I’m not sure what the interest in this title is on Destructoid, but I was curious enough to sign up for the Beta. Lo and behold, I got accepted and have been playing the closed Beta for a couple of weeks now. Previously an NDA was in place, but I recently saw this on the Beta forums:
We’ve played together in DCUO’s closed Beta for months. We’ve posted back and forth, voted Up or Down, and shared this new universe together. Now, it’s time to take a step closer towards launch.
Thank you all for your play and feedback. We appreciate that despite the challenges presented by a game in Beta, your feedback in these forums has continued to help us understand the game from a player’s point of view. Your thoughts, critiques, opinions, and suggestions have given us a wealth of perspective to draw from. DCUO is a far better game today because of your efforts.
Today, December 6, 2010, the NDA will be dropped across the game. Our conversations, and our game, will be shared with the world. So keep playing, keep posting, and keep talking about DCUO.
You’ve helped us make a good game great. Let’s keep that going as we finish out Beta.
So, there you have it. No Non-Disclosure Agreement = Yes Preview.
It goes without saying that as a closed Beta, the version of the game I have been playing does not necessarily represent the final product. There were a number of bugs and balance issues that I’m sure will be ironed out by the time the final product roles around.
However, since we never heard back from Conrad’s villain, “Steve”, I thought I’d give my two cents to the community in case anybody is planning on picking it up when it releases Q1 2011 (whenever that is…).
Lastly, all impressions are taken from the PC version.
Really lastly, this is LONG. Fair warning…
Conrad already did an excellent job of outlining the character creation process as it currently stands, but if you’re still reading this then you’re probably curious about my take.
Character creation begins by selecting Male or Female. The game goes out of its way to remind you that this has no impact on gameplay. Next, you select Body Type. While having a choice at all is a step up from WoW’s singular barrel-chested design, the types don’t quite represent the full spectrum of DC characters that some fans may be expecting. Your choices are basically: tiny, medium, and large. However, all male models are pretty ripped and all female models sport an extremely full bust. While this might not mean much to some, players hoping to model their hero on some of the more lithe characters (your Robins, non-Power Girls, etc) may be a bit disappointed.
Next you get to choose whether you’re a Hero or a Villain (this affects some quests) and who you will be mentored by. The Heroes can choose from Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. The Villains get Lex Luthor, The Joker, and Circe. Each represent a different type of Powered Individual. Lex and Supes represent Meta-Humans, Batman and Joker get the Tech Guys, and WW and Circe roll with the Magic users. What does the selection of your Mentor mean for your gameplay experience? As of the closed Beta: Nothing, except for your starter mission and your final mission (about an hour of gameplay, total). All other missions, bounties, and instances can be accessed by other Heroes (or Villains, if you roll that way).
Finally, the fun part: Power Selection. As of now, there are 8 power types: Fire, Ice, Mental, Gadget, Sorcery, and Nature. The types are divided into roughly 3 categories: Defense (Fire and Ice), Control (Mental and Gadgets), and Healing (Sorcery and Nature). (More on that later) After selecting a power, you get to choose your weapon/combat style. If I remember correctly, you can choose from the following: Dual Pistols, Bow, Rifle, Hand-Blasters (Gloves that fire off concussive energy!), Brawling, Martial Arts, One-Handed, Two-Handed, and Staff. As Conrad mentioned, all weapons (technically) have melee and ranged capabilities. However, the merits of throwing your giant hammer at bad guys or pistol whipping enemies into submission are questionable. Though it is entirely possible that I am leaving one weapon out, I’m pretty sure that covers it.
Let’s not forget mode of transportation. You can select from Super Speed, Flight, and Acrobatics. As someone who’s tried all three, I can tell you that Flight is the way to go. While Super Speed will get you around faster, it also makes you scale every surface in the game…every surface in the game (even ones you don’t want it to). Acrobatics functions similarly and I can tell you that in the heat of battle or in the middle of a race (yes, there are races), the last thing you want is to accidentally run/climb up a wall or get caught on a street light (that happens a lot) when you don’t mean to.
