Someone asked me to do a review of DDO, which appealed to me as I’ve been enjoying the past couple weeks in the game, but I am hesitant to make any decisive judgments. So call this a semi-review, a half-baked abomination that’s best kept under lock and key in a steel-plated room.
Dungeons & Dragons Online: Niche Unlimited
For that, let’s look at the concept of a mainstream vs. niche MMO. The way I define mainstream MMOs is games that are easily understood by a majority of players, popular across enough demographics to ensure a stable population, and familiar to those who have played most MMOs in the past. Niche titles are off the beaten track in one of these areas — they might only be understood by a minority of players; it might only be popular in a smaller, more specific demographic; and it won’t be the standard Deekoomud that EQ, WoW and the rest subscribe to.
Anyway, let’s get past definitions to look at why Dungeons and Dragons Online is — again, to me at least — definitely a niche title. You’d think that the granddaddy of RPGs would be a natural part of the online landscape, but by the time that DDO launched, MMOs had evolved in a different way from D&D — hit points that came back just by waiting a few seconds, combat that was real-time vs. in rounds, and, most specifically, gamers playing a lot of less-defined adventures in a larger, cohesive game world than more specific adventures in isolated modules. For DDO to bow completely to the traditional MMO model would’ve been outright blasphemy for D&D faithfuls, but pure D&D didn’t work as a massively multiplayer online game either.
Instead of a billion levels, DDO is currently limited to a mere 16 (soon to be 20), but offers four “ranks” within each level to help the MMOer feel as though they’re making progress. Traditional MMO conventions, such as automatically regenerating health/mana, are simply not present here. Combat and progress through a dungeon often uses semi-real time action and platforming elements. You only get XP for finishing an adventure, not on a per-mob-kill basis. And, yes, this is a world made almost exclusively out of instances, instead of wide, free-roaming areas.
Character Creation: Gimps Ahoy!
While it’s not quite as complex as EVE Online’s bazillion skills, DDO has one of the more challenging character creation and development systems to understand and master. This is certainly a game where you can gimp your character if you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to at least have a passing familiarity with D&D rules to know what stats and skills characters need and why, what spells are useful and which are worthless, and if you’re ever going to multiclass… whew, you better do your research. Players love the incredible depth that characters contain, but D&D has its own lingo and rules that aren’t common sense to the average person, particularly the one weaned on more watered-down rulesets that exist in WoW and their ilk.
This is why Turbine instituted a series of template builds, designed for first-time players who are (rightfully) terrified of screwing up their character. Did I mention that full respecs aren’t even possible? That’s something to take into consideration right there. Unless you’re playing a prefab build, you best put in a good bit of research and plan your character’s progress all the way through the end game so that it’ll be what you want it to be.
This all said, the mere fact that DDO lets you multi-class between up to three different classes means that there’s potential for a mind-boggling amount of character builds. Sure, not all of them are great or even work, but for gamers who don’t want to feel restricted in developing their character, this is a huge amount of freedom.
You do need to know that three character creation options aren’t available at the start: the Drow race, the Favored Soul class, and 32-point stat builds (versus the 28-point ones that come standard). While these all will be purchasable when Unlimited launches (except the 32-point build), players now and then will be able to earn them through the favor system, which requires you to run a whole lot of dungeons (and a wide variety of them) to build up points to unlocking these features.
Eberron: A Nice Place To Visit
I once ragged on DDO’s odd Eberron setting, claiming that this lesser-known D&D campaign was a poor choice to draw in large crowds more familiar with Forgotten Realms. I now renounce that statement, as DDO’s vision for its world has slowly and gradually won me over. I’m actually glad this isn’t Forgotten Realms, or really any neutral-typical fantasy setting, because DDO needs a dash of uniqueness to avoid the been-there, done-that world.
