It's been almost three weeks since exobytes swooped down on Metropolis and Gotham and gave thousands of regular citizens the ability to shoot eye-beams, summon demons, create explosives out of nothing and generally run amok in DC Universe Online. Sounds fun, right? A lot of the time it is. At its core, DC Universe Online is an action game where you beat up villains, heroes and robots for experience and rewards. There are hundreds of other players doing the same around you, which is where the "massively multiplayer" part kicks in and the problems begin to show up.
The opening, where you awaken on the bad guy Brainiac's ship is well paced but doesn't reflect the rest of the game, and it doesn't serve very well to set up your path. If you choose to play as a hero, you begin in Brainiac's ship with Oracle (Greg informs me she used to be Batgirl until she was shot by Joker) talking you through your actions. If you're a villain, Oracle is replaced by Calculator (a gravelly-voiced know-it-all). Given that you're just some guy who has been recently given superpowers, it seems strange that you are so immediately sure of your moral alignment. At no point is there a moment when you distinguish yourself one way or the other on the ship -- it's just "You selected villain so you're a villain now!" City of Heroes added an alignment system in which you act out at the opening of the game in its most recent expansion, and it made all the difference. The opportunity to betray Superman instead of helping him would have made a far more memorable intro and would have set you into your alignment in a meaningful way.
The combat, for the most part, works well. On PC, melee and ranged attacks are controlled with clicks (Square and Triangle on the PS3), and combinations of taps and holds of the mouse can result in different moves once you've learned them. It's super-simple and easy to pick up, although it sometimes feels like the difference in damage between combos is negligible. You do get a sense of satisfaction when you manage to juggle an enemy long enough to kill them without taking any damage, and attacks are surprisingly responsive given usual MMO latencies.
As you level up, you gain Powers which vary in effect and depend wholly on what superpower you chose at the start of the game. Some powers work well together and some work well in combination with your attacks, but there are some powers that you only keep around because you needed them to unlock something better. The power trees could use some streamlining, and given that many of the classes have similar abilities, the classes could use some powers that define them. As it stands now, few skills feel truly unique to the classes, which makes your role in group combat feel disposable.
If you are new to the MMO genre, you may not be familiar with the "holy trinity" of the tank, healer and damage dealer that forms the core of most mainstream MMO group combat mechanics. Until an alternate mode is unlocked at level 10, regardless of what power set you've chosen, you are considered a damage dealer. For the most part, when you're playing solo, you'll want to stick to damage mode. In a group, you'll find everyone benefits if a few switch to their alternate mode. Unfortunately, DC Universe doesn't explain what purpose your other modes serve in groups very well. That's fine, I can't think of a game that does explain that well. Far worse, DCUO doesn't explain how to switch roles, and I found myself in groups with people who assumed that queuing themselves as a healer would automatically switch them to one (it doesn't).
Group content before the level cap of 30 primarily consists of Alerts, which can be completed messily without worring about roles. Alerts are instanced areas designed for groups of four players. They're structured like quests, except with far more objectives and more players helping you out. Alerts are in big, open areas, and only the objectives tell you where to go. Until you complete an objective -- say, "kill 30 robots" -- the robots will keep spawning. Once you hit that magic number, the robots begin to despawn and you're urged to do something else. It feels very artificial and seems strange that the developers wouldn't just put 30 dudes down in one area and tell you to kill them all instead. Alerts typically have three or four boss fights spread out within them, but, at least in the basic version, only the final one ever really feels like a boss. That said, the final boss fight is usually multifaceted and pushes you to employ some sort of strategy and play at your best, which is what a good boss fight ought to do.
If you're doing Alerts, then you're probably playing through the quests offered by your mentor. These follow the kill/collect stereotype to a tee and may put some players off. It doesn't change very much throughout your 30 levels, either. Sure, you might be turned into a Gorilla for a mission, but then you're just a Gorilla who needs to collect data instead of a superhuman who needs to collect data. Quests are narrated by either the questgiver, your mentor, or Oracle/Calculator. The voice-acting in DC Universe Online ranges from astoundingly good (as is the case with Mark Hamill's Joker) to some of the worst I've heard (generally emanating from the citizens of both cities). It's really a study in how much voice acting can affect the enjoyment of a game. With Joker missions, I found myself unusually immersed, while with a mission where I had to "devolve" science police, I couldn't be more aware that I was doing a dumb quest.