Last, but not least, you get to select your look. You can choose to be “inspired by” a better known hero or go custom (which is obviously cooler). There are some surprising options in there. You can change your skin “type”. Want metal skin? Done. Want to be a Furry (I was surprised too) with ears and a tail to match? Your covered. You can also change hairstyles, though the current system for this is quite cumbersome. Instead of just cycling through hair options and facial hair options, there is (CURRENTLY) a long list of styles that have been “named” (e.g. The Bakerline, The Detective, etc). The names have no rhyme or reason, so you basically are left clicking on every single name hoping to find a “look” that you like. This is currently the weakest link of character creation. You can also pick several different clothing styles and choose custom colors for your gear or go with a palette that stays consistent for the rest of the game. As of now, once you’ve picked your color palette, you’re stuck with it. The options for your actual clothing seem a bit lacking at first, but you get the opportunity (and are encouraged) to change your look while progressing. All pieces of loot throughout the game have statistical and style attributes. You can elect to keep your current look or adopt a new style for that particular part of your costume (though you always have the option to go back to any previously collected style in your menu).
Once you’ve named your super person, you’re done. If you’re curious, my first hero was a Medium-build Dude with Mental Powers and Hand-Blasters. Went by the name of Gordian. They say he can tie a man’s brain into an unsolvable knot with his mysterious telepathy!!!
So, you’ve made your hulking villain that can control plants and follows the Joker’s every whim. Now what? Well, gameplay is what.
I will go ahead and say that the gameplay of DCUO is generally pretty fun. I’ve played a bit of WoW in my day and as someone who always got tired of watching my character auto-attack enemies, it’s nice to get into an MMO where you feel like you’re the one who’s dishing out the damage. All of the combat is real time and most of the powers have pretty short cooldown times so you can fire them off pretty quickly. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll try to talk about gameplay in appropriate segments but forgive me if things overlap. Let’s start with Combat.
On a PC, all of your punching, kicking, and shooting is done with your mouse. Left click for your close range/light attack, and right click for your long range/heavy attack. As you progress and unlock Achievements (called Feats) you get “Skill Points”. These go into your Weapon and Movement trees. Investing in your Weapon tree unlocks combat combos. Click three times with the left mouse button or maybe charge up a big attack by holding down the right mouse button. That kind of stuff. The trees are all very Diablo/WoW-esque except that you can’t invest multiple points into a combo (or Power, for that matter) to make it any more effective. Once you’ve purchased it, that’s it. Having only played (to the endgame cap) with a Hand-Blaster and a Two-Hander, I can say that both weapon styles had certain combos that were incredibly useful and some that were incredibly useless. They can also be a bit tricky to pull off at first, but they’re usually pretty quick to master. Again, combat is one of the strengths (in my opinion) of the game. You get this really visceral feeling when you’re smacking people around.
As far as using your powers go, you have two “Energy” bars that govern your power usage. One is your basic blue Mana bar that depletes as you use powers and (conveniently) replenishes as you dish out damage with your weapons. The other “Energy” bar is an Overdrive style of bar. As you take and dish out damage it slowly fills. As you progress, you can unlock a few especially powerful…powers…that deplete either 25, 50, or 100 percent of this bar. Most of this stuff should seem pretty familiar to most action-RPG/MMO players. My (and many player’s) one MAJOR gripe with using powers, though, is the lack of hotbars/hotbar space. Unlike many other MMO’s, in DCUO you have ONE hotbar. That’s it. On this hotbar are only six slots for one power each, one spot for a consumable (there are two varieties, health and mana), and one spot for Trinket activation (items that supposedly boost your stats when activated). This is done, I suppose, intentionally to make you think really carefully about what powers you invest in and which ones of those you want to use regularly. DCUO puts a system into place, however, that theoretically softens this blow.
