- Title: Dungeons and Dragons Online
- Developer: Turbine Entertainment
- Publisher: Atari
One aspect of the title I know I have a firm grasp on is the setting. Eberron was developed by Keith Baker for a contest held by Wizards of the Coast a few years ago. Since then the pulp action setting for the D&D system has become the company's premier IP. Novels, sourcebooks, comics, and miniatures are all being created with the Eberron world in mind, and Dungeons and Dragons Online is the second work of electronic entertainment to use the setting. You may recall Dragonshard, the D&D RTS title. That too is based in Eberron, but with an (understandably) less immersive look at the setting. DDO delves deep into the backstory of the gameworld. Set in the settlement of Stormreach on the continent of Xen'drik, the game allows you to explore some of the elements that make Eberron unique. The powerful merchant and political factions known as Dragonmarked Houses make an appearance in the game, as benefactors and opponents. Dragons are rare, powerful, and mysterious. While I would have liked to get more of the backstory from the setting's main continent of Khorvaire, there is a definite sense of place in DDO. It's thin, but it's there.
Creating a character is the first of many DDO aspects that reinforce a D&D feel. Attributes are created using the 'point buy' system, allowing a player to build a character to fit a class without relying on random die rolls. If you're uninterested in tweaking a character's skills and attributes, you can simply select a class/race combo and accept the pre-built character the game will provide you. Prebuilt characters all have fairly sane choices made as regards attributes and skills, and if you're not interested in learning the particulars of D&D character creation it's a safe choice to make. All of the D&D iconic classes are available (even poncy bards), along with the typical player races. The Warforged are the stand-out race for the game, living constructs that resemble animated statues. In the game's lore, Warforged were construct troops created for a titanic century-long war. With the war at an end Warforged are emancipated creatures and can fill any role the fleshy races do. While I find them intriguing plot elements, I've heard a lot of player commentary about their inhumanity. It's a fact that the race most often played in a MMOG is 'human', and the unliving nature of the Warforged may make them an unpopular race. Just the same, their inclusion is a powerful reminder of the setting's background. The classes available are typical to what you'd find in most MMOGs; With good reason, as most MMOGs stole their class concepts from D&D in the first place. One class element that might surprise some folks who haven't done table-top gaming before is the role of the cleric. D&D clerics are almost as powerful front-line fighters as your fighter or paladin. They wear heavy armor, kick ass, and take names in the pursuit of their god's goals. Rogues are also fundamentally more useful than in many typical MMOGs. There are plenty of traps in D&D dungeons, and rogues are the only ones who can disable them. Making your character 'feels' very D&D, and sets the stage for your integration into the Eberron setting.
Besides just poking the baddies, there is actually a good deal of depth to DDO combat. All characters have the option of using some tactics in their fighting. Skills actually play a large part in combat if used correctly. Diplomacy attempts to throw off aggro, making a monster attack someone else. Intimidate is the opposite, encouraging foes to attack your character. Rogues can use the Hide and Move Silently skills to avoid notice, and bypass monsters if need be. If they don't, they can strike from hiding and possible score a sneak attack for massive damage. Rogues can even do sneak attacks in combat by using the Bluff skill to throw an opponent off balance. Magic is more your typical MMOG fare. Wizards, Clerics, etc, have mana points which are used up by spellcasting. Even with that as the base mechanic, the system is very D&D. Spellcasting classes have only a few spell slots, and can only swap out what they have online when resting. Further, arcane spellcasters only know a subset of their available spells and must find or purchase additional spells before they can use them. These elements are all laudable additions to the game, but in reality many combats feel more like a group of individuals doing their own thing than a party effort. Because of the frenetic nature of real-time clicky combat fights are fast and hard to manage. A group comfortable with each other, with voice chat in use, will have a good deal of success. Pick-up groups, though, are at even more of a disadvantage than in most games simply because things happen so fast.
That's what you do in combat. What you're actually *doing* when you play DDO is almost entirely dungeon-crawling. You receive quests from the people of Stormreach, all of whom need help with this or that. Like City of Heroes/Villains, your missions are instanced, meaning that you and your party get to play around with your own copy of the dank basement/decaying sewer/giant ruin that you have to explore. With the missions instanced, DDO dungeons are allowed to do some really interesting stuff. Traps, for example, are deadly challenges that affect the world in real-time. More than just kicking open a chest and being set on fire, razor-sharp blades swing from the ceiling. Splashes of acid fly from spigots in the walls. If you don't have a rogue with you, some traps can be avoided by using your platforming skills to time the gap in a trap's movement. If you do have a rogue handy, the trap mechanisms can be searched out and disabled. The traps are a very cool addition to the genre, but the quests are unfortunately laughable. The thin layer of Eberron that I mentioned above is mostly related through quest text, and what is offered through NPC interaction is cookie cutter and boring. Quests usually have a voice-over, from an intangible Dungeon Master, to spice up your understanding of the situation and evoke the table-top setting. In my opinion, the voice-over doesn't add much. In truth, the storytelling that Everquest 2 and World of Warcraft manage through questing makes the story attempts of DDO look like a student project MOO in comparison.
