DC Universe Online: First Impressions

DC Universe Online

MWAH-HA-HA-HA! That's my evil laugh. Do you like it? I've been practising. A 14GB download, immediately followed by a 6GB content patch, gives you plenty of time to perfect such things. I'd already decided I was going to be a villain, because villains are always more fun than the heroes, but after so much waiting around, I was definitely in the mood to smash shit up in Sony's comicbook MMO. We'll have a full review for you soon enough, but for now, here's what happened in my first few hours.

DC Universe Online is set in a timeline where Lex Luthor finally manages to beat not just Superman, but all the world's greatest heroes. This turns out to be a Mistake. Almost as soon as he lands the killing blow, Brainiac appears in the skies with a full warfleet and promptly steamrollers the now completely undefended Earth. The repentant Luthor steals some of his technology and heads back in time, releasing nanites capable of turning anyone into a superhuman powerhouse, with the idea that the heroic Justice League can train them up to be an army of righteousness and fight the incoming armada.

Unfortunately, it works just as well on jerks, and the biggest jerks of all - his present-day self, along with Circe and the Joker - promptly set up their own mentoring program. As one of the newly-formed supertypes, you get to not only choose good or evil, but who you want to train you. Not much of a decision, really. Lex has incredible intelligence and the resources of a global conglomerate of evil. Circe is mistress of the dark arts. Joker has Harley Quinn's cellphone number. Go Team Joker!

But how do you stand out next to the Clown Prince of Crime? Luckily, that's pretty easy. DC Universe's character creation unfortunately pales in comparison to both City of Heroes and Champions Online, but it's excellent by most other MMO standards. The main restrictions are that your character only has a three-colour palette to share across all their gear, and a relatively restricted costume selection. Unlike Cryptic's MMOs, the idea is that you'll find more costume pieces in the game itself, which I find pretty silly. It's fine for the more iconic pieces, like Harley's jester hat or Robin's underpants, but when you've got to create your hero's name and theme at the start, you want to make sure they live up to it immediately. Nobody wants to be stuck as Goingtobebatman or Green Punchintheface until the right item drops.

Most of the bases are covered though, with everything from a big top hat to a choice of hairstyles and Power Girl inspired spandex complete with boob-window, so you should be able to create at least roughly what you want. (Expect to see a lot of Spawn rip-offs, thanks to his mask having somehow slipped into the selection.) If you can't be bothered to create a full character, you can also choose to be 'inspired' by one of DC's signature heroes, which is the DC Universe Online equivalent of asking your parents for a Batman costume, only to get a logo cut out of a cardboard box and a cape made out of bin-liners.

But what to make, what to make? I could have gone for an eye-poppingly colourful outfit, but nobody does that better than Mister J. Instead, I created a gunslinger forged from shades of grey, just like the world she's about to enter. Her name: Monocrime. Prepare to fear her.

She's a Tech themed superhero, with Acrobatic travel powers. This means she gets to fight with toys like Joker and Batman, as well as clamber up buildings like Spider-Man and glide effortlessly across the city with nothing more than a flappy trenchcoat to catch the breeze. Later upgrades allow for rocket travel and grapple lines, although I haven't gotten them yet. You can also opt for Flight or Super Speed, but I burned out on those during Champions/City of Heroes. Acrobatics sounds crap, but is fun.

Everyone gets the same training mission, set aboard Braniac's ship. It's... pretty dull, really. On the plus side, it's very easy, very short, and gives you plenty of time to play with your new combat moves.

DC Universe feels a million times more kinetic than most MMOs - more like a (very, very stat-driven) God of War than the usual click-to-auto-attack style. With melee attacks, you flip from goon to goon in huge flashing arcs of pain. With guns, you unload from a distance or do pistol-whips up close, pulling off John Woo style moves like leaping backwards while firing by punching in simple combos. Opted for Stealth? You can assassinate people, or lay down mines. Went with Tech? Expect toys like Sentry Turrets. Much like City of Heroes, the most notable thing about the combat is that it lets you feel like a badass right from the start, taking down rooms full of robots and fighting alongside Lex Luthor in a mission to save the planet from Braniac's first world-conquering attack wave. It's limited power, but it feels good .

The main problem I had with the combat - and it's a limited one - is that the controls and feel of the game are clearly designed around everyone playing it with a controller... but DC Universe Online refused to detect my 360 pad. The setup program did. The actual game didn't. Not everyone is having trouble with this, according to the official forums, but if you are, there's no confirmed fix yet. Boo.

