I have a tendency to do silly things during the slow Christmas holiday period. Nothing like the Crimbo Lull to dull one’s brain, so I decided to pick the most harmless silly thing I could find to indulge in.I was given a beta key to play DC UNIVERSE ONLINE.
I’m probably not the type of person Massively Multiplayer Online games are aimed at. They strike me as Role-Playing Games stripped down to the barest essentials with repetitive fetch quests so you can level your character up to be stronger in combat and wear better armor so that death doesn’t come as easily. The worst part of MMOs is the tedious, relentless grind, repeating fights and quests over and over again for points so as to level up as high as possible so your character can get the best armour and weapons and gear to fight big boss enemies and other players with your own gang.
I assume the main draw of MMOs are the social aspect as players befriend other players to play out the fantasy of being in a guild of fantasy warriors together and stuff like that. The Gold Standard of the MMO genre is WORLD OF WARCRAFT and it is the template other fantasy-based MMOs tend to follow because it’s the most successful MMO on the planet.
For the most part, I find it more interesting to read about MMOs than to actually play them. I tried out EVE ONLINE’s free trial but that turned out to be one of the most tedious experiences of my life – I couldn’t even get my bloody spaceship out of dry-dock before I gave up. From what I could tell, EVE ONLINE is uniquely about playing a cutthroat capitalist robber-baron with a spaceship, teaming with like-minded players to fight over wealth and resources against rival players. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to read about the shenanigans that the players got up to to achieve supremacy over their enemies, go as far as committing espionage both online and off to destroy rival player factions, or some guy who accumulated years’ worth of wealth and then sold it off in an elaborate scam, bankrupting his faction, or the faction that completely imploded from internal sabotage. It reads like the best political-economic espionage space opera ever. Sometimes I get the feeling EVE ONLINE is one of the few businesses keeping what’s left of the Icelandic economy afloat.
I first heard about DC UNIVERSE ONLINE back when it was officially announced at the New York Comicon in 2006.
It sounded intriguing: Jim Lee and the Wildstorm artists actively working with Sony Online Entertainment to create the first official MMO using the DC Universe as its backdrop. Jim Lee would be creating character designs and Geoff Johns was writing the overall arc of the story. It would not only be on the PC but also the Playstation 3.
The official line at the time was that the game story would impact the comics themselves, and players would get to actively participate in it. It sounded like Grant Morrison’s idea of the DC or Marvel Universe being alive and evolving becoming an actual moving reality. I still have the sound recording and the transcript of that panel.
Now this is not Rock Paper Shotgun and I’m not a games journalist. I’m a screenwriter and story analyst, so that’s the perspective I take as I play through the DCUO beta.
Sony has lifted the Nondisclosure Agreement on the beta when it released the PS3 beta as much to generate buzz and publicity amongst games journalists and bloggers as it is for the programmers to test the robustness of the game servers and graphics and see what kind of bugs might come up when the game is played in the wild by a few hundred punters.
While the reports from the games websites have mostly been positive, I feel a bit bad about bad-mouthing a beta, since it’s free and it’s the equivalent of someone inviting you to their new house to have a look round and check out the work they did on it, only for you to take a piss on their carpet, but I came away from DCU ONLINE with a feeling of “Is that it?”
In one of my first columns here more than a year ago, I snarked about just how interactive or viable the game would be, and now that I’ve actually played it, I don’t really take back anything I said. Yes, the graphics look very good and slick, but with the money spent on the game, they’d better be. The biggest problem I have is in the writing and how shallow that makes playing the game. Over all, DCUO is essentially WORLD OF WARCRAFT with a DC superhero skin pasted over it. You create your character’s costume and powers, choose what class he or she belongs in, whether it’s having Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman as your “mentor” or Luthor, Joker or Circe on the bad guy side. This is really different classes you find in an MMO: where in fantasy games you choose to be a warrior/tank, rogue or wizard/magician, here you choose either Meta (natural superpowers), Tech (powers from weapons and gadgets) or Magic.
The big problem with DCUO is that it’s too much like most MMOs: the missions involve your character being told to “go here, beat these guys up, go there, beat those guys up, then claim your reward”. You end up repeatedly clicking away on buttons to have your character keep hitting the enemy until they fall over and preferably before your character falls over. Is It really that much more exciting if the person giving you your mission is Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman? Your character has no real impact on the storyline at all. He or she is more like a peon being sent out to do shit that anyone could do. If you don’t do the mission, nothing happens.
You get a call from Batman to go rescue Robin from Harley Quinn because he can’t be arsed to do it himself. Cue fight, ie frantic button-clicking, lots of Joker henchmen in a funhouse before fighting Harley Quinn as a boss. The missions are pastiches of generic superhero and specifically DC stories: you’re sent by Wonder Woman to rescue Raven from possession by her demon father Trigon, and you have to fight at least a hundred demons and possessed people before you have to fight the Titans, who are being mind-controlled by Raven and Trigon, and then you have to fight Raven until she snaps out of it. End of mission.
