The beginning of this month was a pretty busy time for me. Just how busy was made clear, oddly enough, by finding out two weeks after the fact that DC Universe Online had gone Free To Play. Ever since I first wrote about the idea that F2P was the future, I liked to think I’d been keeping tabs on this sort of thing, but nope… right under the ol’ radar.
This was particularly galling since we were talking about what was seen as a heavyweight contender in the MMO and especially the Superhero MMO field. City of Heroes, Champions… none of these boasted the sheer power and name recognition of the DC Comics universe. Why fight alongside a knock-off (let’s be honest) like Statesman when you could fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the actual, original Big S? Cool as Millenium City might be, wouldn’t you rather swing your way through moonlit Gotham?
Well, it was intriguing, but not enough for me to drop 60 bucks on the game, plus monthly subscription, when it came out in January of this year. I was waiting for a free trial to come around so I could take it for a whirl, but after a few months where that didn’t happen I shrugged and stopped paying attention. I remember being particularly interested in the character creation options, which I had yet to see in the Comic-Con demos after three years of development. For me a superhero game really lives or dies based on its character customization, but all I saw was you getting to use the Joker or Flash to run around and fight stuff. I was also skeptical of the whole idea of designing an MMO around a console as well as PC, which DCUO was hellbent on doing with the PS3. Untapped market in North America? Sure. Good idea? That remained to be seen.
Well, thanks to the game going free I have now seen, and I’m very, very glad I didn’t drop money on this thing back in January. I won’t go so far as to call it a turkey (topical as that would be), but it’s… well…
It’s lazy. It looks nice, but especially in terms of having been out already for 10 months, that’s the impression I get.
For one thing, we have a game with no subtitle options. None. That means a lot of what you need to hear depends on some (still) buggy audio, since they’re big on the voice work. Also, said voice work has a real patchy quality to it, since you’ve got some characters voiced by their TAS all-stars like Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, but others run the gamut from “not quite right” to “ear bleedingly bad”, especially in terms of the more common mooks and bystanders. For fairness’ sake, this is something that could be applied to most MMOs, but it’s not as noticeable with those that don’t lean as heavily on vocals. Also, while I’m not hearing impaired (no matter what my wife claims), I’m a little shocked that this game’s decision to have no subtitles leaves that segment of the populace adrift. You can’t even get subtitles on the (numerous) cutscenes. That’s pretty primitive stuff for a 2011 game release.
I’m not terribly fond of the controls, either. Ever play a console port to a PC, especially a half-assed one? It feels like that. Very little mouse support, menus you can’t get to without hitting the ESC key and stopping your gameplay (even though it of course doesn’t actually pause), and weirdest of all is that when you hit the ‘backwards’ key it turns you around to run at the camera instead of just retreating your character while keeping their forward view, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in an open-world game, 1st or 3rd person, MMO or otherwise. And while it’s interesting for once to have an MMO where you can actually dodge the projectiles being thrown your way, you end up having to aim as well, and that can be a mushy experience when lag is involved.
Finally, but most damningly, there’s the character creation. The friends who informed me of the F2P status warned me I was going to be disappointed, but oh my stars and garters, the lack of options here are just unforgiveable for a superhero game considering what City of Heroes and Champions had available on launch. I’m not talking about locking some options away behind a micropayment, either, it’s just straight up horrible for you if you have any kind of specific idea in mind (and where superheroes and villains are concerned, I’d like to think most of us do). For instance, perhaps it’s an homage to Jim Lee’s art style, but there are something like six faces to choose from, and it’s a weird function of different ‘Skins’, affecting the whole body, rather than actual head types. Everything is very limited, the zoom function is laughable, and then there’s the colors.
You get three, you see. You set a palette of three colors, and while you can mix and match those three colors over your gear, if you wanted to add gold to your patriotic red, white, and blue, you’re out of luck. You may later have the exciting opportunity to stare jealously at Wonder Woman’s in-game model and wonder how she managed.
It’s rather hilarious when you consider it. There’s a whole option in character creation to just select an “Inspired By” template and pick from a known DC Hero or Villain, which gives you their powers and costume as a quick and dirty design. Well, sort of their costume. Actually, basically it just serves to blatantly showcase how limited the costume and color options are. Not to mention the power selections, seeing as Wonder Woman becomes a mentalist and the Flash is fire-based(????… !!!). I used to think certain omissions in CoX were razz-worthy, and here we are in 2011 with a game that basically feels like a big license is an excuse to not even try.
I kind of don’t even want to get into the backstory Geoff Johns put together which basically makes every last hero and villain have the same biotechnological ‘origin’, and yet still has the headscratcher of then letting you classify as someone who gets their powers from magic. Oh, and the entire introductory sequence is based on… wait for it…
It’s just not bringing anything new to the table, and in some cases feels like it took big steps backwards or relied to much on its license to compensate for mediocrity. Given all this I guess I’m not surprised it only took 10 months for the game to go F2P, which I’m pretty sure is some sort of record. I thought it was particularly telling that there were only two servers to choose from, and I don’t believe the paid and free populations are segregated like in EQ2 (although apparently the PC and PS3 populations are segregated, which is yet another reason to possibly play out the window).
But is it at least worth playing for free? Eh, I’ll admit, I’m having some amount of fun with it, based on the maxim of an old t-shirt of mine: “I feel much better now that I’ve lost all hope.” I created a really simple character to jump around Gotham with, and that’s kind of cool. It’s Gotham, right? The Joker is giving me missions as my mentor (uhm… just go with it…), and that’s cool because it’s Mark Hamill and his Joker voice makes every quest goal gleefully psychotic. I don’t fancy I’ll be sticking around very long, but for the time being, what do I want for free?
Well, when it came out they made people pay for it. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of them, because this guy was, and he’s not happy. That said, nowadays all SOE wants is for you to establish an account with them, and y’know, that should be okay. Maybe. Come to think, you might want to give them fake personal information, a non-critical email address, and definitely no credit card info. Just saying, they’re bad with that.