Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach Preview

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach (DDO) is a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) based on the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition ruleset and the Eberron setting. Now, depending on how you grew up, that first sentence might or might not have a lot of meaning to you. I've never played Dungeons & Dragons how it was designed -- with dice and a table and other people in the room -- so all I know about it is what I've seen in other computer games. If that's your experience as well, then let me sum up DDO in this alternative way: it's sort of like playing Neverwinter Nights on a massively multiplayer scale.

At first glance, DDO starts up just like every other MMORPG ever designed. You create a character, you choose a server, and then you start playing. Character creation is about what you'd expect. The available classes are standard for a Dungeons & Dragons game, with the likes of fighters, rangers, bards, clerics, and wizards. I've heard that an artificer class might make an appearance at some point, but otherwise the only class I was expecting to see but didn't was the monk class. Similarly, the available races should be familiar, with humans, elves, dwarves and halflings taking center stage. Since DDO takes place in Eberron, the warforged race is also an option.

Once you've selected your class and race (and perhaps messed around with things like the color of your hair and the shape of your nose), you also have to select feats and skills for your character. This is a place where veterans from Neverwinter Nights will feel right at home -- well, almost. In both games, feats and skills are handled in about the same way (you choose a feat every couple levels, and you spend skill points every level), but the feats and skills have been implemented in slightly different ways. For example, where in Neverwinter Nights there was a weapon focus feat for each and every weapon type, in DDO the feat is based on weapon classes (such as slashing weapons), making it much more convenient. Or take the (cleave) feat. Instead of it being a passive feat that triggers each time you kill an enemy, in DDO it's an active feat with a cooldown timer. Finally, dialogue doesn't seem to be all that important in DDO (I didn't see a single persuade or intelligence check or anything of the like while I played), but the game still has skills like (intimidate) and (diplomacy.) It's just that those skills are now active combat skills, with (intimidate) working as sort of a taunting skill and (diplomacy) doing just the opposite.

Once you have your character all put together, you're thrown into the game in a place called Smuggler's Landing. This is where the tutorial takes place. The tutorial includes a few quests to teach you things like how to move and use the camera (there are multiple modes, including one where you use the WASD keys to move and the camera to aim), how to cast spells (you have to memorize spells, but you also have spell points, and so you can cast your memorized spells as many times as you'd like until you run out of points), how to rest in the game (there are special shrines), how to fight and block (the right mouse button swings your weapon and the shift key causes you to block), and more.

The tutorial and early quests require that you solve them by yourself, but they're easy enough to where this shouldn't be a problem. Eventually, you'll find yourself in the port city of Stormreach (hence the game's title), and you'll discover that the city has a massive problem with kobolds. You'll find numerous quests to drive kobolds out of warehouses and sewers, to escort people safely to some places, and to rescue people from other places. However, unlike the early quests, the Stormreach quests are longer and more difficult, and you pretty much have to group together with other characters to solve them. Regular groups can have up to six characters, and special (raid) groups can have up to 12 characters. DDO does not look like a game you'll enjoy if you only want to solo, although I did have some success grouping with just one other person for most quests, and so you don't necessarily have to fight your way through a crowd, either.

Experience works differently in DDO than in any other MMORPG that I've ever played. You don't (grind) to get experience. In fact, you don't get experience from killing enemies at all. The only time you get experience is when you complete objectives in a quest, or when you complete the entire quest. That's an interesting approach, because it means that it doesn't matter how you solve a quest as long as you solve it. Sneaking past enemies, for example, won't cost you any experience. The downside is that if you fail to complete the quest, then you might not get anything, and you might end up wasting an entire night without progressing through a quest or advancing your character. In fact, since you can lose experience when you die, you might end up worse off at the end of a night than when you started.

That is, DDO isn't an especially friendly game. It also seems a little low key. You won't zoom through character levels (10 is the maximum level right now), the equipment isn't all that exciting, there isn't any player versus player content that I know of, there isn't anything to do besides quests, and the early quests all feel about the same, since they almost all feature kobolds, sewers and warehouses. There is also a fairly serious lag problem. The game creates instances of all public areas, which should cut down on lag since it means you won't find five million people all hanging out in the same tavern, but the solution doesn't work very well. Using a dial-up connection, I often had trouble just running from one end of Stormreach to another. Thankfully, though, during the quests themselves (which also take place in instances) I rarely had any trouble.

I played DDO for something like 20 hours over a two-week period. I started with a rogue, gave up on her after a while, and then created a cleric and had much better luck with him. During that time I made it to level 2 and saw most of the level 1 and 2 quests, so while I have no idea what the high level content is like, I think it's safe to say that the low level content didn't wow me. But if you're looking for a cooperative MMORPG, and if the lag issues can be resolved, then DDO has some potential. Look for it on store shelves starting on February 28.