Comic books and videogames don’t always mesh. Honestly. Until the past year’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, I can’t recall a game that accurately depicted not only a specific hero, but made you actually feel like you were part of that hero’s world. Some of the Spider-Man games have come dangerously close, and who wasn’t thrilled when the last generation of consoles offered us a chance to swing on the web like only Peter Parker knows how? It’s hard to get that right balance of feeling heroic yet being vulnerable all the same in a videogame. Except in the rarest of cases, heroes don’t die. I mean, if they do, they’re more often brought back via some contrived plot device and the world moves on.
One of the prime examples (and one of the best to my memory) of how to make a licensed superhero game work was in Radical Entertainment’s The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction from 2005. Many games have aped the title since (Prototype was from the same developer), and its depiction of Bruce Banner’s alter-ego was one of the earliest ways in which videogames accurately made the player feel incredibly powerful through gameplay without making them too much so at the sacrifice of difficulty. Superhero games should have a sharp focus on action, and it’s fitting then that one of SOE-Austin’s chief sources of inspiration for the gameplay of DC Universe Online is Radical Entertainment’s 2005 exploration of the green behemoth.
This may be a sheer matter of opinion but as a comic book nerd and a gamer, the primary thing I want to see done right when it comes to a superhero MMORPG is the action. This is no small feat, either. Unlike games such as Ultimate Destruction or Prototype, SOE’s not just dealing with one character and one set of abilities. They’ve got to design engaging and heroic feeling powers across a slew of comic book staples, and make them all balanced enough to make sure players don’t just pick the “Flavor of the Month” when creating their hero or villain. The breadth and scope to which SOE must design their power sets ranges from the practical (think Batman) to the ridiculous (think Green Lantern Corps).
I’ve had the pleasure to briefly test the game at E3, and while it was little more than me running around like a lunatic for ten minutes inside of a PvP map, I found my worries a bit soothed when I left SOE’s booth. Perhaps it’s a little ironic that a game set in and around the DC Universe is trying to ape the action of a five-year old console game about one of Marvel’s heavy hitters, but I don’t believe gamers are going to care about that when the box hits store shelves in November. They’re just going to wonder whether or not once they design their hero or villain the game will let them feel like a super-powered person (or thing if they so desire).
I’m pleased to say that I believe it will.
The action I partook in had me playing a sort of high-tech hero, akin to Cyborg with a few Batman-esque tricks up his sleeve as well. I couldn’t fly, but I could glide, and I could scale walls like a proper insect. But I assume this ability was due to some sort of highly technical hand-feet thingy that I know not the extent of, and certainly not anything to do with a radioactive spider because that’s not kosher in the DC Universe… you dig!? I had a massive gun at my disposal for ranged attacks, and a nasty set of blades for close encounters, as well as a host of other robotic-like mechanisms to toss about. But here’s the best part: it all worked flawlessly with either the PS3 controller or the keyboard/mouse combo. This is not knocking either of the other two Super-MMOs on the block, but DC Universe feels quite a bit more like a Superhero MMO should in terms of controlling the action. There are hotkeys, sure. But the fluidity of running, jumping, gliding, climbing, switching between ranged and melee attacks… it all really felt on par with the classic console games SOE is drawing inspiration from.
I do not doubt that they’ve captured what it takes to make a Super-MMO feel “super”. In my brief time with the title, it was more than apparent that the action is both visceral and intuitive. What remains to be seen is whether or not the game has the depth necessary to keep people paying month after month. I wanted to cover the action aspects of DCUO in this first of an ongoing series of articles, because to me it’s the most straightforward. All we’ve really seen of the game so far has been the action. But if past successes and failures in the MMO world dictate anything, it’s that the most lauded games are those with feature set to keep people glued to their monitors.
In other words… you need more than just the fancy powers to be a hero (or villain). We’ll explore next week some of the other systems DC Universe is packing in its utility belt. Same nerd-time, same nerd-channel.