Generally, I find that the experience of playing an mmorpg is like dating someone crazy. The sex is really good for a while, until weeks later you find yourself smelling of schmegma, stumbling like a zombie through your regular life until you finally ask yourself the question, "is the grind really worth it?" The ecstasy of exploration becomes the monotony of level treadmilling and pull/kill/repeat gameplay rampant in games that punish you for dying. I don't care if fighting the same boss giant over and over again means phat l3wt, I find it insufferable. Don't get me started on crafting. A game that allows me to stand in front of a workbench for hours and hours making rudimentary weapons for the small price of $14.99 a month? Jesus, where do I sign up?
The good news is that D&D Online avoids a lot of the pitfalls that make games like this agonizing. The designers focused on the right things, and really tried to implement the feel of a tabletop session, minus the overbearing mothers, sweaty t-shirts, Dragon magazines and Coke-stained character sheets.
Gameplay (10 out of 10)
Much like Guild Wars, all of the adventures in D&D Online take place in instanced quests, meaning that when your party enters a dungeon, your group takes on the quest separately from everyone else online. The upside is you can play at your place, in your way, without fear of interference or loot-stealing from other players. The instanced dungeons help the mystique of the game. Hard to make it feel like D&D with a hundred different parties trolling through a dungeon looking for the same item. The downside is the online world lacks the epic scope of games like World of Warcraft and Everquest II. These are, by their very nature, social games, and the sprawling player-infested landscapes of other games of its ilk give them scope and interactivity not present in D&D online. The city is full of other players, however, and forcing people to recover hit points in a tavern make them the primary gathering places and recruitment venues. Buzz into the "Leaky Dingy" or "Wayward Lobster" if you're looking for a group, just want to hang out among other players or show off your new flaming long sword of ass-smiting +1.
As you'd expect, character creation in a game with the D&D license is great fun. You can choose from most of your familiar favorites: fighter, paladin, barbarian, ranger, rogue, bard, cleric, wizard, or sorcerer. Druid fans, hang tight -- Turbine promises some tree-hugging scimitar love in a later patch. You'll build your character by taking the stats the computer gives you, (Seriously? You're going to play a game called D&D Online and just take the pre-generated character?) or you can build your character from scratch using a point buy system for stats and assigning all of the various feats and skills. The best part is that character types aren't rigid. Want a dual wield fighter with a high dex and lighter armor? No problem. You want a battle cleric or a pure healer? A rogue with a few levels of fighter to give him some punch in hand-to hand-brawl? You can multi-class a bard/wizard/ranger if you don't mind taking a little grief from the power-gamer types -- but if you do, tell them blow themselves. You play games for fun.
Combat is a good mix of action and pen and paper stat crunching. You'll hit the right button to swing your sword and you'll see the a twenty-sided roll on your screen, letting you know what your attacked bonus is and what number you rolled on the previous attack. They even let you customize the twenty-sided die, so if you were fond of the clear green twenty-sider you gamed with as a kid, you're in luck. You can expect tweaks to the 3.5 rulebook as the designers simultaneously try to make the game more action-oriented and power-gamer resistant. It introduces the "active block," meaning you can raise your sword (or shield, if you're packing) to try and absorb some of the damage. And although the math of your swings are completely opaque, I expect there's some fudging going on with the monster's attacks against you. For example, I ran with a halfling rogue who had jacked his armor class all the way up to 32 (think -12, old-schoolers) and he couldn't last as long in a pack of medium level monsters than my 23 AC barbarian wearing medium armor. What I'm saying is, expect to get hit less the higher your armor class is, but you'll get hit more than 1 out of 20 times even with ridiculous armor. I don't have a problem with this kind of built in 'ironing out' of numbers - thieves shouldn't be going toe-to toe anyway.
Speaking of thieves, this is the mmorpg to really get them right. Their ability to disarm traps, scout, backstab and open chests makes them indispensable to a party and a blast to play. I've seen them implemented as stealth characters or as a high DPS (damage per strike) class, but never as true to the rogue as they are in D&D Online.
