DC Universe Online
This is the life, right? Cruising above Metropolis, cape slapping against the wind, while we scan the horizon for evildoers and crimes against justice. OK, we don't care so much about stopping the nasty people in the world, because let's face it - we can fly. Sure, there have been MMOs in the past that let you take the role of a superhero, zipping across the sky like some sort of human bullet, but DC Universe Online makes the concept of flight feel so much more... super.
Set in a variety of DC Comics related worlds, DC Universe Online is going to be big when it lands later this month. No matter whether you follow the comics or not, everyone knows who Batman is, Superman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, The Joker et al. Yet it isn't so much the fact that you can converse with this comic book greats that really makes DCUO so magical - it's more that you are creating your own, brand new character who exists in this world, and can evolve to be as great as any of these legends. The idea that you could be the next Superman is (perhaps embarrassing) exciting.
The plot behind DC Universe Online provides a rather fantastic opening cutscene. With the ruins of Metropolis as a backdrop, each of the DC Comics heroes is killed off in spectacular fashion, with Lex Luthor finally ending Superman for good. Moments later, Brainiac's warships come swooping down to claim the territory, and Luthor realises he has been tricked. Using power from Brainiac's ship, he is able to go back in time, and release a series of 'exobytes' into the atmosphere.
For us non-DC people, exobytes are basically devices that project enormous energy into any individual, turning hundreds of normal civilians into potential superheroes. Luthor hopes that, by creating a world full of superheroes, Brainiac's plans will be thwarted, and Luthor can go back to being the big cheese.
This is where you come in, as you are indeed one of these manmade superheroes. Now, usually when we're presented with a 'create your own character' screen, we'll start off slightly interested, add a few features to make it look like ourselves, then quickly get bored and start choosing any old eyebrows and shoe brand. Not so with DCUO - envisioning yourself as a superhero is far more interesting, especially with all the options available here. From your abilities to your special gear, you'll spend far too much time tweaking your character to exactly what you think a superhero should be.
Do not underestimate how long you will sit, staring at the character creation screen. From the looks of your super-strength protagonist to the personality they will portray to their people, everything feels so important, and you'll most likely put more thought into this than you have ever done in another game. With so many different skins, costumes, colours, weapons and powers to choose from, it'll be quite a while before you even get into the actual gameplay.
There are also plenty of decisions to make that will affect the course of the game. Are you a hero, or are you a villain? Depending on which you choose, you'll have a whole different storyline and set of missions to achieve - plus, your mentor will change. Heroes can pick from Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman, while villains have got Lex Luthor, The Joker or Circe. Whoever you choose will be on your ass the entire game with missions and other activities, so it's worth having a good think about it.
Into the game, then. We chose Superman, because Batman's a bit of a dick, and Wonder Woman doesn't have her own re-envisioned next generation movie yet, so why would we take orders from small fry like her? Finding ourselves in the heart of Metropolis, the man of Super immediately sends us out to tackle some badness, while he chills in the HQ. The HQ acts as a central hub, where you can pick up missions, buy upgrades and talk to other superheroes and meet up with friends.
Stepping out into Metropolis, our first thought is 'wow, this place is dead'. Don't get us wrong - there are plenty of players jumping and flying around the place, but in terms of a bustling metropolitan city, this ain't one. There are barely any civilians walking about, and it really does feel like a ghost-town. No time to think about that, however, as Superman calls in to let us know that there is trouble down on the beachfront.
There's only one real way to make our way to a mission, and that's by air. Leaving the ground and zooming through the sky to your destination is far too cool, allowing you to watch the action from other players below. Annoyingly, as you begin to move away from other players, the animations on both them and bad guys are cut back and look very jolted and silly. There must be some technical reason why the developers have chosen to make this happen, but it really looks completely wrong. Best to get to the action as quickly as possible then.
At this point, DC Universe Online becomes yet another MMO. Kill 10 of these things! Destroy 5 of those! Now kill 10 of these, AND destroy 5 of those! It's all very generic, but at least you're doing it in a cape. You ARE doing it in a cape, right? It doesn't help that, with so many other players doing the same thing as you, you'll be killing a baddie, and suddenly someone else will pop over and steal your kill, meaning you have to spend even more time killing these things than you would normally.
Movement on the ground feels incredibly slow too, and we found ourselves simply sticking to the sky for as long as we could. There's no need to worry too much about health either - we found that we barely ever came close to death, and could easily plough through enemy after enemy without a care. In terms of unique feel, DC Universe Online does nothing to set itself apart from every other kill-a-thon MMO you've played in the past.
And yet... that's Superman giving you the orders. There's something very right about being a DC Comics superhero, rather than some generic, spandex-wearing fighter, and this is where Sony will pick up the attention. DC Universe Online may not feature anything new in the gameplay department, but when you've got the likes of Batman or Lex Luthor egging you on, it's difficult not to fall in line. When DC Universe Online launches on January 11th in the US (14th for the UK), comic enthusiasts and MMO veterans alike will join forces, and the result will be something magnificent.