Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited is the free-to-play reincarnation of its subscription-based predecessor, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. The move to free-to-play was a daring one in a North American market that has yet to fully embrace the world of microtransactions, but one which proved to be just the shot in the arm the DDO franchise needed. Turbine has committed to frequent and high quality updates throughout 2010, proving that it's never over until the fat lady sings. The game has gone through enough changes that we felt it was worth reviewing as a new game. How will it stack up against today's MMOG market? We're about to find out.
Be aware that since DDOU has integrated voice chat, Little Johnny can potentially be exposed to more than a few words and phrases that may not necessarily make a sailor blush, but will definitely give your mother-in-law a seizure at the dinner table. There are also themes of alcohol and light sexuality.
Dungeons & Dragons Online Unlimited has a lot of things going for it in the gameplay department. By harnessing the power of the internet, and staying faithful (whenever possible) to the rules and guidelines of the Dungeons & Dragons pen and paper game, the developers have managed to bring a world of wonder and mystery, which previously existed merely in the heads of geeks everywhere, to a living, breathing realm within the confines of computers around the world.
Rich and deep storytelling has always been a hallmark of all great Dungeons & Dragons games and this tradition is alive and well within DDOU. Quests combine to form an overarching story that can be played as individual chunks or run through like a gauntlet for those with the stamina to do so. Since each adventure takes place within its own instanced area, this allows the developers to make awesome use of scripted events and utilize great storytelling techniques.
Thanks to its D&D heritage, DDOU has one secret ingredient, a standard which has always given life to the tabletop gaming experience – the Dungeon Master. Much like he does in the pen and paper iteration of D&D, the DM in DDOU sets the tone for each adventure, and gives clues about what you see, hear, smell, and feel. By combining the narration of a DM and scripted events within each adventure area, Turbine has gone a long way toward making the game feel like a modern iteration of the old school pen and paper experience.
From the word go, DDOU makes it apparent that this is your world and your game to play in. The act of creating a character can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. If you like, the game will walk you through step by step, not only giving you suggestions, but explaining which race/class builds are able to solo with varying degrees of success. For each class, the developers also included three different build templates from which characters can choose to better suit a class to their particular play style. If you’d rather create your character from scratch, with the ability to distribute your attributes, choose your feats, and pick skills of your own choosing, you can do that as well. This system works just as well for a player who’s brand new to Dungeons & Dragons, as it does for a player who’s been playing the pen and paper game for over twenty years.
The original DDO also introduced a new game mechanic into the MMOG world that combined the twitch skill abilities of a player with those magical rolls of the dice. The dice rolls are what really matter, but if you're moving while attacking, your die roll will suffer for it. This system works out well. Those that aren't gifted with Jedi-like reflexes, can rely on their character's statistics to stay safe (or at least square off fairly) in combat. Those who have the reaction speed of a nervous gazelle can avoid a lot of physical blows regardless of most NPC die rolls. This combination of number crunching and player reaction makes for an interesting gaming dynamic which appeals to both types of players.
All the action and excitement of your home Dungeons & Dragons games can be had again without the hassle of keeping track of thousands of rules and regulations or wondering whether or not your friends are fudging their die rolls. Character stealth rolls, combat actions, traps, spell casting and all the complexities that go with them are all handled by a computer in the blink of an eye. It truly is a beautiful thing. Just like any other work of beauty, it’s best experienced when shared and most of the time, that’s not a problem.
It seems there are players running all over the game no matter what time of day or night I log in. If you still can't find a fellow gamer willing to brave the dangers of whichever quest you're on, fear not because DDOU makes use of an interesting hireling system. For a small price (in-game coin), you can purchase a contract for the use of one hireling. The DDO Store allows you to hire an additional four Gold Seal contract adventurers you can hire (out of game coin) that will have an expiration time of one hour after first use. All hirelings can only be summoned once and will disappear when you go to a public area (town, inn, etc). This system allows you to complete harder adventures without having to wait for another player to join you. There is one downside to the system I have discovered though - not having rogue hirelings early in the game prevents the ability to get to some locked areas and treasure chests, forcing players to leave the dungeon with the feeling of being incomplete. The first hirelings you can get are a Barbarian, Fighter, Cleric, and/or Sorcerer.
