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This can be the heart of a superhero MMO and this one is adequate. You've quite a variety to choose from, and at this stage you choose not only your appearance, but your faction (Villain or Hero), your power set, your starting Weapon skill, your movement skill (Flight, Superspeed, or Acrobatics), and your starting mentor (there are 3 for each faction, and it impacts your quest lines). While you have a great deal of items to choose from, you character is still going to basically be human(oid), so no crab people or centaurs or mermaids. Likewise there’s three basic body types and three basic sizes within those types, so you cannot go too crazy with sliders for eyebrow shape or distance or things like that. You can really get in to different types of skins and costumes for your character as well, but do not be too caught up in that at the moment, because DCUO does something a little differently.
When it comes to your superhero “looks” most games do not have the same feature of WYSIWYG like a fantasy MMO does. That is, if your character has a cape, he ALWAYS has a cape. DCUO just combined that. So the gear you pick up and are wearing will be reflected on your character . . . if you wish it to be. By default, if you pick up a helmet, and put it on, your character will now appear with that helmet. But you also have a Style tab and you can lock changes out. Gear also comes in two forms: the regular form (which adds stats, etc.) and a “style” form, which does nothing aside from change the appearance. But regardless of the appearance, if you’re wearing a cape that adds abilities, even if you've selected a different style from the Style tab, you’re still getting the benefit of those abilities. You are still wearing that cape. But that does mean that, by default, by the time your character is level 10 it likely doesn't look like what you created to begin the game . . . except for one aspect. Your color scheme is ALWAYS your color scheme. So if you chose an Iron Man red/gold scheme, even if you later are wearing an ancient Greek helmet . . . it will be in that red/gold scheme you picked out initially.
I admit that this took some getting used to, and initially I did not think I would like it. Clearly it was designed to accommodate console game pads and I thought that this might not be a good translation to the PC. Surprisingly it works though. Mouse look is always “on”, but unlike some other games (which still have quite a few menus or mouse interactions on the screen) the keyboard in DCUO is minimized. I think where they really succeeded though is with targeting. The targeting system is quite fluid: you mouse over it and it is targeted. You can “lock” your target with the Tab key but there is no specific need. This makes combats quite free flowing, and especially works well with movement powers like flight. You hit number keys for your powers, which might seem like something of a handicap, but you don’t have that many powers or toolbars compared to most games. You have 6 power slots (1-6) total, with a slot for consumables and a slot for an activated item (Trinket). That’s it.
The game also has no auto-attack: you want to hit someone, you need to click the mouse. Left-clicks are melee attacks and right-clicks are ranged attacks. There is also blocking and block breaking. Indeed combat is basically a game in to itself, as there are numerous combos you will need skill to perform – but it can feel like a bit like combat is nothing but button mashing. It does not feel like your standard MMO where you go in, hit auto attack, and then use various powers for the rest of the combat. It’s almost the opposite – you need to use various Skills and then use your powers in between.
This is what really can make or break a superhero RPG. In DCUO the power sets are divided in to three primary groups based on the Role the character will play: Controller, Healer, Defender. If this sounds like the “holy trinity” from back in the days of EQ, it is, but there are a couple of additional twists thrown in. First off, every character will always have at least two “loadouts”, gained at level 10: a “damage” role and a role based on your power style (Controller, Healer, Defender). You can flip back and forth (but not in combat) and it essentially gives everyone character a “solo” mode (usually Damage) and a “group” mode (usually the other). It should also be noted that the individual powers themselves are NOT simple and have quick descriptions. That Ice blast that just does damage, for example, may be modified by the role that the character is in or stack with other effects the character has. In some cases the power can change completely: someone with a base Sorcery power casts Circle of Protection in Healer mode and Circle of Destruction in Damage mode (it is the same power).
That being said, the power sets are therefore not “pure”. A Controller power set like Gadgets can suit a DPS role quite well, as can some of the Healer power sets. It is going to come down to your individual play style and what you can control and what works for YOU: there is no one BEST power set for each role. Really – they’re just different. Any or all of them can have melee attacks, or ranged attacks, or knock backs, or stuns, or AoE attacks. About the only thing that is given is that ONLY a Healer power set will heal, for example. In addition, each power set is going to have two power trees within it that you are not going to be able to completely fill, so everyone with a Fire set is not going to necessarily have the same powers.
