In Sony Online Entertainment's DC Universe Online, players take on the role of a super hero (or super villain) set in the world of DC's comics, learning from and interacting with many favorite characters and building their own legacy within the long-established setting. This sets it apart from the other super hero MMOs, giving it a broad, pre-established back story and a rich setting to draw on, and players can come into the game already familiar with the world and the lore. In order to get a feel for this MMO I explored both Gotham City and Metropolis, with multiple characters on both sides of the hero/villain spectrum and getting a feel for different styles and roles. I also took a pair of characters up to the lower-mid levels to see more of the storylines and explore character progression.
At character creation players choose their character's power set, one of a number of themes that define the character's abilities and potential roles. They include things such as mastery of fire or ice, the ability to use high-tech gadgets, wielding arcane spells, manipulating plants and animals, or using telepathy and telekinesis. Each power set has two specializations and gains access to two of the four character roles. Every power set can be used as a Damage Dealer, and each one gets one of the other roles as a secondary - either Tank, Healer, or Controller. Powers will have different bonus effects based on the active role; for example, one fire ability will provide a boost to damage dealt while in the Damage Dealer role, and increase maximum health and healing received in the Tank role. Roles can be changed on the fly, while the skill specializations are set until the character uses a respecialization.
Characters also gain the ability to pick Legacy powers - abilities from DC's main superheroes, such as Superman's heat vision - adding some flexibility and further customization to a player's own superhero. In addition to the power set, the player also gets to select her character's weapon training, and one of three movement abilities. Weapon training provides base attacks, from martial arts and brawling to the use of dual pistols or assault rifles, and the developers have done a fantastic job with the balancing. Each weapon and movement option brings a unique style to the player's character but mechanically they provide enough of the same capabilities and perform close enough that there is seldom any one "best" option, allowing players who are concerned with mechanical performance to still pick whichever option best suits their character's theme.
The game's movement and combat controls are easy and intuitive, and it only took a little time to begin patrolling the streets and start immolating thugs. Basic combat uses only the left and right mouse buttons by default, while powers are assigned to hotkeys. The early missions were easy to complete, and each story line included several mission types to help players familiarize themselves with the game. One thing I did notice was that most mobs gave miniscule amounts of experience compared to the missions - a player looking to quickly advance will need to complete missions and advance her story rather than grind for levels. It took a little time to figure out all of the buff icons, but after that the UI was simple and easy to use. Each mission also displays objectives and mission areas on the map, making it easy to know where to go and what to do. The "report for duty" button provides an easy way to queue for multiplayer activities, from missions to PvP. The game interface is pretty clean.
Visually, I found Gotham City to be a little cleaner than I expected, but the animation was still darker and grittier, and less cartooney, than other super hero MMOs. Compared to other MMOs, the graphics are quality, but not phenomenal, and even with an older graphics card I experienced smooth animation and a good frame rate while playing. The character visuals were also well done. Although I found the base body types rather limited, the costumes and other options were good, the customization was easy to get just right, and of course there are further costume options available after character creation, both through Station Cash purchases and items found in game.
Most NPCs have voice acting, especially the named heroes who give missions; my first contact in game was with Oracle telling me how to escape from the tutorial zone, followed by a fight along side Superman, then getting a mission from Batman. Most of the DC Universe Online cast comes from actors who previously voiced the characters - for example, Batman is voiced by Kevin Conroy, who fulfilled the same role in Batman: the Animated Series, and Superman is voiced by Adam Baldwin, who had the role for Superman: Doomsday. None of the other in-game sounds stood out, but that also means that they didn't detract from the action either.
Although most DC franchises stand alone with few crossovers in-series, DC Universe Online is set in the shared world of the Justice League of America - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash rub shoulders with the Green Lantern and Power Girl, square off against Mr. Freeze, the Joker, Lex Luthor, Black Adam, and Doomsday, and many other DC heroes and villains are included as well. In the opening cinematic, a future version of Lex Luthor brings a warning of Earth's doom, and imbues random people with the super powers of future heroes and villains in order to give the world enough strength to survive. These new heroes, the player characters, are then discovered and rescued by their corresponding faction and take one of the big name heroes or villains as their mentor. Although some missions are shared across a faction, each mentor also has a number of unique offerings, leading to distinct paths within the shared story.
Between the incredibly rich backstory and the options available in an interactive MMO setting, there was a great opportunity for story telling here. However, the portion of the story I experienced was fairly standard super hero fare, with little unique to recommend it beyond the fact that it was taking place in DC's universe. Compared to their portrayals in other media, the heroes and villains of DC Universe Online seemed far more flat, cartoonish, processed and unimaginative. Missions were repetitive, with little difference from mission to mission as I progressed, and I did get bored of the progressing story over the course of a week.
In conclusion, though, DC Universe Online was worth the time I spent playing it. It brings a new perspective to the super hero genre, with some unique options and entertaining action. The story and the characters were not strong enough to hold my attention, but I might go back to it from time to time for some random super-powered mayhem.