Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach Review

by Cody “Micajah” Bye
by Cody “Micajah” Bye

Almost two years ago, the massively multiplayer game developers at Turbine released Dungeon and Dragons Online: Stormreach (DDO), an online real-time representation of the Eberron campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. Heralded by some as a revolutionary step forward in massively multiplayer games,  DDO featured real-time combat, a huge variety of player races and classes, and wholly instanced areas that allowed players to experience the dungeon-delving atmosphere that made the table top roleplaying game so successful.

With two years of online service behind the game and a huge update just on the horizon, it seemed appropriate for the Ten Ton Hammer editorial staff to finally take a crack at reviewing Dungeons and Dragons Online. Being the resident staffer that hadn’t actually played the game before, I was given the task of delving into the deepest dungeons and slaying the largest dragons. To be honest, there wasn’t much dragon slaying in my adventures, but I did engage in some solid adventuring around the world of Khorvaire and lived to tell the tale. Sit back, relax, and allow my bard-like rhetoric to engage your mind.

My Dwarven Fighter named Micajah. I even matched the Ten Ton Hammer color scheme.

Much More Than an Idea   

Despite being the intellectual property that people regularly drool over, Dungeons and Dragons also bears a whole list of responsibilities that are not common with other IPs. Unlike the world created by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings or Howard in the Conan stories, Dungeons and Dragons is much more than just a world.

When a developer agrees to create a game based upon D&D, they also sign a commitment to stick to the fundamental rules inherent in any D&D product. This may sound like a relatively non-intrusive problem to deal with, but the rules in D&D are so intricately woven into every aspect of the standard tabletop gameplay that any developer trying to create a computerized adaptation must adjust a whole variety of these rules to make them fit into a video game.

As they were building Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach, it was obvious that the developers wanted to create a product that truly echoed what players had experienced in the table top game. Each part of a player character’s movement, social interaction, and combat encounters are augmented or enhanced by their skills, attributes, and feats. The mechanics aren’t overtly transparent – there aren’t numbers flashing on the screen every few seconds – but you do feel distinct differences between a Dwarf wearing full plate and a Halfling rogue wearing nothing but a suit of leather.

Thankfully, the developers have modified a number of skills, spells, and feats to adjust Dungeons and Dragons to an online gaming environment. For example, the Cleave feat-  which is a favorite of low level Fighters in the table top game - has been modified to allow players to hit a number of opponents in front of them rather than the table top game’s version of giving an extra attack after downing a foe. While Cleave may sound useful for an online roleplaying game, DDO doesn’t follow the same sort of combat system other online games like EverQuest or World of Warcraft.

Rather than a turn-based auto-attack system with activated special abilities, DDO uses a real-time click-based combat mechanic that makes players feel like they’re actually engaging in a real battle. As you run through the open wilderness, any enemy that springs up in front of you can be quickly cut down with a simple right click. You don’t even need to necessarily click on the enemy; just swing in their direction and you have a good chance of landing the blow.

Creating an Elven Sorcerer is hard work.

However, DDO’s combat system is at once its greatest asset, and its largest obstacle. While turn-based games are often dull and inherently less “clicky” then the active real-time combat, the game mechanics for a turn-based system are much simpler, allowing for more expansion to occur in other areas of the game. Turn-based systems allow for bigger zones, bigger servers, and more players to be online in the same area at the same time. Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach is almost entirely instanced, and this is a necessity for this particular type of game. If you were to turn 200 players loose in a zone with all of them rapidly clicking their mouse buttons, the game would quickly turn into a laggy mess.

Though there are a number of totally instanced games that have done extremely well (Guild Wars), Dungeons and Dragons Online could have been an intriguing look into what D&D could be on a massive scale. Rather than being limited by table space, if hundreds of players could have gathered together to form massive armies or raids, it would have been a tremendous experience for both the players and the minds behind the game. It seems unfortunate that the developers were required to slim down the experience due to system limitations.

Mechanics aside, the combat in DDO is novel to the MMOG marketplace, and it feels refreshing to find a new take on the monster encounter in an MMOG. From a player's standpoint, it's invigorating to swing your twin blades and hear them hitting flesh, knowing that your press of the mouse button caused the attack. It's just this sort of combat that causes me to stop up into the wee hours of the morning, wishing I had the time to finish just one more quest.

Along with the combat system, the way characters gain experience in DDO has been greatly altered from what players previously experienced in other games. In order to advance and gain experience, players must initiate and complete quests. That’s it. Unlike the World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, players do not gain experience points by killing monsters. Instead, every drop of experience comes from running the various quests that are in the game.

Now this may sound boring to some, but I found questing in DDO to be extremely entertaining. Rather than killing every single monster in the dungeon, my parties were often focused on simply completing the objectives as fast as possible. This sort of breakneck pace often led us into fights that we couldn’t quite handle, but it made the pace of the game much more exciting. Where as the previously mentioned games reward players for being cautious, DDO urges players to create a quick strategy and see it to completion.

It will take you a good deal of time to reach the higher end content, like this beholder.

But with the experience points being limited to quests, and with a very low overall level cap – Module 6 is introducing a cap increase to level 16 – this mean that progression in the game feels extremely slow. When I first started playing DDO, it took me quite a while to advance my characters. Due to the low level cap, it felt like it had taken me forever to reach a paltry level 4, but in reality four levels in DDO equates to between 12-15 levels in other games. Understandably, each level increase feels like a huge boost in overall power to the character, and really brings back that “Ding!” feeling that player would receive in games like EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot.

Adventuring is a Tough Life

For those of you looking for an easy game, Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach may not be the title for you. Although the combat isn’t incredibly complex for many of the classes, the character creation/advancement system isn’t for the faint of heart. From the outset of the game, players are faced with a multitude of choices – race, class, attributes, feats, skills and enhancements – and each time your character levels up you’ll face several of these choices again. Do you want to multi-class? Should you take the Two Weapon Fighting feat? Where should your skills points be allocated? All of these questions come up within the first few levels of your characters initial creation.

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