There is a rock/paper/scissors aspect to it. Each Role has an advantage over, and is vulnerable to, one of the other roles. If the Defender is the rock, for example, then the Healer is the paper and the Controller is the scissors. This primarily comes up in PvP (more on that later).
A note on the Controller: while that power set does indeed have crowd control abilities, the primary focus is Power restoration. A good group needs all three types because the Defender will hold aggro, the Healer will keep the Defender alive, and the Controller will keep everyone supplied with Power to keep all of their abilities going.
In addition to choosing a power set, at character creation you will also choose your initial weapon skill set. I say “initial” because unlike your power set, at level 10 (and beyond) you can choose to invest in another set of weapons later. Each weapon style has both melee and ranged aspects to it, although the special moves for each are different (and can be purchased by you). It is mainly a matter of choice, as is a power set: the ranged weapons are perhaps a bit better for Healers and Controllers but again you do not have to be that way, as you can select Martial Arts or Dual Wield and still have ranged attacks. If you have more than one weapon skill you switch them by just equipping the correct weapon. There is no ammunition or the like to worry about.
Your Speed skill is set at character creation. Of the three, I’m somewhat disappointed that teleporting (like in Champions Online) is not an option. They all work in somewhat similar fashion: you turn on the ability (you can leave it on all the time if you’d like, although you will slow down in combat), and then move around. Superspeed and Acrobatics get a super “leap” when they jump, but you need not worry as I don’t think you can die from falling damage at all (you can land with a satisfying crunch though). With Flight, you really are moving in three dimensions, and you can move up and over and through things. It can be handy for engaging certain NPCs who don’t have very good ranged weapons . . . just fly above them and let loose. They can knock you down but they have to get a special attack off. The other two powers don’t have as much advantage in combat, as it’s harder to run/climb up a wall and then be facing the right direction to attack. But rarely do you get kind of stuck like you can with Flight . . . that being said though, I still think Flight has a clear advantage, although perhaps some later skills help the other Speed skills.
After going through an introductory tutorial adventure (which you cannot skip, unfortunately), you start in Metropolis or Gotham City. From there you have the standard variety of quests to go through, a few of which are exploratory, but more are along story lines based primarily upon which mentor you have. What is interesting is that in many cases both Heroes and Villains will have quests in the same area, usually with different objectives – so the Gorilla troopers are not hostile to the villains, for example. Many of the quests will conclude a section with entering in to an instanced zone, usually with one or more bosses at the end. These can usually be done solo, although some of the opponents can be particularly difficult because of their special abilities (they almost all do something different) or the special objectives, and it is sometimes advisable to wait to gain a level or two before attempting some of the more difficult instances.
In addition to quests for knocking out the opposition, there are a series of exploratory quests and there are a series of collection quests. The latter can be easy to overlook as the spawns for these locations are not fixed and it is easy to miss them when flying overhead.
A note on the PvP server: it’s not that fun. Remember where I said that your newbie quests sometimes cause you to go to the same areas? That doesn't change in PvP, and so leveling is very hard on the PvP server, especially as a villain. You WILL be attacked by level 30 players at every opportunity. Seriously, why do it? You can play on the PvE server and still level and PvP when you want to.
Which brings us the queuing system. We've seen other games where you enter a queue for PvP battles. DCUO has that also (two types, more on that later) but brings in a queue system for a number of instances. You queue up for a story line with 2-4 other players (you don’t have to be in a group) and it loads it up and runs you through that instance together. I really like this concept, although I can see how it might get perhaps a bit repetitive – but it’s a good way to get experience. At every level that the instances open up (they start at level 5 and go through level 20) it will give you a quest that encourages you to compete in it (just once).
There are two additional types of PvP instances. “Arena”, where you use your main character, and “Legends”, where you use a special unlocked character. You only start with one, but can buy additional Legends characters with currency earned in game or with real money (Station Cash). This gives you the opportunity to play Two Face or Future Batman, and there are a series of different games (Iike Capture the Flag, etc) you can play. It’s quite interesting and makes it feel “lower risk” since everyone is kind of on the same playing field.
The level cap is 30, and leveling up to that cap is not particularly strenuous. Each time you level you will get either a Skill Point or a Power Point (very rarely both). Power points can be spent in either of your two power trees or, after level 10, a special “Iconic Power” section that lets you take certain power boosts or abilities from famous DC characters. Skill points are spent either in Weapon skill trees or in Speed skill trees. The Speed skill trees either give additional Speed abilities or possibly additional Powers that derive specifically from that Speed ability. Someone with Flight, for example, could take a Dive Bomb attack ability that would do damage out of the Speed tree.
