DC Universe Online is, obviously, a superhero/villain MMORPG. However, unlike Champions Online, it does not feel like a "City of Heroes" clone. It does a good number of things different (some for the better, some not so much). Combat has an entirely different "flow" to it, character building and customization is completely different as is stat and item handling, and of course, it includes years of technological and gaming paradigm advances.
Combat has a much more "actiony" feel to it. The game has been described as very "X-Box controller-friendly" and I'd be inclined to agree. It works fine with mouse and keyboard but several factors indicate a controller might be a more convenient input device. There's no mouse cursor except when you open a menu. Instead there is a targeting reticle, and whatever last was in that reticle is retained as your target until you target something else in the same manner or your target goes offscreen. You can also "lock" your current target to make sure you don't switch or lose it. Attacks feel very diablo-ish in that it's pretty much "one click = 1 attack," as opposed to the old cliche of picking a target and turning on autoattack. Additionally, the types of attacks you do depend upon the "types" of clicks you enter, and often build combos based on successive moves, on top of the more conventional "1-8" ability hotkeys. This does very well at keeping combat fresh and interesting, but it also can lead to sore fingers and perhaps increased button wear. I can't be the only one who's worn out a mouse button here.
DCUO also incorporates a slightly more RPG-standard inventory system. You get money and loot drops from defeated foes and as rewards for completing missions. The gear you wear affects your stats and has a direct effect on your capabilites. Ordinarily I'm not a fan of games that define your effectiveness entirely by what gear you have, but this is mitigated somewhat from the fact that I've very rarely actually felt "underpowered." Oh, I don't agree with every design decision in this - I think it's appalling that they have two different stats for mitigating incoming damage that are separate for NPCs (called "defense") and enemy players (called "toughness"). That's a huge black mark in my opinion, necessitating a "pvp" suit and a "pve" suit of gear with no convenient way to switch back and forth between them with a hotkey.
But let me tell you something they did very right with gear: Styles. Every piece of gear's appearance is called a "style." For instance, you could have a pair of gloves that are "biker" style. You like how that looks? Putting them on unlocks that style for you forever, and setting your appearance with styles is a separate tab from the inventory. Thus, you do not have to give up a "look" you like when you get gear with better stats that doesn't match. I also like that the game only starts you off with a dozen or so basic costume options and then uses finding gear as a way for you to not only increase your character's power but also to build a wardrobe. Sure, there are also even MORE "styles" you can unlock by paying real world money in the game's marketplace, but hey, a free-to-play MMO has to make its money somewhere, and cosmetic upgrades are a good place to do that. Thus, you have a character appearance customization scheme which rivals City of Heroes without the drawback of getting everything at level 1 and having nothing else to strive for aesthetically.
Some people might think I'm crazy for saying that, but to me, that's the whole point of an MMO - you want to work to make your character better. To me, starting with every costume option now seems like starting at the max level. Sure it's fun right away, but it has no staying power, no accomplishment. Unlocking costume pieces also distinguishes players from each other - fancier costumes show more advanced characters at a glance, usually... though the game has the same problem COH and the like suffered, with plenty of "hero" types running around in black-on-black color schemes with spikes and chains and batwings and such with names like "DarkLordMurderDeathDemonGuy." Yeah, I'm sure the Justice League would love to have THAT hero on the watchtower. WHY didn't you roll villain again? I mean, you'd fit in there.
Another innovative concept the game adds is that the game lets you switch in and out of your archetype's "role" starting at level 10. Everybody starts off a DPS class, but at level 10, your power type gives you a roll you can switch into at any time - Tank, Healer, Controller. These roles don't do as much damage as your default "Damage" mode, but your abilities get extra effects that make you more group friendly (such as healing/ability power regeneration, better CC, better damage mitigation, etc). Thus, every character both has the ability to solo and the ability to contribute meaningfully to a group.
There are some parts that rub me the wrong way, however.
