Batman relies on lightning-fast reflexes to dodge a Joker bomb, not a lucky dice roll, and he certainly never auto-attacks Bane. So when I leapt onto the streets of Gotham, clad in the tights and gadget-belt of a newly minted villain named Cat's Pajamas, to study at the feet of the Clown Prince of Crime, I wanted something other than the stodgy combat of a typical MMO. And DC Universe Online doesn't disappoint—its fast-paced, kinetic combat and story-driven quests are a breath of fresh air in a genre short on innovation.
DCUO's combat is an intense, involved experience that plays more like Street Fighter than World of Warcraft, and it makes the whole game feel more alive—especially during boss fights. I bested Mr. Freeze in a round of villain-on-villain violence by dodging a blast from his freeze ray with a last-second evasive roll to the side. The ray struck a cop behind me, encasing him in a block of ice—I picked up the copsicle and hurled him back at Freeze's face.
Mr. Freeze retaliated by calling in technicians to repair his suit, but I jumped right into the middle of them, tapping right then left mouse buttons to blast waves of energy in a cone around me. I pressed 2 to send them all flying back with my spring-loaded boxing glove (courtesy of the Joker) and followed up with a double left-click and hold to knock the main technician into the air. His feet never touched the ground—I chained together a series of knock-up attacks that rendered him helpless until he was defeated. Knowing that being quick on my feet had made the difference between victory and defeat made it far sweeter.
As Cat's Pajamas, I have 15 different attacks in my arsenal, but only six are at the bottom of my screen as simple press-to-use abilities. The rest are attack combos, executed by combining my basic melee and ranged attacks (left and right mouse buttons, respectively) in sequence to interrupt enemy attacks or deal AoE damage and build up power (AKA mana) for special moves. WoW, by contrast, tends to devolve into spamming toolbar abilities until someone dies.
I love that success isn't a matter of calculating efficient spell rotations or equipping powerful gear. It's all about skill—a lesson I learned the hard way when I tried to gank a hero player half my level and got my butt kicked by her perfectly timed blocks and flawless combo attacks.
A few disappointing graphical hiccups, such as textures loading low-res versions before sharpening a few seconds later, and animations sometimes being reduced to flip book-quality at a distance, distract from the action, but the game's visual effects and physics engine work hard to give your attacks real oomph. Fire vortexes tear up and ignite the world around you, and when you punch someone, they awesomely fly back and crash into the stuff behind them. Environmental clutter—desks, lampposts, barrels (pretty much anything that's not part of a building)—can be scattered, smashed, or, even more fun, picked up and thrown at enemies.
Playing with the big boys
Quests flow smoothly and consistently, thanks them all being bundled into compelling story arcs that take you on comic book-length adventures that revolve around a DC character, such as the villain Bane or superheroine Power Girl. These one-hour stories culminate in memorable instanced encounters where you fight alongside or against them, and are easily the highlight of the leveling experience. A stellar cast of voice actors—including Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman—do a fantastic job of sucking you into the storylines, with few awkward exceptions (Supergirl, I'm looking at you).
The quests themselves aren't exactly revolutionary—most objectives are the usual kill, use, collect and protect types. However, there are two added mechanics to help keep things fresh: carrying (grabbing a large object and bringing it to a specific location) and transformation (temporarily altering your appearance and powers). One particularly creative quest used these two mechanics to build a timed obstacle course that I had to run through as a toy carrying a power cell, and another built a pretty fun platformer game by transforming me into a non-flying demon that had to hop between floating chunks of land hundreds of feet above ground to collect soul shards. I'm also impressed by the way the quests are written—villains have a real sense that they're doing evil in missions involving beating up and mutating college students for Lex Luthor or transforming into a demon to slurp up innocent souls like Jell-O shots for Brother Blood, which gives a much-needed distinction from playing as a do-gooder.
Built for speed
Everything in DCUO is streamlined, built to keep you powering ahead and having fun without resistance or downtime. Anyone that hits an enemy gets XP and quest credit for the kill (not just the first person), tapping Ctrl auto-loots everything around you, you automatically receive quests when you enter a new area, and there's no real death penalty. It's not a hardcore MMO experience, but it keeps the thrills coming.
I hit the level cap in just 30 hours, which might be discouraging except that, for a just-launched MMO, there's already an absurdly high amount of endgame progression and content available. Specifically, there are six rewarding hard-mode dungeons, two extremely difficult eight-player raids and about 10 hours of diverse, fairly enjoyable repeatable daily content. The daily missions are made up of quests (mostly reworked solo instances), bounties on iconic characters like Bizarro and Flash and rotating "featured maps" in each PvE and PvP mode. I was disappointed that the quests that you're asked to complete each day don't automatically rotate, but there's enough of it that I could delay the feeling of repetition by alternating which ones I played each day.
Most importantly, there're plenty of ways to continue meaningfully advancing your character after the level cap. You can change your weapon type and respec your powers at any time (which drastically changes your playstyle) and even train in multiple weapons, which is made easier by the fact that collecting achievements awards you more points to spend on weapon skills.
Grouping up for big missions consistently offers entertaining challenges set in diverse locations and rewards you with sweet gear themed after iconic DC characters. It's the group dynamics that really steal the show and make you feel heroic, though. Anyone can revive knocked-out players, and every character has two roles that they can swap between—damage-dealing and a utility mode determined by their power set. Nature and Sorcery can heal; Fire and Ice can tank; Gadgets and Mental can control enemies and restore power to the group. It's a great common-sense solution that doesn't punish players' soloing capabilities just because they want to heal their friends.
One of my favorite things about the skill-based combat system is that PvP feels easier to manage, and as a result rarely feels as frustrating or unfair as it can in MMOs where gear is the key to success. The six PvP maps are great, too—they all feature capture-the-flag or control-point gameplay, but each adds at least one unique element, such as the ability to call in NPCs to attack an area, build turrets or close off pathways to change the structure of your base and a slime vat that turns you into a monster with new abilities. Bonus: balance perfectionists can PvP as the iconic DC characters in Legends mode, which removes gear differentiation and power selection as imbalancing variables.
The character creator is creatively stifling next to the superhero MMO competition, Champions Online and City of Heroes. DCUO offers fewer options at the start, and instead makes you earn the more distinctive costume pieces as you play. I felt thwarted at first, but it's actually a well thought-out delayed gratification system that gives your character a rewarding sense of progression. Collectors could easily spend months scrounging for the hundreds of iconic and rare costume pieces scattered throughout the game, and explorers will absolutely love Gotham and Metropolis (the two massive cities house all the game's open-world content), which are full of activity, collectibles and Easter eggs to find.
There's no reward big enough to make up for the game's warped interface, however. Illogically nested menus, a tiny, unresponsive chat interface and lack of tooltips are all symptomatic of an interface designed to be PlayStation 3-friendly. It isn't enough to throw me into a Hulk-like rage (oops, wrong license) but the extra clicks for simple tasks and borderline broken chat interface are a constant exasperation.
Other than that, DCUO has had one of the smoothest, strongest MMO launches to date, and it's action-oriented design is a bold step out of WoW's shadow. From the consistently clever boss fights to the daily activities to the points-of-interest around the world, it makes it look effortless to create interesting activities to amuse players and immerse them in the game's world. Assuming SOE can deliver on its promise to consistently release monthly content updates, DCUO will be a promising leader in an exciting new generation of diverse MMOs.