Inside Pulse 12

Review: Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach (PC)

Dungeons & Dragons Online
Developer: Turbine Entertainment
Publisher: Atari
Genre: MMORPG
Release Date: 02/28/06

Sure it’s a month and a half past the release date, but hey, at least you’re getting a review out of us, right?

In truth, this was never a game I planned to review. However, I have this horrible compulsion that if I play a game and no one else is reviewing it, I need to. Not really sure why. It’s also funny, because I never really planned to play the game. I’m not a fan of MMORPG’s. I have a strong dislike for any game that charges monthly and expects you to pay fifty bucks for the game on top of it. It just seems…unethical to me. Plus you’d think in an online RPG, there’d be some actual ROLE-PLAYING, but in all the MMORPG’s I’ve ever played, there has been none to be seen. In fact, probably the most fun I’ve had on one was with Phantasy Star Online in the early days of the Dreamcast, and that was more because I had been one of the few suckered into owning the Saturn internet add-on.

I ended up playing D&D online because a lot of my friends were. As well, the idea that you NEEDED to be in a party strongly appealed to me over games like Everquest where it was more about solo munchkining and cyber sex, or World of Warcraft, where you are encouraged to be dicks to each other. What can I say? I’m fully aware that 85% of gamers are immature and socially retarded, and I want no part of it. So of course an exercise in team building piqued my morbid curiosity.

I’ve now finished my ten day trial with DDO and logged about two dozen hours with the game, and teamed up with about as many real life players. My favorite character (a Warforged Ranger named Alec Holland. Feel free to say hi to me online, and you’ll get bonus points if you catch the reference.) is a hair away from Level 3, and so I figure that’s good enough to do a review. Please note that I haven’t touched any of the quests for the maximum level characters, but I doubt any of the reviewers for other websites had either when they wrote theirs. Unlike them however, I’ll be up front about that. As well, DDO is CONSTANTLY adding new & free content, so your experiences might vary from my own.

So, let’s put on our hourglass contacts and sip from our Decanter of Endless Water and journey to the world of Eberron.

Let’s Review

1. Story

The key here is to realize there is no real over-arching story of the game. Your character is not an emo Bishonen who needs the save the world from an evil villain who inevitably is pegged as his slash fan fiction lover. If anything, the story of Stormreach is well, the story of Stormreach; a city rife with political intrigue, adventures, and the age old battle between good and evil.

The character you make has no personality outside your own. It’s as two-dimensional as a video game character gets. A limited number of NPC’s have a shade more personality due to scripted responses, but even what you’ll encounter here is less than in most Atari 2600 games. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. MMORPG’s are about social interaction, whereas most other video games like to have a story with their gameplay. But you won’t find that here. It’s just a very pretty hack n’ slash chatroom.

The closest game I can think of to you console gamers to compare DDO to, is The Legend of Mana by Squaresoft. Both games are made up primarily of small quests that you don’t have to do in any particular order if you don’t want to. You can fight Ironside 812 times if you want in DDO. However, unlike LoM, there’s no really overarching plot that will connect the quests together in sort of continuity or greater picture. It’s a dungeon crawl without any pretense of a story to come along with the mindless killing of monsters. When you realize this, it’s almost comedy that the game only allows you to play as Good or Neutral characters, and not as Evil. Alignment has no actual place in this game, save for barring you for certain classes.

Without your own motivation to roleplay, the game is about as shallow as it can be. I’ve yet to see anyone “in character” per say, and that includes me and my friends. Sure, we come up with plots and strategies for the dungeons that lie ahead, but for all intents and purposes my Robosauras Ranger is me, Jet Black the human fighter is my long time buddy from college Chris, and Pantherwill the elven thief is a guy who reads my blog and who I tease about being a furrie.

