DC Universe Online (Switch) Review

The Nintendo Switch has proven itself as a versatile console. The opportunity to play big, triple-AAA ports like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the forthcoming Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt on the go is a real game-changer for the company. Graphics take a hit in handheld mode but if you don’t care about that and instead root for portability and the preservation of gameplay, then differences in visual fidelity is a small price to pay. DC Universe Online, a sprawling superhero themed MMORPG originally released on PC and PlayStation 3 (and later again on the PS4 and Xbox One), launched in 2011 and has enjoyed ongoing support from Daybreak Game Company through numerous themed events and expansions designed to flesh out the game’s persistent storyline set inside the DC comic book multiverse. The relaunch of DC Universe Online on the Switch does a great job of showing off just how capable the console is at porting games you wouldn’t normally associate with the Nintendo brand.

As far as introductions go, DC Universe Online’s story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. To get the most understanding of why Lex Luthor is laying waste to Metropolis and wiping the floor with Superman, you’re going to need to read the comic book tie-in, DC Universe Online: Legends. The intro cutscene is the culmination of events that occur in the limited-run comic in which Lex Luthor partners with Brainiac to help him defeat Superman. The result is the battle of Metropolis we see in the game, where Luthor and his cohorts (you might call them a legion of doom) handily defeat Batman, The Flash, Cyborg, Superman, and Wonder Woman. With Earth’s other mightiest heroes defeated, Brainiac arrives to conduct his Borg-like conquest of the planet. Left with the world’s most understated moment of “I’ve made a huge mistake,” Lex travels back in time to beseech the Justice League to team up with their enemies under the banner of protecting Earth from Brainiac’s future schemes. 

This is where you come in. Thanks to Lex Luthor appropriating Brainiac’s Exobytes, small insect-like machines that store collected data on superheroes and villains alike, magically turns you into a meta human. DC Universe Online maximizes player involvement with an extensive character creator that offers a lot of fun depth. Since you can’t play as Batman or the Green Lantern or Aquaman, you instead have the option to create like-minded player characters that fall within various archetypes. If you’re short on time or don’t really care what sort of superhuman you want to play as, there’s a quick start option that pretty much asks, “Hey, what DC character do you like?” Spend the time, though, and you’ll enjoy a range of customization options for your brand spanking new meta-human. From costume design to combat preferences, there’s a degree of personal customization I really haven’t seen in the MMOs I’ve played before. It’s a little unfortunate that some options are locked behind a premium currency paywall but not once did I feel like my options were limited and I was perfectly capable of bringing my new supervillain Atomicia - to life without feeling like I had missed out on anything (although time-based powers would have been pretty cool). Because I chose an evil, magic-based character, my adventures in Metropolis were guided by Wonder Woman’s archenemy, Circe. She provided direction and exposition as I raced to and from quest areas that had goons to take down and mission critical Macguffins to collect. 

Spending time with your metahuman allows them to grow as they accumulate feats, earn skill points to spend in an ability tree, farm reputation, collect loot, unlock new skills and powers, augment those powers through Exobytes, find and equip better gear, and earn some cash. I found the numerous character screens and menus to be a little overwhelming given how they are crammed full with information, options and data that you can’t even use for most of the early game until you’ve reached specific character levels or reach certain milestones. One such milestone grants the ability to switch your roles, giving you secondary powers to use in combat. In the case of Atomicia, I chose healing as my backup role and was gifted some pretty great healing powers that were useful to myself and those I teamed up with. And the great thing about these roles is that you can switch between them on the fly without any cooldowns on abilities letting you change instantly whenever the need calls for it.

