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Hands-On Preview

Dana Massey Posted:
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DC Universe Hands On Preview

Former MMORPG.com Editor Dana Massey pens this hands on preview report from his recent trip to SOE Austin where they are making DC Universe

MMOs are supposed to be about escapism. The good ones allow players to forget their troubles and just enjoy some time in a land that is equal parts video game and imagination. Yet, as MMOs evolved and became more complex, this simplistic joy was filed down. Escapism isn’t about robust character creation or talking in Old English. It’s when players are allowed to enjoy a world in their own way.

If an early version of DC Universe Online represents what is to come, then this is something SOE has definitely gotten out of the way and let players enjoy themselves. Recently, they were kind enough to show me the game at SOE’s Austin studio. It is early and clearly there are miles to go before this is a full game, but the core experience is already there. Characters can run around at sonic speeds, beat the crap out of each other and take part in some archetypical missions. SOE definitely understood that less can be more and through some simple, but important design decisions, have created a game where players will truly be able to lose themselves.

“Let’s start at the end and skip to the front!”

Most games seem to be developed in chronological order. First, they do a starting area, then character creation, then world creation and quests. Perhaps I’ve oversimplified, but simply put many are developed in the same order the end-user experienced it. It’s no coincidence that every game seems to have to redo the new user experience just after launch.

SOE appears to have thrown that concept out the window. In its current state, DC Universe completely lacks many of the elements that will eventually make it a game. For example, most of their plans for character creation – a hallmark of superhero MMOs - were not in the version I tried. I just picked a guy who looked cool and went with it.

The game world itself is also very complete, despite the early stage of development. There are cars, pedestrians and the landmarks you’d expect in the absolutely enormous Metropolis city zone, but it doesn’t exactly burst with quests yet.

SOE is not the first to take this layered approach to development, though. Blizzard did much the same with World of Warcraft. First they built a beautiful world, and then they filled it with content. After years of WoW clones, it’s refreshing to see a company mimic the behind the scenes stuff in the pursuit of a new, and very different, type of game.

Once in the world, characters played like mid to high level ones eventually will. My guy could run at super speeds, climb walls and suspend upside down if he kept moving. Other characters I tried could fly or leap around from wall to wall in an acrobatic style.

In my first mission, I fought Doomsday. Odds are, no one is going to try that at level one! In general, SOE intends to have players “start at 11,” but so far, they’ve polished a higher level experience.

To me, that is a good thing. They’ve focused on a few core things that all boil down to one central premise: they’re polishing a fun user experience. Quests may change from day to day, but at a certain level, players still must fight those bad guys from their own point of view, which can only vary so much.

So before they churn out a million quests, they took the time to really get those moments right.

“Creativity is about more than nose sliders!”

Every new generation of MMO boasts more feats, skills and options. Unfortunately, while it takes the designers a lot of time to come up with all the different ways for two characters to brain each other, these abilities can confine the player’s imagination.

DC Universe Online has feats and abilities, just like every other game, but with an added wrinkle. Physics.

It’s simple. All sorts of logical world elements can be picked up and hurled at enemies. When someone picks up a car and tosses it at a group of cops, it’s not about die rolls and resists. It’s about aim and lucky bounces. Aim well, and that car can take out a whole group of unlucky officers or bank robbers. Throw it too high and it might bounce harmlessly down the road.

The beauty of this system is that it has limitless possibilities. There are literally no limits on what can happen. It makes each fight a little bit different.

Senior Producer Wes Yanagi called this “unplanned emergent behavior.” Technically, that’s accurate, but I greatly prefer “cool stuff I didn’t see coming.”

Yanagi recently was involved in a melee where his aim wasn’t true and missed the guy he’d thrown it at entirely. At first, he was annoyed, but then it ricocheted off a wall and into the hands of one of his companions who immediately used it to beat the guy he was fighting into a blood pulp.

Even in my limited hands-on time, I saw this in action. While locked in an epic PvP duel with SOE PR man Matt Slagle, he thought he’d be clever and rip a chunk of rock out of the earth and bash me with it. “Not so fast,” I said (well, I didn’t but I should have!) as I smacked him around until he dropped his rock.

Next thing he knew, I had grabbed that stone he had just ripped out of the ground and beat him into submission. Victory newbie!

It’s a huge cliché, but in this case, less really is more. I fought Matt using a PS3 controller, which limited my access to only a few abilities at a time. Yet, with that small toolbox, I had more pure fun in an MMO than I’d had in a very long time. I for one am sick of games that make me open fifteen hotbars in order to be competitive.

“Superman’s got stuff to do too, you know!”

Don’t expect to log into DC Universe Online and see Superman with a yellow exclamation point over his head. That’s not how it works.

The license concerned me as I walked into the Austin studio. How do you integrate such epic and timeless characters into a world without overwhelming the user’s personal story? It seemed a near on impossible task to tackle, but luckily, SOE had a few ideas on that front.

First, when it comes to quests, it’s all in the delivery. In Grand Theft Auto, players get phone calls and text messages for the next adventure. Yet, in MMOs, there is always that absurd collection of quests from motionless automatons and skipped chat spew.

SOE eliminated that for the most part with a kind of dispatch system. Superman has crime to fight himself, and apparently wireless communication has been invented. So, if Superman needs your help, he just fires off a message. At the bottom of the screen, the contact’s face appears along with the details of what’s going on.