The setting for these quests is typically either Metropolis or Gotham. Both cities are wonderfully fleshed out and rarely have repeated structures. There are a lot of recognizable locations, although as someone without a deep knowledge of DC, I'm sure I missed out on a lot of the references. With no day/night cycle, Metropolis is perpetually sunny while Gotham is forever shrouded in darkness. Despite both being urban settings, neither gets too tiresome thanks to the art design and the way the cities are almost divided up into segments within themselves.
The rare occasions that you actually enter the buildings are treats. Quest chains are broken up regularly by little dungeons designed to be completed on your own. These are usually just "fight to the end and defeat the boss" scenarios, but they're challenging and usually well designed, with the occasional event to change things up. Mini-dungeons are definitely one of DCUO's highlights. Their settings vary -- an early hero one has you in the sewers of Gotham, while villains will visit STAR Labs and the Daily Planet.
This format is revisited at level 30 in the form of Duos. Duos take a small handful of mini-dungeons you've probably already done, ramp up the difficulty, change the dungeon's flow by adding new foes, and let you complete them with an ally. Duos are fun and rewarding and force you to play creatively. They also dish out some nice rewards.
Duos, like the rest of the game, suffer from bugs. The bugs in DC Universe Online are plentiful and range from weird graphical issues like characters animating as though they were sliding up a building instead of climbing to sections of the map not loading properly. More crippling bugs include all sound dying, broken powers, glitched NPCs, enemies becoming invincible for no reason, players falling through terrain, being able to move only in one direction, and collectibles placed in entirely inaccessible areas. I've experienced all of the above -- many of these very recently -- so I know that a lot haven't been fixed yet. A lot of bugs are tied to the travel system; super-speeders and acrobats often have to contend with twitchy terrain and a camera that means that you often move in entirely the wrong direction
The movement modes -- flight, super speed and acrobatics -- sound good in theory but are broken in practice. With any distance, flying characters are far and away faster simply because they can avoid terrain altogether, while acrobats and super-speeders need to work around or over every building and enemy until they learn some extra skills (and even then they still have to contend with a lot of terrain).
Luckily, even flying players are still vulnerable to attack from the ground in PvP. Despite the imbalances, I quite like the PvP system, which employs a rock/paper/scissors method with the three roles of tank/healer/controller. Damage dealers are left out of the cycle, which provides you with a way to get a revenge kill pretty easily.
There are two PvP modes; Arenas utilize the above system, while Legend fights take you out of your character completely and put you in the shoes of a more iconic character, from Harley Quinn to Batman and a few in between. This is SOE's attempt to make an isolated, balanced PvP alternative that, regardless of level or gear, anyone can jump into. Unfortunately, it too suffers from balance issues, with Bane (a mid-level unlockable character) out-damaging virtually everyone else (even the higher unlockables). There are tactical options scattered around the Legends maps like turrets and drones in the Batcave level, which frankly overcomplicate what is designed to be the test-of-skill mode. Those extras aren't as prevalent in the Arenas mode where they would actually be more suited.
PvP and Duos both for part of the endgame experience for players, with Raids, Hard-Mode Alerts and Daily Quests making up the rest. However you look at it (and this is an aspect most MMOs lack when they launch), you get quite a lot to do after you reach the level cap in DC Universe Online.
If you're reading through this and thinking "Wow, that's a lot of fighting! But my family hates violence and I'm not allowed to watch any cartoons because sometimes anvils crush helpless animals or anything with puppets because they are the work of Satan. What can I do?" Well, you can man up or you can participate in the races, which are customized to your movement mode and increase in difficulty. There are quite a few, although they're primarily solo and can be completed in a couple hours. There are also collectibles scattered throughout the city, which help flesh out the world a little more. If you were hoping for some sort of professions system, though, there isn't one. As a result, there's also virtually no in-game economy. Auction houses are allegedly coming, but even when they're out, there won't be a whole lot to sell In my weeks of playing I never once saw someone selling or buying an item via chat..
Of course, that could also be because chat is heavily crippled, both on PC and PS3. Trying to talk to people requires you to type "/t" for "tell" and then their name every single time you want to send them a message. When you're in a randomized group for an Alert or PvP, "/g" (for group!) doesn't recognize that you're in a group at all, and you have to "/shout." And the League system, the DCUO equivalent of guilds in other games, is woefully underdeveloped. You can't tell in any League menu within the game what level any of the League members are or what powers they have.