Raiding in the game is fun and rewarding. The designs of the boss fights are thought out as carefully as the content itself, and each one forces players to draw on their earlier experiences in the game to figure out the secrets of defeating the bosses. This won't suit all players, particularly those of the tank and spank mindset. The puzzles in the game, even outside of raiding, can be a challenge and at times even frustrating. But if you're a player who likes to use your noggin and enjoys the challenge of unconventional fights and dungeon progression you'll be hard pressed to find another game that presents these sorts of elements as well as DDOU.
If I were only scoring on these items and ideas, the game would get a solid A from me, no questions asked. Unfortunately, you can have the greatest technology in the world, but if parts of the game aren't fun, then you've got nothing. Fortunately for DDOU and its players, my only real complaint comes from the pace of leveling for a brand new character.
Because DDOU stays faithful to the leveling system in the pen and paper version of D&D, the current level cap rests at 20. This means the team had to devise some way to spread that leveling out so players didn't hit the level cap in two days. Each level has five ranks you have to level through before getting to the next level. So a level 2 character would be equivalent to level 5 in most games, level 3 would be level 10, and so on. Each rank grants you an action point to spend to give your character a minor boost by granting enhancements. By the time you hit level 3 or 4 (10 or 15), the rate of experience gain feels like it's crawling. The time between gaining action points widens out as well, making you feel as though you're running up a downward traveling escalator. You can make the run to the top, but it takes a lot of effort.
The game has a lot of fun features, character creation is a blast (especially for us min/max types), and the addition of a virtual Dungeon Master adds a lot of personalization to the game and your experience playing it. With some minor tweaking of character progression speed, my gameplay score would be higher.
Importantly, there’s tons of content for all level ranges. Adopting a micro-transaction model has allowed the folks at Turbine to continue adding content every single month and offer it to players for a fee, or free to subscribing members. The content additions are rich and compelling in both story and game play. Recent adventure packs have focused more on the end-game crowd, but other packs are also available for every level range.
The biggest downside here is that while the early content is fun, it does tend to get a little old after a while due to the slow leveling. The level 19 and 20 adventure packs offer rich stories with greatly varying dungeon themes, but those of earlier levels have fewer options, making some of the content feel a little stale after a while.
While some players may not be fans of the semi-stylized look of DDOU, there's no denying the game's general beauty or its versatility. If you're running the game at high resolutions on a DirectX 10 capable system, the adventures you play will not only be gorgeous, but highly atmospheric as well thanks to the enhanced lighting and shadow effects. On the other side of the coin, if you're running an older system that lacks some oomph in its ability to handle gaming, you've been taken care of too. Ten Ton Hammer’s own Ethec found DDO was one of the only MMOGs he was able to play enjoyably on a less-than-cutting-edge laptop
late last year, and I recently had the same results with my own laptop. Even with every graphic option turned down as far as it will go the game still has a definite charm. That type of flexibility alone earns DDOU an A in this department.
The recent Dreaming Dark adventure pack took things a little further with special screen effects and a dim palette to portray playing through a memory of an ancient Warforged titan. This sort of dynamic really punctuates the stories that are told in the game and only add to the overall graphical experience.
A successful pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons game session has always been about setting the right mood for the players. Whether your intrepid adventurers are about to go into the depths of an ancient dungeon, are wandering through a murky swamp, or are heading back to town victorious, it's important for the players to be in the right frame of mind. Sound and music have always been a great tool to use to accomplish this and the developers obviously understand this completely. Whether it's the sound of your Cleric's mace crushing the skull of an undead skeleton, or the distant drip of rancid water in the depths of an abandoned sewer system, the sound in DDOU is spot on. When you add in the voice of the game's Dungeon Master guiding you along, it brings everything together.