If you’re looking for a strong story, you won’t find it here. Again, PSO1 & 3 are the only MMORPG’s I can think of that which developed a strong plot even with your characters having no depth to them. DDO makes up for this gap by having lots of fun quests to play through. But it’s still lacking less story than a Devin Grayson issue of Nightwing

Story Rating: 2/10

2. Graphics

I’ll be honest that Stormreach is not the prettiest game I’ve ever seen. But it is damn fun to look at. My big problem is that when I play a game, I love to look at all the little nuances and details. I watch how shadow and light play off each other in the game. How well designed the character models are. Things like that. There are some games where that’s just not smart. One example is my beloved 2D shooters. “Oooh! Pretty. FUCK I’M DEAD!” I run into the same problem with DDO as I love to look at the monster and level designs. Every time I play a new quest, I enjoy seeing what’s out to kill me next, or if this dungeon with be generic and plain like the last one, or highly original, with interesting traps and puzzles like the one before that? Thankfully I am aware of my critic’s eye…which is why I chose to be a Ranger. Stealthy autofire with my +1 bow = Alex can enjoys the graphics and not cause his friends to get butchered like hogs.

That being said, I have two nit picks about the graphics. First off, the characters that you make have very limited customization options, all of which are facial only. So if you wanted a super fat halfing, or Andre the Giant, you can’t do that here. I noticed pretty much all the female human characters looked exactly alike, with only Betty & Veronica hair swapping to separate the two. As well, the rain effects in DDO are pretty atrocious. They’re simply not very well done.

Even with those two burrs under my saddle, The game is a pretty sharp and visual pleasing one. I’ve enjoyed every monster design I’ve come across, with the Ogre and the Zombies being my favorite. The town of Stormreach is a bit drab, but it fits the fantasy atmosphere well enough.

DDO isn’t an ugly game at all. It’s just not one of the most visually impressive games I’ve played this year, or in the last few. It’s good for what it is though, and I have a feeling once I finally see the Red Dragon and the higher level monsters, I’ll continue to be (mostly) impressed with what I see.

Graphics rating: 7/10

3. Sound

Sound is one of the big black marks for DDO. As much as I love that there is a quasi-DM in the game. I don’t want sounds in a video game described to me. I want to HEAR them. That’s one annoyance I had. if something is skittering, let me hear it thanks to my listening skill. Don’t just say “You hear skittering.”

I hate the opening cut scene voice actor. Maybe it’s just because I have to hear him EVERY SINGLE BLOODY TIME the game starts up, but regardless of the reason, he irritates me. The actual DM isn’t bad though. He has a very nice hometown anchorman feel to his voice.

Otherwise, there’s just not much sound to the game. It’s pretty quiet. Any music in the game is immediately forgettable. While writing this review I can only think of the opening track. Any other noises are walking related or the sound of combat. It’s realistic, as what self respecting Mind Flayer (Not that there are any in the game) would have an orchestral score in the background? There were several times when I had wished for background noise of any kind, but I suppose music would have made the game even harder to run for some?

Low marks here, if only because of a distinct lack of anything really to judge in this category.

Sound Rating: 4/10

4. Control & Gameplay

I’ll be honest. I have never been a tabletop D&D fan, but I love the video games. Eye of the Beholder, Dark Alliance, NeverWinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, and I even own the arcade game D&D II complete with evil Red Dragon Syn. Out of all those games, I can honestly say DDO has the worst controls out of them all.

Now that sounds harsh, but you have to remember I’m a console game first and foremost. I loved Neverwinter and its expansions because the controls were simple and not clunky. Even the SSI D&D games gave you easy controls that didn’t involve massive keyboard tapping. But DDO isn’t like that. It’s very keyboard clunky and it’s just not for me. I’m not a fan of using the upper left part of my alpha keys to control my movements instead of the mouse. I also have not a fan of 3D platformers due to the constant need to fix the sodding camera angle, and I have to do that in DDO more than in say, Ninja Gaiden.

I also wasn’t a fan of the way the chat is set up. If I’m in a party, I actively have to switch over to general chat to say something to someone outside the group. And god forbid I forget I’m in the chat bit when I want my character to do something, or vice versa. It’s f*ck-up central right there.

Of course, I have to restate that I’m a console gamer, and I’m sure more PC oriented gamers won’t have the same flub-ups I did when I first started. As I progressed I got better at fixing the camera. Of course, I also got a magic bow and realized that I could let my friends stupidly rush in and kill things while I played Lawful Good Sniper (contradiction much?) and picked off enemies too high up or far away to reach.

Close Combat has some issues too what with selecting an enemy and it saying “You are too far away.” Again, Neverwinter Nights spoiled me by automatically having your character run up to the enemy you selected if you wanted to engage in melee combat. That option really should have been included in DDO.