Try to stay with me here – Your hero has different “roles” that they can activate while running around town. These relate back to your Power selection. All heroes, regardless of power type, start off in the “Damage” (i.e. DPS) role that stays active until they hit level 10. Upon hitting level 10, you gain access to your power’s “true role”. By hitting ‘T’ you can switch roles on the fly. As a Mental user for example, you can press ‘T’ to switch to your Controller role (remember the 3 categories of Power type?). While the stat changes seem to be nominal (if any), the main draw (as far as I can tell) of switching roles is having access to that role’s own unique hotbar. This way, you can customize the “Loadouts” of your different roles. While your Hero might like a lot of DPS spells for his Damage role he employs while soloing, when you’re grouping (which is rare) and you need to be a good team member it’s nice to be able to switch on the fly to your Control/Defense/Healing role so you can access your group oriented spells. While an interesting idea on paper, going into your menu to alter your customized hotbars can be a real pain and many players find it limiting to have the majority of their powers sitting unused in their menu.
Lastly for this section, character death. When you die, you respawn in a safe zone (not as a ghost) and you take a hit to your gear’s durability. If you’re in a dungeon or instance, you respawn at the beginning with all enemies that were dead, still dead. That’s it.
This is, like many MMO’s, what you will spend most of your time doing in DCUO. However, I have good or bad news (depending on your perspective). As of now, this aspect of the game is VERY short. I have had the closed Beta for about two weeks now. Within the first week, I quickly and easily hit the endgame level cap (level 30) while leading a normal life that involved eating, sleeping, and spending time with my family (while I was visiting the folks for Turkey Day). I’m talking about an hour or so in the morning or maybe 45 minutes before going to bed some nights (about 10 hours all told, if I remember correctly). Putting all of this aside, let’s talk a little bit about your average quest structure.
As I said before, with the exception of your first and last quests, all heroes/villains will (as of now) be doing the same quests as all other heroes/villains. All characters (regardless of morality) also have the same tutorial mission. The general structure involves meeting with a Hero/Villain that begins the chain. After heading to the first zone, you’ll be tasked with offing X number of enemies, or activating Y number of “crates/nodes/generators/etc”. You’ll head to a new zone and do the same, then one more time, and then, finally, the cool part. The cool part at the end of each quest involves a solo-instanced dungeon that culminates in a boss fight against an iconic hero/villain. They usually feel semi-epic, sometimes involve help or resistance from another iconic hero/villain, and afterwards you’re always treated to a cool little motion comic about one of the major players of that quest. One pretty cool aspect about quests is that they are all fully voiced (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles for fans of Batman) and feature auto tracking for all of your little objectives. An average quest takes about 30 minutes start to finish. All in all, I played through about a dozen quests for my character before I had hit level 30 and only had one quest left (the climactic finale involving my mentor).
Most of the quests feature neat little stories that should appeal to fans of the DC Universe but probably won’t mean much to people unfamiliar with some of the lore. Though none of the stories told are especially epic, moving, or badass, they’re all relatively engaging enough to keep you interested in seeing them through. It should also be said that players expecting to spend a lot of time questing with friends will find that they have little reason to. The bulk of DCUO, by design, can easily be (and really should be) completed on your own. Grouping and Raiding doesn’t truly exist until the end of the game.
In addition to your basic quests, you also have a few other ways to gain XP and see the world. One such feature is Racing. Each Movement type features a corresponding series of Races throughout both Gotham and Metropolis (currently the only two cities in the game). Your reward for achieving a Platinum time after running/flying through all of the scattered checkpoints is a new style type (Remember those? They let you change how pieces of your costume look…) for your collection and some XP (not that you’ll need it). You can also go on kiosk-guided tours of neighborhoods in both Gotham and Metropolis that are narrated by Booster Gold. They count as actual quests with XP and loot rewards, though the poor quality of both the writing for Booster’s narration and the rewards will quickly put you back on the trail of your major quests. Though if you ever feel like seeing the sights, there are a ton of kiosks around both cities for you to check out. There are also bounties that get posted as you increase in level. These rogues/heroes are usually just wandering around in the open environments waiting to kill low-level players that don’t know what they’re doing or be killed by a small team of appropriately leveled players that do. The rewards (both loot and XP) make these worth doing when convenient. There are about a dozen of these, total.