As characters progress, how they react to these messages from the whose who of the DC Universe is a kind of mini-game unto itself. Too busy to go help Batman? He might be a little pissy with you the next time he calls. It’s not precisely faction – odds are Batman won’t ever put you on his do not call list – but it does pay to jump when someone with his own product line gives you a shout.

Once on a quest, the big names of DC will be there and involved, but the player still dictates the outcome.

For example, in the quest SOE threw me into, I was called to aid in a disturbance at Star Labs (I was a villain). Once there, I found a fight under way and had to take out a few security types. While on the surface, this was indeed a kill mission, there was a pretty big ripple… but more on that later. Once completed, I got inside and found that all hell had broken loose.

Doomsday was on the loose and Lex Luthor was there fighting him. Strictly speaking, if I left Lex and his minions alone, Doomsday would eventually overcome them and escape. With my help, though, we were able to knock Superman’s killer down and get him bundled back into stasis before he could do any more harm.

A lot of DC’s missions work much like this. There is an iconic hero or villain there with something to do and he needs the player’s help to pull it off. It is a pretty simple – there I go repeating myself again – but effective way to incorporate the big guns without ruining the fun for everyone else.

“Full. Competitive. Player vs. Player”

Remember that ripple in my quest? Well it’s a pretty big one. Huge chunks of the world are completely open for full, competitive PvP. It’s something like Public Quests in Warhammer Online. Both sides can take part in what on the surface seems like a pretty straight forward task, but only one can succeed. Their quests are mutually exclusive.

Strictly speaking, PvP isn’t always necessary to win. In my case, all the superhero or villain had to do is kill the allotted number of baddies to lock it down as their own, but as we all know, to escape a bear, all you need to do is outrun your friend. DC is no different. Sometimes it’s just easier to kill the villains and then complete the task.

Large swaths of Metropolis and Gotham City (which I did not get to see) are open to PvP. Largely, this is area or situation based. Heroes generally need cause to beat the crap out of random villains and vice versa.

Still, the game is organized into the two obvious factions: good guys and bad guys. And a huge chunk of the content is based around PvP combat. Given that the game offers such a fast action, visceral combat experience, it only makes sense to up the ante that way.

“So, umm, how does it work?”

Under the hood, players build their superhero in a very logical way.

First, they pick what kind of power they want to wield. Will Sir Kills A Lot’s primary ability be martial arts, brute strength, the force of light or something else entirely?

Second is the focus for that super power. It can come from a sword, the character’s eyes, hands, etc.

Third, every superhero needs some kind of super transport. At this stage, they had flight, acrobatics and super speed to choose from.

Fourth comes the character’s super ability or trait. Is he super strong or just really good at getting out of the way of flying trucks?

Again, there is elegance to this simplicity. From these four choices, people can create basically any superhero. Think about it. Green Lantern would be light power focused on a ring with the ability to fly and the use of will power, while Batman would be a specialist (gadgets) who used his hands and feet (melee), acrobatics to get around and is focused on damage.

No doubt fully aware of this, SOE also plans an “inspired by” feature that lets people quickly model their own unique superhero on whoever their favorite is.

Obviously, there are some exceptions. Superman, for example, would require like fifteen different focuses and superpowers to replicate in full, but well… he’s been annoying or exhilarating comic book fans with his sheer ability to do anything for generations, so being the exception to the rule is nothing new there, eh?

Over time, the abilities selected upon creation will evolve. For example, a character may begin with super speed, but eventually if they choose to pursue it, a speedster can earn the ability to run so fast he passes right through a wall.

“Skills are like golf clubs.”

That header, at least, is a direct quote. In DC, players don’t pick a class and run with it. There are offensive, defensive and support abilities which players can earn and unlock as they gain more experience. There is no limit on which abilities players can buy. One super hero could theoretically pursue all three trees.

The catch is that they cannot use them all at once. They’re like golf clubs after all!

Sick of waiting for a healer? Then a player with those skills could choose to pull out those healer abilities for one mission, then swap back to a damage DPS role for another.

If they stick with this vision, it doesn’t sound like DC is going to force characters to start over once they’ve grown bored of a specific style. Unlike traditional MMOs, superhero games generally don’t have that problem anyway. Players will create new heroes and villains just for the wrapping.

“Yeah, so blowing stuff up is fun, but will this sucker hold up over time?”

It’s far too soon to tell if SOE can pull off long term stickiness with DC Universe Online. Lots of games are fun for an hour or two, but it takes a special breed of narcotic to keep people paying a subscription fee for years on end.

With this title, SOE firmly believes that wherever possible they should produce the content before they brag about it. So, it’s safe to bet that there are a lot more features that they have not so much as hinted at, yet.

As fans of Dark Age of Camelot can attest, there is a certain stickiness to competitive PvP as well.

They have a lot left to accomplish to really make this more than just a novel action game, but if they stick do in fact take the time to really finish the game, as SOE President John Smedley insists his company will here on out, the Austin team should have the leeway they need to really finish the game.

What I do know is that they’ve worked very hard on a beautiful world and a fun core experience. That puts them nine miles a head of the game and if they can pull off the rest of the content with the same skill as they have so far, DC Universe Online will definitely be one of the most solid MMOs of the next few years.


Dana Massey