Playing with time travel, tesla coils, and mini-helicopters in DC Universe Online's new update

Let's get this out of the way up front: yes, the Flash has a ridiculous contraption called the Cosmic Treadmill that he runs on to somehow transport people back in time. It's weird, it's goofy, and it's going to provide some of the coolest gameplay moments of any superhero game ever.

How can a treadmill of the cosmos possibly provide such mind-blowing gameplay experiences? Well, just think of the most memorable, awesome events in DC comic history. Now, imagine getting to play out all of those events and see them unfold first-hand. That's the power of the Cosmic Treadmill, my friend.

We sat down with DC Universe Online 's Creative Director Jens Andersen, who walked us through all of the content in the big Flash-themed update releasing next Tuesday, and teased us about his big plans for the future, including revisiting the origin stories of DC's biggest villains and heroes.

The first origin story is coming in next week's big update and is, of course, centered around the Flash himself. In a new two-player Duo instance - balanced for players with top-end Tier 3 gear - you and a buddy will be transported back in time to stop meddlers from screwing with Barry Allen on the fateful night he gets struck by lightning and turned into the Flash.

The first portion of the Duo was my favorite: you're tossed in a long hellish hallway filled with crazy electric minions trying to sabotage your attempt to travel back in time. A whirling vortex of time is constantly moving up behind you, threatening to suck you in, and if you can't clear the baddies fast enough, you're going back to modern day and Barry Allen is doomed. I felt the same panicked sense of urgency I get on those Super Mario Bros. levels where the screen is constantly moving to the right. One slip-up and you're toast!

Once you break on through to the other side, you find yourself in a Central City police station from times-past, with all the colors bathed in a light sepia tone to complete the old-timey look and feel. I won't spoil the story of the encounter, but there were a few elements that I really enjoyed about it and want to point out. During the demo, Jens told me that one major thing they'd learned from player feedback on existing content is adding more interactive objects to Duos. So, Central City's police station is loaded with secret areas, computer terminals, and robots to interact with that can provide extra challenges or alter the way boss fights work.

For example, if you take your time and snoop around the office area, you can hack terminals to disable security robots that are protecting one of the bosses. In another room, prisoners are breaking out of their cells. Some of them start releasing their fellow prisoners, while others make a beeline for the wall of guns in the back of the room. Who you decide is the bigger threat and take out first will change how the fight in that area plays out. It's a lot of small twists that add up to a diverse set of possible outcomes that should make these repeatable instances more exciting for players tackling them frequently.

The other thing I love about the Duo is that it features The Pied Piper. I have to admit I'd never heard of this guy before, but he's a villain that plays a flute to mind control people (such as the well-armed cops surrounding him in the police station). It's a cool concept that allows for some very fun combat mechanics throughout the instance, and I'm really excited that the devs are using these lesser-known characters in DC history, who would never get a chance in the spotlight in a limited-world game like Arkham City, to create unique and interesting content.

Of course, the Duo is only one part of the content pack, which will be free for subscribers and 10 bucks to F2Pers--a tremendous value for all the content it opens up. The pack also gives you access to a huge zone loaded with new daily quests, collections, and gear sets; about 10 new bounties for both factions (villain players hunt the Teen Titans and hero players hunt the Rogues); and a brand new Electricty powerset that has DPS and healer roles.

The Electricity power set is a lot of fun to play as. A few of my favorite abilities were Lightning Arc, which shoots a bolt of electricity at an enemy that bounces between other people near him (the closer the enemies are together, the more times it will bounce between them) and Tesla Ball, which launches an orb of high-voltage pain in a straight line out from you, continuously zapping anyone too distracted to move out of the way. The overall flow of the power set was strong - the healing lands somewhere between Nature's high-burst reaction heals and Sorcery's slow-and-steady prediction heals, and DPS isn't quite as frantic as the other recently-added Light powerset, but has the same level of fun visual effects.

Central City, a modestly sized city plot instanced for 50 players at a time, is probably the closest thing we're going to get to a third large city for a good long while, now that DCUO is doing quarterly updates. (There's no current plans to build another city on the scale of Gotham or Metropolis, according to Andersen, but the team does want to start making origin stories a regular occurrence in DCUO.) The city offers some new areas to explore, but it's not the sort of place that you're going to be hanging out in during your downtime. Still, it's leaps and bounds more exciting to fly around a city with alleyways, shops, and little nooks and crannies than run around an island that you can see immediately see everything it has to offer, which is what so many other MMOs add in updates like this.

Andersen saved the best part of our demo for last, though. After we'd taken down the Pied Piper, he used cheat codes to summon all of the new characters being added as open-world bounty targets in Gotham and Metropolis to let them duke it out in front of us. With collective nerd-breaths held tight, we watched as the Teen Titans did battle against the Flash's Rogue gallery. Cyborg blasted Captain Boomerang with lasers, The Trickster chucked out toy helicopters and JLA action figures that came to life and harassed Donna Troy, and some weird "villain" named The Top twirled in circles semi-quickly to annoy everyone while Weather Wizard, Nightwing, and the rest duked it out. After the dust settled, Titan and Rogue lay side-by-side, and Cyborg emerged victorious. So there you have it, fellow geeks, we can all cross one "What if..." question off our comic book fight club lists. Cyborg wins.