I have started playing DCU Online, which is a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game that takes place in the DC comics universe. So, you make a superhero or a supervillain, and you fly around and start punching people. It’s pretty cool, but there are some caveats.
The fact that it’s in the DC Universe adds a compelling element that was missing from previous superhero RPGs like City of Heroes or Champions Online. For instance, I have a supervillain character, and I was helping Gorilla Grodd turn a bunch of people into apes; while I was doing that, flying around punching S.T.A.R. labs guys, Hawkman showed up and threw a harpoon at me, and I had to run away.
Ostensibly, there’s nothing about that that isn’t awesome.
I don’t even know if I was supposed to try to kill him or what, though instinctively I felt that this was impossible. It was Hawkman, and he was attacking me with a giant harpoon. This is something that you couldn’t get in the generic RPGs, and could only barely get in things like World of Warcraft, where there is a rich history, but hardly anyone bothers reading it.
(Related: I at one point was doing a mission for the Joker, and Batman came on the communications link. Most of the voice acting in DCU Online is with new people, but the Joker and Batman are the pitch-perfect Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy voices from the cartoon show; so, when Batman comes on the comm line and says, “Yes, I know who you are,” I actually tried to run away again.)
The play style is clearly influenced by first-person-shooters and the fact that the game is also meant to work with Playstation and Xbox controllers, and I think this is a huge improvement. In addition to just being faster-paced and more action and skill oriented, you can never not really pay attention to what you’re doing the way you can in World of Warcraft (press 1, press 2, press 3, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, hm, I wonder what’s on television right now?).
AnnA tells me that the goal of MMORPGs is for them to be just interesting enough that you don’t notice that you spend most of your time running from one place to another, so between the super-action oriented combat and the fact that you can get flight or super-speed or acrobatics right at the beginning of the game and just start tearing around the world might actually be a failure for Sony. I am not complaining, though; I think I played it for ten hours over the weekend, and the only time I wasn’t actually doing something was when I was flying back to the base to sell all the junk I’d collected.
There are some problems with it; these problems are related, though one of them is a generic problem I have with these sorts of games, and one is a much more specific set of problems.
Specifically, the problem that I have with this game is that it feels like it was rushed out of beta testing. There’s a level cap at 30 (to which I am halfway gone; purportedly there’s a lot of end-game material when you reach that point, so we’ll see how it goes). There are only six power sets and they’re pretty generic. There’s a “supercharge” effect – where you charge up your supercharge meter as you hit things, and then certain powers use up that meter when you use them – that I just think is ill-considered all around, and I’ll get to that in a second because, also: there are some powers that are just badly-designed.
One of the things you can do in this game is pick out iconic powers from the comics, like heat vision or freeze breath or something. And one of those powers is Word of Power which lets you say a power word (presumably SHAZAM!), and then it heals you and zaps everyone around you and knocks them down. The problem with this is that it’s the kind of power you’d want to use when you’re being knocked on by a bunch of guys and your health is really low – but it’s also got a three or four second casting time, during which you have to just sit there and get pounded. Three or four seconds is not really a long time, except in the exact instance you’d want to use this power: when you are surrounded and about to die. It’s almost as though the power was simply designed to be useless.
This happens with a lot of powers, and especially the ones that use the supercharge meter which, like I said, is a foolish mechanic. If you’re going to have a resource for powers, you need to just have one resource: endurance, or whatever. If you don’t want players using their spectacular powers too often, just put a long cooldown on it. Supercharge would work substantially better if, when it was full (i.e., you were super-charged) it just added some kind of awesome effect to certain powers, and those powers, when you use them, would just burn however much supercharge was left on your meter.
So, whenever you use Word of Power, it heals you and zaps everyone around you, and then has a five minute cooldown. But if you use it when you’re supercharged, maybe it also gives you strength and health buffs for thirty seconds. Maybe it heals you according to how much supercharge is left.
See, in this game, you can’t have available more than six powers at a time; because of that, no one is going to slot any powers that don’t have a general utility. I’m not going to put a mass-defense spell on my available power interface that I can only use once in a blue moon – especially if I could replace it with a power I can use all the time. This is where “supercharge” as an effect comes in really handy – specifically in cases where you’ve got a limited range of available powers. The power has a general utility that you can use fairly often, but occasionally a spectacular utility.
Some of this stuff, like I said, just doesn’t seem finished, you know? There are only six available power sets; the two sets that you use offensively (like, if you want to build a character that just messes up suckers) are Fire and Ice. These are very generic powers. And what’s weird is that they’re very generic powers in a game that is based around specific superheroes.
Do you know what you have to do if you want to make a character exactly like Superman? Or the Flash? You can’t. You literally cannot make a character who is the Flash, unless you also give him telekinesis, or the ability to turn into a gorilla.
Maybe they’re planning on rolling out additional material in the future? I don’t know, but if they aren’t then the fact that you can play DCU Online and you don’t have the option to be a member of the Green Lantern Corps is just stupid. Like, actually completely stupid. The primary advantage that DCU had over its competitors, like City of Heroes or Champions Online, is that there would be no copyright issues if a player wanted to make a Green Lantern character. The entire point of playing DCU is that you would get to play in the DC universe.
How does it happen that someone designs a game based on making characters in a universe with some of the best-known comic book characters in history, and it never occurs to anyone to start with those guys as templates? This is related to a problem I had with World of Warcaft; in Warcraft 3, one of the characters that was in the game was this huge minotaur who carried a giant tree trunk that he could hit people with. But, for some reason, in World of Warcraft you couldn’t ever get the tree trunk. I don’t understand why this is.
Unless, obviously, it’s to set up a future roll-out in which they reveal new character types and power sets. Which had BETTER include: Green Lanter/Sinestro Corps, Kryptonian, Thanagarian, AND SO FORTH.
Anyway, this actually gets into my second problem with the game, which is that RPG characters are traditionally divided up into the roles that you play in cooperative gaming: tanking, defending, controlling, or damaging. I don’t understand why designers are preoccupied with making some powers do one of those roles well, and not the others.
Obviously, if a character had telekinesis, that would be a power set that would be useful in a lot of different ways. Some powers would do damage, some could protect people, whatever. Why is it that when I decide to pick up a new power, and I open the telekinesis window, the powers aren’t divided into the several different roles, and I can just pick whichever ones I want?
You could make some powers require pre-requisites, to ensure that you don’t let the spectacular powers from each role fall into the hands of one of the other roles and thus make them over powered. And you could just set it up so that, for instance: the more tanking powers you took, the more health you’d have; the more control powers you took, the better you’d be at control. &c.
This both gives the player more versatility and is actually intuitive; there’s no reason that I shouldn’t be able to build a character with whatever weird combination of powers that I want – but, at the same time, the more I focus on one role, the better I’d be at it.
Champions Online did something like this, I think, but the truth was that their system was just really complicated and I’m not sure I understood it. I’m just imagining that you can open up a window for “Telekinesis”, and it’s got all the tank powers on the left, all the defense powers in the middle, all the control powers on the right, and so forth. With little arrows pointing from prerequisite to prerequisite. Alternately (and in the same game!) you could open up a “Defender” window, and it would show you all the defense powers from the many different power sets.
I’m not trying to tell game designers how to do their jobs – well, actually I am, I guess. But what I’m trying to say is that I wouldn’t be doing that if they just did their jobs properly in the first place.
DCU Online is still pretty fun, though. You can get laser eyes, which makes up for a lot.