And that's where the road meets the rubber in an MMO: Is the game fun even without the multiplayer element? I got a chance to see Sony Online Entertainment's DC Universe Online in action at a pre-E3 event a few weeks ago, and played a combat-based level by myself. And while I did get to see some new features of the game by browsing through the menus and beating up Harley Quinn's henchmen with my Batman-alike, I'm sorry to say that DCUO's combat isn't quite as enthralling as it could be.
We've already played the game a couple of times here at Joystiq, so you've already read about how it controls -- there's an on-screen ability bar which you can toggle with R1 and L1 to access various moves and actions, and you move around the game world with a standard dual stick setup. The first thing I did was to inspect my character, and I quickly concluded that I was Batman (or at least the closest thing to him that the game's character creator could make). He was aligned as a Hero, with a tech and aerobatic speciality -- so, like the real in-game Batman, he had plenty of gadgets to throw around and could climb up and jump off walls and other surfaces.
The particular scenario I had laid out for me was that Harley Quinn had kidnapped Robin (oh, Robin, you're so useless), and Batman himself had asked me to invade the warehouse in which she'd holed herself up and rescue the Boy Wonder. In the very first room, I got a nice taste of something we've heard about but never seen before: physics-based combat in the game. A series of oversized bouncy balls fell into the room in front of me, and I found that I could bat them around or even grab and throw them at bad guys. They bounced off each other and the bad guys realistically, throwing off damage numbers each time.
Unfortunately, combat in the game, either indirect or direct, still feels floaty. I don't know if it's just the programming or MMO lag, but punches and hits didn't feel solid, and abilities felt almost glitched. My character could climb up walls and across the ceiling, but there were a few times that I would hit a crack and the screen would shutter and flash for a few seconds until the game righted my position. We played the game in pre-alpha a year ago, and a lack of polish would have been more understandable then, but for a game that plans to sit alongside other console action games, DCUO still isn't there yet.
I did have some fun abilities to play around with -- of course, there was the usual Batarang-style projectile, along with a temporary invulnerability shield and a few other toys. One of my abilities actually trapped a henchman in an energy ball, at which point he turned into an object I could grab and use to beat up other bad guys. This is a superhero universe, so the abilities that you earn while leveling tend to be over the top.
Finally, I made my way up to Harley and, again, the game's MMO genre far overshadowed the combat. Harley came with a few henchmen (if I had been a Villian, the mission would have had me fighting alongside her against police, I was told), but the fight's strategy was more about using my ability cooldowns and standing in the right place rather than chaining attacks or using more action-based conceits. DCUO may be an MMO with an action bent, but it's still very much an MMO, and as a result, single-player won't be nearly as exciting as tooling around with a group of friends.
I subdued Harley without much trouble, cut Robin's binding ropes, and got a "Headline Achieved" popup on my screen, which I equated to "Quest Completed." I also got Harley's hat as a loot item after the fight, and the SOE representative pointed out enthusiastically that I could wear it, even if I didn't want the stats it confers. DCUO has a cosmetic gear system, so once you earn a piece of gear, you can always have it equipped cosmetically, even if you actually have another item equipped for stats. Harley's hat is a jester's pigtails -- I decided to stick with my black mask.
It remains to be seen, however, how that cosmetic gear will work in high-level PVP, which SOE promised the game would have when it releases in November, along with regular monthly content updates and challenges.
I won't say I didn't have fun in my short time with the game -- once I got the hang of wall-crawling and dealing out my character's abilities, my fight through Harley's warehouse was entertaining, if not actually enthralling. But there's a lot of polish still needed here, especially if SOE wants to make the action stand out from the MMO genre. Stay tuned for more on the game from E3 in a few weeks.