Week One

What's my DC Comics pedigree?

Tom: I'm not a comic book guy at all, but I'm surprised at how much stuff I recognise in DC Universe Online. Set as it is in Metropolis and Gotham City, the game leans heavily on Superman, Batman and familiar Batman villains.

I recognise Oracle, the first character to talk to you, from Arkham Asylum. Teaming up with Killer Croc is cool to me not because I know him from the comics, but because he's the guy in that love-it-or-hate-it boss fight from Arkham Asylum. I don't know anything about The Penguin except that he was played by Danny DeVito way back when, but I've heard of him, and discovering he's the villain in a mission arc tickles awake that pleasant sensation of familiarity.

I know about Bizarro through some sort of cultural osmosis, so when he appears as a wandering enemy, I want to point at him and say, "Hey, I know that guy!"

There are lots of incidentals I don't recognise though, and a lot of it seems silly. A guy named Calculator? The uber-villain is actually called Brainiac? That's his name? I seem to recall rolling out that name in junior high, but only ironically. But there's no denying that the characters and locations in DC Universe are evocative and expressed in mostly distinct ways.

A bad guy from the game's early levels in Metropolis is a sentient gorilla. No joke. But rather than spending a few levels slapping monkeys around, you get missions in which regular citizens devolve into primates. Over in Gotham, Bane does something similar with his Venom toxin, but the point is that DC Universe expresses unique themes for the characters that fans will appreciate and guys like me will at least find interesting.

It does the same thing for its cities with guided tour quests to notable landmarks, complete with little snippets of back story. Want to see the alley where Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered? DC Universe will show you.

AJ: I call myself an "intermediate comic book fan" on account of my father's expert level. He started me off at age 6 with Marvel Comics, generally because they treat their women characters better, but DC won me over through the Batman franchise's movies and 90s era animated series. From there, I leaned more toward the Vertigo imprint because of series like Sandman and that one issue of Leave It To Chance that DC published, because it then brought me to Image Comics.

Anyway, yeah, I know from comic books, I know from comics enough to know when a DC or Marvel tie-in is the goods versus a cheap cash in with the wrong artwork. And I can easily say that DCUO is as good as the goods gets.

The overarching story is true to its comic book origins, Brainiac always seems to screw over Lex Luthor when they work together. The smaller quest stories draw from established storylines that even non-DC fans might've absorbed through various cartoon versions (e.g. the Teen Titans mission with Trigon trying to jack Raven's psyche, I'm pretty sure the Cartoon Network version covered that ground in season 1 or 2). Even the random side quests pull from the DC lore in a way that works instead of an awkward shoehorn (like the Booster Gold mini-tours).

I worry a little that non-DC fans aren't getting enough of an introduction to the lore. Sure, some of the obvious points of interest are called out (the place where Batman's parents died, Stryker's Island in Metropolis, etc.), but that extra layer of significance to characters is missing. Example: I played a mission wherein the closing animation reveals that Wonder Girl (a.k.a. Cassie Sandsmark) maintains a photoblog of her adventures. To a DC fan, this is hilarious. To a non-DC fan, it's "Who's this girl...?"

Seriously, DC fans: you could make a killing grouping up with non-DC fans for "walking tours" for a loot fee. Get on it!

The First Three Weeks: DC Universe Online

What's my platform of choice?

Tom: I can't imagine playing an MMO on any platform other than a PC. You need a mouse, and a high enough resolution to read all the tiny icons, right? But I was barely a few hours into DC Universe before I realised that the mouse was just in the way.

I requisitioned an Xbox 360 controller from the living room and haven't looked back since. This is an interface built for a gamepad. I don't mean the traditional interface trappings, like the inventory, map and skill screen, the mouse is still the preferred method of interaction there.

But once I'm in the game proper, I wouldn't dream of playing with a mouse. You don't click on things to target them. You don't click on rows of icons. Depending on your character build, many of your attacks are based on tapping a button, holding a button or even combos with directional inputs. For instance, when my paramilitary gadget-based commando fires a mortar barrage from her rifle, a fantastic power she unlocked from the tree for unique rifle attacks, I don't click on a "mortar barrage" button.

No such button exists. Instead, I hold the ranged attack button and pull back on the movement stick, at which point she rocks back to brace the gun and fires it into the air. To fire a grenade, I tap the ranged attack button and she pops off a lone grenade with a gratifying "whunk" sound. And these controls aren't compromises. Instead, they give the combat an intuitive and dynamic sense of flow like you get with a fighting game.

The beauty of DC Universe is that, although it's a clearly an MMO, it's not the kind of MMO you've been playing on your PC. So although I'm on a PC, I have to admit a little jealous that AJ gets to enjoy it from the comfort of a couch.

AJ: I realise that DC Universe Online is a massively multiplayer online game meant to be played with a mouse and keyboard like all other MMOs before it. But for me, it's PlayStation 3 or nothing.

I just don't identify as a PC gamer. I don't like sitting alone in my room playing with people I can't see, I don't like grouping up with strangers who demand to know if I'm really a girl. I like my games to live smack in the middle of my living room for all to see and discuss. I like calling my roommates over to see something cool that I've discovered or to validate my frustration when a boss kills me for the fourth time. I like the way a controller feels in my hands, especially when I'm button mashing to see if my character's punch animation can keep up with my fingers.

I am, in other words, a console gamer, and proud of it. I even demanded that Sony Online Entertainment show the PlayStation 3 version before showing me the PC version for a preview appointment. I wasn't sorry I did that, I've been burned too many times by games that claim they're for "both" PC and console, only to find that the console version never materialises or just plain sucks because the control scheme doesn't work.

But the lead designer and the studio head told me they designed the game for PlayStation 3 and then PC, and they wouldn't release one without the other, wouldn't separate their servers just so the PC crowd could be "faster."

And it shows, in more ways than one. The controls feel great, even if the power tray system takes some getting used to (squeeze L2 and then press a face button to access the four powers or items you hotkeyed to the left side of your bar, R2 and a face button for the stuff you put on the right).

The combat is built around a combo system every console gamer grew up using (I sometimes do more damage with a well-timed combo chain than I do with my more powerful hotkey attacks). Best of all, the game looks so good you want everyone in your house to come over and look at it. And they'll enjoy doing it if they have any sense of taste.

The First Three Weeks: DC Universe Online