I guess I had it in my head that Dungeons and Dragons Online was just a software set designed to make the game playable over the Internet. You know, not really a game in and of itself? Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was a fully-fledged MMO in its own right, and not only that, it was free. I downloaded the game immediately, eager to see how my favorite pen and paper game made the transition to PC.
As it turns out I was, and still am, pleasantly surprised. The game uses the D20 system (a la Neverwinter Nights, and of course D&D itself) so as you attack, defend, etc., you can actually see your rolls and modifiers and whether they result in success or failure. It’s a minor touch, but one of many that makes you feel as though you’re really playing D&D and not just another fantasy MMO.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit so let’s go ahead and re-begin at the beginning. Character creation is pretty standard, you can choose from one of four races: Human, Halfling, Dwarf and Elf, and unlike some other MMOs your choice of race actually affects your base statistics in the same way it does in Dungeons and Dragons. By the way, like many free MMOs DDO includes an online “Store” where you can purchase everything from statistics boosts to new quest lines, and paying into the system to become a “VIP” opens up a wealth of new options including additional races like the Warforged, Half-Elf and Half-Orc. You can choose to be male or female as well as personalize your appearance but there’s no real innovation there.
The class selection system is where the game really starts to shine. Character creation the D&D way can be a complicated process, and the MMO does its best to grease the wheels. The game starts by asking you whether you’d rather play a Melee, Spellcaster or Specialist role. Within the Melee category you have Barbarian, Fighter and Paladin. Spellcaster offers Cleric, Wizard and Sorcerer, while Specialist offers Rogue, Ranger and Bard. Once again, paying for VIP status ($9.99 a month, I believe) opens up more options, including Monk and Favored Soul. There are further customization options once you choose your class, including spell choices and feat options. For players who are new to the D20 system, the game offers premade “Paths” your character can take. For example, one Wizard Path may focus on increased damage output, while another focuses on Necromancy. For more experienced players the option to make every single choice about your character’s stats is available, and this is much more like creating a character in standard D&D. The decision to offer both styles of creation is a perfect way to mainstream a process too complex for more casual gamers.
Once you make your character and get into the game, you’ll find an incredibly immersive environment. The great thing about D&D is that, with a good Dungeonmaster your game never FEELS like fantasy, instead it feels like a very real adventure in which you happen to be a fantasy hero. DDO captures that perfectly. The world lacks the cartoonish elements that make games like World of Warcraft and Vindictus so hard to connect with on a level necessary for good roleplay, and the inclusion of a “Dungeon Master” who acts as a narrator to describe environments and events makes every aspect of the game that much more rich.`
Gameplay is pretty much the MMO standard, using the WASD keys to move and the numbers 1-0 as hotkeys for your abilities. Since melee is such a heavy party of combat, however (most classes will need to melee for the majority of their damage output, at least at early levels), your basic attack is mapped to the left mouse-click. I’ve found this is a trend most new RPGs are picking up on, from Vindictus to DDO and even the new Dragon Age 2 demo. It’s a refreshing and simple way to make the combat more engaging. Even though you’re just spamming mouse-clicks, it really adds a feeling of investment to occasionally stale RPG-style combat.
Advancement varies from standard MMO fare in that it once again attempts to capture classic D&D with regards to pace. Most MMOs grant levels on beginning players like they’re going out of style, making level requirements higher as the game progresses to account for the ease of the beginning stages of the game. Leveling in Dungeons and Dragons is more ponderous from the outset, since the classic game is more story-driven, but DDO has players gain “ranks” in between levels, so the lengthy climb from one level to another, though lengthy, is punctuated by opportunities to advance and customize your character.
Much of the gameplay is carried out in what MMO players will recognize as “instances.” The open world in between quest hubs offers a few quests, namely a quest to kill denizens of the area, a quest to explore the area, and a quest to hunt down and destroy rarer and more powerful enemies. Inside the hubs (usually towns) quests lead to individual instances for which a range of four difficulties can be chosen. All quests can be repeated and offer options for solo or team play. The standard strategy seems to be soloing all of the quests in an area on the Normal, then repeating them with a team on Hard and Elite difficulties. Treasure and experience scales up as difficulty does, but experience is only rewarded upon successful completion of the quest, meaning that killing all or even most of the enemies in a quest zone is useless if you can’t do the entire thing. This is annoying at times, but it provides a challenge and makes quest completion that much more rewarding.
Speaking of challenge, quest dungeons are a refreshing change from instances in that they offer non-combat obstacles including puzzles, traps and mazelike constructions. This also adds to the game’s immersion factor, since each quest feels like an adventure and not just a colorful way to throw more powerful enemies at the players.
So, should you play DDO? If you’re looking for a unique MMO experience and you happen to come from a background in RPGs, I’d say most definitely yes. Even if you’re not necessarily looking for more story or roleplay-focused experience, DDO is still well worth the time for the in-depth character creation, fast-paced combat and immersive world. And hey, it might even encourage you to play the real game…every gamer should.