Missions usually come in chains of four, each chain covering a specific story arc, which eventually lead to instances known as Hideouts, usually tailored to suit solo play. In a Hideout the only visible PCs (Player Characters) are you and any other members of your group. The reason why these aren’t open areas is simply due to the fact that certain game triggers occur, and playing either alone or with a small group makes the instance a lot more engaging. Hideouts have small networks of linear objectives to complete which will then climax with a boss battle. Though they aren’t as cinematic as the ones you would find in most console games, they aren’t burdened with the soulless aesthetic of most MMO bosses, due to changing attack patterns and dialogue exchanges.
As mentioned before, DC Universe Online is action-heavy and accessible to all gamers, mainly thanks to the unique combat system. In most MMOs, all abilities and actions are queued, whether it be taking a swig from a healing potion or unleashing the final strike to a raid boss. Though it’s a tried and tested method of MMO gameplay, it’s heavily over-used and wouldn’t work well on the PlayStation 3. Instead, DC Universe Online plays similarly to an action RPG, the most appropriate examples being X-men Legends and Marvel Ultimate Alliance (oh, the irony).
There’s no action queueing in DCU at all, as soon as you press the attack button your avatar will simply perform the action, unless it requires charging. In truth DCUO does feel like a button basher to begin with, though after unlocking new combos and powers, the gameplay becomes a lot more dynamic and skill-based. One of the features SOE were toting in earlier previews was the use of physics when in combat, powered by the Unreal Engine. As well as being able to use standard attacks and powers, players can also pick up objects and hurl them at enemies.
Initially it feels like a tacked-on gimmick, but it wont take long to appreciate the tactical aspect it grants the player. Not only can they inflict huge damage (especially if you learn the 100% Weaponization ability) but some barrels are imbued with elemental properties such as fire, healing, or ice. Some powers will also allow you to encase your enemies, turning them into a projectile that can be thrown away from the battle to ensure they stay out of the way. For characters with mental abilities, the physics are turned up a notch, with some powers allowing you to control your enemies and toss multiple objects at once. It adds a unique twist to the combat, and luckily it doesn’t impact on the frame-rate.
Unlike most MMOs, DCUO’s interface is fairly clutter free, requiring minimal effort to manage. An ability tray is displayed along the bottom of the screen and carry up to six powers at a time as well as one consumable (similar to potions) and one trinket (an item capable of granting a temporary buff.) Opposite the mini map is a health and power display as well as a “Supercharge” gauge. By landing attacks successfully and being damaged, this meter will rise and once full, players can access some of the game’s most devastating powers, which can easily turn the table in a fight. When the health bar reaches zero in DC Universe Online, you are knocked to the group, and if an ally isn’t able to revive you (healing powers aren’t required) then you are teleported to the nearest rally zone. Menus can be a pain to navigate at first, though they are sufficient in breaking down the key manageable aspects of the game, and thanks to recent updates, they run a quicker too.
One of the game’s stand out features is the appearance tab. A common problem encountered in MMOs is picking up gear which looks awesome, but if its stats are poor, players tend to get rid of it. In DCUO, when you equip armour and weaponry, the appearance options are then stored in a menu, and can be accessed at your leisure. For example, you can go from level 1 to 30, wearing the exact same outfit you made during the character creation process, no matter how many new items you equip.
Every time you level up in DC Universe Online, you will either be rewarded with a power or skill point – which can be spent on upgrading a weapon or unlocking a new ability – as well as stat increases. Abilities are displayed in trees, requiring you to spend points on certain powers in order to open new branches. MMO fans will be miffed to find that power descriptions are vague without any numbers regarding damage counts, range or healing effects, though this will hardly matter for the casual crowd. Another way of gaining skill points is by completing feats, which are basically mini-achievements, ranging from 10 points to 50. A skill point is unlocked every time you earn 100 feat points, adding another layer to quest-hunting and exploration.
The rate at which XP is distributed in DCUO is fairly unconventional as far as MMOs go. Usually when you start out, XP is rewarded generously, with the gradient becoming steeper as you progress. In DCUO however, the gradient is borderline flat due to the fact that missions are the only real source of XP, with there being virtually no point in grinding on enemies. It feels as though it took me just as longer to get from level 5 to 6 than it did from 28 to 29. The only condition that changes is the difficulty, though not by much; as long as you regularly update your gear and keep a sensible palette of powers, the game will never feel like a slog. It should take a week of steady gameplay to hit the max level or just a few days if you decide on blitzing DCUO with a group.
Metropolis and Gotham are both huge in scale, divided into several districts with a number of police stations and nightclubs scattered around the cities. These act as checkpoints for heroes and villains; a place where you can pick up missions, trade with vendors, check mail, and even teleport to The Watchtower or The Hall of Doom, depending on your moral alignment. They make for good drop-off points, but there are some key features missing, including banks and auction houses, which are located in the larger HQs. At The Watchtower or Hall of Doom you can do the same as you would at a checkpoint though they are both divided into four portions, catering to each origin type (Meta, Tech, Magic) as well as having a Main Wing. These areas are much larger and contain a number of unique vendors and stalls who sell everything from appearance options and raid gear to refreshing beverages and re-specs. There are also auction houses known as Brokers, though these are still not functional.