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.