A Hero Among Super Heroes

I want to be perfectly blunt with the team behind DC Universe Online, no allusions, so I tell them right off the bat: I haven't really liked a massively multiplayer online game since Ultima Online's late 90s alpha.

Ultima Online ruined me for MMOs, I explain. DC Universe Online faces a second challenge as well, I tell them, why would I want to be a super hero in a world of both super heroes and much more famous super heroes?

There's a lot to love about video games, but there's no denying that a big draw for many of us is how they stroke our egos. From the moment you start a game till the moment it ends, you're the most important thing in the universe. Even the laws of mortality bend to deal with your inability to always succeed.

But in a massively multiplayer online game there are witnesses to your failures, other players can see how much you actually suck at playing. Much more importantly, they too want to be the center of attention.

DC Universe art director Mark Anderson seems unfazed by my attitude.

The concept of making every player feel special in a world in which the coexist is a problem for all MMOs, he says, and one compounded by some special issues that this PC and Playstation 3 MMO faces.

"... is everyone going to get to be Batman? Or is nobody going to get to be Batman?' Because they're both problems."

"We had that problem compounded with the fact that the first thing everyone said when we said we were making DC Universe Online was 'So what, is everyone going to get to be Batman? Or is nobody going to get to be Batman?' Because they're both problems," Anderson said.

The solution is essentially the second, but it's not quite that simple. While no one can be Batman, or The Joker or any of the other hallmarks of the DC Universe, players are mentored by them.

"We really tried to ride the line and really tried to back trace what was it about the super hero fantasy that is unique and what thing were shared among other games," he said.

When you create a character in DC Universe you can choose to have the game make one for you based on some of the comic books archetypes. It will auto create a person who has some of the same abilities, same style as your favorite villains or heroes. Or you can opt, as I did, to make your own character from scratch.

Character creation in DC Universe includes a lot of hand-holding, but nothing that overtly bothered me. Instead it allowed me to feel creative without overwhelming me with choices.

You start by choose the sex and build of your character, there are three size types. Once you've picked those you decide whether you're going to be a hero or villain, your personality, then the type of power you have, the type of movement you use, and your weapon of choice.

You can then go in and customize the look of your creation, changing up the head models, skin types, clothing, equipment, everything from your characters hair to the shoes they wear.

My decisions led me to a cat-like villain that used fire as his power and a bow as a weapon. His movement type was acrobatic, meaning he could double jump, climb up walls and flip around a bit. I could have decided to go with flight or super speed instead for my movement type. There are a total of 10 weapons to choose from and six powers as well.

Not a huge amount of choices, but together they give you quite a few combinations.

Your choice of mentor has a significant impact on the sorts of missions you end up taking throughout the game and where you start after playing through what is essentially a robust tutorial.

Anderson said that Sony Online Entertainment wanted to make sure that DC Universe wasn't just a re-amalgamation of what's currently popular in massively multiplayer online games with a cape slapped on it. They wanted to innovate.

The way they feel they did that was by trying to make sure their game stretched across many different game genres, not just role-playing games. So DC Universe has racing, collection, stealth, and leans heavily on action.

"... the journey is really what makes you feel special."

"I don't know if we've solved that problem of feeling special in MMOs, but I think we've solved it enough that DC Universe is a really compelling game," he said. "We've really tried to give you as much as we can to get to a place where you feel special, and then it's about the journey, the journey is really what makes you feel special."

My journey as a petite leopard boy with flaming eyes and a bow for a weapon started out in a space ship hovering over earth. As I worked my way through the ship, playing on a computer with a Playstation 3 controller, I adjusted to the feel of the game. It didn't quite play like a button masher, but it certainly felt like an action game. Pressing the square and triangle buttons allowed me to pull off melee attacks with the bow or shoot arrow after arrow into enemies.

Soon I unlocked the ability to shoot a flaming arrow at an opponent, knocking them back and doing more damage. Combined with my acrobatic movement, I was able top flip and run away from enemies, scamper up walls and dodge attacks all while unleashing a barrage of arrows.

When I found items, or later purchased them, I was able to equip my character with them and elect to have them alter both my stats and appearance or just my stats. That way, Anderson explained, you don't have to look like a hobo to use alluring gear.

The game did a good job of making me feel special, though even in my hour or two with the game I felt moments when the grind of working through a task to level up seemed to loom in the background. Despite this, it was the most fun I've had in an MMO in years, mostly because I forgot that was what I was playing.

Later Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley tells me that DC Universe Online is unlike any mmo out there, "period."

"We know what we're doing," he said. "We have had our successes, our mediocre successes and some failures. What sets us apart is our depth of experience."

It was that experience that led Smedley to delay DC Universe Online for more than a year and a half.

"Now," he says, "I'm very happy with it."