A good solid effort, but lacking in many areas.

User Rating: 7.7 | Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach PC
After playing with World of Warcraft (WOW) for over a year I’ve gotten pretty burned out on it. The time constraints for raid guilds and amount of time you have to put into the game is demanding. It’s hard to be a casual player in WOW and then spend all your time drooling at other players with their Tier 1 to 3 gear. Gear that is completely out of reach unless you put in massive hours in a raiding guild. So I decided to give it a rest and try something different for a change. I ended up getting into Dungeon’s and Dragons Stormreach (DDO). One fact that I have to point out is that I have only been playing this game for about five days. I’m certain that there are some features that I’m going to miss since I haven’t been in the game long enough.

Dungeon’s and Dragon’s has been a part of my life for along time. As a kid I remember playing the paper version with friends and it was always a great time. There have been various computer versions of games similar to D&D such as Ultima, Bard’s Tale. Perhaps my favorite computer D&D type games were Balder’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. So I was really looking forward to trying out this version to see how well it worked.

In DDO the process starts with Character Creation. Character creation can be a really fun part of any game. For MMO’s most people want to create a character that looks unique and different than others. The king of uniqueness in MMO’s is probably City of Heroes but then I always ended up rushing through that process since it took so long to create your hero. On the other side you have World of Warcraft (WOW) which has really too few character creation (in terms of looks) options so that most races pretty much look the same. D&D Storm has a pretty good character creation system that has just enough options to allow you to build a different look without taking too long in the process. With DDO you are allowed to change basic features such as hair style, eye color, skin color, lip and eyebrow styles. It gives you a pretty decent character creation ability without taking overly long. As a side note I’ve always thought that MMO developers need to include some really ugly and fat toon models into the character creation models. It would be fun to be that pudgy dwarf who can barely squeeze into his +2 plate! Sometimes you get tired of looking at these MMO worlds where everyone looks like a super model! If you don’t believe me spend a week in Guild Wars!

Once you’ve worked through the character creation process you are placed in the starter area of the game. Once you begin playing DDO you start to notice some very different play aspects that you don’t find in other MMO’s. As soon as character creation process is complete your character is placed in the starter island. There is a one starter quest in the first tavern that you can start with. This quest has you performing basic tasks such as opening doors, puzzle solving and combat.

From the beginning you can see several significant differences in DDO form other type MMO’s. To begin with the quest are more varied in nature than most MMO’s. Most typical MMO quest involve either kill-quota or kill a specific bad guy to finish out the quest. In DDO the basic quest types are more varied. With DDO you still have your standard kill a target or get X of item type quests. However, you can also have protection (for so many minutes) quests or stealth quests where you have to AVOID killing too many of certain mobs before gathering a certain item. Some quest seem to be targeted for specific classes (i.e stealth quest) which give some melee classes a bit more of a hard time to complete (it’s hard to stealth in plate!). Even with the first into quest you can see that stealth and puzzle solving are an important part of the quest. This adds a specific uniqueness to DDO quest with makes them more entertaining then the standard quest you find in other MMO’s.

Another change with DDO is the inclusion of the narrator. The narrator is a disembodied voice which sounds out background comments. Some of these are related to the quest such as when the narrator tells you that you can feel a sudden draft which can tip you off to a secret entrance. Other narrator comments are background to help flesh out the quest area for the player. The narrator plus puzzle solving are some of the features in DDO which help it stand out from other MMO’s.

One of the biggest changes to get used too is the way DDO handles Hit Points (HP) and Mana (or spell points) for spells. With spell casting at least they made a break from D&D by allowing you to preload a selection of spells and then cast as many times as you want as long as you have spell points left. Without this change magic classes would probably have been pretty much neutered in the game. Once you start loosing HP’s or spell points the only way to replenish is by healing back in a tavern or at special rest spots in the quest area. The rest spots in the quest areas can only be used once per quest run. This forces the player to be extra carefull as healing and conservation of spell points becomes an important factor in playing out quests. Unlike WOW where you can expend all mana and get down to 1HP by the end of a single battle in DDO you have to make sure that you come out in good enough shape to get to the next rest shrine or finish out the quest. This method was obviously a way the developer tried to stay more in tune with Dungeons & Dragons rule sets on how to regenerate health. I don’t have too many issues with the way they set this up since it adds a strategic aspect to running the quests. I wouldn’t have complained too much if you could heal up naturally like in most MMO’s either though!

