Rise of the Supermen: Initial Review of DC Universe Online

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DC Universe Online
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Systems it’s available on: PC, PS3
ESRB rating: Teen
System reviewed on: PS3

I, probably like most people who identify as nerds, created my own superhero characters when I was growing up. The notebooks with the story outlines for Nightwolf, Starpulse and the rest of my fictional do-gooders are lost to history and that’s probably for the best. Still, even though only a small slice of people possess the skill to be a writer or artist in the comics field, almost everyone carries around what they think is a great superhero idea.

The beauty, then, of Sony Online Entertainment’s partnership with DC Comics and Warner Bros. is that DC Universe Online not only lets you create your own bespoke hero or villain, it throws them into a world where they can be mentored by the most recognizable superheroes ever. The character creation alone will keep players fiddling for hours. Once you get the capes, colors and physical attributes of your hero down, you can tweak his superness in several different areas. Movement determines how you’ll get around, whether by flight, acrobatics or super-speed. Skills represent physical abilities, things that ordinary folk only on an extraordinary scale, like super-strength or invulnerability. The fun of customization comes from mixing and matching, so you can wind up with Chill Dude, the flying, ice-wielding bowman I created. DCUO offers a clever twist to MMO staples of managing loot and statistics. Loot’s a core part of the typical MMO experience and you’ll collect stuff like a pair of Fourth World wings. If you don’t feel like wearing them because it spoils your avatar’s look, you can equip it, make it invisible, and still benefit from the statistical upgrade the new accoutrements provide.

Your custom superguy starts off as a lone operator and you can either mimic the power set of an already existing DC character or create a tailor-made combination of abilities. Of course, your activities as a crime-fighter (or criminal) will gain the notice of heavy-hitters like Green Lantern or The Joker. As you level-up, you’ll be invited into the Justice League of America as a reserve member, and one of the rewards you’ll get is to hobnob at the big conference room table next to Martian Manhunter or Hawkman. Bad guys get similar touchstones, too, with hyper-connected badguy The Calculator providing entrée into the Secret Society of Super-Villains.

It’s a very satisfying mechanic to build a character and then take him out into action. The gameplay in DCUO comes across as pretty much a giant beat-em-up but that’s oddly fitting for a superhero game. The game’s plot involves a bumper crop of new super-powered humans, spawned by future technology seeded by a time-traveling Lex Luthor. Superman’s archenemy comes to our present trying to prevent Brainiac taking over the planet years from now and you play as one of the newly-enhanced folk. The narrative idea is that all these new powered people will stop Braniac’s onslaught where the already extant metahumans couldn’t. But the plot reason doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact that you’ll feel like you’re in a fun world full of new, weird characters and in the well-established DC Universe at the same time. (More on Time.com: Gaming Tip Sheet: “DC Universe Online”)

Still, the game housing virtual versions of Gotham City and Metropolis isn’t perfect. There’s lots of loading and installing–more than an hour initially, all told it was two hours before I got to play– and I experienced a few hours of server downtime in the game’s first week. I also found myself wishing the socialization tools were better. If there was any in-game compatibility with my PSN friends list, I couldn’t figure it out. And I tried to get into the PvP arenas multiple times to no avail.

But, despite these flaws, I’m judging DCUO on one major metric: the fact that I kept on wanting to come back to it. The areas in DCUO are enormous and the sense of scale plays out in terms of breadth, height and depth. Flying high above the streets, you’ll find as many enemies and collectibles on rooftops as on the ground. Overall, there’s a ton to do in the game even at this early stage and promises of free monthly content updates should make DCUO well worth the $15 monthly subscription charge. Playing the game made me feel like I was growing a new superhero saga. Granted, it wasn’t through words or pictures, but the way that gameplay and customization get purposed as tools of creativity feel just as compelling. To have that momentum of character evolution sit inside the DC Universe is a big, big bonus. Being that DCUO is an MMO, it’s a given that the experience is going to change. With everything I’ve seen so far, I’m going to stick around and grow my legend.

Official Techland Score: 8.9 out of 10

More on Time.com:

Sony To Offer Free Monthly Updates Instead of Paid DLC for DCUO

Ten Video Games for Fighting Holiday Flab

What We’re Looking Forward to in 2011: Video Games