All that is wrong with the world…

January 11, 2011

Thoughts on the DC Universe Online Beta

Filed under: Entertainment — Tags: , , , , , — allthatiswrong @ 9:41 pm

After arriving in Toronto on the 11th of December after a 4 day train journey, I was happy to find out that I had been selected as a beta tester for DCU. I had been interested in this game since seeing the amazing opening cinematic, but upon seeing the price set at $60 for the game and $15 per month, I realized it was sadly out of my nomadic budget. So it was a very nice surprised that I was able to play it for almost a month for free. This game has been in development for almost two years and now as of the 11th of January has finally been released.

DCUO is the first MMORPG I have played, so some of my criticisms of the game are quite possibly things that apply to MMORPG’s in general and so should not be detract from the game itself. I should also note that some of my criticisms are based on the game being different from what I imagined it would be, so these too should not be taken as negative points against the game. I managed to play one character up to level 20 over the course of a month, so I think I got a pretty good feel for the game.

The opening cinematic is truly amazing and I would gladly watch an entire film of that quality, as would many people going by comments on the Youtube video. The video sets up the premise of the game, in which Lex Luthor travels back in time to release Exobytes, something akin to nanites which grant the ordinary populace superpowers to help prevent Brainiac’s invasion of the earth. The premise is simple enough and serves as a good justification for why there can be any number of super-powered humans running around.

The world of DCUO seems to be mostly based on the various animated series, which I think is somewhat of a shame. I like watching those series and they have a special place in my heart, but I have always preferred the more realistic takes on the characters and this is the direction the movies have taken of late. I would hope to see a few some gritty missions and hope it isn’t all in the spirit of the cartoons. On the other hand it would make sense if it were as there will probably be a lot of kids playing the game.

One of the more cartoonish things is Brainiac’s motivation for invading the earth is an attempt to digitize everyone and everything, essentially a similar idea to what the laser does to Flynn in Tron. Why not just have Braniac destroy stuff after understanding it, as that would make more sense. The digitizing concept has never really made sense. Although I do wonder why the buildings are just encased in Brainiac’s force fields and are never seen slowly disappearing or something similar.

It’s an interesting story but I wonder how long it can be stretched out for. Will the invasion be going on for years? Will any excuse be given for why it is impossible to defeat Brainiac, or will it just be overlooked? Or will Brainiac be defeated and other storylines emerge based on a superpowered population? I do wonder where expansion packs will take the game. Green Lantern is expected to be in the first expansion, which raises the possibility of other cities and perhaps planets? The animated sequences after completing missions deserve a mention, because they are stunning. Beautiful artwork with excellent voice acting. They are somewhat like a motion comic, but a whole lot slicker.

So, about the game. I had thought the game would be more complex than it is and more similar to other RPG games where you have a karma system. In the game the character you make can only be a Hero or a Villain and it is this choice which solely determines the missions you receive. A karma system would make the game a lot more interesting, introducing shades of gray and reputation. I don’t think it would be that much extra work to incorporate such a system and would help to justify the price and ensure longevity.

The character creation is interesting. There is quite a lot to choose from in skills and personality wise (although I have heard it is actually subpar for these types of games) ensuring you should be able to create a sufficiently unique character. The costume aspect was quite annoying, as I did not end up choosing a costume when creating my initial character and was unable to change it later in game, aside from buying various items of clothing. To change my face or size or skin color or anything like that was impossible however.

I also somewhat wished there was a first person mode. For some of the modes of movement or attack methods it would not be too practical, but for players who want to use guns or something it would be a nice option. Besides flying in a first person perspective while raining fire from your eyes would just be cool.

The interface is not perfect and often feels like priority was given to the console versions, with the PC version being a secondary consideration. An example of this is targeting enemies can be cumbersome. You switch enemies with the tab key, but enemies are nor switched in a logical order and it can take longer than it should to target who you want, long enough that you can die when you shouldn’t have. While the targeting system would be perfect for console, for PC they should have used something closer to the Max Payne system.

The HUD is mostly clear enough, although some things were not obvious to me. I originally thought there was no way to see what your level progress until I noticed it was a thin bar at the very bottom of the screen. This is probably the stuff that will be in a tutorial or manual that comes with the game however. I would have preferred if we had the ability to scroll through the powers or abilities though, as at the moment they are bound to number keys, so it isn’t exactly fluid to use and switch between them.

As it stands the movement system works quite well for getting around the map and attacking, although there are some strange design decisions that are apparent. The most noticeable is that flight, superspeed and acrobatics are all basically equal for getting around the map. This doesn’t make sense to me really, as someone who has superspeed as their method of movement should have an advantage over someone who relies on acrobatics or flight, but this is not the case. Instead super speed is basically reduced to being a visual effect, when it should be something closer to bullettime. My characters movement style was Acrobatic, and she could keep up with super speed and flying characters without too much trouble.

