DC Universe Online
Flying without wings.
With great power comes great responsibility, as a certain superhero once learned. The same can be said of a great licence. There's always a chance you'll bungle it, produce something that appeals to neither fans of the IP nor the gaming genre, and spend the next five years apologising for your mistakes.
Sony Online Entertainment learned that lesson with Star Wars Galaxies, but that hasn't stopped the publisher taking on another high profile licence and turning it into an MMO. And this time, there are arguably even greater risks attached. To begin with, DC Universe Online is in development for PlayStation 3 as well as PC. So there's the issue of how you make an MMO work on a console, and of designing a control system that works for both platforms. You have to strike the right balance between tactical gameplay and fast-paced action. And you have to answer the question of whether console gamers even want to play MMOs in the first place.
There are also particular problems with the DC licence. Giving players the ability to wield a big sword made of light and chuck things about telekinetically is one thing; what happens when they also expect to leap buildings in a single bound, encase enemies in blocks of ice, shoot lasers from their eyes and do everything else the 4000-odd characters in DC's portfolio are capable of? What do you do when everyone wants to "be" Batman? And how do you balance the combat when everyone playing the game has the option to shoot lasers from their eyes?
Like some kind of MMO Publisher of Steel, SOE is hands-on-hips unafraid in the face of such questions. To start us off, creative director Chris Cao tackles the issue of why MMOs haven't yet made it big on consoles. "People haven't been able to deliver the calibre of game console gamers expect," he says. "We have. We've built a team out of MMO makers and action game makers. We've made an action game moment-to-moment, and an MMO game month-to-month.
"All the things we like about MMOs - levels, loot, long-term stories - those will be there," Cao promises. "But now, for the first time, console players will have a game they actually enjoy playing, rather than one that's meant and better suited for the PC."
I'm approaching DC Universe Online as one of those console players SOE is trying to attract. I dabbled with WOW, getting to level 23 before realising I was bored and it was March, and haven't touched an MMO since. So given the choice of starting with the PS3 or PC version, I pick up the Sixaxis instinctively. And instinctively, the first thing I try out is the flying.
Cao explains the mechanics - click L3 to get your character airborne, then use the left stick to control it on the horizontal axis. Pressing X gives you a speed boost, but this means sacrificing a little control; it's best used for getting from A to B fast rather than manoeuvring during combat.
This is all straightforward enough, but things get trickier when it comes to adjusting your altitude. Pushing the right stick up makes your character ascend, and you push down to descend. However, the right stick also controls the camera, as it does when you're on the ground. So whenever you rise through the air you're forced to look upwards, and vice versa. Surely this could cause problems if you're attempting to soar away from danger down below, or if you're being pursued by another character who's able to fly? The constant flicking between viewpoints is disorienting and awkward, and it turns out I'm rubbish at flying. Just like in real life.
"It's because we have full 3D flight," says Cao. "It's a little tricky. But we've noticed it's good to have player skill in some elements because after a little bit of time you gain mastery over it, and you're able to do manoeuvres a lower level player couldn't. So player skill does matter quite a bit." Shame I don't have any, then. "And of course we're pre-alpha, so we have some refinements to do to make it a little easier."