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e3 2010

DC Universe Online’s E3 Hands-On Leaves Much Unanswered

by Adam Biessener on Jun 17, 2010 at 01:51 PM

Developer/publisher Sony Online Entertainment had a solo mission for DC Universe Online playable on both PC and PS3 at E3, which is a good sign for a game with a November 2 release date. The execution has dozens of rough spots that mar the experience from front to back, which isn’t.

The beautiful flowing cloth simulation on the hero’s cape impresses as we load into the demo level, which has the player rescuing a kidnapped Robin from Harley Quinn. We obliterate a bunch of minions using typical brawler-style combat, stringing together weak and strong attacks into combos. Unusually, both attack types are on one button, which you tap for weak or hold for strong strikes. This frees up another face button for ranged attacks, which can be held for a charged-up version.

You can also bash heads in with physics objects, either by picking them up and using them as direct weapons or by using powers to manipulate them. For example, we threw a grenade into a room full of oversized bouncy balls, which started flying around knocking down bad guys. Certain powers can also create physics objects, like a stasis grenade that we saw which imprisoned enemies in a force field that can then be used as a weapon itself.

Movement powers, triggered by clicking the left stick on PS3, can be integrated into your fighting style as well. The hero we were controlling, an acrobat, was able to climb along walls and throw projectiles from above, climb pillars and dodge around them to avoid attacks, and dodge attacks with graceful rolls.

After chewing through dozens of minions, the battle against Harley herself starts. She uses a variety of themed attacks, like an invincible hammer spin that makes her dizzy and invulnerable after 20 seconds or so. SOE intends to use scripted phases like these to make DCU boss fights feel similar to raid bosses in typical MMOs, but without the millions of hit points that you need dozens of players to grind through.

Harley drops her jester’s cap when defeated, which we can equip for the expected stat boost. In DCU, though, you can choose to display the model on your character or not. We opt to hide the bell-tipped hat, since it clashes with our WayneTech-produced sci-fi armor suit. If we had chosen to show off the new lid, it would automatically conform to our existing color scheme.

To cap the episode, we get a motion comic-esque partially animated vignette telling some backstory. Alas, Harley, the Joker still doesn’t love you. You’ll have to come up with a better scheme next time.

Missing from this recount of our time with DCU are the many frustrations and problems that came up. Obvious client/server network lag made navigation difficult while using the movement power; the experience of free-form, fast-paced three-dimensional movement is trashed by the slightest amount of rubberbanding, which our demo had plenty of. Likewise, brawler combat is sensitive to choppiness induced by network lag, and the low-framerate animations didn’t do it any favors. The control scheme is exceptionally complex, with L2 and R2 acting as modifier keys for the face buttons to allow for access to eight cooldown-limited powers at once. Overall, the experience felt janky and unpleasant, like I was never in control of my character, the environment, or the combat situation. And this is all with only one player character in an instance – what happens when there are multiple players causing the kind of havoc that superheroes do?

I wish I had nicer things to say about DC Universe Online. I really do. But while fellow SOE project The Agency made significant strides between last year’s show and E3 2010, DCU doesn’t seem to have moved at all. Hopefully SOE proves me wrong when the game comes out in three and a half months.