With so many options available, there is a great sense that DC Universe Online wants to give you complete and total control of your character. It adds a cool dynamic layer to a game you’re probably planning to spend a whole lot of time playing. While I really dig it - that is what made Star Wars: The Old Republic so great after all - I had difficulty trying to escape the tedium towards gameplay that feels old and antiquated. Every time I tried to play DC Universe Online for an extended period, I got bored after about an hour and went off to do something else. I attribute this behavior to the tired routine associated with the basic quest structure which, stop me if you’ve heard this before, involves interacting with a quest giver, denoted by a floating exclamation point, fly off to a target area, killing a specific number of enemies, and then interacting with the quest giver again to end the mission. There's nothing really fun about any part of this formula. Exploration started out cool because my character could fly like Superman but she does so rather slowly, thus taking quite a bit of time getting to and from places in the city. Combat is a less clicking on hotkeys and more using the face buttons to perform attacks and supplementing those by using your superpowers to take down cannon fodder and named hero characters (many of which I have no idea who they are) until they die.

The quests you’ll perform resemble the atypical MMO busywork of World of Warcraft that sometimes relate to a story arc you’re playing through. The all-too familiar quest model used in the game sees you running errands for bigger, more powerful people who just can’t be bothered to save the world or take it over themselves. Trouble in Metropolis? Send Atomicia out to knock out five of this type of enemy and three of that type so she can gather up six Whatevers and five Whoseits before moving onto the next task and do it all over again. Some quests break the routine near the end of their arcs that see you going up against a boss battle with another powerful hero.  As rote as quests could be in Warcraft, I still developed a compulsion to complete and see where these unassuming quests took me regardless of how late I stayed up on a work night. DC Universe Online didn’t leave me with the same drive to complete “just one more quest”.

If nothing else, I was surprised with how well DC Universe Online was adapted to the Nintendo Switch. This may be the game’s PS3 roots showing but your character’s abilities are mapped to the face buttons and can be called forth by holding down one of the shoulder buttons. Out of combat, these buttons allow you to interact with the world and the NPCs that inhabit it. I’m glad I picked a character with the ability to fly because that’s just so much more fun than having to use my lousy digital feet and legs to get where I need to go. Everything works as advertised, both in TV and in handheld, and the controls have been smartly mapped to the appropriate buttons on the JoyCons and Pro Controller. I spent most of my time playing the game in handheld mode and being able to lie in bed or sit on the couch playing an MMO was a pretty great experience.

Another surprising element is how DC Universe Online can be played without having a subscription to Nintendo Online. What I wonder, though, is how sustainable the game is on the platform. The game uses its own servers separate from the PC, Xbox and PlayStation consoles, so there’s no cross play. This might explain why it would take so long trying to get into one of the game’s instanced zones with other people. Even with instances available for one to X players, I was surprised that I couldn’t get into any of them. I did manage to play through an event-based instance, but it might as well have been a solo affair because the lack of in-game communication beyond emotes and canned text made any type of group coordination mostly useless.

After a week with the game, my rose-colored view of having a fully functioning MMO began to slip and revealed some issues that somewhat reduce its viability as a mobile game. First and foremost, DC Universe Online requires  a constant Internet connection to play. At home, this isn’t a problem thanks to your own wifi network but you’re out of luck if you want to play during a bus, train or flight unless Internet service is available. Even then, you can’t put the game through a rest mode should you suddenly have to get up and go. Since the Switch’s sleep mode more or less cuts off Internet access, you’ll be booted to the title screen when you wake the machine back up. In some cases, I had to quit the software completely. However, I did find that the game was really good with taking me back to where I had left off, so while getting booted wasn’t a huge problem, getting back in is a slight inconvenience. The UI text can be problematic in handheld mode because it’s so small, with Daybreak having to optimize everything to fit the Switch’s screen. The lack of any sort of on-screen chat means communication is mostly limited to Nintendo’s online services. This does have a silver lining because I haven’t seen any of that classic “JOIN MY GUILD” or “CASH FOR CHEAP!” chat spam.

