At this year's E3, Sony Online Entertainment's DC Universe Online revealed the most important part of its superhero arsenal: weight. Lag-buffered and saddled with simplified combat animations, many MMOs are lacking any tangible sense of physicality, numbers and stats taking the place of proper hit responses, while convenient magic effects cover up the worst of the collision detection crimes with a blur of fizzing particles.
In the last few months, however, DCUO has picked up a real sense of heft, its bulky heroes thudding over the ground, freight-training into their enemies, and sending all manner of physics objects tumbling heavily through the air. It's a solid, eminently thumpable world that SOE Austin has built: a playground designed to withstand its super-strength occupants, and a setting that suggests the team's aim to make an MMO that truly feels like an action game may be entirely within reach.
The design helps, of course. This is legendary comic book artist Jim Lee's take on DC's roster, which means massive, hulking characters, exaggerated poses and primary-colour landscapes. With Lee serving as executive creative director, he's been in a position to influence almost all visual aspects of the game, his own team sketching plans for everything from the lampposts to the death rays, wet-washing Metropolis - one of the game's large hub areas - into existence in a shimmering wave of golds and silvers, and digging out the Batcave in angular stabs of blacks, greys, and dark, mossy, greens.
The result is an overarching style that can almost rival the coherence brought by Blizzard's art teams. MMOs - like comic book universes, come to think of it - are the work of hundreds of different people, often evolving over an unusually lengthy period of time; the highest compliment you can pay DCUO is that it's starting to look like the result of one person's vision.
But art alone can't account for the kinetic, explosive hilarity that kicks off during missions. For our E3 demo, we're sent off to STAR Labs, caught in the grip of a viral mutagen outbreak which is turning the security guards into potato-skinned monsters. The plot's hardly tricky to follow, but the instance unfolds at a surprising clip, cramming the equivalent of 20 pages of four-colour panelling into a single, fairly snug location, while a reassuring level of detail turns the lab into a slightly campy funhouse of brushed steel and buzzing, flickering computer terminals.
What starts off as a simple exercise in thinning the shambling ranks of the mutants quickly shifts gear to become a tense escort encounter, as you're asked to defend a mild-mannered boffin while he throws together an antidote. Next, it's time to give the mutants their new medicine, turning them into potentially helpful security-guard support in the process, before finally taking on Patient Zero, an over-sized freak who's waiting down in the lobby. A typical day for the WHO, in other words.
Each part of the adventure offers a chance to revel in DCUO's relentlessly large-scale powers, whether you're flattening enemies with a massive axe, or searing them in half with laser vision. The character we've been given is earth-based (other energy flavours include family favourites such as fire and ice), meaning there's a lot of ground-punching and boulder-summoning going on, but the real pleasure lies in the possibilities for impromptu teamwork - a fellow hero freezing an enemy in place with some kind of magic beam, before we seal them up inside a chunk of rock, and someone else pops up to boot them across the room.
The key to keeping things flowing smoothly is in knowing when to switch out your current tray of powers, DCUO's Stance system allowing you to create a selection of presets made from skills themed around offensive, defensive, and other, as yet unannounced, slots. Offensive earth powers include ground-pounding area attacks, and a move that sends a Bugs Bunny column of mud snaking across the ground to unseat a distant target; defensive offerings include a gravelly energy field you can lay down, hemming in enemies and forcing them to take damage if they want to run through it, and a handy remote-control earthquake you can steer around corners - a pranky piece of brilliance I'll definitely be taking to the next funeral I attend.
Throughout the carnage, we're playing alongside some familiar faces. First up on the autograph tour is Batman - along with his moodily animated cape - who drops by to dole out a little grim-faced justice before handing over to Green Arrow and Wonder Woman, who are waiting for us in the lobby. Finally, there's an appearance from Superman, as rubbish as he always is, but turning out to be surprisingly helpful when you're taking on a three-storey mutant with next to no natural skills and nothing in the way of a battle plan.
Some players may be irritated that the big names are primarily there to hand out quests and provide support, but it seems like a better solution than allowing you to clog the hallways of Arkham with legions of squabbling Batmen. And serving alongside such a striking line-up of heroes is also a reminder of the richness of the licence - that warm glow of recognition creeping in not only with the big moments when Superman barrels in through a window to chin one of your attackers, but in the little details too, like when mission updates pop onto the screen, delivered by Batman's very own PA, Oracle.
SOE may be the company that tripped up with Star Wars - offering you the dashing role of farmer when you wanted to be a Jedi, tooling around asteroid belts in a spooky cloak and cutting people in half with your mind - but it's spent a lot of time looking at DC and its characters, and isn't about to misjudge the audience a second time.
Mutants defeated, the mission concludes, and along with some loot, we end up on the cover of the Daily Planet for our troubles. As a taste of the final game, the Stance system and wide range of combat options suggests players will be able to tailor their approaches to knocking people around in DCUO as much as its rival, Champions Online, will allow them to customise their appearance. But - turning briefly to the sartorial side of the superhero business - while DCUO may not have Cryptic's insanely deep wardrobe, its deer antlers and flaming skin, or its bizarre mastery of the randomise-character button, SOE's team has come up with its own flexible approach to ensuring you stand out from the rest of the crowd.
That approach is a system that allows you to change the appearance of any piece of equipment you receive in the game without altering the perk it provides. This means that you won't have to put up with wearing something that looks like a pink Tyrolean cap with a jaunty feather in order to receive the eight-point Awesomeness boost it bestows (the Tyrolean cap and the Awesomeness boost are examples I just made up while poking about in the fridge for apple juice and a Double Decker, but I have high hopes for that jaunty feather making it into the final game).
So, it's Crackdown in the great outdoors and a solid button-masher when you're spun off into an instance: with its big names and bigger ideas (SOE demoed the game with PC and PS3 versions both running on a shared server, but admits the team will probably start off with separate communities when they go live, with the aim of eventual integration) DC Universe Online is definitely a title to keep your eye on.
A lot remains to be revealed, not least the secret identity side of the story, which is allegedly tied into a crafting system, and several key locations like Gotham City - the dour, oil-spill counterpart to Metropolis' sleek idealism. But with the 2010 release approaching faster than a speeding bullet, SOE Austin's action MMO has the potential to be truly heroic.