Without getting into the lore (which I know little about anyway), DDO’s world is a quirky blend of magic, high adventure and steampunk. It isn’t high magic, where tall towers and whispy unicorns exist, but more of a practical magic that holds up buildings, moves cranes and presumably lays down the bazillion miles of concrete that the town needs for its extensive sewer system. There’s a hint of the tropics and the exotic in there, with a pleasing color pallete that isn’t as flashy as Warcraft, but it’s far above browns, greys and dark greens of some titles. There’s even a robotic-golem race, the Warforged, that definitely would be out of place in most D&D settings.
For me, the absolute pinnacle of DDO’s experience is in plunging into the couple hundred-or-so dungeons that litter the main city and its surrounding areas. These can be as simple as a one-room warehouse, or as complex as a multi-stage, multi-level fortress. To put it succinctly: I am bonkers for their dungeon design. Even something as mundane and overused (in the beginning levels, especially) as sewer maps are lovingly detailed, with something interesting to look at most of the time.
Not to mention that DDO’s dungeons pish-posh most other MMO ideas of dungeons — namely, the “move five feet, do a carefully coordinated five-minute pull, rinse and repeat” battle plan. Combat’s just one of many aspects of dungeon diving, when you consider the extremely deadly traps (bring a rogue, folks!) that come in dozens of varieties, puzzles, secret doors and passageways, environmental obstacles (climbing, swimming, jumping), and hey, lots of random objects to smash.
I also have to applaud DDO’s approach to the dungeon quests. To put it simply, there’s a lot of creativity that went into some of these quests, and you won’t always end up doing the same thing as you move between dungeons (kill to the end boss and loot, for example). One quest had me defending a crate from kobolds rushing on all sides, hellbent on destroying it; another quest had me solving a mystery of a dead girl; another had me seeking out defiled altars to destroy in order to purify the place. Some quests are on timers, some require you to smash a lot of things, some penalize you for smashing or killing.
Soloers Somewhat Tolerated
The biggest caveat to DDO is that if you absolutely hate to group, then you’ll hate this game. Despite solo dungeon options and henchmen contracts, the only way to really play DDO to its fullest is by jumping into a group and playing alongside real people. As everywhere is the game is easy to reach and the grouping interface quite painless, it’s not hard to do. The integrated in-game voice chat is a must, at least to listen, and while your mileage may vary on PUGs, I’ve experienced some great, funny groups as well as a few duds.
- A vastly improved starter zone
- The potential to multiclass, creating your own blend of character
- HUGE amounts of character customization — multiclassing, feats, enhancements, items, Dragonmarks and so on.
- Voice chat in game (makes pugging easier)
- The Dungeon Master (DM) voice-overs
- The steampunk magic Eberron world – colorful and different than just the same-old fantasy setting
- Quick grouping and instant dungeon diving
- Awesome dungeons — chaotic fights, traps, puzzles, exploration, and not just a little bit of platforming (climbing, swimming, etc.).
- Items that aren’t just gear, but are useful as skills/spells/abilities
- Not regenerating health/spell points (except in town or at rest shrines) makes dungeon diving more exciting and risky
- While complex, once you get your footing you find that this different system is quite fascinating and flexible
- Diving into a chest never gets old
- Some of the small details — like seeing mirrors in dungeons that actually reflect your character
- The armor looks pretty nifty, reflecting the odd fantasy/steampunk blend
- The whole “unlocking 32-point builds/Drow/Favored Souls” thing.
- The body models are… off. Anorexic? Incorrectly proportioned? Dwarves are particularly ugly.
- It’s a complex game to get to know, from the game mechanics to D&D’s 3.5 ruleset. If you’re not experienced with D&D, expect to spend a bit extra time figuring this all out
- Some players can be less-than-patient with newbies (although many I found to be very patient)
- Fewer folks playing it these days makes finding a group more difficult (although that might change with the F2P version)
- The AH is rough and incomplete compared to other titles
- Icons over quest givers’ heads aren’t always easy to see