I can appreciate the time and effort that went into porting an entire console MMO to the Nintendo Switch. However, DC Universe Online just did nothing for me. Its gameplay feels old and dusty and doesn’t really do enough to hold my attention for very long or encourage extensive play sessions. I truly believe that people who grew up living and breathing the entire DC Comics catalog are going to get the most out of a game that draws deep from the publisher’s well of heroes and villains. I have no idea who Brother Blood is nor do I understand why he plays such a huge role in the game and why he’s asking me to unleash a demon into the world. I mean, I know I’m supposed to be a villain but that doesn’t sound like too great of an idea. I suppose now, finally, I understand how DC fans feel about Marvel. I tried to not worry about the motivations for major characters giving me errands to run but that only made me feel more bored and generally uninterested with what was going all around me. Whatever wishes they desire, in the end I know it’s going to involve me taking out X number of enemies and holding down the A button to collect Y number of mission critical stuff. Those keen on the game will find that the story continues past the main game as the expansions Daybreak Game Studio developed over the course of its existence can be loaded after paying a modest premium fee for each new storyline.

If this is your first time playing a console MMO and happen to be a huge DC Comics connoisseur, DC Universe Online is happy to have you. It offers a far-reaching, open-ended persistent world occupied by your favorite heroes and villains ready to give you tasks designed to help advance their goals, be it to save Gotham and Metropolis or find ways to subjugate and exploit it. You’ll be propped up as the only one (well, you and the hundreds of other people playing the game) who can put a stop to Brainiac’s evil schemes and help restore order out of the chaos Lex Luthor would one day wrought. And from a production standpoint, the game is pretty slick as it makes use of fully-voiced characters, thanks to a star studded cast from Hollywood and video games. As for the game itself, I don’t think there is much to be wow’d by. I certainly didn’t find anything. The quest-based gameplay loop got old fast because it relies on the “go here, do a thing/fight a thing, complete the mission” model that quickly gets repetitive and unfun. DC Universe Online doesn’t do a good enough job making me feel like my efforts matter - especially when you see other players waiting for mission objective targets respawn so they can be heroes and save the day like you. What I really liked about Star Wars: The Old Republic and the phasing featured in later expansions of World of Warcraft is how the story would often shape itself around me. I didn’t really feel the same way about DC Universe Online and I’m going to need a good, compelling reason to stick around and potentially put real money into this MMO. Unlike The Old Republic, where you could have somewhat meaningful conversations with people that could influence how things play out, this is a game (and I’d say the same if this were a Marvel MMO) where your fists do all the talking. The solution to every quest is to just beat on it until it dies or falls to the ground unconscious and as a result, there’s little room for nuance. That might be a weird thing to complain about but other MMOs have done a better job at making you feel like a much more rounded character shaped by their past exploits. 

Perhaps my feelings about DC Universe Online might be colored by the fact that my experience with the company doesn’t extend beyond the Batman and Superman properties, both of which I do really enjoy. Was I being too harsh because of my inherent bias for Marvel? As a test, I went and downloaded another free to play MMO for my Xbox One, Star Trek Online. Now, I love some Star Trek, so already the IP got its hooks into me but more importantly, Star Trek Online gives you so much to do within its first hour that DC Universe Online doesn’t. To be specific, the tutorial zone in DC Universe Online had me going through a hallway crawl of sorts inside one of Brainiac’s ships before plummeting down to Metropolis and being instructed to beat on some bad guys. In Star Trek Online, I navigated the bridge of my own Starfleet ship, ran a planet scan, beamed down to a planet with a character from a classic Star Trek TOS episode, fought some aliens, rescued a science team and taught them how to survive, then took to space to fight some Klingons before being promoted to captain of the ship the U.S.S. Francesca. Games like Star Trek Online and even Elder Scrolls Online go out of their way to model themselves about what makes those properties unique. For Star Trek, it’s about space diplomacy. For Elder Scrolls Online, it’s playing however you want in a vast fantasy world. In the world of muscle-bound superheroes with out of this world powers, brute strength and conviction win the day. And compared to other console MMOs, I just don’t think it has much novelty or staying power for me. 

It’s great, then, that DC Universe Online is completely free to jump in and try for yourself with no strings attached. There’s enough base content to help make the call of whether or not to make this your de facto console MMO experience. After all, your mileage will vary. At the end of the day, though, the fact that you can play a fully-featured MMORPG on your portable Nintendo Switch is pretty damn amazing and could well be a harbinger of similar games being available in the future.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.