Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: DC Universe Online (PS3)


After playing the game for more than a month, I really wanted to give "DC Universe Online" a glowing review. It's the first MMO I've ever really tried, and it got me hooked enough that I'm paid up on my subscription through mid-June.

However, I went back in this weekend to play for the first time in about a week, and I was reminded of the game's fatal flaw: it's incredibly buggy.

That's not to say it's not fun. When the game is working, it's very fun. But the bugs get in the way of completing missions, making progress and sometimes playing at all, and they happen far too often in a game that asks you to not only make an initial $60 investment, but then wants you to lay out an additional $15 a month (though the first month is included with the game purchase, and you can currently get a three-month deal for $29.99).

When I first purchased the game, I created four characters, though I quickly found myself focusing on two of them -- one hero and one villain. Though I'd criticized the character creation system in my review of the beta, I found it to be much less of a problem with the shipping game, mostly because my expectations had been properly set by the beta, but also because once you have the full game, the ratio of time spent creating your character versus time spent actually playing the game is much more tilted toward the latter. I'm still disappointed that my "King James" character looks less like LeBron James and more like Marvel's Carlos Boozer, but I'm pretty happy with how he turned out.

King James, despite apparently now being the villain of the NBA, is my hero character. In game, he's mentored by Superman, and I've played through the story with him getting him up to level 30. What I found in my gameplay experience is that early on, if you're on a Player-vs-Environment (PvE) server, the game doesn't force you into multiplayer situations. Once you start to get into the higher levels, the missions become difficult -- but not impossible -- to complete without a teammate. While DCUO's system for communicating with other users isn't great (in fact, it's probably best described as "horrible"), the user base that I encountered was more than willing to help out. And once I got to the point of being able to be the helper, rather than the helpee (not a word, I know), I tried to reciprocate as much as possible.

As I found in the beta, the combat is well-balanced between melee and powers, though there were definitely times I found myself wishing my power bar had a little more energy in it. With my role (tank) and my set of powers (fire-based), I ended up being something of a self-healer, but I also would get myself into trouble at times due to my inexperience with a game like this. I will say that I wish I'd picked a different movement type. There are three in the game: flying, super speed and acrobatics, and I've tried all three. King James uses acrobatics, which appears to be the slowest way to get across the massive city maps, though the Hulk-style building climbing is kind of fun.

Speaking of the massive cities, the depth-of-field issue I encountered in my early plays of the beta is still a bit of a problem, though not as noticeable as it was my first time through the game. To be entirely honest, it makes sense that buildings gain detail as you get closer to them, but the way the details "pop" onto the screen is a little strange.

Otherwise, the game is as graphically strong as you can expect an MMO to be. The one thing that bothered me is with the free-roaming camera, it was a little too easy to get turned around while in battle, but one click and you're right back where you needed to be.

But, as I mentioned above, there are those glitches. Let me take you through a specific example. On Saturday, I was playing a mission with Brittana, my villain character (and, yes, the character's name is a "Glee" reference. I'm nothing if not the world's biggest dork). In the mission, I was in Metropolis City Hall, where I had to track down John Stewart (one of the Green Lanterns) and fight him with the help of Sinestro. Early in the mission, there's an Alpha Lantern and three Veteran Lanterns you have to take out, and you're supposed to have help from some Sinestro Corps members who are waiting in a hallway for you. However, upon initiating the conversation with the Sinestro Corps leader, the NPCs would all get stuck in the outer hallway, leaving me to fight by myself (and, considering that Brittana is a healer, with limited offensive powers, there was NO chance of that happening). I had to quit the game, restart, and go back in and HOPE the mission would work right. Fortunately for me, it did. However, that hasn't always been the case, particularly with some commonly glitched Alerts and Duos, including one Alert that took me two weeks to complete because every time I'd go in, it'd be glitched.

The glitches extend beyond the gameplay to the audio system, which can be frustrating but is not as much of a progress-stopper. Frequently when in a mission, primary audio channels will disappear completely, leaving only background music and the occasional sound effect. Like I said, this is more annoying than anything else, but I'd like to see it fixed.

I'd also like to see a little more variation in the missions. Too many of them follow the "fly here, beat up these guys, then fly here and beat up these guys, then fly here and beat up these guys, then go in this building and find the boss" pattern. I know grinding is considered to be a standard gameplay aspect of MMOs, but it was really incredibly repetitive, and is probably the only reason I don't have two level 30 characters yet (Brittana's still around level 20).

Oh, and totally unrelated to much of anything, the "story" of the game involves regular people being imbued with superpowers by exobytes from Brainiac, which is the in-game way of explaining why the superhero and supervillain population has suddenly exploded in both Metropolis and Gotham It's also why I tried to design both of my main characters to look as much like normal people as possible. Sure, it's cool to see so many characters with incredible costumes, but for some reason, I liked the idea of tailoring my characters to the game's backstory. King James uses Heat colors and has the #6 emblem on his tank top, while Brittana uses McKinley High's color scheme, and has an M on her jacket (though it's usually hidden by her backpack). The other two characters I created, but have barely used, both have more comic book-like looks to them.

In the end, the question with any subscription based game comes down to one of value. Is it worth it for me to keep paying for this game -- essentially re-buying the game new every four months -- or not? So far, there appears to be a decent enough amount of depth of content to keep my interest, whether through end-game group missions, PvP arenas or even just switching characters. Still I'd like to see Sony fix some of the glitching problems I've mentioned before I invest any more money into this.

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