In all the controls are bad. They just aren’t my style of gameplay. The more I played, the more I got used to not being a mouse or joystick gamer, but there’re certainly several things I was not a fan of in regards to controlling or moving my character around. Again, I’m glad a picked a ranged combat character for my main guy when I was just learning the ropes.

Control & Gameplay Rating: 6/10

5. Replayability

It’s nice that you can replay several quests over and over if you really enjoy them, but with Turbine always adding new content, editing older quests to make them feel fresh and a constant influx of new gamers for you to do missions with, the game always has something new to offer. Thanks to the fact DDO forces you to team up and make parties with other gamers instead of being shitcocks to them, DDO has proven to be the most mature and civilized MMORPG yet. I’ve yet to have anyone be a dick to me, and have seen lots of acts of straight up altruism in the game. People I don’t even know have given me repair oils with wanting nothing in return. I’ve also happily traded people items I know I could sell for a lot more than what I got because I knew they could use the items and vice versa. With my own friends it basically became a “Jet gets the armour, Alec gets the missile weapons, Dragones gets the scrolls, Will gets thieving crap, and so on.” For me, who is usually turned off by the abject stupidity of the average gamer, this was a much needed breath of fresh air.

You can also always make a new character to meet up with your less experienced friends so as not to take XP from them. Playing as a new character really adds an entirely different outlook on the game. Although considering how insanely long it takes to level up in DDO, I wouldn’t recommend playing as several characters.

Whenever you log on, there will be new people to meet, new allies to make, and more monsters to savagely disembowel. It’s going to be hard to run out of stuff to do here.

Replayability Rating: 10/10

6. Balance

DDO isn’t the easiest game to rate in this category. On one hand, you’re pretty much going to die on any adventure you try to do single handedly past the docks. On the other once you have 5-6 people in a party, if you’re playing a quest at around your character level it’s going to be quick and painless. I remember we once finished a quest in under a minute. Crazy!

The game has a balance issue when it comes to party building. You’re going to need at least one warrior, one cleric and one thief per party. Especially in the later quests. Mages and Sorcerers are the least important, as I’ve yet to see them be necessary for anything. It makes things awkward because very few people seem to want to play clerics or thieves, putting them at a high demand. Our party was nicely balanced with a Ranger, Fighter, Barbarian/Mage, Thief, and Cleric. But that was by sheer luck. At first when I joined on, I was afraid I would have to make YET another cleric simply because no one else ever played them. And me as a cleric is all kinds of levels of irony.

How you view balance in this game depends on how you look at it. If you want to do things on your own, you are rather and truly f*cked. But then go play a console or handheld RPG if you want to game on your own. If you’re here to game with friends or in a group, DDO has you covered without any worry of people being f*cksticks, but then you run the risk of ensuring everyone on the team doesn’t want the same role, or again, you are well and truly f*cked. A team of six mages is going to die quickly. Battles go dramatically down on the difficulty curve with every member of the team you add, and eventually become a cakewalk.

There’s some obviously flaws here like in the other categories, but the need for teamwork and camaraderie well outweigh the negatives. Now if only I was the one pulling magic arrows out of the chests. Why the f*ck is a robot getting huge magical armour?

Balance Rating: 6/10

7. Originality

Yet another MMORPG, yet another D&D game, yet another RPG where the graphics are more detailed than the story. You can say all those things about DDO and more. There’s truly nothing the game has to offer than hasn’t been done in some way by other games. If you’re looking for a truly great D&D experience, Dark Alliance 1 & 2 and Neverwinter Nights are far more rewarding in terms of gameplay and story. I’m sure the more MMORPG addicted amongst you will point to WoW and Everquest as better online RPG’s. I prefer DDO and enjoy it for what it is, but with my critiquing glasses on, I can’t deny the fact it exists simply to catch on at the tail end of the MMORPG craze.

Enjoyable, but neither innovative nor original. The most I can say for DDO in it’s favour here is it’s the only official D&D MMORPG out there. But it’s not even the first D&D game you can play with friends or online.

