Dungeons and Dragons Online Rereview
By Jason Harper (Hhean), OnRPG MOBA Reporter
Games change, times move on and reviews can become dated. Since OnRPG’s last review Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited (DDO) has continued to change and evolve, adding in a host of new content and features. So, should anyone give this aged beast a fresh run, or is it best left with the relics of the past?
The setting for the game remains on Eberron, mostly inside the fictional city of Stormreach. Eberron is the most recent Dungeons and Dragons published setting, a world devised as an answer to a single question: If magic was readily available and commonly used, wouldn’t someone try to make money from it? The result is a world that can only be summed up as ‘Magic-punk’, a setting in which magic and technology blur, various merchant clans constantly vie for power and where the gold coin is king.
It’s certainly an unusual choice for Turbine to have gone with one of the least known and newest of D&D’s worlds, but I will confess that the very slight pinch of punk in the fantasy formula does add a fresh spin on your typical swords and sorcery fare.
While the setting is a refreshing change, what really wears out its welcome fast is the city of Stormreach itself. Any single area in the city itself is easy on the eyes, but the city as a whole is very homogeneous, wearing thin any sense of exploration or wonder the more you move between its numerous districts. The lack of variety in Stormreach was one of the major criticisms leveled at the game during its launch, and while the city itself hasn’t received a face lift, there are at least a few places to go outside of the city these days, however brief a trip they may be.
Mechanically, DDO is an adaptation of the D&D 3.5 rule set, given significant changes to make it more entertaining in digital form. The changes are far too comprehensive to go into detail on, yet they still retain the core ‘spirit’ of the D&D experience. All of these changes are in the interests of balance, or to give a player more to do in combat, and so are for the better in my book, though they may enrage the D&D purists out there.
While I could list the many, many tweaks the game has made to the core experience, there are really only two that affect the game’s combat to a significant extent. The first is the removal of the ‘attacks per round’ system used in the tabletop game. Instead, you swing or fire your weapon yourself using the left mouse button. You can have your character block too, but its largely useless unfortunately. While this system is a great change of pace from your typical ‘target enemy then spam abilities’ style of combat found in most MMOs, the random d20 dice rolling determining whether or not you hit is an element I rather wish they hadn’t carried over from the original tabletop game. Loosing an arrow from a half mile away into the head of a lumbering monstrosity remains a satisfying experience, right up until you are told you ‘missed’ by the random number generator.
The second change is that the game does away with D&D’s Vancian spell casting system, where a spell is memorized during a rest period and can only be used the number of times it is memorized. Players still have a limited number of spell slots they can memorize, but they can be used freely for as long as a player has anything remaining in their spell point pool. This makes casting feel much less limited than in its pen and paper counterpart, while also accommodating for the fact that combat is far more frequent, resulting in you getting less rest stops in between combat. It is notable though that unlike other MMOs on the market, these spell points don’t recover at a slow rate during or between combat.
DDO is a game about careful, considered actions while working with limited resources. The seemingly limitless, regenerating health and mana of other MMOs is not to be found within this package. Every spell, every ability and every potion used is a question being posed. If you use this, will you have enough left before it can be replenished? Can you afford to use that metamagic feat to make one awe inspiring spell, or hold back and get three worse spells off instead? Since you can only recover health and spell points at set rest points, which are limited in usage, everything you do over the course of an adventure is a tight balancing act. Rash actions in DDO usually result in you dragging what’s left of your sorry carcass through hell only to stumble headlong into the whirring blades of a cunningly laid trap.
Traps in DDO are by far its greatest strength, alongside being one of the few MMO titles on the market that include both conventional and environmental puzzles to boot. The traps are not simply triggered damage effects caused by a character walking over an invisible trigger on the ground, as was the case with Black Isle and Bioware’s earlier D&D conversions. Oh no, not in this game. If you stand in the wrong place in DDO, rather than simply getting a small visual effect and a bit of damage, something shoots out of a wall, the floor or the ceiling at you. If you don’t want to enjoy a sudden bisection, your character will have to quickly roll out of the way. This can be easier said than done when heavily armoured characters barely move when trying to roll (accessed by both blocking and moving at the same time), instead doing a little dash to one side.