As is the case in any mmorpg, other players are the best and worst reasons to play these games. People looking to group to have a good time, take on some challenging dungeons and support other members of the party make the game a blast. Getting caught in group with assholes who carp that the "loot's gay in this dungeon" and look to power through the same quest over and over to farm loot or brag how switching between repeating crossbows means endless firing without re-loading and the highest kill count can be hell. In general, avoid these types. I'd rather be rabbit-punched in the nut sack than zerg through the same quest over and over.
The most fun I had playing the game was cruising through the halls of Shan-to-kor with a whole party of people new to the dungeon, surprised at every step by the ingenious ways this dungeon tries to kill you. SPOLIER ALERT In one particularly nasty area, you run through a devastating fire trap only to enter a rigged door the closes behind the first party member to pass it, and traps him a small space with an angry minotaur. We got owned, one at a time, and the minotaur pissed on all our corpses, but it was a good time, a real "oh, shit" moment in a game that's full of them. SPOLIER OVER Good times.
Story (6 out of 10)
The backstory behind the game is pretty rich, but the expository mechanisms do little to bring it to light. For example, the way you're filtered into Stormreach is uninspired, and the dull quest-givers just vomit paragraphs of text at you, without the forced slowdown of World of Warcraft or the rich audio of every character in Everquest II. Players rarely know what quest they're doing or what significance it has to Stormreach or the world of Eberron. The story's there, if you look for it, but Turbine could have a better job of telling it more effectively.
And this brings up another point: Why in the world when given the license to make a D&D game did Turbine choose the world of Eberron? A lot of players in the game seemed like nostalgic D&D players who would have been way more comfortable in the familiar Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk gameworlds. It's personal preference, of course, but where are the f***ing half-orcs? What's this "Warforged" race? Somebody give me a long sword and point me in the direction of Baldur's Gate.
Visuals (9 of 10)
The tragic day has finally dawned. My computer can't handle the high-def version of D&D Online and my current financial situation can't help me out of the dire situation, so take the description of the visuals in D&D with a grain of salt - I'm not playing the best looking version of it.
Even that being the said, the game looks as good or better than any of the mmorogs that are out there -- the character and monster models are good, and the city looks great -- filled with great touches that bring that magic-powered metropolis to life. The dungeons, on the other hand, have a bit of been there, done that feel once you played a few, especially in the early going. There's a noticeable lack of texture variety and if had to kill one more kobold in the early going...
One other pet peeve that I have with mmorpgs that is not addressed in *D&D Online* is the characters lack of a tangible presence in the gaming world. There is no collision detection between players and very little between players and monsters, so often in caverns (and taverns) everybody kind of runs together. I realize the design challenges posed having substantive characters, but it hurts the immersion to not feel like you and your fellow party members are part of the world. A challenge for another game, I guess...
Audio (7 of 10)
The audio that brings Stormreach and its dungeons to life is better than most mmorpgs I've played. There are the satisfying context-sensitive crunches and metallic clangs in combat as well as a good variety of context-sensitive music in the game. It lacks the grandeur of Everquest II's score, but you might expect that given the claustrophobic action the game. Some dungeons are underscored by eerie strings, while others are filled the menacing pounding of drums. Overall, it's good work from the sound design team and the composer who are given the daunting task of providing sound effects for thousands of different items and music for hundreds of dungeons.
The one problem I have with the in-game audio is the actor providing the voice of the dungeon master. The idea is inspired: have a single voice to set the scene and describe the action as you descend into the dungeons. But the implementation... not so much. A lot of the readings have a "take one" feel to them, and the amount of dungeon master voice trails off as make your way through the game. You want an example of fantasy narrator done right, check out David Ogden Stier's narration for the original *Icewind Dale* game. The old Black Isle and Bioware people know how to get a committed performance from good voice actors.
Overall (9 of 10)
The best thing I can say about the game is I'm itching to finish this review so I can get back to playing... If it sounds at all interesting from this review, buy it, and I'll see you on the Lhazaar server.
Some tips for Stormreach newbies: