Thursday, January 6, 2011

I was a DCU Online MMORPG Beta-Tester (and it was awesome)

For years and years, DC Comics and Sony Online Entertainment have been working to build a Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game.  I think I first heard about the game circa 2006, and its been a moving target for me to try to synch up buying a new computer and figuring out what the system requirements would be for the game.

At any rate, just about the time I got the computer I'm currently using, I received an email informing me that the beta-program I'd signed up for was including me in their beta-test group.  Ie:  I would get to play the DCU Online game for free for a while and submit feedback.

I also had to sign an NDA.  Basically, nobody wanted me complaining online about issues the game would no longer have by release day.  And, I assume, they didn't want me talking too much about the storylines, etc...

I'll try not to spoil the game too much, but I will share the storyline that sets things in motion:

In the not too distant future of the DCU, the heroes and villains are locked in an epic, final battle.

oh, wait.  DC made an amazing video opening for the game that sets it all up:

If you didn't just watch the above video... I cannot help you.

Anyway, future-Luthor has returned to the past to release exobytes, a sort of nanotechnology which give an extraordinary number of people superpowers in the hopes that when Brainiac attacks, the Earth can repel the assault.

You get to design your character from a large menu of choices, including:

  • Hero or Villain
  • Mentor (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Luthor, Joker, Circe)
  • Powers
  • Weapon/ Attack
  • Costume (body type, "skins", hair, costume parts, colors, etc...)
  • Movement type (Acrobatics, Superspeed, Flight)
And likely other stuff I'm not thinking of.

My only real point of comparison is City of Heroes, which I played for a while circa 2004 or 2005.  I am not a gamer, and I assume that's part of the attraction of a DC Comics-based MMORPG for Sony Online.  Its almost impossible for me to envision wanting to play other games, but to at least try the DC game?  I had to.

The gameplay is actually easier than I first believed, and I assume for PS3 Players and folks not on a laptop, it will be even smoother.  I don't know what I liked better about the controls than CoH, but it did seem like I was hunting and pecking a lot less on the keyboard and fights were dictated far less about button mashing and more about good allocation of energy points, etc... (which you burn up when at different rates when you use different powers).

Movement takes only a short time to master, and unlike CoH, you start off with one of three movement types that makes getting around the absolutely enormous cityscapes a blast all on its own.  Its a lot of fun to walk out of the police stations and jump up the wall like Nightwing or lift into the air like Superman (especially if you gave your character a cape).

Character Design screen

All that is great, but to some degree, City of Heroes obviously went into that territory to one degree or another.  What makes the game fun for someone like myself is that it is EXACTLY the DCU.  All players start off on one of Brainiac's ships, having just escaped imprisonment.  You fight your way off the ship, learning how to use your powers, etc...  thanks to clues on the screen and instructions from either Oracle (if you're a good guy) or The Calculator (if you're a bad guy).  And the team-up factor so common to DC Comics is high.  Before you finish even that first level, you team up with either Superman or Luthor.  And that is awesome. 

My first post-escape mission for Cosmic Kid (the character I was playing with whom I got the farthest) was to deal with an invasion was to take on an invading Gorilla Army sent by Gorilla Grodd.

I mean:  how much more DC Comics can you get than "Grodd's invading forces need taking down" and then slugging it out with laser-toting gorillas and picking up "Incredibly Advanced Gorilla Technology" items as your loot?

Again, the city scapes are both amazing and dead-on to the spirit of the homes of Superman and Batman.  Metropolis is all shiny skyscrapers, and Gotham towering deco buildings with jutting gargoyles you can trod out upon and gaze down upon the city.  And the cities are both HUGE.  Its odd that you basically do learn the fake geography of an imaginary city a bit, as both are bigger than the city I currently live in. They have specific neighborhoods, amazing locations, etc... all which you can get an audio tour of, guided by the voice of Booster Gold.

You can also move around the JLA Satellite, which must have been a blast to design for somebody.

Speaking of voices:  The producers landed Mark Hamill for The Joker, Kevin Conroy as Batman, and other familiar voices for the other main characters (I think it must be Gina Torres voicing Wonder Woman, and it is perfect casting).  Its a huge kick to take marching orders from Batman as voiced by Conroy, and gives a sense of "authenticity" to the game that you were never going to get from City of Heroes.  