The other really annoying thing is that you cannot use your movement method while attacking, or even to escape being shot at. As soon as you are attacked you automatically switch to combat mode, which is annoying. What is the use of flight or superspeed if you can’t fly away or use these powers to your advantage? Bullets should not be able to hit someone running at super speed as easily and those who can fly should be able to if away or attack from a distance, but this is not the case. A single bullet can drop someone in flight mode high above to the ground, which is just annoying. I noticed quite early on that it doesn’t matter if you choose flight or not, as I was able to acquire a rocket powered glide power quite early on, which is close enough for many purposes.

The mentor system is quite interesting, which is basically choosing an established DC character to give you missions, which in part defines the villains you face and the city you are based in. It’s done quite well and is quite immersive. The only thing I found strange about it is that the Joker is a mentor for villain characters. The Joker is so insane that it seems out of character for him to be in a mentor role, but it’s a simple thing to overlook. It’s probably a simple thing, but I like that it is possible to have multiple characters. For some reason I thought you would be limited to just one. Having multiple characters allows you to explore all the different aspects of the game.

One of the things I found strange is that you have a communicator device in the game, but this is mainly used to join various PvP matches. To read email, you have to go to a police station and actually use a computer. Games have often had the ability to read email while on the go, long before it was a possibility. Now that it is common in real life, DCUO decides to have us limited to physical computers to read email for some reason. Despite having a communicator.

Apparently Brainiac’s attempt to digitize the world and everything in it works both ways, as it is quite common to receive physical attachments such as an item of clothing or money via email. I do wish that the emails were descriptive, as sometimes I would get an alert from Hawkman or something explaining how to activate an item, but if missed there was no way to know what to do. For example, you get an item via email quite early on that lets you play as Batman in Legends:PVP, but I missed this and it was not at all obvious.

The cities are quite beautifully done although limited to just Gotham and Metropolis at the moment. You really get a sense that an entire city is represented that you can fly through and explore. Although one of the strangest things is that Gotham seems to be in perpetual night while Metropolis is in perpetual day. I get that Gotham and Metropolis are meant to be the gritty and optimistic versions of New York respectively; this doesn’t mean they can never experience a day rotation. It’s a minor thing but I notice it when teleporting from Gotham to Metropolis and back which is instantaneous, yet apparently we go from night to day. The Watchtower headquarters is also very nicely done, being a huge structure that I got lost in more than once, with some very nice visuals of Earth and the iconic heroes in the Hall of Justice. One thing I did notice is that you can destroy much in the Watchtower or police stations without repercussion and it will just respawn. It would be nice if causing havoc like that would attract some kind of attention rather than go ignored.

The chat system in the game is interesting. No one really seemed to be talking that much during the game, but that could just be because it was the beta. I know I tried asking for help a few times and it took ages before I could find a kind soul to answer my questions. One thing I found annoying is that if people are actively chatting it makes it hard to scroll up and read previous messages, as every new messages refreshes to the latest message. It would also be nice if you could chat while knocked out so someone could come and revive you, instead of having to start over from far away.

The profanity filter is quite interesting and flawed, it blocks phrases such as “eight items” because it sees the word tit. Even words as mundane as damn are filtered out. They really need to fix this before the launch, because at the moment it gets in the way of decent communication far too often.

The missions are quite interesting with some basic storylines. Some villain has taken control of somewhere or something and so you have to stop them, because your mentor is too busy. The main thing I found with this is that the missions soon became repetitive, as they all rely on either killing minor enemies, saving people or carrying containers across a map. Again I think having some sort of karma system could have prevented this.

There are quite a few bugs sometimes, but it is hard to say if these exist only in the beta stage. For example one minor mission, to capture 5 Gotham villains needs you to return to your nearest police station. This was constantly what I had to do next, despite going to all of the different police stations in Gotham, I could find no way to end the mission. Finally someone told me I had to go to a poster on the outside of the station, which was not at all obvious.

The fight with Bane’s distributor Diego was also incredibly annoying. This was before I knew it was possible to group with other people, and so I kept trying to take him on my own. All too often my health was not recharging, the orientation would not align properly so attacking was hard…although this would be fixed after respawing two or three times. I actually just gave up on trying to fight him, as getting knocked out and being forced to wait 10 second and start again from scratch is incredibly annoying.

