by their presence.
The story is what comics often call an ‘elseworlds’ tale. Meaning that events transpire that are not canonical to the main DC line. Opening on a grim future where Lex Luther leads a crusade of super-villains against the Justice League that sees their demise, however no sooner has he accomplished this task than the cosmic super power Brainniac arrives at the head of a fleet to invade the earth. With no hope for defending against him the world is quickly ravaged. A union between sole survivor Bruce Wayne (now openly Batman), and Lex sees them use the technology in the fortress of solitude to send Lex back in time. Lex then approaches the Justice League of the present and explains events before releasing nano-technology across the whole Earth to trigger powers in regular people, flooding the world with new heroes to help fight the oncoming crisis. It’s a neat way to explain why so many new heroes are running around the DCU and obviously the split between those who want to play villains and those who want to play heroes is accounted for. For those new to the setting there’s a wealth of intros, animatics and mini-quests to flesh out the universe and they’re not forced down your throat in the same way that universe lore is incorporated into other MMOs, allowing you to slowly absorb the experience. Missions are always plot orientated, with your hero bouncing between locations as part of a contained adventure with the support of other players as well as the more famous DC faces. An early mission under the mentorship of Wonder Woman for example sees you freeing the Titans from the control of a demonic entity called Trigon. In this mission you meet up with the full rosta, fighting against and alongside them as the story goes on before succeeding. Even taken as a single player experience the games narrative does a good job driving things home.
Gameplay is largely typical MMORPG in its gameplay, making use of powers on individual cooldowns, level grinding and mission based structures, with a few subtle differences. Players are immediately mentored to one of DC’s big three characters. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, and each represent a specific origin type. Technology for the run and gun crowd who want their heroes unpowered but able to hold their own, Biological (natural born) powers and Magic. Your also given a choice of how you want to get around the city, with super speed, flight and climbing allowing you to tackle the environment vertically as well as horizontally. A brief intro mission sees you escaping from a Brainniac collection vessel with the help of hacker Oracle to guide you and learning the ropes as you go. Combat feels good on a console but a little button-bashy on a desktop, with the aim to be giving things an Action RPG edge that is satisfying but somewhat muted when you get hit from a distance with a melee attack because you’re locked into combat and the opportunity to dodge at that point isn’t available. It works for the most part though and your chosen weapon can be re-equipped with new gear and levelled as you are. Skill trees fall into multiple categories and you purchase points in a branch each time you level up. There are two for your powers, one for movement skills and one for your weapon with an additional branch dedicated to iconic skills as demonstrated by DC characters (Wonder Woman’s deflecting bullets from her bracers, etc). It never feels like your forced down a particular build and everything is nicely open to experimentation. On occasion the menus can be confusing however, especially on a console where you cycle through them without the benefit of a mouse. The world is huge and takes a great deal of time to explore, and the universe has seen multiple expansions and updates since launch. In-game currency is limited in how much you can carry at any one time as a free player, banking the rest for you to withdraw from a safe zone. This can get annoying if you’re on a large shopping spree but you usually carry enough to upgrade or repair all your equipment in one trip. One thing the game does perfectly is incidents where super villains randomly enter a city and cause havoc, requiring large spontaneous groups of players to pile in on the mega-bosses with everyone getting a share in the rewards no matter how little they managed before being taken out. These feel community orientated and are a great deal of fun, especially listening to custom dialogue from the villains in question.
There are a few additional play modes available in this title, and peppered throughout the game are what could be classed as mini-games and challenges. These range from timed flying through increasingly difficult courses to exploring the Joker’s funhouse for daily rewards. Most ambitious are the massive group events, which set up large set-pieces for you to complete with a randomly grouped team and clash you against some of the DC big-guns. There are also some historical missions that you can undertake and play as classic DC characters, with players on both teams fighting it out in a fun alternative to standard PVP (which is also represented).
As a free title DC Universe Online is a massive boon to the Playstation library and easily worth a download on desktops. It’s a very different game to ‘City of Heroes’ with a strong focus on storytelling and lots of little details to set up a believable world to inhabit. Purchasing all of the expansion packs at launch is pricy, but they regularly go on sale at the end of a year and there’s enough in them (including new character classes, missions and locations) to entice you into getting at least one. Purchasing one of anything for any price springs you up to a new level of user, meaning you jump the queue to enter busy servers and can get right into the fight. I’ve personally not experienced a queue of more than a minute even at launch, but find this added bonus a benefit. The game is showing its age on newer hardware these days, but is still fun to play. Overall the game is a fun experience that anybody can access for free. Not just a good DC game but a good MMORPG in its own right with a loyal and friendly user-base.