That XP is put towards your next level, as with all MMOGs. There is a difference here, though, in that each level is a very long time coming. You do gain in power on a semi-regular basis, but instead of gaining a level you gain a rank. Each level is broken down into four ranks, waypoints along the road to your next level. Each rank nets you an action point, which can be spent on a character enhancement. Every race/class combo has different enhancements available to it, and all of them increase specific aspects of your character abilities. (+3 to Search, for example.) With every level being a major milestone, it won't come as a surprise that there aren't that many to gain. At the moment DDO only allows you to achieve level 10, rank 4. You can go no higher than that, but there are plans in the works to add level 11-20 content at a future date. For most normal players this will take a while; the much loved experience penalty is enacted if and when you wipe. If you die and other folks are still alive, they can take you to a resurrection shrine in the dungeon to revive you. Rest shrines are usually nearby these areas, allowing characters to regain hit points and mana mid-dungeon. Besides these rest shrines, the only way to heal HP in-dungeon is with a potion or clerical spell. I hate hate hate almost everything about these design decisions. In reverse order: Long downtimes suck. HP and MP not regenning sucks. It is not fun to sit in an inn after a mission is over watching my hp bar creep upwards. You can buy food and drink to improve this rate of regen, but it's nothing like the regeneration you'd see in other modern MMOGs. Experience penalties are evil. Taking away accomplishment from a player is the worst thing you can possibly do. It's not as harsh an experience as you'll get in FFXI, but it's still frustrating to have XP taken away because of something you may not have even had control over. Finally, their decision to ship with only ten levels is a very bad one. I'll expand on why that is below.
You'll note I've usually said 'you' when talking about gameplay, but that's misleading. I should be saying 'you and your party', because in order to play DDO you'll have to be grouped. I'll say that again so you can be clear on this: It is not possible to play Dungeons and Dragons Online solo. The intention, of course, is to evoke the flavour of a table-top session. The publisher has even included voice chat as a built-in feature to the game client to facilitate team communication. The result is a title that you cannot play alone. Some classes, like spellcasters and rogues, will have trouble soloing even the introductory quest when you first get off the boat. Clerics are probably the best soloing class, as they can heal themselves most effectively, but after the first few 'figure out the game' dungeons they're outmatched by the strength of most monsters. I can't really fault them for deciding to go this route, but it's a very harsh line. Even Vanguard, the upcoming hardcore MMO being designed very specifically with grouping in mind, is said to have something like 15% of its content geared for solo players. There isn't even that much for the individual in DDO.
The one thing I can say without prevarication is that Dungeons and Dragons Online looks good. The streets of Stormreach are beautifully laid out, with a style of architecture that really gets across the character of Eberron. A floating inn out over the water is just the tip of the iceberg; DDO has a truly unique look. Character and monster animations are well done, and the soft lighting that pervades the game gives an otherworldly charm to the title. The visual look does more than anything else to establish the character of the dungeons and city streets you'll be exploring. The sound situation has likewise gotten a good deal of attention, but the results there seem merely adequate. Sound effects are competently accomplished, and the musical track highlights game moments without being offensive. There is 'combat music', though, which I'm already tired of. Combat music is fine in a single-player RPG, but FFXI is the only MMOG in which I find that acceptable.
Another website is quoted in a DDO television commercial as offering "A Genuine Online D&D Experience". Whoever it was that came up with that piece of pabulum has never actually played Dungeons and Dragons. Table-top D&D is about storytelling, camaraderie, and having fun with your friends. Somehow in the brave new electronic frontier, these qualities are translated into meaningless grind quests, chaotic click-fest combat, and swearing over voicechat. I'm enormously frustrated by DDO because there is just so much new and interesting going on here. The skill use and traps are real firsts for the genre, providing meaningful player choice in how to navigate a dungeon and how to do combat. These awesome mechanics are sandwiched side by side with other elements that seem more appropriate for launch-day Ultima Online. There are so many contradictions within this game that it's hard to know which is most confusing, but I have a top pick. For those who will like this game, they're going to just eat this thing up. And when I mean eat it up I mean "grind through the game in about a month or two". There were already characters at max level before the game's headstart event had finished out. Whoever did that payed about fifty bucks for ten days or so worth of play. They undoubtedly started a new character, but because of the simple questing structure there's almost no replay value currently in the game. Thankfully not all is doom and gloom. Turbine just announced that they're already planning to add 15 new dungeons and a raid on a dragon's lair in April. That commitment to new content is the going to be the only thing keeping the hardcore around because there is nothing at all available for you once you hit level 10. There is nothing to the endgame yet; It's all still in production.