While I’m a perfectly capable video gamer, I’m still a little deficient in certain elements of nerd fandom. Case in point: my interactions with MMOs and tabletop games. Over the last few years I learned a cursory understanding of MMOs for work (you don’t cover videogames without at least understanding World of Warcraft, am I right?). Tabletop games, on the other hand, are from a generation about ten years older than I, and while I’ve got some friends interested in picking it up, that is a realm I’m practically terrified to enter.
So when my editor asked me to play Dungeons and Dragons Online for a few months and keep a journal, it seemed like a good opportunity for me kill two birds with one stone. If I can last a few months with DDO, I can play other MMOs with a better understanding, and maybe decide if Dungeons and Dragons the tabletop game is worth trying. So with that, a VIP account, and a few free hours a week, I dived in.
It’s hard to believe, but Turbine, along with publisher Atari, launched DDO back in 2006, making this MMO nearly five years old. Loading it up, I can’t help but be a little underwhelmed by the graphics. Compared to contemporary games, and other MMOs, DDO looks muted and dull. My laptop running the game isn’t exactly top of the line, but it’s capable of putting out decent frame-rates and passable effects. From my initial impressions, this game goes for a much more realistic look than other MMOs, and I’m curious to see where it goes as I get deeper in the game.
Once I had the game downloaded and applied any patches necessary, I jumped into the character creation. Creating a character is quite straightforward, and DDO has a total of eight races – Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Half-elves, Warforged, Drow, Halflings, and Half-Orc – and each can become any of the eleven classes. Some of the races can only be unlocked with a real-cash purchase, except I’ve got a VIP account. While every race and character class was open to me, with the Drow race and the Favored Soul class the only exceptions, I generally ignored them for something a little easier to understand. With that, I made Gorillius Letrax, a human Paladin with a shaved head and a hella fine mustache.
The process of building a character can be fairly in-depth, with races, classes, a Path, which defines how your character progresses. For example: one later Cleric I made was more of a Battle Cleric with offensive spells. However, I’m a bit of an impatient player, and jumped right in with Gorillius.
The starting area of DDO is a weird tropical island in which snow is falling. It seems I had survived a ship wreck, and I was on Korthos Island, a place known in the D&D universe. Presumably, dragon was making it snow, but I didn’t pay much attention to the plot, as I was much more interested in hacking at some monsters. Thankfully, the game was quick to guide me through an intro dungeon, and after a quick tutorial, I was in the middle of a small village with lots of people who all seem to have survived a ship wreck. Dangerous seas around Korthos Island, I suspect.
Anyway, it is here that I was able to get a much better feel for how DDO plays. Controls are as simple as can be, and gaining quests basically amounts to talking to dudes and entering the right places. It’s not all easy, as the menus are hard to read and understand, there is not much direction on what you should do, and there is very little guidance on what your character is capable of. One area that particularly took me a while to understand is the leveling system. When DDO launched, the game only went up ten levels, and currently has a level 20 cap. However, there are five sub-ranks for each level. Additionally, points that are earned for each rank and level do not immediately go to a character skill tree. Instead, I would have to run over to the nearest paladin trainer. It honestly didn’t seem like the most intuitive system, but at my level this didn’t pose much of a problem.
While I haven’t played many MMOs with any seriousness, or watched a tabletop session of D&D, I’m not clueless to how the games are played. What makes DDO so cool is the way developer Turbine has fused the two games into one. DDO isn’t that different from other MMOs, where players are quested to run around areas and kill X number of whatever or collect Y number of something. That’s typical.
However, what separates DDO from the rest of the pack is how the game narrates as you play. Having not touched D&D tabletop, and mostly ignored other MMOs, I was really surprised to hear a narrator describe the dungeons I would journey into. One very early instance called for me to enter a storage room and protect a crystal. Hearing this disembodied Dungeon Master describing the creatures within, or the dankness of the basement was really enthralling. It’s a simple effect, but it’s true to Dungeons and Dragons, and fun to boot.
This is when it finally dawned on me that DDO really is Dungeons and Dragons, not just an MMO inspired by it. The DM character, the fact that every action functions off an invisible dice roll, and other D&D features goes far to make DDO feel like something unique and special. Props to Turbine and Wizards of the Coast to play to the strengths of this IP.
Finally, after protecting some casks of ale, entering the crypt of a local family, and generally solving problems in my little island village, I was finally let out of the town. Up to this point, the game had been pretty easy, and soloing through the instances and dungeons had been a breeze. Even though each instance has variable difficulty, I could solo most normal-level dungeons. The most common enemies – the fish/lizard Sahaugin, cult members, zombies and skeletons – posed little threat to my paladin skills.
Once outside of the town, however, the enemies started to come with much more… authority. Seems I finally discovered the open world of player versus environment, and aggro is something I need to pay attention to. While the open world of Korthos Island isn’t terribly difficult, I’m having trouble figuring out where to go, and once I’ve entered a dungeon, the difficulty spike is noticeable. I could really do with some better directions in this game
At this point, I don’t have the best equipment, and many of my skills are a little confusing to figure out. Like I’ve complained about before, I’ve got very little direction of what I’m supposed to do next, so pretty much the first dungeon I find is where I’ve typically entered. These dungeons prove to be the most frustrating part of my time with the game. Spending thirty minutes journeying through a dungeon only to die at the hands of an ice spider, or to lose when the guy I’m supposed to be protecting dies, it’s enough to make me want to quit. I suspect that once I jump in with some friends, or at least other players, I might have some better luck. As it stands, it looks like DDO might not be the most solo friendly.
Since spending time with Gorillius, I’ve opened up a new character, a Battle Cleric with a wimpy wand. I’m going to give him a try and see how that goes, but for the time being, I’m optimistic to see what more DDO has to offer outside of Korthos Island. Coming away from my time with DDO, I can solidly say I had a good time with the game. It really feels like its at its best when it is best replicating the D&D experience, not ripping off other MMOs. I’ve got a few more months to invest in DDO, and we’ll see if this game, five years after initially launching, can keep me entertained.