Dungeons & Dragons Online E3 2005 Preshow Report

We recently took one last look at Dungeons & Dragons Online before E3. Here are our impressions.

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We had the chance to sit down with Turbine Entertainment recently for a look at its upcoming massively multiplayer adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons. Although we didn't get to play the game ourselves, we were shown parts of the main hub city, as well as a couple of the instanced quest areas that players will be hacking their way through. We're pleased to say that the game is shaping up to be impressive in its own right, incorporating some features to set it apart from the crowded field of fantasy-based online role-playing games.

Turbine is designing the game so that it's role-play friendly and with the intent to emphasize the community aspects of online gaming. To this end, you can expect to see servers cap out at around 1,000 concurrent players, with the goal being for each server to have a smaller and more tightly knit player community. In addition, all players will use the same city, which is the bustling frontier port of Stormreach, as a base of operations. Although the city itself is quite large, most players will be using it as a hub to interact with each other and to obtain quests (combined with the somewhat smaller population on each server), which will result in a more neighborly feel because of the likelihood that you'll be running into the same players multiple times. Hopefully this will turn out to act as a self-corrective influence on player behavior, as you can expect your reputation to become a matter of word-of-mouth public record as you spend more time in the game.

Another aspect of Dungeons & Dragons Online that's intended to up the fun factor is the abstraction of the travel system. The typical paradigm for online RPGs, where you obtain quests and then travel to the location where the quest takes place, has been replaced by a system of instant warps, which will take you directly into the area where your quest will occur. For instance, the 10th-level cleric we were observing was exploring one of the eight wards of Stormreach. Upon finding a quest-giving non-player character, she spoke to him, learned what he was requesting her to do, and then accepted the quest. In order to enter the dungeon where the quest took place, she spoke to another NPC a short distance away, after which she was warped directly into an instanced version of the dungeon.

After launching into a quest, you'll notice another way in which Dungeons & Dragons Online attempts to break away from most other online RPGs: your party doesn't gain experience or treasure from killing ordinary enemies. Instead, the experience and loot rewards are predicated on your ability to accomplish the tasks--which are flexible and dynamic--assigned to you in your quest. For instance, we observed our cleric entering a forest-like quest zone (Turbine seems intent on varying the locations of quests, so you won't have to necessarily spend all your time dungeon-diving), where she was required to scout and locate the entrance to the Shrine of the Stormbringer. Along the path, her listen skill allowed her to overhear the footsteps of a giant somewhere ahead of her, which added a subquest to her quest log and commanded her to kill the giant and his wolf companions. Since each subquest will net your party extra experience and loot, situations like this will reward you for taking the fight to your enemies, instead of avoiding them. Most quests will also have treasure caches, such as the large treasure chest you find when you finally locate the temple. One interesting way Turbine is attempting to reduce tension among party members and to reward everyone equally is to allow each member of a party his own chance to loot a chest. For example, one player will walk up, grab some loot from the chest, then walk away and give the next person a chance. You'll be able to repeat this process until each member has been given a go.

We're pleased to say that combat itself looks quite enjoyable. Our intrepid cleric took on a number of different foes, including the aforementioned giant, a room full of skeletons and other undead foes, and an Eberron-specific Drider variant that featured the upper torso of a Drow wed to the body of a scorpion, rather than the usual spider. Combat tactics will vary based on the composition of your party, your skill at avoiding attacks (yes, you can dodge some projectile attacks in real time), and, in an intriguing twist, environmental factors. We were shown a couple of ways in which the environment can help you avoid or overcome encounters that would otherwise prove quite difficult. In the first encounter, the cleric entered a room overflowing with undead foes that, despite her innate anti-undead abilities, would likely overpower her in combat. Luckily for her, there was a defiled altar in the middle of the room, and a hallowing spell cast upon it managed to eliminate the taint of evil from the room, instantly banishing all of the undead. In another part of the same dungeon, she managed to overlook a room that was also full of enemies, far too many for her to handle alone. Breaking through a door to another adjacent room, though, she managed to activate a trap after interacting with a Pipe Dreams-esque light-based puzzle on the floor, which spawned a number of moving spikes in the room, killing all of the enemies within.

The omission of experience gains and loot from most enemy kills makes these kinds of combat-avoidance tactics a guilt-free way of bypassing overpowering groups of enemies, which is especially helpful in dungeons where you may be asked to complete your quest on a timer. Turbine stated that its goal in designing many of the dungeons was to allow there to be multiple ways to solve problems, rather than forcing you to power your way through enemy after enemy. Based on our short demo with the game, it seems like the company just may pull off this ambitious undertaking.

Our impression of Dungeons & Dragons Online from our brief sit-down with the game is quite positive. It seems that Turbine's design choices should help the title stand out from the crowded online RPG market without being different for different's sake. It's also shaping up to be one of the most visually impressive online role-playing games seen yet, with bright and colorful cityscapes and forests, as well as suitably dank and detailed dungeons. You can expect GameSpot to have more coverage of Dungeons & Dragons Online as it approaches its launch date in the fourth quarter of 2005.

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