First off, you start off by making a character and picking a "power" and a "weapon." These two aspects are completely independent of each other. The first character I rolled had "mind" powers and dual pistols for weapons. It just struck me when I was rolling... why does a mind controlling telekinetic need guns? It may have no "story" reason but the pragmatic, in-game reason is that your "powers" chew up your blue bar really fast. You'll get 4, maaaybe 5 powers off before you're completely empty. That's enough to take out 2 or so common mook level adversaries, or perhaps bring a same-level player to half (if he doesn't drink a health potion). So, you will rely on your weapons for a great deal of your damage. That aforementioned TK/guns villain I made had his best results by using his "powers" sparingly as interrupts and crowd control while doing most of his attacking with his guns. Yank a guy in the air, shoot him a few times, repeat.
Which brings me to another part of the game I can't decide if I like or not - everything is all about stunlocking. Almost every attack, in every power line and every weapon specialization, comes with some kind of stun, or knockdown, or sleep effect, or entrapment of some kind. If you don't screw up the button mashing, you can potentially keep a target from being able to fight back at all, which in PVP (at least at the lower levels) often leads to whoever attacks first winning. But you can "break" out of being stunned and whatnot by hitting shift, the block key. If you release it and press it, you can shake off the effect, and have a chance to counterattack and turn the tables so the OTHER guy is now being juggled, but this doesn't have the best success rate. Most often it's somebody flubbing a mouseclick combination that changes the momentum of the fight, in my experience. There's also a dynamic having to do with blocking - some attacks will be blocked, other attacks break block but are interruptible. It feeds into the "actiony" combat I was talking about earlier. That's all very well and good but let's remember we're playing an MMO here - high latency is the rule rather than the exception. There may not be time to react to what's going on in a fight in that matter. It's less the case in PvE fights against bosses who tend to telegraph their attacks, but in PVP it adds a great deal of randomness.
The game uses the Unreal 3 engine, with all the good and bad that entails. That means the models are detailed and framerate performance is pretty darn good (I get better framerates in DCUO than I do in City of Heroes on the same rig, despite DCUO being much more detailed/higher polygon count). However, the game suffers the texture problems most Unreal 3 games suffer - blurry, low res smudges in place of textures for 5 seconds, replaced by slightly less blurry textures for 5 seconds thereafter, until finally the proper high res texture loads in. I think the "level of detail" threshold (how far an object has to be from you before it is replaced by a lower polygon version, or disappears entirely) is a smidge on the close side, and unfortunately there is no slider to adjust this in the options.
The game uses built in VOIP in groups but only once have I ever had somebody besides me use it. But it's saved my bacon to be able to say "incoming hero behind!" while fighting instead of having to type it, and have the others in my group hear me.
The game also goes heavy on the polish. There's a lot of voice acting, your mentors and questgivers' faces appear and animate on your screen's "communicator" to talk to you, effects are neat, the sound is good, and the soundtrack is very well done as well. My one nitpick is they got the wrong person (in Gina Torres, of Firefly) to voice Wonder Woman. It sounds more like Amanda Waller (the big mean government lady from Cadmus in the DCAU, remember?) attempting to do a humorous impression of wonder woman. But they got Kevin Conroy to voice Batman and Mark Hamill to voice Joker (and Arleen Sorkin to be Harley Quinn!), so even though they got a Baldwin to be Superman, we can let all that slide.
And, unlike previous games which, due to not being licensed or paying royalties, discouraged you from making your own lookalike of an established DC comic hero, this game not only makes it possible, not only encourages it, but some of the best loot is directly labeled as "Supergirl's Boots" and such and give you the style option to look exactly like them. There are plenty of Superman, Batman and Joker-alikes out there doing their things. So, if that's a plus for you, go for it.
There's also an option I find humorous - an option to not display all other non-hostile players. I haven't turned it on, myself, but I find it amusing that they thought to give you a box to check in your MMO when you want everybody else to go away. I wonder if you just see NPCs falling over for no reason. They should call it "Solipsistic mode."
So what's my final verdict? It's free to play, as I said, so there's nothing to lose in trying it out, and I dare say a lot of people (if they haven't already, I know it's almost 2 years old) already have. But even at this late stage, I'm sure many like me didn't bother to give it a look until it hit steam for free, and I'd bet a good number will find it worth paying money for - maybe not the full $15 subscription, but maybe a buck or two here and there for costume pieces and such. I've played many worse MMOs, and paid way more for the privilege. That said, I've also played better and it seems to lack content in the endgame so it won't be one of those games you play for years, and it won't be EVERYBODY's cup of tea to begin with.
Grade: B+ for a free to play, C as a subscription model.