The game truly comes to life when it throws everything and the kitchen sink at you. While one member of your party is jumping from ledge to ledge to get to a lever, someone else is trying to stop a deadly trap from killing the guy trying to solve a pipedream-like puzzle. He is in turn, trying to get this done in between healing the burly fighter holding the door against a numberless horde of undead. All while the game’s narrator booms over the commotion, adding flavour and context to what might otherwise be a more mundane dungeon run.
It’s sad then that these moments of true brilliance don’t shine through as often as I’d like. Solo play in the game can swing from mind numbingly dull to punishingly difficult, and in some of the worst cases can be both at the same time. Grouping up is undoubtedly the focus of DDO, which is both more fun and provides more rewards from heading into danger with a well rounded party at your back. The developers at Turbine definitely seem aware of this though, given the numerous rewards on offer for joining a guild.
The guild perks in the game can be very significant, giving you access to certain items not otherwise accessible, both in the form of drops and quest rewards. You get numerous buffs accessed through leveling your guild, much in the same manner as other guild leveling systems found in other titles, but these are provided in a very unusual fashion. Guilds can purchase sweet looking airships instead of a usual guild house, which can be brought along for some of the high level content in the game. When accessed outside of a dungeon though, your guild can purchase crewmembers for your ship that provide buffs to your character when spoken to. The higher level your guild, the larger a ship you can buy, and therefore you get access to not only more crewmen, but also more skilled crews that provide better buffs.
Even if you do manage to find a brilliant bunch of friends to go adventuring with, a good deal of the game’s content doesn’t play to the game’s strengths. Long winded dungeon crawls filled with nothing but waves of enemies can be really tiresome, especially when it’s against the same type of enemy in an endlessly recycled environment. The opening levels beyond the excellent tutorial area are very guilty of this – a horribly long procession of kobolds and sewers that wears down any desire to continue onwards. There’s a reason that paying customers can opt to start at level 4, the exact point where the sewer missions stop cropping up.
The free to play model is very well thought out overall. Players can choose to pay for a good deal of minor perks: aesthetic changes to a character’s armour, small experience boosts, more inventory space, extra character slots and so on. Nothing that someone on a free account is really going to miss, and only serve to make life on a paying account a bit more pleasant. Even the locked classes and races, the newly added artificer being among them, don’t feel like a loss, as you already get access to the majority of the races and classes, all of them of the more iconic D&D archetypes. You can even choose to pay for content piece by piece or go for a monthly subscription, which unlocks nearly everything in the game for as long as you’re subscribed, while also giving you enough of their store’s currency for you to grab anything not covered by the subscription.
All of this is great and dandy until you bash heads with the stupidest part of DDO’s revenue system. Paying for access to in game dungeons and adventures. These are accessible in some roundabout ways for the free to play customer, through the use of grinding the Turbine points needed through multiple characters over all the possible servers, or through people with paying accounts giving you a guest pass. However, the grind is simply excessive, and the rigmarole of asking a friend to choke up money so your leech-like self doesn’t have to pay a penny for access is both humiliating and unlikely if you’re dealing with someone you’ve only just met. What’s worse is the locking of content hurts Turbine as much as you. The game’s best content is all the stuff that you have to pay for. If they wanted to entice new customers, then surely it’s better to actually let those customers see what’s the best the game has to offer, rather than the worst?
Since it’s the game’s most recent addition, I think I’ll give the Artificer a special mention here. The class is a great addition to the game, from a thematic standpoint. In a setting which is all about magical engineering, adding in a class that lets you play a magical engineer is such an obvious addition I wonder why it took them so long to make it playable. The class plays like a ranged specialized rogue, with the ability to disarm traps and open locks, but with a big mechanical dog that functions as a warrior hireling you level up yourself, infinite ammo, and a sweet laser gun on your arm. It is actually so good it almost makes me wonder if it doesn’t just straight up replace the rogue and ranger classes.
If you’re looking for the short version of all this, DDO is a going to be a game that will be loved by those who like careful, thoughtful play while gaming with friends. There is a wondrous amount of schadenfreude to be had at watching one of your mates say something like “Oh! A chest” moments before jets of flame bake them from all directions. If you’re playing mostly by yourself, or don’t like an MMO that deviates from the standard form of auto-targeting hotbar based combat, then you’ll likely not get along with DDO. Is it a better game than when it first came out? Undoubtedly. If you liked DDO when it came out but found it flawed but fun, then I really recommend heading out to Stormreach once again for another look.