Combat in DDO is another change from what most players will experience. Combat in most MMO’s takes the form of autocombat where you toggle combat mode and then supplement the battle with special features (such as special strikes or heals). Although DDO has an autocombat feature most players just use the right click on the mouse to swing at the bad guys. Combat in DDO uses D&D 3.5 rules and you can see a little 20 sided dice with your swing pop up and tell you if you have a hit in what DDO calls the “Focus Orb.” At first try for me combat seemed to be pretty shallow since I basically just ran circles around the bad guys swinging like mad. I didn’t use any special abilities at first until some of the party members started giving me helpful advice such as pointing out that you get negative effects calculated into your hit rolls when you are moving. In DDO you can be better off standing still and then swinging to get a hit as opposed to simply dashing around. Also using combat feats such as trip, sunder armor and stunning blow start to work in better as you learn more about using your character. I’m not sure if I’m totally sold on combat in DDO but at least it is different then the other MMO’s I’ve played in.

Advancement in DDO is different then other MMO’s as well. In order to advance you have to gain experience (exp) but this can only be obtained by completing quests. There is no critter grinding to obtain levels although kills can factor into your exp as a modifier. They even have quests rigged in the sense that you can’t just find one easy 15 minute quest and then repeat it over and over to level up. Each quest iteration reduces the amount of exp you can earn until you pretty much have to do other new quests in order to advance. In addition to the way you advance in DDO you also quickly notice how long it takes to level up. In fact your level exp bar in the interface doesn’t show you hard far to get to the next level, it shows you how far to get to the next quarter level (called ranks). Advancement is so slow that they allow the user to earn what is called Action Points (AP) which you can spend on some mid-level skills. Probably so the player doesn’t go insane waiting on the next level. However, even these special action point skills only allow you to have four of them chosen at one time so you end up having to trade off for better skills when something comes available. Although the inclusion of experience by quest might on the surface seem to eliminate the repetitive critter grind for exp that other MMO’s in practice it just leads to a new type of grind. I was part of a group of quest grinders the other day and the method used is one commonly practiced. You take a quest that you can come up with shortcuts (i.e. finish quickly) and then repeat over and over. You do it at normal level a few times, then hard level and finally elite to maximize the exp you earn for the quest. Unfortunately this method of advancement just seems to lead to a new type of grinding. This type of quest grinding detracts from the experience that the developer was probably trying to build.

How you quest is another specific with DDO. In other MMO’s you can solo most or all of the game if you choose to. In DDO soloing quest is really not an option. When you enter a quest instance you are presented with a difficulty level. For most quests you start off on normal, and have an unlockable hard and elite mode that can be accessed upon the successful completion of the quest on a lower mode. Many of the quests in the harbor section of Stormreach have a solo mode that you can choose to use. However, in practice I’ve found that it not only takes longer to complete in solo but the experience you earn is also lower (as much as 50%) than completing the quest in normal mode with just one other player. In practice this means that you pretty much have to group if you want to level up quick enough to keep your sanity! Grouping is pretty easy in DDO. Just turn on the LFG flag from a quest, or social dialog, and then other people will start giving you invite’s pretty quick. DDO even has voice chat built into the game to make group running easier. However, most of the groups I’ve been with so far in the game have pretty much run all the quest before and it ends up feeling like a race to get from point A to B. Plus even with voice chat built in most players haven’t seemed very talkative. I’m hoping that as I progress that the quest group runs have some of the strategy and advanced type runs I’m used to in WOW. Just running with five other people and spamming rclick is starting to get old.

The emphasis in DDO is performing quest. The quest can be well designed but this focus has limited other areas of the game that most MMO players might be looking for. There are no gathering or crafting professions in DDO, there doesn’t seem to be an auction house or place to sell you gear to other players. In short it lacks some of the common features in other MMO’s that you might come to expect. You will find nice gear when questing but most of it is dumped off at vendors. Gear doesn’t seem to have the same importance as it does in other MMO’s.

Another problem is with the user interface. The inventory system in particular seems inadequate, you have a hard time identifying gear and equipment since the representing icons are tiny and hard to identify. You can drag other action bars out on the interface but it doesn’t feel as polished other MMO interfaces that I’ve played with. I had a hard time setting up my basic bar and getting used to using special feats. I hope it get smoother with practice!

One of the high points for DDO (for me) is the graphics or visuals. I’m not trying to imply that they are ultimate state of the art, some of the character models are somewhat blocky. However, the visuals for the town and dungeons seem well done. Spell effects are nice and combat animations seem pretty smooth. The only problem I see with the graphics is that since many of the quests are run in run down warehouses or sewers the sameness of the main quests areas will probably get old after awhile.

Sound is another high point for the game. The sound effects seem well done and the background music is good enough that you don’t feel the need to turn it off in the audio options.

Although the developers have made a pretty faithful replication of the Dungeon’s and Dragon’s rules into a good game; I think the weakest part is the content. Without gather and crafting professions, a more expansive world and more player interactions (i.e. auction houses for the merchant players) I’m not sure how long DDO will hold any but the most die hard D&D advocates. It seems a niche product which will cater to old school D&D players but might fail to hold the interest of most people who give it a shot.