Ever since 2004's City of Heroes, gamers have wondered what an MMO based on familiar comic book heroes and stories would be like. Fans of the DC Universe will get their shot at battling alongside Batman, Superman and villains like Joker and Catwoman when DC Universe Online is released in 2011. While I was interested on a story level after I spoke to veteran comic book scribe, Marv Wolfman at San Diego Comic Con, I wasn't sure that a so-called "action MMO" would work mechanically. I was invited to go out to SOE Denver and play the action MMO on Sony's machines and was surprised and excited to discover that DC Universe Online might just bring innovation to the MMO landscape that has been fairly stagnant since World of Warcraft.
The story of DC Universe Online is all explained in the extended trailer released this summer, which also serves as the game's opening cinematic. Metropolis and Gotham City are overrun by the android army of Brainiac, and all of the superheroes in the world have their energies sucked dry by insect-like nanorobots called exobytes. Lex Luthor somehow travels back in time before the attack, and offers a truce to Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to prevent Brainiac's plan. The player uses the exobytes that Luthor stole from Brainiac to empower our transformation into super heroes or villains.
The whole character creation process keeps with the theme of using the exobytes to imprint characteristics onto your avatar. Your first major choice is if you want to be a hero or a villain. Several templates, such as The Joker and Green Arrow or lesser known profiles like Beast Boy, are available if you want to play like your favorite character, but you can also start from scratch designing your perfect hero or villain. There are no classes per se, but the choices you make during character creation will vastly change how you play the game. Power source is probably the most important, as choosing Mental or Gadgets will give you abilities which control the battlefield while the Nature and Sorcery powers will allow you to heal your comrades. Second in importance is picking what weapon your hero wields from a list of more than ten options. Choosing between dual pistols, a big staff, brawling fisticuffs, or hand blaster (think balls of flame shooting out of your palms) will distinctly flavor how you take down the bad guys.
Here is also where you choose your mentor. Do you identify with the lawful good heroism of Superman? Are you more of a vigilante like Batman or a feminist icon like Wonder Woman? If your tendencies lean more towards the bad boys, are you cold and calculated like Lex Luthor or a controller of mystic energies like Circe, the evil Goddess of Magic? Or maybe your just batshit insane like The Joker? Picking which iconic character is your mentor doesn't have mechanical effect on your character, but it does change where your story leads. Picking the Joker for example, starts you out in Gotham bribing cops and laying joke bombs, while going with Superman has him telling you to defend the citizens of Metropolis from Gorilla Grodd's de-evolution units.
The voice acting for all of these characters is top-notch. Adam Baldwin's Superman hits all the righteous notes that he perfected in the animated film Doomsday, and Mark Hamill plays The Joker awesomely as always. I also loved Michelle Forbes as the deliciously evil Circe, but I may be partial to her from my Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica fanboyism. Because it's still in beta, it's clear that a lot of the voice acting is placeholders probably recorded by the game designers (including a guy hilariously falsettoing a Minion of Lust), but the large amount of specific voice assets in the game, from small time quest givers to vendors, is impressive.
Metropolis and Gotham City, the only locations currently in the game, are huge and lovingly recreated from the source material. Metropolis is bright and shiny, despite Brainiac's ships attacking, while Gotham is a darker, murkier city. Each building and city street is rendered so that you can jump and leap from rooftops or stand on light posts.