Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach Hands-On - High-Level Characters, Group Adventures, and Hack-and-Slash

We get our hands on a high-level adventure in this upcoming massively multiplayer game based on the classic fantasy tabletop series.

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Traditional massively multiplayer games usually require you to create a single fantasy character before venturing out in a persistent world with other players to beat up skeletons and goblins by turning on an "auto-attack" option and waiting until you, or your enemies, fall over dead. Tradition itself may be on the way out with a new breed of massively multiplayer games that try to engage players by offering fast-paced real-time combat and a gentler learning curve for beginners. One of the most prominent examples of this new breed is Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, the upcoming game that will take place in the fantasy world of Eberron.

Dungeons & Dragons Online will attempt to offer the same adventurous spirit as the tabletop game--but in a much faster, more-accessible package.
Dungeons & Dragons Online will attempt to offer the same adventurous spirit as the tabletop game--but in a much faster, more-accessible package.

In fact, the game will be based on the 3.5 Edition rules of Dungeons & Dragons--the most recent version of the classic, decades-old fantasy game that has inspired countless computer and video games. But this online game won't have any rolling dice or cardboard screens to cover up your character sheets. This will be a highly streamlined game that will attempt to capture the essence of playing in an adventuring group with your tabletop buddies, but in a very accessible, fast-paced way that should fit easily into your busy schedule. We recently had a chance to try out an adventure with some extremely powerful characters, and we have much to report. (Note: Please be advised that this report is based on a prerelease beta version of the game, so these and other details are subject to change before the game is completed.)

Right off the bat, we should mention that Dungeons & Dragons Online will attempt to preserve as much of the tabletop game experience as it can, given its focus on accessible hack-and-slash action. You'll be able to create a character from scratch from one of five fantasy races (humans, elves, halflings, dwarves, and the steely warforged, a new race particular to Eberron) and one of nine professions (barbarians, bards, clerics, fighters, paladins, rangers, rogues, sorcerers, and wizards). You'll even be able to consult their abilities and skills from an interface that resembles the good old-fashioned "character sheet" from the tabletop game.

And to preserve the feeling of social adventuring (rather than grinding away at the same monsters and same quests to gain precious experience points), the game will have a slightly different structure from other online games of this sort. For instance, you won't pick up loot from monsters. You'll instead receive the majority of treasure (designated for specific characters) and experience at the end of an adventure so that there won't be any quibbling over who gets the magic sword and who gets stuck with the worn-out leather armor. Also, the game is planned to be launched with a range of character levels from one through 10, which may sound like a very restrictive limit. However, most tabletop campaigns generally take a long time to get characters from level one up to level 10. Also, as we saw, level 10 characters will still be extremely powerful.

We had a chance to play the beta version of the game as a sorcerer character in a well-balanced party, which included a cleric, a warrior, and a rogue, on an adventure to seek out and destroy an undead priest lurking at the bottom of a mazelike series of catacombs. We were able to jump in to get started immediately, since the game currently supports keyboard movement with the W, A, S, and D keys, which is similar to a first-person shooter.

Even though it includes the magic spells, character classes, and heroic feats of 3.5-Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the game seems very easy to pick up and play.
Even though it includes the magic spells, character classes, and heroic feats of 3.5-Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the game seems very easy to pick up and play.

The latest version of the game has also apparently had its interface retooled to be much cleaner, and everything seemed laid out in an intuitive manner, as there was a chat window at the bottom left, an in-game map that indicated our party members in the upper left, interface options in the upper right, and a targeting window in the lower right. The bottom-left corner of the screen also displayed our character's current health (or "hit points"--it's a Dungeons & Dragons term, after all) and "mana," a reserve of spell points used as a concession to keep magic-using characters continually useful in an adventure without forcing them to re-memorize spells (as they would have to do in the pen-and-paper game). Instead, magic-using characters must memorize their spells from their spell book in advance of an adventure; their spells are kept in a hotkey bank at the bottom of the screen, as are the various combat and miscellaneous skills of other characters, such as a cleric's healing spells or a rogue's trap-disarming abilities.

We were fortunate enough to get our hands on a fully loaded level-10 sorcerer, who was packing some serious heat in the form of some of Dungeons & Dragons' most infamous and devastating magic spells. Our character wielded such spells as "cone of cold," "ice storm," "lightning bolt," and the classic "fireball" spell, along with the equally classic "magic missile" spell. From what we've seen, spells differ in their damage, as well as in the time required to successfully cast them, the "cooldown" time before spells can be recharged, and how much mana they cost. If you're a fan of the tabletop game, you'll be pleased to hear that most of these spells operate much like you'd expect them to. So the ice storm spell blankets a specific area in a blinding hail of frozen shards, while the fireball spell causes a spectacular explosion that damages all enemies in the area of effect.

Even though our sorcerer character was fleet of foot and carrying around some heavy magical artillery, we found that our enemies, including various undead creatures (like wights and specters), usually drew a bead on us and attempted to pummel us before we could pull off another fireball spell. The combat in higher-level adventures, such as the one we played, will be fast-paced--even hectic. However, Turbine apparently intends for the upper-level game to be very rewarding for players who take the time to become skilled at playing. The best clerics will be able to heal their teammates while smiting undead on the run, and the best warriors will be able to protect more-fragile team members, like skilled sorcerers who will lob well-placed fireballs and lightning bolts that deal the most damage possible to the most enemies possible.

You'll be able to hack and slash your way to adventure in early 2006.
You'll be able to hack and slash your way to adventure in early 2006.

The dungeon we played through was a dark, stony maze lined with smashable sarcophagi (some of which contain small piles of copper coins) and dotted with rest areas that let us both revive fallen companions and regain spent mana. However, much of this adventure was very fast-paced and involved hacking through groups of monsters to gain entry to the next room, either by securing keys, discovering secret passages, or, in one case, solving a puzzle by rotating connected floor tiles with channels etched onto them so that a glowing circuit of energy could be connected to four different power gems along the floor. In all cases, we were pleasantly surprised both by how easy the game seemed to pick up and play and by how little advanced cooperation was needed to keep the party together and focused, especially since the dungeon's design seemed focused on keeping us moving forward without cutting us off. Even though a few areas of the dungeon opened up into dark pits with many monsters waiting, it was extremely easy to regroup with our companions, thanks in no small part to the onscreen mini-map.

If what we've seen is any indication, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach should be a highly accessible, fast-paced hack-and-slash game that's great for beginners, veterans, loners, and groups alike. The real-time combat adds a noticeably faster pace to the game, which definitely seems different from a traditional massively multiplayer game. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more details on this intriguing online game as we approach its early 2006 release date.

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