For DC fanboys, it seems like forever ago that prolific comic book artist Jim Lee announced that he'd be stepping in to help guide a Sony Online Entertainment MMO based on the DC Universe. In the two and a half years since the announcement, Jason Todd returned from the dead, Marvel announced a similar MMO project, Batman discovered he had a son, Marvel cancelled its MMO project, and The Dark Knight made a batmobile-load of cash -- but no one ever played DC Universe Online.
At least, no one ever played it until today.
As far as first impressions on a crowed show floor go, DCUO seems to have a lot going for it. In the final version of the title, you'll choose whether you want to be a hero or a villain and build the character from scratch -- powers, capes, etc. -- and unleash the creation on an online world of similar good guys and bad guys created by other players. For the purposes of its San Diego Comic-Con debut, DCUO limited players to a few pre-created heroes and the abilities that each had but let them play eachother. My play session had me behind the controls of an energy-wielding lady and earth-flinging speedster.
Each character will have a base from which his or her abilities spring from -- hence why I pointed out the woman was using energy powers and the dude was earth-based. Each character will have the standard light/heavy attacks, jump, ability to weaponize the environment, block, and lock-on, but when you combine the face buttons of your PS3 controller with R2 (or the keyboard and mouse for the PC folks in the audience), you get character-specific attacks based on those abilities.
When my time in Metropolis began, a Justice League of America communicator popped up on the left side of the screen and a video message from Superman played. Seemed Brainiac was attacking the city -- giant, floating green fortresses could be seen along the skyline -- and some of the citizens had fallen under the evil AI's control. I had to get to street level and save the people. My first crack at the mission started me as Light Stream, the blonde femme fatale whose powers sprung from energy. Operating like most third-person action games, to get Light Stream from the starting park to the battle came down to moving her with the left stick and rotating the camera with the right. However -- unlike most third-person action games -- I could press L3 and toggle flight on. Once she was in the air, I could easily glide the heroine to the fights happening on the street and unleash her specific attacks.
See, the people Brainiac has overtaken need to be beaten into submission and then you have to remove the infecting nanomachines. To do this, I made use of Light Stream's super-square attack that created a buzzsaw out of energy to slash opponents with, her super-triangle move encased baddies in a energy orb that could be thrown at other foes, and her standard light/heavy attacks hurled energy orbs at anyone in her path. The infected citizens -- who looked almost zombie-ish with vacant eyes and gray flesh -- fired rainbow rays from the Brainiac triangles on the center of their foreheads, but the moves were little trouble for the world's newest superheroine. When the citizens went down from the power moves, I had to tap circle to get Light Stream to remove the nanomachines and save the day.
Although this was a pre-alpha build of DCUO, the HUD operates like I bet you would expect it to. Your character's picture, life bar, and super-move juice is displayed in the upper-left corner, and the HUD of any enemy you engage pops up next to it. Moves whittle down the green health portion of whoever is getting hit and using super-moves drains the blue meter. On top of monitoring your blue meter, once you use a super-move (remember, these are the R2 and face button combos), you'll have to wait a second for that move's icon to refill with color before you try to use it again. We're assuming the rate at which you recover your moves will change depending on what level your character is at -- which is displayed next to your hero/villain's name.
At the bottom of the screen is a long bar that slowly fills as you complete objectives and pound on foes. It's an experience meter that is building towards one of your character's abilities -- defense, health, etc. The game cycles through the attributes in order so that you level up in a smart-growth type of way, but you can say to hell with that and choose what aspect of your friend-in-tights you're augmenting.
All this was cool, but the neatest thing DCUO has going for it was how awesome it is to be battle alongside Superman and company. After I dispatched a few of Brainiac's minions, Superman and Lex Luthor brawled into frame. I jumped in and gave chrome dome a few shots while Supes shot around the screen and his cape danced in the wind. Still, my lack of experience got the best of me and Lex knocked Light Stream out -- a "KO" icon pulled from a comic book pops up when you fall. When I got knocked on my kisser in the game, I had the choice of waiting a bit and respawning from where I fell or immediately jumping back into the game but starting at the park.
I chose to quit, take Jim Lee's advice, and try out the speedster.
Named Rock Solid and decked out in black and gold, the speedster was just about everything I could want in a low-level superhero. Clicking L3 put the dude into super-speed mode so that he could scoot around Metropolis with a wicked speed effect at his feet, run up the sides of buildings, and get away from foes, but being earth-based gave him some more nifty powers. One stun move -- similar to Light Stream's encasing energy ball and Superman's freeze breath -- had Rock Solid cause the spikes to shoot from the soil and pin an enemy in place so the good guys could get their shots in. Another had him create a brick on the end of his bow staff that could be slammed into opponents, and a third flung chunks of ground at bad guys from afar.
Although there was a lock-on button, I found the option a bit difficult to use -- same with the ability to pick up environmental objects such as cars and streetlights and use them as weapons. I could grab them just fine, but effectively making contact with them was another story. Still, this is pre-alpha and the game shines in other parts.
One of those parts just happens to be how it looks. I've already talked about Superman's cape movements, but as I watched Bizarro and Supergirl duke it out in front of a café, it was pretty cool to see the smashed cars, rubble in the streets, and random fires that cropped up around them. The city itself looked polished, there were a bunch of different cars and the storefronts with minimal repetition.
As I ran around the city, I'd run into other characters and events. When you see someone on the screen, an icon will appear next to them. A green shield means you need to defend them (like when Superman needs backup with Luthor), a red and yellow impact symbol means you need to knock them out (like an infected citizen), and a set of gears means you can interact with that person or object (like removing the nanomachines). When I turned a corner as Rock Solid, I came across all three of these symbols in a completely new scenario -- a cop was trying to ward off a thug who was coming after a bag of cash. I protected the cop from the initial attack, took out the thug, and collected the money bag. A SOE rep watching me said that with missions like this, it'll be up to you to decide which events you tackle first. If you choose one thing, you might not have time for another -- maybe you'll need to bring in teammates to help.
In the grand scheme of DC Universe Online's journey to retail and the amount of content normally packed into an MMO, today's play session was barely the tip of the iceberg. From what I've seen, I'm excited to get my hands on this down the road and see where it stands. I want to make my own hero, I want to choose my reactive defenses (moves you automatically pull off when you're attacked such as regeneration or dodge), and I want to help Superman save the day.
No one's willing to talk about when this title will be released, so there's probably still a long wait in front of us. That said, fellow DC fanboys, there's reason to have hope.