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The Backlog: DC Universe Online

Last week on The Backlog I flew over memory lane with the eight-year-old game City of HeroesCoH was the first superhero MMO, but it definitely wasn’t the last.  Its developer Cryptic Studios went on to develop Champions Online a few years later and super MMO’s kept on coming with Sony releasing a game set in the DC Comics Universe just last year.  I never tried DCU: Online, not having the time or money to devote to playing multiple MMO’s at once, but DCU went free-to-play, so I set aside City of Heroes and walked a few miles across this virtual world in a set of officially-licensed bat-boots.

DCU Online arrived in January of 2011, and didn’t even make it a year before going free-to-play. It was up against some tough competition with City of Heroes and Champions Online both switching to free-to-play in early 2011.  The subscription-based superhero MMO was rapidly becoming a wholly unsustainable business model.

Or rather: Holy unsustainable business model, Batman!

DCU Online is the opposite of City of Heroes in many ways.  It’s a shiny, new experience and graphically superior by far . Made long after World of Warcraft, it doesn’t use the old-fashioned MMO combat system of mapping attacks to just the number keys. Rather, it maps two basic attacks to the mouse buttons and has players rapidly clicking away.

The number keys are still used, but these are for special attacks.  The mana bar is recharged by using the basic attacks, so players have to switch between the frantic action combat, and the slower system of launching special powers.

Unlike the other superhero MMO games, DCU immediately lets players feel like big-time superheroes who can put the hurt on the bad guys.  Players can even interact with the environment to lift and throw heavy objects.  Movement powers like flight and superspeed are available right from the start too- unlike a certain other game that makes players work for those “Travel Powers” (I’m lookin’ at you, City of Heroes).

The fact that it’s an official DC Comics product has some pros and cons.  It does means that players get to meet and fight alongside iconic heroes like Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League, plus there are plenty of less prominent characters from the DCU in the game too.  Even early in the tutorial, players get to team up with Superman!  OR Lex Luthor if choosing to play as a villain.

Sure, the characters in City of Heroes and Champions Online are neat, but nothing is as cool as meeting the actual Batman… voiced by Kevin Conroy.  When Kevin Conroy tells you to go beat up ten Brainiac henchmen, you know it’s important.

There are also “Iconic powers” available after characters level up for a few hours.  These are the cool trademarked things like Batarangs, the Golden Lasso and heat vision.  Yeah, City of Heroes has eye beams, but they aren’t heat vision damn it!

Its opening cinematic is also one of the best superhero movies ever.

If you’re wondering how the game fits in with comic book continuity like Flashpoint, Final Crisis and Zero Hour then you really need to set down the funnybooks there, poindexter.

Yet there are drawbacks to this sort of “Official” product.  The makers of the game have to protect the intellectual property.  In this case, they created a mass origin story to explain why the DCU is suddenly overrun with new heroes and villains.  Lex Luthor has traveled back in time from an alternate future and released tiny robots that grant super-powers.  Players get their powers through these “Exobytes” and regardless of whether they choose to be a hero or villain, they’re expected to help fight Brainiac.

Or maybe that’s not the case?  Players will have to play through some of premium content to learn the whole story…

Regardless, this means that players can’t create their own backstory.  Want to play as Superman himself?  Want to be a Daxamite Green Lantern?  Want to be a three-hundred year-old steampunk ghost pirate who controls the weather with voodoo?  You can’t.  You’re a new hero/villain who got your powers from Brainiac’s Exobytes.

It also means less customization in terms of super outfits.  Last week on The Backlog I pointed out that nothing can beat City of Heroes in terms of making unique characters, and designers of DCU Online know that.  So, they went with quality over quantity and hired Jim Lee to do the art design, giving players very fancy outfits that all look like they fit in with the modern DCU.

Furries and animal transformation fetishists will be delighted at the many options for anthropomorphic animal characters.  Cat girl, wolf guy, fox dude and many more.  All of these choices are available to players who are interested in such (Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

DCU Online hasn’t been out for very long, so it has less content than older MMO’s.  That’s a trade off for modern gameplay and graphics.  However, it gives players an excellent selection of free content, with premium items that really do justify coughing up a few dollars to play.

The freebies include powers and items inspired by the big three DC characters, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Goddamned Batman, along with a few other less prominent characters.  However getting powers and costumes based on other Justice League heroes like Green Lantern require buying premium content.

The DLC packs cost around ten dollars and include new powers, new missions and new outfits, usually all based on a particular theme or a major character.  Aa a measly ten dollars these are a relatively good deal compared to many other Free-to-play MMO’s.

But before I declare any of the superhero MMO’s to be the best use of the cheap gamer’s dollar, I’ll take a closer look at Champions Online.  How does that game hold up against the competition?  Find out next week on The Backlog, old chum!

Charles is a proud contributor to Default Prime, as well as the Xbox/ PC Department Lead at Player Affinity, a reviewer for The Indie Game Magazine, and a Special Agent at the U.S. Department of Electronic Entertainment.

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