Dungeons & Dragons Online
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While Most MMO developers are at pains to describe how widespread and open their virtual worlds are, Turbine is taking a different tack with Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. Here, the focus is on adventuring around the city of Stormreach, with quests to be found behind every door.
We recently ventured into the beta test and after some initial headscratching, early quests showed simple signs of the way you'll be expected to do more than just kill things, with plenty of levers, switches, traps and narrative text descriptions setting the mood.
Another interesting twist is the way that experience works. Rather than rewarding your character with a few numbers every time another monster goes to his grave, experience is only awarded at the end of a quest and is made up of completion bonuses, loot collection and other factors predetermined by the adventure's creator. The idea is to reward roleplaying, taking the emphasis off killing everything you see and shifting it towards using your character's abilities to reach the end of the quest instead.
Unfortunately, while mechanically it's ticking all the right boxes, it's yet to capture that classic pen-and-paper, friends round the table 'spirit' of D&D. You can see what Turbine is trying to do with the use of dungeon masterstyle descriptive text and instances that contain a little more than just monster-bashing, but it's going against the established nature of MMO gamers. Which is to basically ignore all the fancy frills and just dash through encounters as quickly as possible, twatting everything they see and grinding up those levels ASAP. Players, eh?
We had an idea recently that a more accurate interpretation of D&D in an online world would be to allow player dungeon masters to create adventures in the style of Morrowind TES or Dungeon Keeper, granting them experience points the more adventurers traverse their dungeons, and opening bigger and better construction tools as they go. It would be an interesting twist on the whole PvP thing anyway and a damn sight more fun than Alliance vs Horde. Just a thought, Turbine. You can have that one for free.
Anyhow, what DDO currently contains is an interesting approach to the established MMO norms, if not a revolutionary departure. Whether that is enough to forge a new front remains to be seen, but at the very least it's looking set to provide a solid diversion from your time in Azeroth.
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In A Year that's seen the end of Tabula Rasa, a much-loved and desperately original MMO, it's sad to begin writing about D&D Online. You see, it's never been the popular kid at school - in fact it's always been the bullied one, shoved in the corner by World of Warcraft, EverQuest II, and even its big brother Lord of the Rings Online. DDO has gone through the most dire of straits, and I can't honestly say how long it's going to last. Since its launch around three years ago - respectable, considering its obscurity - Turbine have had to downsize DDOs servers from the original 14 in the USA and five in Europe, to a mere seven worldwide, only two of which are for players in Europe. While this is positive, in that it's now easier to find groups than it was only shortly after release, this may mean DDO is at death's door.
The game itself has never really pleased its core markets. Traditional Dungeons & Dragons players have flapped their bingo wings at its lack of faith to the source material, claiming that combat is not enough like an actual D&D game, and MMO fans didn't like the quasi-real-time combat, the lack of soloing, combat difficulty, slow levelling and lack of a gigantic, immersive world to draw them in every day. In fact, the game's audience has always been slightly unclear: too obscure for the MMO-maniac, and not open enough for the average Monster Munch-fingered D&D fan. These criticisms aside, since its launch the game has become deeper and more playable for anyone willing to give it a try, but the lack of a core audience has embittered the experience.
The Dying Game
While you could always choose the solo difficulty for encounters, they initially penalised you so much that they were pointless. Turbine have since revamped soloing, making it a little more viable for those of us lonely enough to want to play an MMO on their own. In fact, the experience is a lot more visceral than Warhammer and WOW, with far more enjoyable twitch-combat than any MMO involving unsubtle womanising and men with their shirts ripped off.
Gloom and doom aside, there are certainly positive elements to DDO's current state. Servers are stable, and finding a group of players is reasonably easy (especially in comparison to Warhammer, as of going to press). That, and the current dedicated fans, as tends to happen with Turbine's MMOs (just look at Lord Of The Rings Online and Asheron's Call) are pleasant, talented, and willing to help new players adjust to a slightly quirky gameworld. They also know their stuff -for the most part, you're dealing with people who are re-playing content for fun, and thus won't sit around typing "how do I shot arrow" as you're violated by kobolds.
Turbine are also finally finishing the levelling curve, most likely just before you read this, which will allow players to reach level 20. This means there's bound to be a surge of older players either returning to the game or playing with a renewed vigour, and in general, might spark a bit of returned interest from both the press and newer players, especially considering the free trial.
The biggest problem with DDO: Stormreach is, for the most part, it's obviously not going anywhere. I'd be very surprised to see it live past 2009 in its current form, and with the reported upheavals on the inside midway through development, a lot of the original team has left or been shaken around.
Problematically, the biggest update to the game in months (Module 9) touts account-shared bank tabs as a super-duper new feature. It's hard to garner enthusiasm with players old and new when your major updates suggest that your development team has effectively left the building. There's a possible market for it as afree-to-play game with real money transactions, though. We've heard rumblings over the past year this was possibly going into effect, but nothing has come from Turbine's official press machinations. If this were to take place, the game could attract a new breed of moneyed-up MMO-ers, but we'll have to see whether Turbine take DDO in that direction - or just cut their losses and shut it down.
That would a massive shame, because had DDO been a little bit tighter, a little bit easier to play at first, it might have held a top-five MMO slot. Sadly, over the years it missed the mark and fell into obscurity, but it may last longer than Age Of Conan or Warhammer. Depending on what happens with DDO, we advise you to take a glance - maybe on a trial, or if it ever turns free-to-play. Otherwise, we're not sure where it'll be in a few months - it's all up to Turbine's coffers and their current subscribers.