Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach Review

Introduction

Dungeon & Dragons Online: Stormreach is a massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game (MMORPG) that achieves a lot of (firsts.) It's the first MMORPG to use the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition rule set, it's the first MMORPG to employ the Dungeons & Dragons Eberron setting, and, most importantly, it's the first MMOPRG to try and recreate the feeling of playing Dungeons & Dragons in a room with your friends, where one person acts as the dungeon master and the other people roll dice and role-play their characters. As a result, Dungeons & Dragons Online provides a unique role-playing experience. But is it a fun role-playing experience? Keep reading to find out.


Character Development

Despite its many unique aspects, Dungeons & Dragons Online starts out like most other MMORPGs. You must choose a server (there are 14) and you must create a character. I'm not an expert on Dungeons & Dragons rules, version 3.5 or otherwise, but the races and classes available seem about right. Bards don't get any rogue abilities, and sorcerers and wizards get spells to repair warforged characters, but otherwise the five races and nine classes do about what you'd expect. Halflings are best as rogue characters, elves are best as spellcasters, you should choose the cleric class if you want to heal people, and you should become a wizard if you want to dish out damage.

If you've played other Dungeons & Dragons computer role-playing games (such as just about anything from BioWare), then the skills, spells, and feats in Dungeons & Dragons Online should also feel familiar. Some character abilities, like the (magic missile) spell and the (weapon finesse) feat, work just like they always have. Others, like the (diplomacy) and (intimidate) skills, work a little differently. Dungeons & Dragons Online doesn't use conversation checks of any kind (NPCs basically talk at you rather than with you), and so there's no such thing as a diplomat character. That means the diplomat skills have been turned into combat skills, and you can use (diplomacy) to convince monsters to attack somebody else, and you can use (intimidate) to get monsters to attack you.

Characters are only allowed to reach level 10 in the game. Since this is intended to take a while (after playing for a month, my best character is only level 7), developer Turbine, Inc. added five (ranks) to each level. The first four times you gain a rank, you receive an action point. The fifth time, you advance your level. Action points buy small enhancements for characters, such as extra damage for certain kinds of weapons, skill boosts, and bonuses to ability scores. That means, while in most Dungeons & Dragons games characters are pretty weak at the start, in Dungeons & Dragons Online characters buff up quickly, and it doesn't take long before they can participate in difficult quests.


Playing the Game

It's after you've created your character and started exploring the world that Dungeons & Dragons Online separates itself from other MMORPGs. The game is completely quest oriented. You don't get any experience for killing random creatures. You only get experience for going on quests and completing objectives. Moreover, quests only take place in private instances, and there isn't any combat allowed in public areas. That means, among other things, that there isn't any player-versus-player combat allowed (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your tastes), and that it isn't possible for other players to (grief) your party by sabotaging your quests or even just by following you around and making a nuisance of themselves (which is definitely a good thing).
There are a few (encounter) areas in the game, where you get a small amount of experience for defeating small groups of enemies (early in the game, a trio of kobolds or a single troll might constitute an encounter), but otherwise the game is a matter of putting together a party of characters, going on a quest, and then repeating. There isn't anything else to do, and there isn't really any solo content. In fact, Dungeons & Dragons Online is sort of odd in that it overwhelmingly encourages you to party with other characters. The amount of experience you get at the end of a quest is adjusted for certain things, like discovering secret doors (good) or being a higher level than intended for the quest (bad), but there isn't any adjustment for the number of players in your party. Since all equipment rewards are created for the individual party members (meaning that you don't have to fight over equipment drops), there isn't any downside to completing every quest with the maximum number of players in your party. And because you're less likely to die and more likely to receive experience bonuses, the more players you party with, the more experience you're likely to get. That's sort of an odd change from other MMORPGs, where just the opposite is usually true, and it takes a while to get used to it.

Sadly, while this sort of system has potential, the quests themselves usually aren't very exciting. Early in the game almost every quest features kobolds, sewers, warehouses, or some combination of the three, and it just gets boring. Later, there is more variety to where you can go and what types of enemies you can kill, but there just aren't enough quests. I think it's possible to reach level 4 by completing the early quests one time each, but after that you have to complete the mid- and high-level quests multiple times just because there isn't anything else to do (there's this one quest on an island called Sorrowdusk that I've completed about ten times now). Chances are that Turbine will release more content over time -- just the other day they released a new module called the Dragon's Vault that is supposed to contain more quests for all levels -- but right now the content is kind of thin.

