You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
No, that’s not right…
A long time ago, in a galaxy far…
Nope, still farther…
You are standing in an inn. You’ve heard tell of a band of thieves running roughshod over the locals, and you’ve come to see what you can do to help.
There we go! The year is 1974, and TSR has just published the first version of a new game called Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). You’re sitting at the kitchen table with 5 of your high school friends, listening to another of your friends describe your adventure, and you paint an image in your mind. With your trusty set of dice, your completed character sheet, and a case of Coke, you’re ready to spend the evening (and perhaps even the morning) defending the townsfolk and delving into the political intrigue behind who hired the thugs to begin with, and what’s so important about the cellar in the abandoned warehouse.
Ok, turnoff the way-back machine. It’s 2006, and Turbine, Inc. has released a new game: Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach. Now is your chance to try to relive your youth (or yesterday, if you’ve managed to keep your friends together over the years) and view the fantasy adventure on your computer screen.
DDO is a new MMO entry, in a field packed with MMOs. Turbine has attempted to do something different this time, however. They’ve attempted to recreate the dungeon crawling gaming experience. Have they succeeded? Well…kinda.
Turbine and Wizards of the Coast made a decision to build DDO based on the newest gaming environment: Eberron. A lot of D&D fans were greatly disappointed that this wasn’t set in the widely popular Forgotten Realms setting, but I think it makes sense. Eberron is largely unexplored, and thus allows new players a great chance to learn about a whole new world.
There are actually two versions of the game, the Standard and the Limited Edition. The difference? The LE nets you a pair of nifty Boots of Running. Other than that, gameplay is the same for both versions. Installing the game was a breeze for me. I just popped in the DVD and let’r rip. I selected the defaults, and chose to install the high-resolution textures as well, even though my machine probably won’t run them too well.
Once you’ve installed the game, you’ll need to create an account with Turbine – this is an online game, and you will have to pay every month to play. The game comes with a free thirty days, which start as soon as you create your account, so you at least have a bit of time to decide if DDO is for you.
After you create your account, and start the launcher, you’ll be presented with an intro movie that explains your presence in Stormreach. The intro movie didn’t play very well on my PC. It stopped and stuttered constantly.
Once you enter the actual game, you’ll be presented with a blank character screen, and here’s where you create your characters. You choose your sex, race, and class, and then modify some of the visual aspects of your character – hair, color, eyes, etc. You can’t choose height or build. Every race is the same height. Only one of the Eberron specific races is included in the game, the Warforged.
You’ll also be able to create your character stats at this point. The D&D 3.5 rule set was used as a guideline for this game, with some changes for the online world – there’s no familiars or pets, there’s no creation of magical objects, players start with 20 more hit points than they would in a paper game, and so on. However, they tried to be as faithful as possible, trying to preserve the spirit of the game, if not the letter.
Once you get through creating your character, you can begin your adventuring, on your way to fame and glory. You’re dropped off at Smuggler’s rest, and you’re given some mini-quests to explain the game to you. This has become pretty much standard in any MMO, and experience gamers should be able to breeze right through. New players will want to read every popup message, every hint, every word the game gives them, as this is the only real training you’ll get.
One of the other changes made for online play is the fact that there are only 10 ‘levels’ in the game at present. There are 4 mini levels in each level, giving the net ‘effect’ of 40 levels. Each partial level, the player can chose a ‘feat’ – an ability enhancement to further customize their character.
Once the tutorial dungeons are done, the player is dropped in Stormreach Port. At this point the quests are pretty linear, but you discover three very important points about DDO. First, this game is designed for grouping. It is intended for you to find other gamers and quest with them (remember your gaming at the dinner table? Same concept). Turbine gives you a few tools to do this – a LFG (Looking for Group) flag to let others know you’re looking for a group, a LFM (Looking for More) panel that lets others know you need more for your group, and even integrated voice chat (so I read. I could not get mine to work).
The second important point about DDO is that there is no exploring. The game takes place in and around the town of Stormreach. There are a couple of quests that take you into the continent to do battles, but you launch from Stormreach. There is no overland travel, no searching out ruins, no chance of getting waylaid on the way to the ruined temple. One moment, you’re in town, the next… you’re there.
The third important point about DDO is…that’s all there is. Questing. The game is designed for the questor. You do some quests, you do some other quests, you repeat some quests, and you keep doing that until you feel you’ve mastered the quests. By that time, Turbine will have more quests for you to do. There is no PvP (Player vs Player conflict), there is no crafting, there is nothing but quests. This last point has caused a lot of furor on the ‘net, with a lot of gamers to label DDO as a “MMO Light”. Technically, I disagree, but that’s not really important for the review. The point is, though, if you’re wanting those things, DDO doesn’t have them, and all signs point to the fact that it won’t ever have them.
DDO is aimed at the truly casual gamer: the now 40something gamer, with a spouse, 2.5 kids, a dog, and only an hour or three a night to spare for gaming. Most of the quests in the game can be completed in a short amount of time, although there are a few ‘epic’ quests that can take 4 hours or more to get through. Turbine just recently released its first Module, the Dragon’s Vault, adding more quests, and another long epic quest. The game is not designed to be ‘finished’ in a week.
Just a month after it’s release, DDO is a solid game, with a few rough edges. The UI feels a bit clunky. It works, but it just feels…off. The graphic elements of the game look great , and if you have a rig that can handle it, the high-resolution textures look wonderful. The ambient music isn’t too intrusive, and changes when you enter combat (although it’s a bit delayed when you finish combat). Like any online game, the AI of the mobs (monsters) isn’t awful, but it’s not the same as competing against a real, live, thinking DM (Dungeon Master) either.
Combat is different in DDO than in other MMOs as well. It’s more ‘twitchy’…more “RTS” than a traditional ‘set and forget’ combat mechanism. You have to be there, controlling your char, actively deciding what attacks, defenses, and spells you may cast. There’s a lot more detail involved than a ‘first look’ can give, though.
Overall, DDO is a good game…for what it is. For someone who is expecting a faithful recreation of their childhood gaming experience, they won’t find it here. Turbine has come close, though. It’s a serious attempt to recreate that feeling. There are flaws, there are cheating players, there are problems, just like in every computer game (online or not). The best way to recreate the table top experience is to find a steady group of friends to play with, and play your way through the quests. As you grow together with your friends, your characters will grow in might and power, and will eventually be able to face the Red Dragon.