Lastly there is the weird, ugly duckling of questing, “Investigations”. Hidden throughout the overworld, instances, and dungeons are small green, blue, and yellow icons (in the form of exclamation points and question marks). You can see one in one of the images above. These are investigation points. When you “Investigate” (hold down the ‘E’ key near) one, you “add it to your collection”. Different points belong to a series of different “Investigation Collections”. Each different collection is usually related in some way to the quest you are on. So what ACTUALLY happens when you “investigate” one of these often well-hidden points? A small text box appears saying something along the lines of “Investigation: The Legacy of Krypton: Episode 1: Lois Lane. 1 of 6”. What does any of that actually mean? Your guess is as good as mine. The points seem to be related by proximity, meaning that the other 5 Legacy of Krypton: Episode 1 investigation points are somewhere nearby (or will be in another zone dedicated to the quest you’re on). Your reward for going crazy trying to find all of these little icons (most of which seem to be arbitrarily placed) is…another style type for your costume and (if you keep doing them) some achievement points down the line. I think they were going for a Riddler Challenge type of thing from Arkham Asylum but as someone who loved that aspect of AA, I can tell you that they missed the mark by the wide-side of a barn. Maybe they’ll add some more features that justify (or explain) their existence (like unlocking comic covers or concept art), but as it currently stands, they have no purpose except to frustrate completionists, there’s no system in place to help you find them, and they are only ever barely tangentially related to what you are doing.
So what happens when you get enough XP to level up? Well, you do a cool little animation where you flex, your health and mana are fully restored, and you get either a Power Point or a Skill Point to spend on your Power or Weapon/Movement trees accordingly. Power Points can be invested in one of two Power Trees that (currently) aren’t very well defined. For example my Mental Hero could invest in a Telepathic and/or Illusionary Tree of Powers. Both, for example, had a power that stunned an enemy and set him on fire for a certain amount of damage. The only difference was that in the descriptions, I was able to discern that one power ACTUALLY set the enemy on fire and the other one just made the enemy THINK he was on fire. In terms of gameplay, however, there was little difference. There is also a special, separate Iconic Tree of Powers that you have access to at higher levels. You would think that these would be very costly and demonstrate great power (like the heroes that they are inspired by). You would be wrong. Most iconic powers (X-Ray Vision, Shazam Lightning Bolt, Lasso of Truth, etc) are often underpowered but flashier versions of normal powers that cost the same number of skill points. Many Beta testers agreed that they were more of a tease than anything else (I can call down a Shazam lightning bolt but it barely does any damage???) and needed their strength/balance addressed. As for Movement skills (since I kind of went over Weapon skills earlier), there are a few Passive skills that you can invest in to increase your movement speed and increase your stun resistance that I found useful. There are, however, other movement skills that require activation and I never thought it would be worth one of my valuable hotbar slots to house it when that slot could go to a legitimate “Power”. That’s about the long and short end of leveling up in DCUO.
-Dungeons, Raids, PVP, and End-Game Content
While progressing, you gain access to various dungeons in the DC Universe (not to be confused with end-of-mission instances). These are the same (as are the quests within) for heroes and villains. One feature that I quite liked was that these dungeons don’t actually exist within the game world. If you want to go to the Smallville instance towards the end of the game, for example, you don’t have to spend fifteen minutes flying there. You simply go to your PVP/Instance menu, activate the queue for that instance and wait till you get in. The game, currently, is balanced so that most dungeons (of the 6 or so currently available in “Classic” DCUO) are easily finished with a full party of four (sometimes even just 3). The layout of dungeons mimics the quests you’ll do in the overworld. They are usually large, open-air environments where you go from one zone to the next (as directed by either Martian Manhunter or Talia Al-Ghul over your communicator) and kill X number of enemies, activate Y number of “crates/barrels/panels”, go to a new area and rinse and repeat, and then finally head to the final boss encounter. I’ll go ahead and say that I found most of the final boss encounters in these dungeons to be a bit disappointing story-wise (with one exception that I won’t spoil). They mostly feature more obscure villains while your average quests will pit you against much more recognizable characters. In terms of gameplay, the bosses were usually slightly challenging and rarely frustrating. Your average dungeon takes about 30-45 minutes to get through depending on team size and level. Dungeons also supposedly feature Hard modes that should up the challenge.
