As the first MMO to attempt to bridge the gap between console and PC since Final Fantasy XI in 2002 – and the first to ever do so simultaneously at launch – DC Universe Online raises a lot of questions. Will the PC game be limited by the necessity of designing around a controller? Are PS3 owners willing to embrace a subscription model?
We'll come to these and other questions later, but let's put them aside for a moment and consider the game at face value.
Your arrival in the DC Comics universe, home of Superman and Batman, marks a call for a new breed of superhero to rise against the forces of Brainiac, who's intent on taking control of Earth. This starts, of course, with the creation of your force for good or evil, depending on whether you choose to play as a Hero or a Villain.
You can either create a purely custom class or take inspiration from a selection of DC characters such as Wonder Woman, The Flash and The Joker. There's a reasonably generous selection of combat styles and roles on offer, whether your heroic dreams involve controlling the will of others or more dramatic sorcery. You'll also choose your mode of travel here, with options to fly, sprint or grapple your way around the world.
Though the cosmetic customisation is a shadow of DCUO's contemporaries, there are just about enough options to leave you feeling unique. With enough imagination, you're unlikely to run into carbon copies of your super-self once you complete the tutorial section, escape from Brainiac's ship and enter the world proper.
And it's a breathtaking world. The sensation of darting deftly around the neon-streaked city of Gotham beneath a brooding sky is a triumph in art direction. Combined with the brighter, sun-kissed avenues of Metropolis, the world is by turns rich in colour and grimly intimidating. The sight of Batman's signal imprinted on the sky will elicit a sigh from even the most casual DC fan, and the atmosphere that permeates the game's visuals is truly magical.
Whether you choose to soar like a bird, race through the streets with an electrifying glow or spring from building to building, the freedom of exploration offered by DCUO is a true breath of fresh air among the traditionally flatter planes of MMO worlds. For the most part, the world is also pleasantly open and seamless, save for significant character fights, which are instanced.
But the beauty and freedom of the world have come at a cost. A sense of emptiness abounds, save for traffic on the horizon and crudely animated characters in the distance. Population is limited to specific quest locations and the streets are deserted, more often than not. As you look around at the magnificent buildings, it's hard to imagine that there's a world of wants, hopes and dreams worth saving behind these windows.
Much has been made of the game being without grind, and there's a refreshingly brief road to be travelled to the game's current level cap of 30. Alt-aholics will no doubt rejoice in this, as they have the freedom to experiment in different roles and see a new side of the game without having to climb a mountain to reach the view.
Less welcome in this context, though, is that the quests themselves are so deeply rooted in the grind mentality of yesteryear, discouraging extra play-throughs. You'll kill 15 henchmen in order to obtain 10 devices, only to find yourself returning to do it all again. The locations, art and names change, but the mechanics remain the same and there's little in the way of variety.