Playing with a mouse and keyboard is doable, but feels distinctly wrong - much floatier than it's obviously meant to be, with mouse-clicks just not having the same oomph as buttons. Using grown-up game controls also turns the interface from okay, for a system without a guaranteed mouse and keyboard, into something much more horrible, with a useless chat interface, a lack of things like tooltips, and constant menus and shortcuts when you just want to click and type and actually do stuff . But no matter...

After killing roughly a billion robots and helping Lex take out the ship's main weapon, I was immediately dispatched to Gotham to start my life of crime. (Depending on your mentor, you could also start out in Metropolis, although I've yet to visit there). Again, it's tough not to compare the city to City of Heroes/Champions Online. Mostly, it's good news. Gotham definitely feels like Gotham, complete with Batsignal up in the the clouds, with the only real missed opportunity being that the streets feel deserted. There are villains and cops, but not much in the way of civilians to terrify - at least not in this opening area.

There is however plenty of lore, mostly told via promotional booths where Booster Gold gives you a self-aggrandising tour of the city, and standalone information points that tell you that, say, a particular burger bar is owned by LexCorp, or that so-and-so is a member of the Falcone crime syndicate. All of this is optional, although it does give XP, but an excellent touch, whether you're a fan of the lore or have no idea what you're meant to be looking at. The only finger-wagging disappointment is the shameless pinching of the Rikti War Walls from City of Heroes in the form of Braniac bottle-fields all over the place. Still, overall, it's a good Gotham, with excellent Batman atmosphere and all the trimmings. Time to crush it!

Villains are based out of nightclubs, because modern music is evil, where everyone from Two-Face to Catwoman just stands around next to a teleporter to the Hall of Doom. I immediately rushed to the Auction House to try and sell Batman's secret identity on the black market, but couldn't find the option. Instead, I was informed that I'd have to get money the old-fashioned way - supervillainy. Joker immediately sets up some quests involving beating up policemen and stealing their guns, with the goal of starting a gang war to 'entertain' Batman. And knowing Joker, spreading some deadly laughing gas for kicks.

Oddly, nobody seems particularly bothered about the alien invader currently invading the city, as the cops are still chasing Level 1 thugs, guys on the docks are still shunting drugs around, and the nightclub dance floor is packed. I suppose that when you live in Gotham, you resign yourself to a horrible death.

All of the quests are fully voiced, from the mission briefings (often by the DCAU cast, including Mark Hamill) to random comments from enemies. There are a lot of them. One early mission for instance has you bribing rookie cops, who have several different barks depending whether or not they take the money or tell you where to stick it. In terms of objectives, they're pretty bland so far, but the simple fact that they're coming from the Joker himself gives them a certain kick. Hamill plays him with his usual delicious relish, with extra input coming from a shadowy figure called Calculator, who I've never heard of, but I'm guessing is played by a cheaper voice actor given the amount of dialogue he has compared to any of the others so far.

Combat isn't a patch on a dedicated hack-and-slash like God of War, but it's pretty damn good for an MMO. You're always doing stuff, whether it's spotting an incoming super attack like a Riot Cop's chemical spray or blocking attacks before striking back, and your special moves are much more entertaining than simply hitting someone in the face only harder. In my case, I had a taser wire that would yoink enemies right over to me and stun them at the same time, and the ability to go into stealth mode, lay mines, or assassinate from the shadows. There are several talent trees, and pretty much any combat type you could want - the only real absences being full-on superstrength and a Green Lantern ring. The first is covered a bit by martial arts and brawling. The second, I expect to see sometime around the release of the movie. After a few levels, you can also buy Iconic Powers, such as Batarangs and Superman eye-beams. This seems a bit silly, really. Why would Batman let some rookie have access to his stuff?

(On a similar subject, I have a bone to pick with the Iconic Armour sets that you're meant to aspire to. The idea is that by doing raids and PVP, you can unlock pieces of super-armour based on signature heroes, depending on your role. All but two are based on male signature heroes, with Wonder Woman's set looking more like something Hawkman would put his stamp on, and Circe's apparently chosen at random. The game has suits based on Metallo and Steel and even Robin, but no stealth-camo from Catwoman or similar? Rubbish! Hopefully later tiers will be a bit more even handed. If nothing else, a hulking Zatanna combat suit complete with armoured top-hat and riveted-fishnets would be hilarious.)

As far as game-modes go, there's a PvE server and a PvP server, and I suspect that the PvP server will actually be more fun, if the ganking isn't too horrific, as well as stretch the game's playing time out a bit longer. It caps out at Level 30, and with only two cities to play in so far (along with instanced content from elsewhere, like a dungeon based in Gotham's sister city Bludhaven, and a raid in Arkham Asylum), I suspect it's going to run out of content pretty damn quickly. It definitely feels like a game that would have been better off with the (EDIT: Guild Wars, where you buy the box then get free play, along with DLC) model, not - unless this is really impressive - a £10 a month one.