Most play takes place within missions (very DC-centric missions, at that).  Take on HIVE as they infiltrate the local sports stadium.  Fight Poison Ivy and her walking plant minions.  Lots of stuff like that, and all consistent in tone.  You can move between Gotham and Metropolis more or less at will depending on what missions are thrown your way.

Things I didn't like (some come with the caveat that this may be different in production versus beta):

Obviously there's a lot of people out there with (a) far more time on their hands than what I've got, who were dozens of levels above me, and (b) people starting with lots more experience in MMORPGs who seem to have a natural advantage starting.

from a "Magic" mission with Raven, Dr. Fate and Zatanna

I felt the costume selection was a bit limited in some respects, and certainly would have liked greater flexibility over body and face type.  City of Heroes had an amazingly powerful tool for this sort of character design, and it seems odd that DC, years later, is less flexible.  While I like Jim Lee's art as much as the next guy, you should be able to pick more than "child", "he-man" and "'roid-freak" for body types.  And not all women are a size "Power Girl".

During the last weeks of play, it seemed that it felt a bit less pointless to just fly around your respective city environment and "patrol". But it was odd that there was so little interaction with normal humanity.

In some ways, the game is a reflection and commentary upon the state of superhero comics.  Your character in the beta didn't have a civilian identity at all.  There was no moving back and forth, and while I understand nobody wants a superhero game where you switch to The Sims for part of your gametime, seeing the DCU only as a place where you look for brightly costumed people to smack around is likewise a bit too close to a self-referential comment upon what's demanded of and written into superhero narratives most weeks for my tastes.  While humanity does appear, its mostly as victims and screaming masses.  The same sorts of prop humans that appear in backgrounds of the average superhero comic, but to whom the characters in comics and game are in no real way, tied.

All that said, I had a great time beta-testing.  And even a good time seeing stuff I submitted turn into patches (a sure sign I was not alone in some of my issues).  I built an affinity for ol' Cosmic Kid (have a list of names ready to go when you finish character generation.  I did not), and I'm sad that it seems he's gone with the wind now that the beta test is over.

As you gain more powers as you progress, I grew to really like how the powers did seem to come from the comics.  One favorite thing I would do was use a sort of "flight tornado" to surround bad guys and bump them around until they got "knocked out".  While I know its just a game, somehow it felt more heroic to do that than to, say, hit citizens who'd been turned bad with magic or whatever, with a nuclear blast.

The bad guy missions, by the way, are hilariously evil.  And the game's voice overs go out of their way to make you want to do awful things to civilians.  Sure, you're turning co-eds into little purple monsters, but they're so annoying, they deserve it, right?

DC is launching a tie-in comic with the game, which I'll be reading.  And I guess they're putting out other merchandise, too.  The monthly fee and comic are plenty for me, thanks.

If anyone else plans to play, let me know!  Maybe we can have a superhero team-up!

Oh, and because you will ask:

  • You can't play your main character as an existing DCU Character, but you can play little arena matches as major characters.  I was Batman.  It was neat.
  • You can design characters based on existing DCU characters.  They provide optional templatized character designs to start off with.
  • In the beta, I never reached a point where I figured out how to wear a Superman shield.  Maybe in the regular game.  I've seen characters with the "S" in promotional images.
  • You do team-up with major characters at the conclusion of seemingly every major adventure.  At one point, I teamed up with all the Titans, which was neat.  
  • Yes, superfast people run straight up walls.  
  • The game is surprisingly good at not punishing you for falling off of things. 
  • Zatanna is in the game a lot, and her backwards dialog is a reversed WAV file, but it works
  • The game was funnier when they just had placeholder audio put there by programmers.  Nothing like hearing a programmer not-even-trying as Hawkman and sounding like he's at the bottom of a well
  • The Lanterns are treated like special snowflakes in the game, and I could never quite figure out what was going on with them.  
  • Power effects are varied and neat


J.S. said...

Sounds pretty cool. I usually don't play a lot of online games, but maybe I'll give it a whirl.

Simon MacDonald said...

Why is this game not available for the Mac!

The League said...

No idea, but I think its very odd its for Windows PCs and not the X-Box.