Review by silverthornne

"The original RPG goes MMORPG - and it's a different kind of MMORPG to boot!"

Turbine really got itself into a bit of a challenge this time. How do you translate the direct ancestor of every video game RPG into an MMORPG? One original game which was a social experience to begin with, and thus a very direct father of the MMORPG genre? Simple, they throw away pretty much -every- preconceived notion of what an MMORPG is supposed to be and start from scratch, using the D&D rules as a framework to bolster its design.

So let's get a few points set first: there is no endless kill-grinding, there is no crafting, there aren't even any cohesive outdoor regions that you will travel to get from territory to territory. Just like playing D&D with friends, this is about getting together in a tavern, plotting the adventure to undertake and go for it. No experience gained unless the adventure is completed. It's a bit of a shock in this genre which is overpopulated with games that consist of killing rats, pigs, and small birds so you can proceed to kill bigger rats, bigger pigs, and bigger birds until you can kill a meaner, bigger rat, a bigger, meaner pig, and hopefully raid a dragon in a month or two. Oh yea, don't expect to craft either. It's a surprising omission, since even if D&D isn't big on it, there ARE rules for crafting in the DM guide and players could take advantage of them. Maybe they'll add them later, but so far I do not fault DDO for not including them as the experience, as is right now, is quite focused, and works as a tremendous asset of the game.

Anyway, on to the different categories:

The big one. So how does DDO play? Like a charm! First of all, I'm a very big fan of the D&D system and I used to play it with friends when I was in college (well, 2nd edition AD&D mostly back then - 3e books released when I was in my final year and thus I did not play 3e as much but did enjoy it very much), and this game does tremendous justice to it! There are many feats, skills that I haven't seen used in other D&D video games (jumping and swimming for instance), and a very interesting use of the combat rules for a real time title.

Unlike NWN, the BG series, and other real time interpretations of D&D combat rules, you don't click a foe and see your character auto attack it until it dies. That is an option, of course, but not the most efficient one. You can control combat manually, choosing when to block and when to attack. Blocking with a shield gives your character a small amount of shield-based damage reduction depending on the shield (a rule that I believe makes a LOT of sense), and extra attacks are handled by lowering attack recovery time so you can swing more often in less time. A brilliant concession IMO. Tumble is also implemented by moving while blocking, and skills like intimidate and diplomacy play in combat as taunt and aggro reduction respectively (very important for mmo's). There's also a full range of feats to add to the combat such as trip (which knockdowns an opponent when it works and gives you free hits), power attack (lower attack bonus to hit in order to deal more damage), cleave (hit multiple foes), point blank shot (bonus when using a bow or crossbow in close quarters combat), and many more.

So that's the melee. How's the spell use? The first problem of translating D&D to an MMORPG is that in D&D you face foes in smaller quantities and the fights are more tactical, thus in D&D spells could get by well enough by having a limited number of uses per day. You prepare a spell, you use it, it's gone. An MMORPG is different - in order to provide a challenge and to make it more interesting, you will face many times the foes that you would in pen and paper D&D so a spell point system is implemented alongside spell slots. So you still need to "prepare" spells and as you level you get more spell slots. You memorize them but to use them you use spell points instead so rather than needing to prepare 3 magic missiles to have 3 offensive level 1 spells you prepare a magic missile slot and each cast uses 10 spell points. Metamagic feats increase the amount of SP used per spell rather than move them to a higher slot. Many spells also require components you can purchase at various reagent vendors.

One of the most exciting gameplay additions to the game IMO is that it makes rogues be a very worthwhile class and they are very useful by being rogues rather than by being second rate fighters that can deal massive damage with opportunistic attacks (they definitely can do that, but it's not the only thing they do now). See, dungeons are designed so rogues check about for traps and disable them. You can rush into a dungeon without a rogue, but if you do so, expect to run into many traps which will ruin your day. With enough patience and skill it's possible to circumvent these traps - kind of like playing a simple platformer, but a rogue is invaluable if you want to efficiently clear most dungeons. This small detail alone possibly shatters every mmorpg convention out there, and it's my favorite, most refreshing addition seen in DDO.