Here's an example of an early quest. Near a sewer entrance, a guy will tell you that his wife has been kidnapped. If you then enter the sewers, you'll have to chase and kill kobolds until you reach the wife. However, at that point you'll discover that a hobgoblin is really the one behind the kidnapping, and so you'll have to kill him to free the wife. You're only required to kill the hobgoblin and talk to the wife to complete the quest, and so if you can sneak effectively you can skip some combat. There are also some optional parts, like a treasure chest that if you open it, spiders will appear and attack you. But really, the quest is kind of generic, and you don't need to know any of the backstory to complete it. You can just wander around and kill stuff and talk to any NPCs that you come across. That's actually a strategy that works for 90% of the quests in the game. Ho hum.


The Interface

Dungeons and Dragons Online uses a third-person perspective, and it employs a couple of different movement modes. In the standard mode, you press the WASD keys to drive your character, and the camera automatically follows behind. In mouselook mode, you can still use the WASD keys for movement, but you steer your character with the mouse. During combat, right-clicking causes your character to swing its weapon, and you can also block (with or without a shield) by holding down the shift key. If you move while blocking, then you can (tumble,) which is a skill in the game.

The control scheme works well enough, which makes sense since it's a variation on the control schemes that just about all third-person perspective games use. Where the interface has its failing is in providing useful information. Consider the (focus orb.) When you select an object or character, an image of it appears in the focus orb on screen. The focus orb is large, but yet it doesn't provide any information about the object. If you want to see the information, you have to press a button on the focus orb, or you have to press the Z key, and then a new panel with the information will pop up. But why require that extra step? Why not just have the focus orb provide some information by default?

Or consider the quest log. Quests are sorted by the location where you received the quest. That's fine -- except that the game gets very specific in its listings, and instead of showing, say, 15 quests for the harbor distict, it lists four in the Leaky Dinghy tavern, four more in the Wayward Lobster tavern, one in the harbormaster's house, and so forth, so the quests get difficult to keep track of because there are so many locations listed in the quest log, and you have to remember where all the taverns are. Worse, there isn't any way to control which quests are displayed, such as only showing the ones you haven't completed yet, and the only way to see how many times you've completed a quest is to go on the quest.
Or consider the party list. The only thing the game shows you is who is in your party, what class they are, and how healthy they are. It doesn't show their level, where they are, or if they currently have any buffs or penalties being applied. That makes it annoying when you join a party, because you have no way of knowing if it's an appropriate party for your character. If you really wanted, you could search for each character in the social tab, or examine them one by one if they happen to be nearby, but that sort of basic information shouldn't be so difficult to come by.

Other parts of the interface work better. For example, the social tab makes it easy to indicate that you're looking for a group, or, if you're in a group, to specify that you're looking for more. You can also move around and resize the interface panels and open multiple hotkey bars, and the game will remember your preferences (except, oddly, for the (d20) panel, which always resets to its default position), but in general, Turbine didn't spend even close to enough time making the interface friendly or functional. The interface works, and the game is playable with it, but that's about the best that could be said for it.


Odds and Ends

There are two other topics I want to delve into, but which don't fit anywhere else. The first one relates to that ESRB warning that you always see nowadays -- (game experience may change during online play.) That's the one where what they really mean is, (People tend to be schmucks, so be careful.) Well, I don't know if I've just been lucky, or if perhaps the cooperative nature of the game has kept at bay those who enjoy causing problems for others, but the people I've met in Dungeons and Dragons Online have been almost unfailingly nice and polite. It's actually been sort of eerie, because I never expect that sort of thing while online. But if you're a parent who worries about what your child is playing, or if you're just a potential player who gets turned off by the typical online hijinks, then you should feel safe with Dungeons & Dragons Online.

The second topic is less positive. In fact, let's call it a negative. Dungeons & Dragons Online works badly if you have a dial-up connection. When the game was first released, simply running through town caused problems, and actually grouping with other people or killing more than one enemy at a time was all but impossible. Then about three weeks ago, Turbine released a patch that allowed you to set your connection speed, and that made the game reasonably playable. The new Dragon's Vault module also includes a patch, and supposedly that patch will help matters even more -- but the patch is 250 MB, and I'm still downloading it, so who knows? I'm optimistic that Turbine will eventually fix the dial-up problems, but even so, realize this: Dungeons & Dragons Online includes voice chat, and that feature only works if you have a broadband connection. If you're stuck with dial-up, then be prepared to be treated like a second-class citizen.


Conclusion

Overall, Dungeons & Dragons Online is a nice but less-than-stellar MMORPG. I probably would have liked it better if I hadn't been using a dialup connection -- or maybe not. Generally, most of the game seems rather uninspired to me. I'd say that the best part of the game is the character development system, but that came almost verbatim from the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition rule set. The quests don't have enough variety, and there aren't enough of them, and so mid- to high-level characters aren't given enough to do. Possibly, Turbine will provide enough extra content, such as with the Dragon's Vault module they released on April 5, to alleviate these problems, but if so it'll probably be a while down the road, and so you might want to wait and see how things shake out before purchasing a copy of the game.