You don’t need to group for most of your leveling, although doing so speeds up the process considerably. The quest system is quite generous – if you and I are on the same quest, and not grouped, and we end up attacking an NPC that we both need, we’ll both get credit. So when you do group, you can blow through the quests fairly quickly. Groups are really only necessary for the Bounties and some of the PvP events, as otherwise the queue system will create them for you. You can easily solo your way to level 30.
There is the standard looking for group system and channel, although one thing that is somewhat innovative is the use of the Combat Rating (CR). This is an aggregate of both your level AND the gear that you have, so most groups will not ask for a “level 30 healer” . . . there are a ton of those, after all. They will ask for a Healer with a “CR 93+” or something like that.
Free to Play:
As it is a Sony game, anyone with any SOE account likely has some Station Cash in the balance. There are three levels of players: a basic Free player, a Premium player, and a Legends player. The Free player is what you start with, and is limited to a certain amount of cash and only 2 characters slots. That’s about it. A Premium player is someone who has purchased something with Station Cash at some point – the cash limit is still there but the character limit changes to 6. If you exceed the cash limit you will see cash in “escrow” . . . meaning that you cannot buy really expensive stuff without being a Legends player. A Legends player is someone who pays a monthly subscription fee.
What you end up buying with Station Cash is small things like special gear (mainly cosmetic), special items for your Base, re-spec tokens, or keys for these Promethium lockboxes you sometimes can loot. But primarily what you can buy are Downloadable Content Packs (DLCs). These content packs contain extra content (duh) but each of them contains one or more new power sets. If you are a standard Free player you will only have access to a certain subset of the available power sets – the others come from DLCs. So if you want to be a Light Controller (like the Green Lantern) you’ll need to get a DLC. These are basically $10 worth of Station Cash. Other than that, there’s not really much to buy.
The cash limit is likely what you will notice the most. Because of the limitations of the crafting system (see below), you won’t have many times you will want to go to the auction house to grab some gear. But when you do check it out . . . you can’t afford it. The market is driven by level 30 players who have a LOT of cash (as you've little to spend it on before then) so expect some pretty serious inflation. How serious? Well you may have a cash limit of $2000 and be looking at gear for auction at a minimum of $30000.
Crafting is . . . odd. The trend in many games is to have a robust crafting system that encourages a massive secondary market for player built items. That is not DCUO. There is a crafting system yes, and it is primarily used to create item enhancements (your more advanced gear can have different “sockets” for these improvements). And like many games it relies on gathered resources to use as raw materials for these items. These are various “bits” which you need 8 of to make a “byte” (yes, clever, I know). But they are basically random spawn, and they are RARE. My highest level character has not managed to gather 8 of ANY raw material. This really discourages crafting until you are much higher in level or can run more instances to get loot.
There are numerous other details. You get a Base too (Player housing) that you can furnish and have them in different sections of the city. There are Bounties that can be collected (special NPC bosses that spawn . . . bring friends and watch out for them). There are Leagues (guild of heroes). I didn't go in to the practice areas at your headquarters or the mechanics of some of the powers. Or the races that each Speed skill can engage in. But there’s a lot there – you can tell they wanted you to pay for this game at some point.
This might be the weakness in DCUO. While it might seem fun to go out and create a bunch of characters, they’re going to start out in a very similar manner. You start with the same tutorial which gets you the first 3 levels. After that it depends on your mentor, but the quest lines basically are in the same areas, and after a while they begin to intersect with one another. So you might start with a Circe magic-related quest line but still get a Lex Luthor or Joker quest line later. Because there is also no one “best” power set, and it takes you a while to gain significantly different powers, it feels like your first 10 levels are very similar regardless of the character you have created. It helps if you change factions and mentors, but still if you’d like to level up several characters at the same time I really don’t recommend it. Play one for a while, then play some others . . . but eventually you’re going to likely want to invest in those DLC packs simply to get some variety interjected. I do hear that there *is* still quite a bit to do at level 30, so it is not like there is no end game.
This has to be one of the more robust, “casual style” of MMO games. The solid mechanics and stable controls mean that it is an easy game to get in to with limited time and feel like you are really making progress. While at the same time if you really want to put some time in to it you can make a lot of progress, but this is one game where the casual gamer can make it to the level cap in a pretty reasonable amount of time.