As for HP and SP recovery and death, this game handles those in its own ways, somewhat different from most mmorpg's. First of all, the only place you can actually recover HP and SP gradually over time is inside a tavern. You can't just "meditate" or do an equivalent within a dungeon or other adventure area. Inside those, you depend on finding rest shrines, and you can only use each one once so be wise in how you handle them. If you die and you're higher than level 1 you will suffer a small XP debt. From what I've seen you cannot actually level down, but XP progress is halted until the debt is paid. The debt is really small though. Running out of HP does not immediately kill you, but you will start bleeding to death. If a party member can stabilize you with a heal, or if you do via a saving throw (basically the random number generator comes up with a number every round you are bleeding and if it's low enough you will stop bleeding and stabilize) you won't die but you're incapacitated until you get healed somehow. You can always choose to "release" your soul, which brings you to your bind point. However, if you choose not to release, a party member can pick up your soul stone and take you to a shrine in the dungeon so you can revive there. It's an interesting system overall IMO.

So basically this game allows players to actually experience adventures together, avoid and disable traps, plan strategic combat setting traps with Web and Grease spells, etc. It IS Dungeons and Dragons brought online. A good group that does not rush headlong into every situation will have an amazing amount of fun here. However, do notice how much I talk about groups, adventuring together, etc. If you plan to solo, you will be severely disappointed. I've been able to solo the very first tutorial quests, and very few of the low level ones which do not give enough XP to advance anyway.

While the game certainly looks good, this is probably one of the title's weakest aspects. Set in the D&D setting of Eberron, DDO seems to suffer from being placed in a drab industrial setting. Expect to see a lot of browns and sepia tones. There are memorable structures, but it's all painted in depressing color palettes.

Character models are a mixed bag as well. On the surface they look great, but they animate somewhat stiffly and there are not enough customizing options. There is also a problem with armor graphics - your look is pretty much determined by the single armor you wear. Boots, gloves, bracers - though you can equip these, they do not reflect on your character. Only hats do. So even if you can add scars, control skin and hair color, and choose from many different facial feature combinations to customize your character, the game's "main armor chooses all look" approach to graphics on your avatar is disappointing.

Dungeons are another story though. They look great with cobwebs everywhere, skeletons, great effects on the fire and electricity traps, and lots of very interesting structures. So overall the graphics are a mixed bag. A little more polish in this area would have made a very impressive looking title since the basis is indeed there for great look, and there's an impeccable art direction. Just better animations and letting different armor items actually show on the characters would have gone a long way.

The music is odd, but fitting. You also get decent sound effects, standard battle groans, decent (though not spectacular) use of 3D sound. It's overall pleasing, and does not detract from the game at all.

Final Words

Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach is a wonderful title. Not without its flaws, but having such merits that it can go far, this is one amazing game. Here's a quick breakdown of merits (+) and weaknesses (-):

+ Dungeons are fun to do!
+ No vermin fighting grinding!
+ Combat is fast yet remains strategic - great use of real time within D&D rules.
+ Rogues can be rogues, and they're invaluable to handle traps!
+ Groups always get same XP on quests no matter the size so there's no XP penalties from group size.
+ Dungeon Master voice adds immersion, it's pretty funny though authentic when "playing" other characters (you'll see grin).
+ Game's social tools make finding groups easy and fast.

- Low level 10 level cap. The devs have said they plan to increase it though, however level 10 is rather powerful in D&D anyway.
- As fun and original as the dungeon content is, there is not enough of it. Turbine will need to produce lots of added content to add longevity to this title.
- Soloing is pretty much not even an option. If you like to solo in your mmorpg's, avoid this one.
- Heavy use of instancing - it's fine in dungeons, but it makes the city areas feel disjointed.
- You're pretty much inside the City of Stormreach for the whole of the game. Again, more content is needed.
- Missing some D&D staples: gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, druids, monks.

So if you're interested in it, you need to ask yourself if you are willing to try a game that can only be played online and there's no soloing in it. No crafting either, and lacking monks and druids (two of the more popular D&D classes). Apparently they do plan to add them later via patch though.

Now, if you're up to dungeon crawling in authentic D&D-like adventures with friends or don't mind joining with strangers (who will soon become friends anyway in the course of your adventures), DDO's the real deal. Full on multiplayer bliss without the silly grinding, making even lower levels exciting rather than mundane. This IS innovation within the mmorpg genre, and I'm extremely interested how it fares considering it's removed everything that's boring in an mmorpg, but which so many genre fans consider to be the addicting aspects.

My score: a solid 9 out of 10. Turbine, keep a close watch on this gem and keep polishing it - I think it's the real deal!

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/21/06

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