You’re sent by Batman and Oracle to save Batwoman from the Scarecrow and you have to fight your way to the Gotham Sewers, where you find Batwoman writing on the floor like a pole-dancer turned on the side (and she’s wearing high heels). You fight a giant boss Scarecrow and whittle his health bar down to zero before he goes down. End of mission. Superman sends you to beat up Lex Luthor’s security staff who are abusing civilians who have developed superpowers, then blow up Luthor’s security comms station. End of mission.
And it’s all nothing but frantic button-pushing on your PS3 controller or, in the case of the PC, frantic mouse-clicking. You get defeated, you start the mission again and go through it again until you succeed. Endless, tedious grinding all over again. Does having your head patted by Batman or Superman at the end make it anymore exciting? For a child, it might be cool, but for a grownup…?
There’s an overall story arc that’s again a generic pastiche of Big Crisis Crossovers we keep seeing in DC and Marvel Comics, and in this case the overall arc is reminiscent of what Dwayne McDuffie had already written – and very well, I might add – in the JUSTICE LEAGUE cartoon series, which were themselves retellings or variations on crossover stories that go back to the 1960s and 1970s. Nothing wrong with that, but my problem is how dreadful the scripted dialogue in the game is. It all sounds like what punters expect cheesy, naff comics to sound like, overblown and trying to be epic but ultimately ridiculously childish of the “NOT SO FAST, VILLAIN! BEHOLD! YOUR VILLAINOUS DAYS ARE OVER AS YOU FACE THE MIGHTY THRUSTING FORCE OF MY MIGHTY PENIS-SUBSTITUTE!” The dialogue is credited to Marv Wolfman, who’s been known to write very good dialogue in the course of his decades-long career in comics, so I’m baffled as to what the fuck happened here. On top of that, the majority of the actors, many of whom are well-known and have done excellent work on a lot of DC animated shows this decade, seem to have been directed to read their lines from the James T. Kirk School of Insincere Enunciation, which makes the dialogue sound even worse than it already does on paper. The only ones who come out unscathed are Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voicing Batman and The Joker, but then they’ve been playing them for so long now that they can make anything sound good.
When your character gets to a certain level in the game, he or she gets invited to go up to the Justice League Watchtower up in space. When you get there, you find that despite being visually impressive, the place is really not much more than a huge shopping mall and characters with rich, complex histories in the comics like The Golden Age Flash, Wonder Girl and The Golden Age Green Lantern have been reduced to being shopkeepers running stalls offering armour and equipment you can’t even buy until you reach level 30. It’s here that DCU ONLINE inadvertently exposes the truth about corporate-owned superheroes: they’re not here to save the world – they’re here to SELL YOU USELESS CRAP.
Alan Moore has talked extensively about Ideaspace, a dimension where all stories and fictional characters exist. Grant Morrison has talked about a variation of that, where the characters in DC and Marvel exist as real in a mental space where their stories and adventures continue. DCU ONLINE seems to be a crude duplicate of that space, where the stories are overly simplistic, static and not very interactive. The player has no say in how things turn out. It’s the DC Universe as an amusement park. The difference is Ideaspace is free while you’re paying through the nose for DCU ONLINE. Both Moore and Morrison have also said the best thing about superheroes is that they can represent imagination and transcendence. DCU ONLINE basically reduces the idea of superheroes to beating guys up while wearing naff long-johns. Or if your character is female, wearing a stripper costume with 34D boobs.
At the end of the day, for a game so predictably repetitive and simplistic, I don’t see why anyone would want to spend $15 a month for the same stuff over and over again, with any new locations and content really being no more than window dressing over the same type of gameplay. For a bloody monthly subscription, I would have thought players should get to teabag Superman or have an orgy with other players and DC characters on the JLA Watchtower. Instead, you don’t even get to hang with Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman because they’re safely tucked behind a glass office hanging out while sending you out to do their jobs for them.
I’m not out to tell you whether you should spend your hard-earned dosh to buy the game. In fact, I wonder who this game is really for… is it for kids, who seem to enjoy it for at least a half-hour? But how many kids have parents would want to pay 15 smackers a month for this when they can just get a non-MMO fighting game and save hundreds of dollars? Is it for DC fans over 30 and around 40? How many of them can afford that monthly subscription? If the real value of the game is for players to form teams and doing missions together, then that’s asking for a lot of money for the players just to socialise. It reminds me of ZERO PUNCTUATION’s Yahtzee Croshaw bluntly calling MMOs “a second job for idiots”, because they’re paying to work instead of getting paid.
I heard the chatter on the game the other night amongst some players who had bluetooth sets. They were mostly hardcore stoners in their 30s who read a lot of comics, with that unmistakable laugh that dudes high on weed tend to have. You’d think they could spend that money on, I don’t know, actual comics or even more… soothing medicinal herbs.
DC UNIVERSE ONLINE is released on the PC and Playstation 3 on 11 January 2011.
Just know that you don’t get to teabag Superman.
Not pretending to be a superhero at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve begun the official LOOK! IT MOVES! twitter feed. Follow me at http://twitter.com/lookitmoves for thoughts and snark on media and pop culture, stuff for future columns and stuff I may never spend a whole column writing about.
Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh