Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dungeons and Dragons Online gets a D

Update: 30 Jan, 06, restructured some parts of this post.

So the preview event for Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) has come and gone and I finally got to play the game that I've already started ranting about. It’s hard to approach the game objectively when I've already decided the game was missing an aspect that is key to pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons; the Dungeon Master. Regardless of my reservations about the game I had to try it.

Holding Hands

If you were a new player coming into a MMORPG how would you want to be introduced to the character building process? Would you want it to be fairly straight forward allowing you to get into the game and explore OR would you want to wish you had spent a little bit longer buried deep inside your D&D rule books?

DDO starts you off in a small un-guided cluster of a mess. For MMORPG veterans it may be intuitive to click on the nearest NPC as you enter the game, but for a newbie the hand holding approach needs to be used. Also it is very nice as a veteran when a new game takes my hand and guides me in my baby steps.

Guided steps are another key to introducing the player to the game. Turbine's idea of combat orientation is giving you one of four doors to choose from IF you actually figure out that they exist! The four doors are off to the side and had I not just out of curiously investigated them would have never discovered them. Each one offers a different combat training experience because I guess it was too hard to teach you about ALL your avatar's abilities at once.

Once you are familiar with what you are doing it is not hard to find your first quest and set off. The beginning quests are simple and actually do serve as a good stepping stone into the game. It just stands to reason that the combat training would have been much more fully integrated into the quests.

The minor victory that is achieved after completing the newbie area is quickly lost as you hit the same unguided wall when you finally reach the only city in DDO; Stormreach. I found myself just as lost and unguided as the newbie area. Hopefully by this time you have figured out to look for the big yellow swirl symbols that mark the entrance to a dungeon instance. They are equivalent to graffiti in any major city. Luckily you can click on a dungeon entrance and be directed to the NPC that hands out the pre-requisite quest required to enter. Its up to you how to actually get started in that quest line.

Combat isn't for Wimps

The combat of DDO is not for wimps. It also apparently is not for the standard MMORPG player because it’s radically different. Radically may be too strong a word. The trinity still exists: heal, tank, and damage.

The radical comes from the controls for combat. Auto attack is all but removed. Every click is an attack, a swing of the weapon, a block, or any number of various skills. Combat is real time and it is very hack’n’slash inspired.

Sadly this left me with soar wrists and fingers after only a couple hours of play. Sometimes I just wished I didn’t have to click a dozen more times to hit my target. I don’t really understand why the clicking gave me soar wrists or pain in my fingers because after all I play FPS games for extended periods of time with no problems. I think it came from having to constantly have a key depressed to keep the camera in a decent position.

It is just poor design to have an action inspired control scheme that requires you to control the camera. In the end the combat does not feel like a true representation of D&D. Don’t ask me how to fix it because I don’t know.

Crazy People Repeat Themselves

There is a Dungeon Master present in every quest instance you adventure into. It is the same computer controlled DM that you will meet in every single adventure. It does not change. It does not adapt to play styles. It does not feel like a real DM.

On top of not being real there is a huge immersion breaker when the DM repeats every action you take. I know that the rusty metal gate just clanked open because I saw it with my own two eyes and just so happened to have pulled the lever to make it do so! I know the chest just opened because I opened it! I know the ladder just broke because I was climbing it when it happened!

The idea works in some areas. At first the booming voice of the DM was very welcome and added to the experience. The enjoyment was short lived when I realized every action I took in my adventure was going to be narrated back.

With a little time and effort this system could have been much more effective. The system shines when it accurately notifies party members of an impending trap or situation that their skill checks passed. This makes every party member have to pay attention because the clues given by the computer DM don't go to every person in your group. This is good. Repeating my actions is not.

Warforged

Warforged are in DDO because of Turbine's decision to host the game in Wizard of the Coast's new world of Eberron. Warforged are a significant element of Eberron and that has pretty much sealed their fate to exist in DDO.

Remember playing the game "One of these things is not like the others?" when you were a child? Well then you will have a similar experience when you get to the race selection screen of DDO. The Warforged neither fit in appearance or in MMO familiarity. They are large. They look funny. And most of all they are not a race players can identify with at all. Dwarves, Elves, Humans, and Halflings are all Fantasy 101.

I kept finding myself pulled out of the immersion because of a lumbering hulk of a Warforged standing around. D&D always has relied on openness and allowing players to be anything they want to be. The problem I find is that DDO does not have this openess and therefore having one unique race really hurts the game. Now if many other races could have been included we may have a more diverse selection to fit Warforged into. Unfortunately the selection is small and the Warforged stick out like a sore thumb.

In the End

The game got a passing grade from the D&D creator himself, Gary Gygax. Still this doesn't sell the game to me. The lack of a real DM was a main detractor before I even played the game and after playing the game I am 100% confirmed in my prediction.

Lacking and uninspired combat just adds onto the laundry list of things that don’t translate between D&D and MMORPG. DDO doesn’t deserve the D&D in its title. Don’t get me wrong. The game is set in a D&D setting, but the rules are much maligned and overall poorly implemented into Turbine’s vision.

Vote with your wallet and vote no for DDO. I give Dungeons and Dragons Online a resounding grade of D (no pun intended).
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