Any game with the word "Online" in the title speaks "MMO" to me, and I've always wondered whether the genre was viable on consoles since the lackluster EverQuest Adventures for PS2. So when I had a press invite for either the PC or PS3 versions of the DC Universe Online Beta, I chose the console version. Now I wish I'd taken the time to play both Betas, because I'm left with a sense of confusion as to what, precisely, this game is, and whether I'm correct in feeling that DCUO has something to say about the future of MMOs, and whether they have anyplace left to go as a genre.
When I first tried DC Universe Online at E3 2010, my initial impression was that the game felt like it had the trappings of an MMO, but was really an action game. For instance, you have a power bar at the bottom of the screen that you access by holding down the L2 button and then pressing another button to access the power or item assigned to the corresponding slot. L2 + square, for example, was an electrified lasso for my Batman-template superhero. I imagine that for the PC version it's a straight number-key press like I'd expect from an MMO.
If there was an auto attack function on the PS3 version, I couldn't find it. Instead, there was a lot of button-mashing goodness that absolutely wreaked of God of War. You can target different enemies, but I never felt any need to do so. I bashed my way through the entire first quest line without having to exercise much strategy at all. Perhaps at higher levels more discernment would be required in who you're hitting, but the demo character we had at E3 was leveled up and the demo took place in what was ostensibly a more challenging level than any I went through in the Beta, and the "flailing attacks" method was just as effective there.
There were also combos in the PS3 version, like tap and then hold the square button to launch, in my Beta character's case, a flying knee strike. You can unlock new powers on trees that look precisely like what I saw in Dante's Inferno. The combat screams "action game," but you accrue gear and swap it out like in an MMO, there are missions with experience and rewards like an MMO, and there's a social layer like in an MMO.
I'm not sure how that social layer is going to function on the PS3, however. I only game on the PS3 for the purposes of having access to titles that are critically-important like Heavy Rain, and no one in my stable of gamer friends games on the console, either. Therefore, I don't own any peripherals like microphones or keypads. It's hard for me to judge the potential of DCUO to function socially as an MMO without the ability to type quickly on the console, and in terms of the microphone, how do I seamlessly differentiate between "Say," "Tell," and "Shout" commands?
What I took away most from the Beta was the impression that I was playing a distilled version of the classic MMO formula with the DC universe stamped on it. That's no surprise, but it became fodder for musings about where the MMO genre really has left to go anymore. There was absolutely nothing inventive whatsoever in how the DC Universe Onlike played or felt.
My staple MMO right now is Star Trek Online, and I dislike the ground combat portions of the title for the same reasons I found myself feeling the oppressive predictibility of DCUO. It's only when I'm flying my starship around the galaxy that I'm really having any fun, because it's something different compared to my typical MMO experiences; but even then I have to wonder whether I'd feel so kindhearted towards the space portions of the gameplay if I wasn't a Trek fan. Those space missions do get repetitive after a while, and what is driving me right now is wanting that new, larger ship, not having any real fun with the combat.
This, in turn, gets me thinking about The Old Republic, which is being praised as an MMO to tip scales and alter paradigms. I spent a lot of time talking to the Bioware guys at E3, querying them about grinding and leveling and gear and eventually settling on the value of the title as lying in its roleplaying ambitions…but I get dialogue wheels and full voice from Mass Effect. Is that enough to truly equate to substantive innovation that will inject some new life into the MMO genre?
While Kat Bailey's opinion piece over on 1UP entitled Why Star Wars: The Old Republic Might Already Be Too Late is decidedly pessimistic, she's not wrong in some of her assertions.
I think DC Universe Online is indicative of just how established MMOs are as a video game genre, such that the high-concept pitch of the DC Comics universe meeting a persistent online world was probably inevitable; but it also feels like just another attempt to milk the genre and another industry admission that we simply don't have many places to go with MMOs anymore, not until there's some sort of paradigm shift or new technology to really change how the genre functions as a whole.
Perhaps all that costly voice acting for The Old Republic will make a difference, but DCUO left me disheartened with MMOs, and even has me questioning whether Star Trek Online, which I've been enjoying up until now, isn't actually much more than a franchise cash-in, either.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He has written for The Escapist, Gamasutra, and @GAMER magazine, and maintains a blog at punchingsnakes.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca. First Person is his weekly column on Bitmob concerned with meta questions around the video-game industry and the journalism that covers it.