Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach Review

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, developed by Turbine and published by Atari.
The Good: Strongly encourages team play, authentic D&D recreation
The Not So Good: Leaning curve for those not knowledgeable of D&D, classes are restrictive, keeping groups together is difficult, monthly fee
What say you? Just your average MMORPG, but a good adaptation of the D&D rules: 5/8

Another review, another MMORPG. It seems like these things are reproducing like rabbits recently, springing up at every turn and eating my lettuce. But now we have an MMORPG with quite a heritage behind it, and arguably the brightest beacon for super-nerdom: Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. There have been numerous computer games that have adapted the D&D rules (most notably Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights), but never in an MMO setting. This is the lofty goal of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach: to appease the obsessive fanboys while delivering a solid gameplay experience. How will the twelve-sided die fare in an online locale?

Like most MMORPGs, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach features upper echelon graphics. The characters are finely detailed, as are the different areas you will explore while playing the game. The spell effects are all right as well, and the water effects look really good. The game features some advanced effects to use the latest hardware devices. Overall, I doubt anyone will be disappointed in the graphics of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. The sound is pretty good as well: good environmental sounds in some areas accompany the decent battle effects. The voice acting of the Dungeon Master is a little over the top, but that’s what you would expect in this particular title. Both the graphics and the sound in Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach will satisfy the expectations of all players.

The first time I fired up Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, the game needed to update 1,567 files. I made the same comment in my review of Auto Assault, so I guess it’s a standard MMORPG affair for extremely large updates, but it’s still annoying to wait 45 minutes to play for the first time. Like other MMORPGs, the game takes place on a number of different servers, and each of your characters are tied to a specific serve and cannot be moved, something that still annoys me. As you might expect (since it’s a very important part of the tabletop game), the character creation aspect of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is very thorough. You can choose from nine classes (barbarian, bard, cleric, fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard) and five races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling, and warforged), each of which is geared towards a specific fighting style and given different bonuses. The game also lets you fully customize your character’s appearance (including randomly generated looks that can be very interesting), choose a moral alignment, and customize all of the skills. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach gives you a standard set of skills when you create a character, but the more ambitious people can fine-tune their player. Each character has six different abilities (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma) that determine which actions they can successfully complete. However, the game does not prevent you from making bad choices. For example, I created a spell-caster with low spell ratings (namely wisdom) and found out I couldn’t cast any spells because I didn’t have high enough ratings. So, you really need to know what you’re doing if you’re going to attempt customizing a character’s abilities. In addition to the abilities, you can set your character’s skills, feats, and spells. The game does give tips on what to choose based on your race and class, which is nice.

After you’re done creating a new character, it’s off to Stormreach. The majority of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is played through quests (just like the tabletop game). All of these quests are instanced, meaning they are made just for your party and nobody else can interfere: this is exactly like Guild Wars (a very similar game, as you’ll see). The quests could be much clearer on what to do and where to go by using more waypoints, like in Auto Assault. A lot of the time, the vague directions will tell you to find something or kill someone, and you’ll just keep moving forward until you find them. The lack of waypoints or other indicators makes the quests last longer than needed and results in more confusion in trying to find the one area of the dungeon you didn’t explore. Also, in Guild Wars, if one person enters a quest location, the whole party is transported along with them. This is not the case in Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, where you must wait for every single person to find the correct door and then load the new level area. This can result in confusion, frustration, and people leaving the group. This game is intended to be played in large parties with people of various classes. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach tries to make finding a party easy, with a pretty good social matching utility, but after you join a party, you must find the quest locations without any assistance of waypoints (other than where your group members are located). Another player telling you “it’s near the dock” is not clear enough. In addition, you are essentially required to form groups in order to successfully complete a quest, and a lot of people who play online are either not interested in joining your group or jerks who’ll drop two minutes into the mission. That’s the problem with relying on real people. The game does allow for the formation of guilds, so that may make finding people to play with easier. As you can tell, finding and joining a quest could have been much, much smoother.

Once you do successfully start a quest, the classic D&D gameplay comes alive. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach uses all of the heart pounding excitement of rolling dice (although it does this in the background) found in the original game. I feel that Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach could have been better if the combat was done turn-based instead of real time (like the real game), because the game adds some layers of difficulty that are just unnecessary and annoying. The enemies keep moving around, so you must constantly turn to face them or your attacks and spells will not work. This is extremely irritating: D&D is based off good character creation and some luck, not whether I can turn. You can auto-attack enemies, but you still need to turn, block, use shields, use spells, and dodge on your own, as auto-attacking just means the game will slash at the bad guys as often as possible. Dungeons can contain rest areas that will regenerate health and spell points and serve as a location to resurrect fallen allies. This is a completely necessary addition, as spell points for casters will run out far too quickly. Dungeons are scattered with trucks full of stuff to steal that will go into your inventory. The inventory is not very well organized (see Oblivion for a good inventory) and it’s difficult to determine which weapons you should (or can) use. While you complete quests, you’ll gain experience (although you level up very slowly in the game) that will grant new enhancements and better skills. All of this we’ve seen before in other RPGs, and Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach doesn’t add anything new to the genre, just a marriage of past ideas and the D&D license.

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is just OK, and just OK is not enough when you’re competing against countless other similar games. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach does have an advantage, and that is the license of D&D. Those people who just must play Dungeons & Dragons (because of the name) will find an average MMORPG and will probably be satisfied with it. However, for people who don’t care about the licensing, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach doesn’t have anything extraordinarily original to make it greater than any other game in the genre. Everything here is just repeated from other games. If you are a new player interested in playing an MMORPG, might I suggest Guild Wars, a surprisingly similar game that has no monthly fee (unlike this one). In a time of an overabundance of role playing games, you must have some originality that draws in players other than just a name, and Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach lacks this crucial element.