In our quest to revisit all those MMO's that we've already played, we're giving Dungeons & Dragons Online another chance to make us smile, like it did when it was young.
Many triple-A MMOs are released to great fanfare, with everyone wondering if they'll be the next big thing. However, some of these games fade into obscurity and a few months after launch become somewhat forgotten. Dungeons & Dragons Online is one such MMO, but does it deserve to be getting so little attention these days? I was one of DDO's early adopters but left after The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out, mainly due to the games' similarities. After coming across my old game box, I decided it was time to give DDO a second chance.
For the uninitiated, Turbine threw away the MMO rulebook when creating DDO and as a result it plays very differently than its competitors. While towns are open to all, most of the game's PvE content is in the form of instances which only you and the other members of your group can enter. Most of these take the form of dungeons, although there are a smaller number of large, outdoor areas thrown into the mix. This isn't what most players are used to, but what it allowed the developers to do was to make DDO feel like an actual D&D dungeon-crawl, rather than just another MMO. As a result, dungeons are carefully-crafted adventures in their own right, containing a surprising amount of variety.
Another benefit to DDO's use of instances is that gameplay elements can be included which simply wouldn't work in other MMOs. Dungeons are often littered with traps, which must either be avoided or disarmed in order for characters to pass safely. There's often a risk / reward element to these, as the areas protected by some traps are optional, but contain rewards for those willing to brave them. The game also makes use of puzzles, which aren't limited to just finding the right switch to open a door. Instead, puzzles can take the form of everything from working out how to bypass a trap, to providing power to a nearby object in a similar way to Bioshock's hacking sequences, as seen in the screenshot below. Secret and hidden passages also make frequent appearances in DDO, as do treasure chests containing meaningful loot, rather than the rubbish found in some other MMOs. Finally, DDO makes use of gameplay elements more commonly used in platform or Tomb Raider-style games, rather than MMOs. Boxes and walls can be climbed, as can ladders, with some areas only accessible to characters with a high Jump skill. All these elements combine to make you feel like you're playing something straight out of D&D, with your Dungeon Master chipping in from time to time in the form of a narrator.
Puzzles like this block the way in some dungeons.
The first thing I noticed as a player returning to Dungeons & Dragons Online was the improved character creator. This has been streamlined to make it friendlier to new players, as it breaks the classes down into categories and helps to give a better description of each class's role than it did before. Not only that, but pre-built starting characters are now available for selection, meaning new players don't need to go through a lengthy process of skill and stat distribution before entering the game. It's still possible to build your character manually - you just don't have to. Another nice touch is that each class's soloing ability is listed at character creation, meaning players can choose the one best suited to their play style. Since I played a Rogue before - a notoriously difficult class to solo with - I decided to go with a Paladin this time around.
After leaving character creation, I was surprised to see that the old newbie zone - a run-down part of Stormreach - had been ditched in favour of an area called Korthos Island. This helps to provide new players with a wider variety of content than was previously available, as the old newbie zone didn't have any outdoor instances to explore. The final dungeon in this area also contains a battle with a dragon; a type of mob which, if I remember correctly, wasn't in the game at all when it launched. There's a greater feeling of progression in Korthos Island than there was in the old newbie zone and everything just feels more important, leading to a greater sense of achievement for anyone who finishes its quests. The rewards given here have also been beefed up, resulting in your character being offered a host of magic items by the time it leaves the island.
You don't fight the dragon directly, but you're responsible for eliminating it as a threat.
There are two other changes that people returning to DDO's low levels will notice, the first of which is the inclusion of the "solo" difficulty setting on dungeons. One of DDO's problems after launch was its reliance on group play - many classes simply couldn't solo at all, so if you couldn't get a group you couldn't really play the game. This problem is now largely done away with, thanks both to this new difficulty setting, and the addition of Hirelings. These are NPCs that can be hired to accompany you and your party to dungeons and other areas, filling any roles that you may be missing in your group. For example, a melee-heavy group could take on extra spell casters, or more vulnerable characters could hire Paladins and Fighters to help protect them.
Overall, the changes that have been made to DDO make it easier to get into and less reliant on groups. However, that's not to say the game is still without its problems. For example, drops from destructible items such as crates and urns sometimes spawn inside walls, making them impossible to pick up. I also found the game's early instances to be too easy on "solo" difficulty, with my character completing most of them with barely a scratch. Maybe this was due to me using a solo-friendly class, but the issue still stands.
The game's "solo" difficulty setting also comes with problems of its own as the game was designed from the ground up to be played in a group. Traps are difficult to avoid unless you have a Rogue in your party, and certain doors can't be opened unless you have a character with a stat above a certain level. In other words, solo players will find parts of each dungeon blocked off and inaccessible to them, which can be frustrating if you know there's a treasure chest inside. Even a Rogue Hireling won't help too much, as they can't disarm traps, which is half the reason people want them in their groups in the first place.
Despite the server merge that took place in 2007, the servers also feel somewhat empty, at least in Europe. This results in it being hard to find a group unless you're playing at peak times, and even then the group might not want to complete the same quests as you. The fact that the newbie area's cut off from the rest of the game (and you can't leave until you've finished its quests) means it's difficult for new players to ask more experienced players for help. New players are likely to have questions as well, as certain elements of the game aren't explained in the tutorial. Item damage doesn't seem to be mentioned and unless you have an extensive knowledge of D&D, you won't realise that certain types of enemies cause serious damage to any weapons that are used against them. The first you'll know about this issue is when your weapon's about to break, leaving you with a hefty repair bill.
It's possible to solo in DDO, but you'll have more fun in a group.
It can also be difficult to know the effects of some of the items in-game, such as those used to cast certain spells. The name of the spell might appear on the item, but a description of the spell does not. Some spell names are far from intuitive, making it hard to identify which items could be of use to you, and which deserve to be sold. Not only that, but it can be difficult to figure out which items will benefit your character when equipped. For example, if you have two items giving +1 to strength, you'll find that these bonuses don't stack. However, nothing exists to inform you of this, so unless you're armed with this knowledge ahead of time you could find yourself choosing quest rewards of no use to your character.
DDO has are a few other issues too - the closure of the previous newbie zone is handled rather inelegantly (with the NPCs on the door giving you the equivalent of "these are not the droids you are looking for") and areas behind secret doors are shown on your map inside dungeons, taking the guesswork out of finding them. However, the main problem with DDO has been mentioned above, and that problem is grouping. While it's possible to solo in Dungeons & Dragons Online, the game's not really designed for it. Playing on your own simply isn't as much fun as joining a group, and unless you play at peak times you could be soloing more often than not, due to the lack of players online.
In the end, DDO's a better game than it used to be, and the increase of the level cap in its next major patch should increase the number of people playing. If you plan on giving the game a go, I'd recommend getting your friends to do the same. If you can all play together on a regular basis - much like a real session of D&D - then you'll probably enjoy DDO. However, if you can't get a group on a regular basis that's doing quests you actually need, it won't be anywhere near as enjoyable. Unfortunately, DDO's in something of a vicious cycle - a lack of groups means people stop playing, while fewer people playing means there aren't as many groups. Hirelings and the solo difficulty level are more like band-aids rather than solutions to the problem itself, and I'm not sure what else Turbine can do to improve matters. However, if you can find regular groups, then Dungeons & Dragons Online is better than many people give it credit for. I wish Turbine luck in attracting more players to DDO, as it deserves more success than it has enjoyed so far. In fact, let me do my bit to help right here:
North American Trial
SAM "azerian" Maxted