Still, it is the only MMO where Harley Quinn will offer to give you her body.

Luckily/sadly, it's not as dodgy as it sounds. There are a couple of different PvP modes in DC Universe Online, but the coolest of them (at least at the start of the game, when your own character is obviously rubbish) is Legends, where you get to download a copy of some signature heroes and fight with them, complete with all their elite powers. Harley is the first you unlock when working with the Joker, as well as a fanboy favourite, so jumping into a match inevitably meant teaming up with three other psychotic jesters to fight a team of much more boring Robin clones. Further proof that evil is Best. The action is very chaotic, not helped by the fact that without a mouse cursor and tooltips, it's tough to know what all your individual attacks actually do , and a bit fast and flailing, but it's a cool addition and a great taster.

The mission I joined took place in Arkham Asylum, and involved controlling assorted points on the map, apparently to release villains, although mostly it just seemed to be Harleys stamping around with giant bombs, hammers and trick gloves. The chat interface is lousy, and nobody seemed in the mood to talk anyway. Still, just following someone else and helping them beat up a couple of Robins did the trick, at least until they turned round and kicked our Harley Army right in the bells. Bah!

Back in Gotham, Joker's attempts to start a mob war continued with an all-out brawl between mobsters and the police, with my job being to rearm the mob and take out cops. It's 15 of one objective and 25 of another, but since you're in the middle of a brawl, it takes no time at all, and is actually pretty fun. Dual-guns blazing, I took out half the GCPD, before being sent on the most dreaded assignment of all...

...going into a warehouse.

Sorry, but ever since City of Heroes, I've developed a fear of warehouses in MMOs. There are only so many times you can fight through them, shooting generic goons, before you want to rip your hair out in chunks and make the designers eat them . Luckily, this warehouse was a bit more interesting. By the end of the first area, Catwoman had shown up to lend a helping paw, which led into a couple of set-pieces, including a police ambush, and a full-boss fight with Huntress, one of Batman's more violent allies.

Here's another part where DC Universe deviates from most MMOs. Typically, early boss fights are simply a standard monster with slightly higher stats and a name over their heads. Huntress offers a multi-phase boss battle, showing up with a cut-scene, and then forcing you to work alongside Catwoman to take her down. Initially, she comes at you with a staff. Later, police rappel down from the ceiling to distract you. She deploys exploding crossbow bolts that you have to dive out of the way of, hiding behind destructible scenery or convenient walls. She goes invisible, forcing you to stick close to Catwoman and try and score a couple of hits before she disappears back into the shadows for another strike.

Huntress isn't difficult to kill, but it definitely feels like you're going up against a proper superhero in a battle that's genuinely worth your time. Throughout, the two ladies have a bit of custom banter to add life to the encounter, and as a bonus, when you finally kill- sorry, 'knock her out' - you're treated to a short animated comic explaining a bit more about who she is. It seems a little odd to have a big dramatic sequence about how badass and determined she is when she's lying defeated at your feet in a pool of agonising broken-ribbed pain, but it's a cool addition and a great reward. Hopefully the later bosses will be as good.

Aside from the comic sequence, the rewards for beating Huntress were pretty standard. A couple of new costume pieces. Some money. A big chunk of experience. Catwoman invited me to go see her back at the evil nightclub, assuming The World's Greatest Detective hadn't worked out that every major villain in his Rogues Gallery was standing around in the same place, along with a teleporter straight into the Hall of Doom. Luckily, he hadn't, and the next quest arc started up, involving Bane and the drug Venom.

But by this point it was 2AM, and while Evil may not sleep, Evil In Training needed forty winks. I hit the main menu to log off, before remembering a message I'd been sent after defeating Huntress, from a character called Ambush Bug. It didn't make a lot of sense, but talked about one-time access to something called The Vault, where I'd be able to score lots more loot and cash. He even warned me to clear out my inventory slots. How could I log out before at least finding out what he was talking about, especially if there was a chance he'd be more generous than that Azerothian skinflint Greatfather Winter...

So I used the ticket. Then this happened...

Seriously, where does Joker find the time to make all this stuff? Clearly, I have much to learn from the master, and while I doubt I'll still be playing come the first monthly subscription bill, I am looking forward to seeing what other craziness is out there, in Gotham, Metropolis, and - Batman permitting - beyond.

Full review coming soon. Until then: MWAH-HA-HA, and indeed, HA. Hail Joker.