After the level 30 cap, you unlock “the endgame”. The endgame currently consists of an impressive number of full-on raids that usually require a dozen heroes/villains to get through and the unlocking of Duo mode. I’ve only done a few of the raids but they seem to function (unsurprisingly) as larger, harder dungeons. The loot drops seem to be arbitrarily awarded to a few players, but they’re often not much better than what you have anyway so it’s not a big deal if you miss out on a few. The raids do seem to feature slightly more impressive story content than your average dungeon but as I haven’t played them all yet, I can’t really say for sure. A low Beta population tends to create painful wait times for these things. Duo mode, for those still paying attention, is basically a high level version of all of the instance portions of the quests you already did. Remember when you went toe to toe with Poison Ivy, well now you can do it again with a friend…but it’s harder!
Next, there’s the PVP mode that unlocks (I think) when you hit level 7. As you increase in level, you get access to new arenas to battle your foes in. There are two types of PVP Arena: Legendary and Not Legendary (or just, Arena, as it’s called). Legendary Arena’s let you play as iconic heroes and villains complete with their power sets. Normal Arenas let you play as…you. Both offer the fairly similar experience of smashing enemies while trying to capture items or stand on contested hot zones. It’s fun but not especially compelling.
So what is the point of all of this endgame stuff if you can’t do it till you’ve stopped earning XP anyway? Well, each Mentor type (Metahuman, Tech, and Magic) can eventually purchase pieces of super-mega-ultra iconic armor unique to their “type” with tokens that they earn by doing all of this endgame stuff. They take a long time to earn and the game hasn’t really made it clear which activities reward you with which type of token (because, of course, there’s different types). However, the huge increase in stats (and the cool look) will make the investment worth it for any player that’s interested in serious PVP. A final note about PVP, I chose to play on a PVE server because I didn’t want to worry about dying randomly while I was questing, but I’m sure the PVP server offers the usual experience of getting ambushed by high level players with nothing better to do. However, like WoW, even PVE servers will flag you as PVP active when you come back from a PVP arena, so be careful.
Final Thoughts and Impressions
DC Universe Online is fun. It’s also very short. There’s still a lot of balancing to be worked out, but the basic framework is there for a fairly compelling MMO. As I said before, its strength is definitely in its combat. Currently, its weakness is its length. I find it seriously hard to believe that anyone will want to subscribe to this game for more than a month at a time. Unless they constantly keep a fresh stream of content rolling out, most players will run into a brick wall upon hitting the level cap (which won’t take long). There’s definitely stuff to do at the endgame (replay old dungeons on Duo Mode, do raids, PVP, etc) but the solo experience (that defines levels 1-30) is over and the story (for now) is done. There’s some mild incentive to replay as different power/morality types, but the experience will be largely the same. The stage is definitely set for expansions as you (unsurprisingly) don’t resolve the central conflict by the end of your last mission; I question the development team’s wisdom, however, in allowing such fast progression. Apparently it’s by design (they wanted to eliminate that sense of “the grind”), but I can only see players getting frustrated with the lack of content and cancelling their subscriptions after the first month or so (maybe to renew when the next big patch or expansion rolls around). There was actually a lengthy thread on the Closed Beta forums about this same issue but a moderator shut it down. He cited collecting Investigation tokens as a sufficiently fun way to enjoy solo content at the end game…
Unofficial Closed Beta Preview Score: 7.0 (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun)
If you have any specific questions that weren’t addressed in this overly long write-up, feel free to ask. I fully leveled a Hero and Villain (Mentored by Superman and Lex Luthor, respectively) and know most of what there is to know about the Mental/Nature Power types and the Hand-Blaster (I love typing that) and Two-Handed Weapons.