Originality Rating: 2/10

8. Addictiveness

You know, when I first started playing through the intro quests to get you used to the game, I was playing just to ensure I didn’t fall behind my friends. I wasn’t addicted at all and even got bored sometimes. I don’t think I played more than two hours a day, which I hear is rare for MMORPG’ers. Then came the day when all of us logged on at the same time one Saturday morning. We ended up playing for EIGHT straight hours and had completely lost track of time. Only some of our stomachs or received phone calls clued us into how much time we had lost that day. That’s amazing. Especially for me, as I’ve grown into a curmudgeonly critic towards most every game released.

When you have a nice party going, whether you know the people IRL or not, the game really sucks you in. When you’re trying to do stuff on your own or dealing with stupid adventures like “Run back and forth as if this was online Tomb Raider, it gets boring fast. Thankfully there’s never a shortage of people wanting to team up and help you out, so that crack factor of DDO is always riding high. Factor in the lack of dickery towards your fellow gamers in the vast region that is Stormreach, and I think I have a MMORPG I could really keep playing for a long time indeed.

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10

9. Appeal Factor

It’s funny, but you’d think Dungeons & Dragons would be a huge enough name to have people gaming in droves. But then, we all thought the same thing about Star Wars Galaxies, didn’t we? Man, was that a shitbag of a game. Unfortunately, by the very nature of the genre, it’s hard and expensive to be a member of more than one MMORPG at a time, and World of Warcraft has most people sewn up nice and tight.

As well, D&D has a bit of a stigmata attached to it. it is after all the stereotypical activity of the uber geek. Last night at dinner a friend asked me what I had been up to on Saturday. I said Dungeons and Dragons and immediately felt some weird level of shame and embarrassment. His reaction too was a “Fuck you. You are so not the type of guy to play D&D.” Then I explained it was a video game and the scorn dissipated. But that’s the reaction the name value has in a lot of people. Hell, I really enjoy D&D minis too on a level of “these are well made and beautiful to look at,” but I don’t know if I could ever sit down and play a game crowded around a card table rolling me a D20 and going “What direction is the beholder looking?”

However, those who have generally been annoyed by the personality of the average post PSX and beyond gamer will find the climate and maturity levels of the DDO players to be a great variance to other MMORPG’s. There’s also the fact that DDO will bring in the tabletop fans to allow them to game together without having to get dressed.

By the very label of “D&D”, the game will attract and repulse gamers much in the same way as any other major brand. It’s just going to be overshadowed by WoW for a while still.

Appeal Factor Rating: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous

If it wasn’t for one very large pet peeve about this entire genre, DDO would be getting a perfect score in this category. It’s fun, good but not great where it counts, and the game encourages working together to solve a common problem instead of rewarding people for being assholes to each other and having the game degenerate down into a “Kill everyone” mindset as others have in the past.

However, DDO has failed to impress me by charging a 50$ fee for the game, and more for a decidedly lackluster collector’s edition pack that lacked any real difference from the normal version save for a pair of magical running boots. Seriously, this is probably the worst collector’s edition of any video game I’ve seen yet. The real kick to the dick though is the monthly fee on top of the already exorbitant up front price tag. Either charge high for the game and don’t do a monthly fee, or give the discs away and just charge a monthly fee. In a day and age where you can get quality games on the PC or console for under 30 bucks, this is rather an insult. Of course so is the fact the 360 has $60 games, when the slightly less powerful regular old Xbox had the same games for half the cost (see MLB 2k6).

It’s not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the game, but it is enough to dampen it. It’s hard for me to justify any game that costs you a monthly fee when for half the cost you can play some actual GOTY contenders with repeated cornholing costs.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

The Scores
Story: 2
Graphics: 7
Sound: 4
Control/Gameplay: 6
Replayability: 10
Balance: 6
Originality: 2
Addictiveness: 8
Appeal Factor: 6
Miscellaneous: 6
Total Score: 58
Overall Score:6.0
(Above Average)

Short Attention Span Summary
Good game to play with a group of friends, and it offsets the monthly cost factor, but there are better D&D or RPG games out there. Due to the impossibility of playing the game outside of a party, it might not be right for you more anti-social types, but there’s a solid and enjoyable game here with a nice variety of dungeon crawling for you. It’s a good thing you can try the game buy just taking a friend’s discs (or single DVD if you know someone that went that route) and seeing if it’s worth the monthly cost rather than have a key code attached to them. Try before you buy, and you just might find yourself a fun game to share with your pals.