D.C. Universe Online is a Flawed but Heroic Undertaking

Between the action, the lives of superheroes make comic books, for better or worse, suitable to the MMO genre. It's a crowd of unique people, all trying to be different, feeling alone in a great city of thousands.

D.C. Universe Online plants a flag for massively multiplayer online role-playing games on the PlayStation 3, bringing with it terms like tanks, healers and PvP, a language, methodology and set of customs largely alien, and somewhat intimidating, to strictly console gamers.

It also brings, to be coldly honest, another foreign concept - the annual subscription fee atop the $60 retail spend. In light of all this, is D.C. Universe a memorable first date and a fun first month, or does it offer a deeper relationship and new experiences?

Why You Should Care

MMOs are not entirely new to consoles but they have a very thin history on that platform. The teamup of Sony Online Entertainment and D.C. Comics makes this the most substantial MMO to release on a console to date. It will be the first experience with this sort of game for many.

(As part of our monthlong MMO review, I wrote four weekly MMO Logs for DC Universe Online, to give readers an idea of how much of the game I've played coming into this review. You may revisit them here.)

What We Liked:

Action: D.C. Universe Online was my MMO maiden run, and its focus on action helped smooth out the many unfamiliarities a novice would encounter in such a deep genre. My greatest satisfaction came in coordinating their use - say, setting a foe on fire and then hitting him with heat drain, both speeding his demise and healing myself. Combat and movement skill combos were even more robust and gave me a puncher's chance in tough scrapes. Active defense was a little tougher to apply in any considerate way; it was easy to get stuck in a combo animation just as a foe was readying his super-attack, when you really wanted to break into a dodge or a block. It's a button-masher for sure, but that means you can fall back to tried-and-true attacks in the heat of the moment and still win.

The View: It's a gorgeous game. Not only are the cities of Metropolis and Gotham richly detailed (if sparsely populated), they're thoughtfully laid out, incorporating just about every landmark that's made an appearance in the long history of D.C. Comics. Pop-in is frequent, and a very conspicuous drawback, however. But in character modeling, though your choices do feel a bit limited at first, there was never a day I played when I didn't see someone who pulled off an outstanding look that made me want to go back to the drawing board.

The Glory: You're not a sidekick to the heroes of the D.C. Universe.. The game consistently sends the strong message that you belong, and that the story is primarily yours. The A-list (and even B- or C-list) cameos of heroes and villains nearly always culminate in a satisfying well-acted showdown, with a cutscene that's as much its own payoff as any XP or loot. Generic NPCs are a bit grating with their lines and behavior.

What We Didn't Like

Grind: D.C. Universe Online pegs your advancement to finishing core missions, rather than freelance tasks elsewhere in the world. But that creates a new system of grind more than abolishing it all together. This is an MMO; players are fundamentally driven to rank up. What D.C. Universe Online has done is remove the means to get several ranks ahead of your next big mission set and whomp it in a cakewalk. That's laudable, but it places a premium on soliciting help for any mission series at level 20 or higher, and the game's clunky communications tools do much to make this a pain in the ass. The mission structures themselves are disappointingly repetitive. Occasionally the game will put you in disguise, but there are few twists on the menu of defeating a number of foes; rescuing or recovering a number of NPCs or objects; or demolishing a certain number of assets.

Glitches: As a newcomer, I chalked a lot of this up to the understanding that this is a world populated by thousands of gamers; inevitably something's going to fry. But where D.C. Universe Online isn't glitching it's usually suffering from lag (especially in menus) or the hamfisted integration of PC MMO controles with a console setup. I still can't figure out how to elegantly toggle off a waypoint so I don't have it and a mission-based arrow pointing me in opposite directions on the minimap. One re-spec left me with all of my old powers, even after a restart. (It eventually corrected itself). Audio frequently cuts out; I beat Black Adam with nothing other than the ambient background noise on the speakers. If you lose your connection, you have no choice but to completely quit to the dashboard and restart.

Radio silence: Even with a USB keyboard plugged in, offering the least bit of text communication is a laborious multi-step process that, combined with the lag as you cycle through your windows, will leave you praying that you can get your message to that level 30 hero before he flies off. The guide provides no help as to keyboard shortcuts for things like shouting or saying something directly to another player. It's the most disappointing way in which D.C. Universe Online, as a console MMO, still assumes a ton of knowledge and familiarity with PC MMOs in all of its players.

This is written outside the perspective of an experienced MMO player. As a first-timer, D.C. Universe Online is a solid introduction to the genre. Yet, probing further I can see how it's not as full-service an experience as longtime MMO players may expect. The loot I earned was almost inconsequential; its purpose seemed only to advance me incrementally. Only at level 30, when you get access to the specialized battle armor, does the gear start getting good. While this might keep player-vs-player encounters more evenly matched, it made the banks in your HQ laughably moot; I never traded or sold anything, nor was I ever offered.

D.C. Universe Online is a reasonably lengthy tour of Metropolis and Gotham with a hero of your own creation, but it's an encounter that doesn't go much deeper than the action it serves up. The free month you get for a new copy of the game will be plenty of time for those who dive in and play the hell out of it with their first character. Swapping over to the other side largely dresses the button-mashing in a new storylines.

It may be an outstanding console MMO but, unfortunately, it's still one that shows why the PC is the platform that best serves this genre, and why one made for the PC will fulfill the most of its potential.

D.C. Universe Online was developed and published by Sony Online Entertainment for the PlayStation 3 and PC. Released on Jan. 11. Retails for $59.99, $49.99 on the PC. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played a hero character to level 28 and a villain to level 10, and tried all competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes outside of the main game. See Kotaku's previous four MMO logs charting the journey through this game.