Microcosms: Breaking the Mold – A Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited Review

Updated Wed, Jul 14, 2010 by Medawky


Last week was certainly an interesting one for those of us in MMOG land, with a phenomenal PR blunder from Blizzard dominating the headlines. Unless you were on a desert island, in solitary confinement, or just avoid anything related to Blizzard or World of Warcaft you no doubt heard the outcry over the proposed change to the WoW forums that would require all members to post with their real names. While Blizzard saw no downside to turning their forums into the newest incarnation of social media, players of a fantasy MMOG seemed to feel differently.

I don’t wish to debate the merits or pitfalls of the proposed changes, that has certainly been done enough this week, but it made me think about Susan Wu of Ohai games and her plan to make social media centric MMOGs. Players have flocked to, and fallen in love with, their initial game offering City of Eternals -- a browser-based game that uses a player’s Facebook login to create their character, populate their friends list, and even create their guild. With integrated status-update-style announcements and leader boards adorned with player’s real life pictures, City of Eternals exalts the merging of real life and MMOG play. So why do gamers seem so willing to let their real information flow freely in City of Eternals and yet seem so violently opposed to it in WoW? I assume it relates back to our overall resistance to change; if Blizzard had implemented this system at the launch of WoW then I imagine there wouldn’t have been much said about it and their forums would have never have reached the level of buffoonery that they are infamous for.

This week’s review looks at a game that has been no stranger to change or controversy, Dungeons and Dragons Online.





Controversial decisions are nothing new to MMOG developers. Even though this week’s example may have been the most widely reported, Blizzard isn’t the only company ever to spark outrage by announcing their forthcoming plans. Turbine fanned some flames of their own when they announced that their AAA title, Dungeons and Dragons Online: Strormreach, was going to shift from subscription-based to microtransaction driven. But both Turbine’s well implemented plan and the gaming community’s positive reaction put the fire out and helped change the perception of free-to-play games here in North America.

Once a faltering title that was destined for the dust bin of MMOG history DDOU is now the leader in the fastest growing segment and the model of success that many other developers are beginning to look at for aging or disappointing games. But can a formerly pay-to-play title cut it as a free-to-play? While the polish and content factors may be heavily weighted toward success, how well can the game capture players who are looking for value above all else? Let’s put Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited under the Microcosms microscope and find out.

Graphics


One of the unfortunate caveats that we often have to mention when reviewing a free-to-play game is that you often compare their graphics to those of their subscription-based counterparts. Coming from a major publisher and sporting the major budget that goes with an AAA title, you don’t have to worry about getting such a warning here. You will find all the spell effects, textures, shadows and lighting that you would expect, but without the system crippling requirements that leave some budget minded gamers feeling left out. In fact the scalability of Eberron Unlimited may be its best asset, especially when dealing with gamers that may choose to play a subscriptionless game due to financial considerations. Having a game that can morph from stunning on a bleeding edge system to smooth and playable on the Radio Shack machine that you got for Christmas in 2002, and do both remarkably well, is a huge upside.

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Textures and details are top notch. 
The UI is clean and well laid out with a style that has its own unique flavor without feeling foreign to gamers. Some mental retraining will be needed to remap hotkeys and their function, but the game’s starting area and its myriad quests will help accomplish this pretty easily. My best recommendation, however, is to not disable the help tooltips that pop up, and to do the tutorial quests-- they are less of an annoyance and more beneficial here than they are in most other games.

Gameplay


MMO gaming has become somewhat of a paradox in the last few years. What started out as something that was, by its very nature, a group and social experience has given way to becoming a solo affair with some grouping thrown in. Dungeons and Dragons Online was built to be as close to the tabletop game as possible which means it was designed for more than one player, but the developers have added a couple of features to allow solo players to be successful without compromising that feeling of interaction.

The first, and most prominent, mechanism that achieves this is The Dungeon Master (I visualize the little balding guy in the robe from the 80s cartoon series, but that could just be a me thing). The Dungeon Master is a persistent companion who sets the stage of your adventures via a voice over. In addition to the unseen guide there are mercenaries that are purchasable from an in-game vendor who will fight along side you in the game’s many instances.

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Most loot is gained only at the end of a dungeon.

Leveling and combat are both handled a bit differently in DDOU than they are in the typical MMOG offering. For each of the game’s 20 levels there are 5 “sub levels” that help to stretch out the time needed to level, keeping the pace on par with that of the tabletop game. While that may sound like a grindy mess to they typical player, this isn’t the typical game and you are introduced to rather epic feeling battles from the get go. The combat system of DDOU also gives it a more intense feel than auto attacking to kill your 10 rats. Combat is handled primarily by left clicking on the mob (or mobs) you are fighting in a fashion reminiscent of a first person action game, with spells and abilities triggered off of action bar hotkeys.

Before I get into one of the more interesting aspects of gameplay, the puzzles, let me first give you a warning about controls in DDOU. As I stated earlier, left clicking a mob in combat will cause you to swing your weapon in the direction the mouse is aimed. It will also create the same effect if you are out of combat or trying to interact with any world object and aren’t close enough. This can be a major source of frustration until you become familiar with it.

Puzzle solving was a major part of the tabletop version of D&D and this iteration stays with that theme in a major way, adding a very nice element of gameplay that is typically missing in MMOGs. Puzzles come in all shapes and sizes and are an integral part of gameplay from the intro quest line on.

Value

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The cash shop is affordable and easily accessible.


Radically changing the way a MMOG is monetized could easily be the final nail in the game’s coffin, but Turbine has pulled off nothing short of a miracle with this resurrection. With strong graphics, amazing gameplay and tons of content available, the free portion of DDOU is the strongest in the industry, and the item shop pricing is superbly handled as well. If you chose to pay for DDOU, there is still a subscription model available that unlocks all the game’s features and rewards you with an allotment of item shop currency each month. Players who make any purchase in the item shop will be upgraded to Premium membership, which could be the best overall value in all of free-to-play gaming.

Score


(5 / 5 Hammers)

Overall DDOU receives 5 out of 5 hammers, with its amazing value easily making up for the slight downsides of the leveling system and learning curve. Blessed with the advantage of starting life as a big budget game, Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited has made the most of its second chance and is a model for how to properly make a free-to-play game. 


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Most cash shop purchases can also be earned in-game.



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