This ain't your daddy's MMO
Many reviewers and players are quick to criticize DDO because it takes so long to gain levels and because the level cap in the game is 10, which leaves me wondering, just when was a universal law of gaming passed that dictated quick leveling and many levels as a requirement for a game to be enjoyable and successful? I’ve been playing the PnP version of D&D for decades (that’s right folks—decades, which is probably longer than some of you have been alive) and never once did I ever complain that I was still a lowly 5th-level cleric after investing several hours of playing time in the game. There was this whole idea about playing the character and enjoying the adventure itself. Every chest I opened didn’t contain magic full plate or a bag of holding, but that didn’t keep me from playing or from liking the game.
And it’s not like DDO’s devoid of rewards while you’re crawling toward that next level. The ranks between levels offer action points to be spent on various enhancements that can be quite useful. In fact, when I hit those ranks I often find myself facing a difficult dilemma choosing among the available options. If your goal is to grind your way to highest level available as fast as possible, then you’re likely to be disappointed in the game. Players like me who are able to enjoy the journey itself will find a lot to like.
The lack of PvP content is yet another complaint I’ve seen raised. Again, this is not a big surprise, considering the game’s roots. If you want PvP content, then D&D probably isn’t for you. It’s a game that has always placed emphasis on cooperative play. That’s not to say that PvP isn’t possible in D&D, as it most certainly is, but it’s far from being a requirement. And I defy anyone to prove that PvP is necessary in any game. Many of the best games ever created had no PvP content. And here’s the bottom line, and I’m only going to write it once: PvP is not necessary for MMOs or any other genre for the games to be fun. See, I used that word again. Games have only one real requirement to be good, to be successful: It’s got to be fun. I keep saying that over and over again, but I think some people just don’t get it.
Another criticism of DDO is that there’s very little solo content. It has to be the most paradoxical aspect of MMO gaming that people want to play online in a virtual world populated by thousands of other gamers, but they want to play alone. I can understand this to some degree, but one of the very reasons I’ve quit playing some MMOs is because I realized I was doing nothing but solo play. If I’m going to play alone, why pay $14.99 a month for it? It’s not like Turbine pulled a bait-and-switch on its customers. Everyone knew from the get-go that DDO would follow the PnP principle of party-based gaming. And, yes, when it comes to pick-up groups players will find it’s a decidedly mixed bag—as it is with every single other MMO out there. I have the luxury of being able to play with a solid core of friends, and we coordinate our playtime so we can be online together to group up for quests. The only time I’ve done any solo play in DDO is during the tutorial and beginning-level quests. Since then, it’s been one party-based dungeon romp after another.
And that’s one thing you’ll find in ample supply in this game: quests. Everywhere you go in Stormreach you’ll find someone who needs help with a little problem. Much of the early questing involves descending into kobold-infested sewers, but other quests will put you up against zombies, skeletons, trolls and even ogres. Some quests can be quite short, taking only a few minutes to complete; others are multiple-chapter monster epics that will require a solid party and some determination to get through. This is certainly part of the game that really shines. DDO’s quests have an epic feel to them, and there’s a real sense of accomplishment when you complete them. The rewards you find in the chests might not always be to your liking, but I often find that I really don’t care about material rewards because the quest itself was so enjoyable.
Another strong aspect of the DDO experience is the atmosphere of the dungeons. From the graphics to the sound effects to the layouts of the areas, DDO boasts some of the most immersive environments I’ve seen in MMO gaming. One quest took me into mist-filled caverns where I had to wade through knee-deep pools to get where I was going. Dripping water and other sounds made the place seem very real, and I gripped the mouse as I prepared for the inevitable encounter. It’s at moments like these that I realize how very irrelevant such things as loot and leveling are. It’s not about the stuff; it’s about the experience. You’re there in the dungeon with your friends facing difficult odds, solving puzzles and battling your way through. That’s what this game is all about.
Some people may be put off by the action-oriented combat, but I must say, it’s really a breath of fresh air for me after having played other games that come down to clicking a button and waiting for a power to recharge. The enemies in DDO are also more active than in many other MMOs. They dodge your attacks; they circle around to flank you; they retreat and return. This is very much unlike other games in which the enemies stand in front of you, executing the same attacks over and over again. And your character stands there in similar fashion as you either wait for a certain power to recharge or wait to see the result of the attacks against you. In DDO you have to be on your toes, and it pays to fight tactically. The quick pace of the combat can be frustrating at times, especially if you’re trying to tackle a quest a lone and find yourself surrounded by bad guys. In groups, it's easier to manage and you can work together to succeed in battle. There’s this little thing called a flanking bonus with which veterans of D&D are very familiar. You can use in DDO to your advantage as well, so just running up with your compadres to whack away on some baddie isn’t always the best way to take it down. Balanced parties and teamwork certainly pay off in DDO, but that’s not to say you can go rampaging through a dungeon hurling caution to the stale drafts and not find success. You’re probably going to stumble more than few times playing this way, but if it works for you, well, you just go for it.
DDO is not without its faults. Certainly, it’s suffered its share of technical issues at launch, but nothing I haven’t seen in other MMOs at launch. The odd lag in taverns is still present, and the voice chat system isn’t perfect.
All in all, I look at DDO as a successful launch. I’ve played through some rough spots and seen my share of lag and other technical issues, but none so far have detracted from the overall game experience. The bottom line is this, if you accept DDO for what it is rather than try to fit it in to what you think it ought to be, then you’re much more likely to enjoy the experience. The quests are numerous and interesting, the dungeons are immersive and include a wide array of traps and puzzles to confound adventurers and the gameplay is certainly enjoyable. What kind of longevity does it have? Well, it’s way too early to tell, but DDO has brought some out-the-box thinking to the genre that may help change what was in peril of becoming a tired formula.
Lots of quests
Immersive, atmospheric dungeons
Ingenious and lethal traps
Some lag, especially in taverns
Mixed results with voice chat
Combat system may not be for everyone