Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach initially seems to be a lot like other massively multiplayer role-playing games. You get to create a custom fantasy character by choosing from a variety of races, classes, and appearances, and then you get dropped into an imaginative world filled with lots of danger, treasure, and little pop-up menus. However, it doesn't take long to see some of the ways in which it's refreshingly different from a lot of what's been done to date in other online RPGs. Developed by the maker of the Asheron's Call series, D&D Online is highly focused on the questing and adventuring elements of Dungeons & Dragons--you know, the fun stuff. Our first impressions of the game follow; to keep tabs on our ongoing progress with the game, or to contribute your experiences and impressions, visit GameSpot's Dungeons & Dragons Online Union.
D&D Online is missing a lot of the elements you might normally expect from a massively multiplayer game. There's no player-versus-player combat (fellow D&D nerds, we can't even select an evil-character alignment). There's no crafting system, so you're going to have to find, buy, or trade for your gear. There's no massive wilderness to explore and no random monsters wandering around in it for you to fight. Getting from level one to level two takes hours, but that's good, because the maximum character level is 10. If you've played other online RPGs, all of this might make D&D Online sound rather strange or shallow. But by letting you spend most of your time in the game undertaking meaningful quests--filled with traps and plenty of other surprises--D&D Online delivers a higher-quality playing experience from minute to minute than most other comparable games. It remains to be seen whether this format will lend itself to making D&D Online compelling over the long haul, but most fans of D&D and online role-playing games should appreciate what they see, at least at first.
To put it another way: You know those big, instanced dungeons that World of Warcraft players spend all of their time in? D&D Online consists almost exclusively of this type of content. Secret basement strongholds, elaborate dungeons, ancient catacombs, dank sewers, and much more await you. Each of these are rated for level, length (short, medium, or long), and difficulty (normal, hard, and elite), and many of them may be repeated successive times at higher difficulty levels. One nice touch is that the quests are interspersed with atmospheric narration from a dungeon master--it sets the mood quite well. Initially, you'll have few options for which types of quests you can undertake, but it isn't long before the vastness of Stormreach reveals itself to you, and suddenly there are tons of non-player characters willing to send you on their wild goose chases. Quests can be undertaken solo or in groups, and finding a willing group for any quest is pretty easy.
The basics of the gameplay are easy to get into. You control your character from a third-person perspective and can swing your weapon or defend at the touch of a button. While the combat doesn't necessarily have an ultrasolid feel to it, it's fast-paced and action-oriented, and so it's not the slow and plodding stuff that's notorious to online RPGs. Some other action-style elements are in here, such as the ability to jump up and mantle over obstacles, and characters run around (and even swim) at a nice, quick pace. While there are a lot of different icons and menus on screen at first, pop-up help displays and a few basic quests effectively help you get your bearings. Eventually, you wind up in a tavern filled with other players (and D&D Online seems to have a healthy player population in it already), and of course, these players can be a good source of information. Possibly because this is a cooperative game by nature, thus far we've found the game's populace to be quite friendly and helpful on the whole.
It's worth noting that this isn't necessarily the Dungeons & Dragons you know and love, even if you've played your fair share of D&D computer role-playing games. Set in the world of Eberron, D&D Online has a bit of that old "steampunk" feel to it that eventually creeps its way into any high-fantasy setting over time. You'll note some dramatic architecture in the city of Stormreach--tall spires defying gravity, elevated as if by a combination of magic and technology. One of the playable races will surely stick out to longtime D&D fans: the warforged, which are big, hulking automatons. They're quite interesting from a gameplay standpoint, in that they can't be healed by conventional means, nor can they wear the type of armor that saves the necks of other races. They're naturally tough, though, and highly resistant to lots of stuff that's very dangerous to the other races. Other than the warforged, you can choose to play as a human, an elf, a dwarf, or a halfling--sorry, no drow elves or half-orcs.
D&D Online features an implementation of the 3.5 Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, which should be mostly familiar if you've played a recent D&D game. If you haven't, all the character options can feel a little overwhelming at first, since you're able to choose from such a large variety of skills and feats. A variety of character classes is available: fighters, rangers, paladins, barbarians, rogues, bards, clerics, wizards, and sorcerers. Each one has lots of unique skills and abilities, plus inherent differences. Barbarians are the hardiest characters but can't wear heavy armor like fighters. Wizards are more versatile than sorcerers, but sorcerers can cast more spells before having to recharge their mental batteries. It's quite a bit more complex than that makes it sound, though, especially when you consider the ability to multiclass your character as you gain levels. You can mix and match all the different classes' abilities if you prefer or specialize in a single profession.
Leveling up in D&D Online--much like in pen-and-paper D&D--takes a while. You'll be lucky to hit level two in a few hours. To give you a sense of progress, your character gains ranks within each level, which grant you a choice of different enhancements that can be used to further tune your playing style. What's more surprising, though, is that you don't just gain experience by killing stuff in this game--you gain it only by completing quests. That's how pen-and-paper D&D works; you don't just magically gain a level by killing an orc, you have to settle up all the experience points you earned at the end of an adventure. By inheriting this system, D&D Online seeks to avoid the notorious "grind" that's common to most massively multiplayer games. Since you'll always be fighting or exploring in context, you won't find yourself just standing around killing the same randomly spawned monsters over and over. But there's still a sense of satisfaction from every kill, since the game logs everything you've accomplished in a given quest and totals up your results when you're finished.
In case you were wondering, there's no permanent death in Dungeons & Dragons Online, a concession made to make the action a little less punishing than the "real" thing. In general, the game seems like it thoughtfully combines the beloved, tried-and-true D&D rules in an action-oriented massively multiplayer environment, and the whole thing looks and sounds quite impressive, as well. So as you can probably infer by now, we've enjoyed the time we've spent playing D&D Online. But there's still much, much more adventuring to be done before we're ready to pass judgment. For now, take a look at our screenshots taken from the game, and visit the Dungeons & Dragons Online Union for all of our latest findings.