However, I found out by hanging out on the roof, I could just let Nightwing fight the battle while I had a smoke, which was a whole lot simpler. Of course then it became hard to actually find Diego so I could arrest him, without any kind of indicator. The AI seemed to randomly glitch sometimes and not respond, although this could be related to the shitty connection I had at the time. Yes, the game definitely has some bugs. I also thought the dogs on Venom looked nothing like dogs, but I suppose they fit in the world based on the cartoons that the game is going for.

The Green Lanterns mission was interesting, although I wonder what part Green Lanterns now play. On the mission it is revealed that there are a great many Green Lantern recruits, which is strange and not explained. Why would an invasion of earth inspire the guardians of the universe to have hundred of GL recruits? Earth has been invaded before and they have never taken such a drastic measure. Will it be explained, or just have to be accepted as part of the world?

The fact that you can group for missions is amazing. Probably a standard feature of any MMORPG, but after being so frustrated at being unable to finish certain missions, and not wanting to waste hours level grinding up, it was a very nice surprise that I could do this. I did notice that after level 12 or so, it became very easy to level up, with each mission basically resulting in one more level; Although, I had been grouping a lot since this time as well.

The PvP part of the game seems interesting. I was quite frustrated while trying to play it, as the game stated that I had to be level 9 before I could access the PvP arenas. Of course, after I got to level 9 it was still not accessible. After getting to level 10 however it was, so either they changed it or there is an error in their message. I was unable to play straight up PvP as it never worked for me, but Legends PvP was quite fun, being able to play as one of the iconic characters you can unblock. Of course, quite often everyone chooses Batman, so having 8 Batmen fighting each other is an interesting sight.

The game also has an Alert system, which from what I gathered is when a big event in the story of the game is happening and many players can join to do the same mission. Alerts are interesting because you get access to cities or places that are not accessible in normal gameplay. For example the two alerts I played were at Area 51 and on Gorilla Island. One bug I encountered in the Area 51 alert was that I teleported up to a Brainiac ship and then had no way to get back down at all. Luckily, the warp to rally point feature the game has is a godsend and an easy way to bypass such design flaws.

The game was a bit buggy at times, but nothing to major and the bugs were not recurring often. During the first Scarecrow mission one of the barrels disappeared which made it impossible to neutralize. It was frustrating to have to restart the mission. The enemies still shoot you during the animations, something I noticed as I lost a lot of health while the camera zoomed into introduce Eddie or Scarecrow. It is particularly annoying to have to wait 10 seconds to respawn after being knocked out, especially if you are low on health and get knocked out frequently. I don’t know if this is normal for MMORPG games, but I found it quite frustrating until I started grouping on missions. The little stretching animation after you respawn doesn’t help.

When the game was finishing on the 5th of January, there was an interesting end of the world invent, where the developers took on iconic characters Superman, Batman, Joker and Lex Luthor and were fighting the entire population of the game worlds. This was interesting to see everyone in one palce at once, although given that they were playing at level 60 and sometimes with godmode, it just seemed a fun way for the devs to massacre everyone before the game went live.

One minor thing that deserves mention is the game had no problems when I would regularly alt + tab out of it. This is nice as some games can’t cope with that and seeing as this is the type of game people will be playing for extended periods of time, it is nice that it can.

The game is definitely a lot of fun, and if I could afford it I would definitely pay for it. Unfortunately at this point in time with my traveling hobo budget, I cannot justify it. I am interested to see where the game goes storywise and if they can keep it fresh. After a monthly of playing I already felt it was getting somewhat stale and repetitive, so it will be interesting to see if many people just play it once for a few months, of if it gains many longterm players. I also have to wonder if this is DC’s main answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I already voiced my disappointment at DC’s apparent short sightedness at deliberately keeping their films in separate universes and it seems they may be concentrating on this instead. Given that games make more money than movies these days, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

In any event, the game is an awful lot of fun, and I do recommend trying it out especially if there is any sort of free trial. I would like to thank Sony for letting me beta test it for a month as well. I will be paying attention to this game, as I am very interested to see how it turns out.

Update 1 – Feburary 8th 2011
Added some missing notes on costume creation, the respawn delay and a few bugs as well as two screenshots.

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2 Comments »

  1. I’m really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one nowadays..

    Comment by Cindy Morrison — February 3, 2011 @ 1:51 am

    • Hi Cindy, and thanks!

      I don’t get paid for this, I just do it for fun or to put forward certain views while I am traveling. Compliments and people finding what I say interesting makes it all worth while though :)

      The theme is called silver is the new black, it is free and offered by WordPress at http://theme.wordpress.com/themes/silver-black/.

      Cheers

      Comment by allthatiswrong — February 3, 2011 @ 3:02 pm


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