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Monday, December 20, 2010

Early Look: DC Universe Online Beta (PS3)

It shouldn't really be surprising to anyone that currently DC Universe Online is a buggy mess. For one thing, it is technically a beta ... but also a beta of an MMO from SOE, who doesn't exactly have a long track record of deploying stable products in their first iteration or so. Take Planetside, for instance, where I routinely spawned into walls.

So when I spawned into floor while playing DCU, I was hardly surprised. Course, this is now many years later and I would thought SOE would have had a few new tricks to keep this kind of thing from happening. Other common issues: sound will disappear, you'll occasionally be unable to jump into a new zone (including logging out), odd delays between doing damage and actually seeing the effect, graphics detail jump here and there (DCU uses the Unreal Engine - though it seems to vary between UT2004 and UE3 sometimes. I think the detail settings are TBD), random complete lockup, mission items may be missing, etc. etc.

If you squint really hard and ignore the bugs, what remains is a fairly by the numbers MMO experience. The character creation is quite decent, perhaps not quite as impressive as City of Heroes, but offers a gamut of physical options for your comic avatar. You can create a hero or villain, and select a specific mentor - all of which will guide the missions you get out of the gate. Power selection is fairly shallow, you select a power base (Fire, Sorcery, Ice, Nature, Technology, etc.), a weapon (from hand blasting to massive hammers), and a movement type (flight, acrobatics or super speed).

Much of the game feels like a fantasy MMORPG with a comic book theme and the action setting set to high. That might sound like a bad thing, but it's really not and offers a solid and familiar core to the gameplay. You do gather gear as you go along, but you can equip the gear without having to change that carefully selected appearance of your costumed crimefighter. You can swap out the appearance of your gear at any time without having to change what you actually have equipped, making it easy to toy around with the look and feel of your character. You select a gear palette when you create your character which all new gear conforms to - meaning that even that Amazonian helmet might suit your wardrobe.

If I ignore the complete lack of stability - my real complaint about DCU is that I've actually found it very hard to engage many things which warrant the MMO side of the equation. Sure, when I'm running around Metropolis there are umpteen other heroes fighting around me - but often that's a liability more than anything else as they're in competition for the same rats I need to kill for my "Kill Five Rats" mission. At least on the console, the interface for creating groups on the fly seems clunky at best and my time waiting outside zones for a party only ever resulted in one invite ... and then the zone itself was crashing.

DCU does have the ability to create quick groups for instanced quests, such as the "Alerts" - where Martian Manhunter will teleport you and a few other heroes to a specific location. While this could potentially create some greate Pick Up Game potential, I would generally teleport into a location unable to find half the party and on one Alert, kept getting trapped in a room with no doors (literally).

It's bizarre to me that I can load up Borderlands - also on the Unreal Engine, and grab a pick up game in minutes, and the experience is seamless ... and yet DCU is an actual MMO and I've spent 99.9999% of my time solo on it. As a solo RPG, it might be worth the price of admission without the monthly cost, if made to actually work, but I'm certainly not getting anything from the game I'd pay monthly for right now.

If they make the game stable, look a bit better, and fix the grouping - DCU might be a big draw for MMO fans on the console. You can see the potential in the game right now, but there is plenty of work to be done for sure.