- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at DC Universe Online (from Sony Online Entertainment and Havoc, reviewed for PlayStation 3, rated T for teen, $59.99 plus $14.99 per month).

This third-person, massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) experience stars the heroes and villains of a legendary comic-book publisher. It allows players to create superpowered avatars that band together to tackle missions spread across the legendary pop-art landscapes of sunny Metropolis and dark Gotham City.

What’s the story? From the game manual: In the future, all of Earth’s heroes and villains are dead. Their endless bloody conflict blinded them to the true threat: the planet-devouring alien intelligence Brainiac. As Brainiac amasses all of Earth’s powers using his vicious Exobytes, only one man is left standing, the last son of Earth, Lex Luthor.

As Brainiac prepares to assimilate the data from the Exobytes, Lex Luthor makes a final attempt to save his planet. He steals the Exobytes and flees backward through time. There he detonates the Exobytes in the atmosphere, blasting ordinary humans with ultracondensed meta, magic and tech powers that were drained from Earth’s future.

With this new generation of superpowered heroes and villains, Earth stands a chance against Brainiac.

Play the role: The gamer finds himself caught up in a battle of good versus evil and must quickly make some complex decisions that will bring his avatar to life and align with the Justice League or Legion of Doom.

Players can build a character from the ground up or select a model (such as Catwoman, Deathstroke or Green Arrow) and tweak to their hearts’ content. I found this part of the game to be as entertaining as it was time-consuming, with a nice selection of possibilities.

With my love of supermight, I built a male hero named Zadzooks made of hardened volcano ash (with veins of lava). He wields a bow, can control fire and has the power of flight. He has a spiky green hairdo; wears spiked gauntlets, a red cape and Lobo-style boots; and sports a large red “Z” on his bare chest.

My hero-mentor would be Superman (other choices include Batman for the technology fan and the magical Wonder Woman) and I would receive tips and mission instructions from Oracle, the former Batgirl.

Players can create up to eight characters, so I went back to the development process and created an equally cool male villain. Named Badzooks, this brawling, green-skinned reptilian behemoth, with superspeed and the power to control nature, answered to the Joker (I also could have chosen Lex Luthor or Olympian Goddess Circe) and took directions from the Calculator.

A completed character enters a world ripped from the comics and fights alongside such stalwarts as Batwoman, Robin and Parasite while going on quests, bounties and alerts that range from escaping Brainiac’s massive ship to exploring Watchtower or the Hall of Doom, stopping Scarecrow from releasing nerve gas, visiting Booster Gold’s kiosks, capturing Bizarro and seeing the Joker’s home, Amusement Mile.

Suffice to report, the comics fan will be in virtual heaven.

Get to the action: After about two hours of downloading and configuring content  your PS3 will need 16 gigabytes of free space, ouch  it’s time to do some damage.

In a very uncharacteristic design that doesn’t cater to the hard-core MMORPG crowd, Sony and DC offer less in the areas of meticulous item bidding and intensive inventory management and simply let players wander around massive locales to interact, collect and beat the tar out of the good or bad guys.

Leveling up is the key to success because that leads to more powers and access to more weapons. Unfortunately, that often requires button-mashing battles that will exhaust a player’s patience and thumbs. In fact, expect to spend lots of time on quests and leveling up before an avatar has a chance of surviving consistently.

For example, while Gorilla Grodd turns humans into monkeys, Zadzooks (with some help from Superman) must fight through various submissions to defeat a specific number of gorilla soldiers, destroy a certain number of generators and devolve machines before he can join with the Flash to take down the powerful villain.

The rewards for leveling up include earning points to upgrade powers and movements and access to iconic powers such as heat vision. Also, collecting items around the locations leads to upgrades, including trading in cash to vendors to repair equipment and buy better weapons.

Because combat reigns supreme here, kiddies, the player has two options for encounters, either PvE (player versus environment) or PvP (player versus player). Once an avatar has leveled up to a decent strength (around Level 15 out of a possible 30, in my opinion) he’ll be able to survive the PvP (which is a live free-for-all with any online avatar) and, better yet, survive in Legends PvP mode, where he assumes the role of a familiar DC superstar.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Zadzooks enveloped in fire to defend against enemies; flying at superspeed and skimming the body of water surrounding Metropolis; learning about the history of the Ferris wheel; standing on top of LexCorp Tower (the tallest building in Metropolis) and admiring the surrounding landscape; Badzooks shooting a vine at a cop and watching it grow and smother him; seeing Black Adam in CGI glory; and marveling at the cool costume upgrades at the Hall of Doom.

Violent encounters: The amount of violent action is less than that found while perusing any modern-day superhero comic-book series. No blood spills while punching, blasting and firebombing a steady stream of henchmen, robots, cops, do-gooders and super wannabes. When your avatar’s health runs out, he is knocked out and must flee to a safe house (Zadzooks returned to the Metropolis Police Station) before returning to a mission.

Read all about it: DC Comics offers the 26-issue biweekly comic-book series DC Universe Online Legends ($2.99 each) as a companion to the game. It features artwork by Howard Porter and is co-written by Tony Bedard and Marv Wolfman.

Star power: A who’s who of voice-over actors known to fans of DC animated series and feature-length cartoons — including Mark Hamill as the Joker, Kevin Conroy as Batman, Adam Baldwin as Superman and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn — bring to life some classic characters in the game.

Pixel-popping scale: 7.0 out of 10. Comic-book-industry legend Jim Lee serves as one of the creative directors and helps deliver the often slick character and location designs.

He’s not a computer programmer, however, and the glitches in the action, such as losing sync in the middle of a fight and slowdown during big battles, can detract from the fun.

Fans should repeatedly admire the splendid cut scene introducing the game, much like savoring a work of art. It’s that great. (Somebody from Warner Bros. Animation needs to pay attention here.) Fans also will like the loads of comic art featured during mission introductions.

Multiplayer: Besides turning on the PvP option, which allows anyone online to pick a fight with your character, players can team up in groups to accomplish missions. One of the geekiest parts of the entire game is simply wandering around the universe and looking at all of the cool costumes users have designed for made-up metahumans, including Kid Magma, Frostbyte and the Carpenter. Those tired of punching can spend hours stargazing. Don’t bother trying to communicate too much yet, however, via headset or controller; it’s a pain.

What’s it worth? After a free 30-day trial to these superwars, I am not yet convinced that dropping another $14.99 a month is worth it. (Note to parents: A credit-card number must be entered when starting the trial and will be charged automatically after the first month if the account is not closed.)

I love the depth that the rich DC mythology brought to a virtual space — I can’t gush enough about the number of comic-book character appearances — but I’ll need much more quest variety before recommending that the average gamer invest this amount of time and money into DC Universe Online.

For a $180 a year (plus the $60 to buy the game), I easily could purchase used copies of Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and MAG (with 256 free player skirmishes) and satisfy my desire to be an online superwarrior. Only time, and plenty of content upgrades, will tell if this MMORPG is truly legendary.

* Send e-mail to jszadkowskiwashingtontimes.com.

• Joseph Szadkowski can be reached at jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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