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Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach by Hasbro, Inc.
Review by Edward Carmien
Hasbro, Inc. Game  ISBN/ITEM#: B0009N5O5E
Date: ongoing List Price $49.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

First, a little history. Hobbyist fascination with simulating military battles on sand tables with little lead figurines mated with a generation who read Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In a small tome called Greyhawk a small group of Wisconsin hobbyists crafted rules for how to simulate or play out battles using troops such as elves, dwarves, orcs, and Rohirrim instead of, say, Napoleonic cavalry or English pike. As heroes play a big role in fantasy battles from the world of fiction, Greyhawk included them as well. It wasn't too long before the question of what these heroes did off the battlefield possessed guys like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax to create Dungeons & Dragons, a game in which players adopt fantasy roles and act out (in a loose sense) stories in a world contrived and presented by a Dungeon Master.

When computer games came along, many claimed to be "role-playing games," but none of them have been. Before Internet style networking they were solo efforts, unless you had your buddy sitting next to you in front of your Apple IIe computer with a pad of graph paper in hand, muttering things like "watch out for that trap" and "cast mahalito." Even the Internet and previous MMORPGs such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft have only approximated the true role-playing experience by conjoining live people and a virtual environment in which endless rats can be slain and monsters brought down by groups of characters all swinging, blasting, or shooting away with the enthusiasm of an arcade game player (or a present-day console gamer playing Halo 2).

Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) is a foot in the door to the real thing. By the "real thing" I mean a small group of like-minded people gathering together with imaginary yet highly detailed characters to act out a story in an imaginary world contrived and presented by a computer game company (and all the designers, artists, musicians, technical people, and associated support staff in the company). Note the qualifying statement: "foot in the door." As this is a hybrid (for technical and pre-existing players of MMORPG's reasons) of what has come before and the "real thing," it is still a fast-paced twitch game in many but not all respects.

Success in melee depends on people who know how to move a mouse and mash keys in just the right way, unlike PNP D&D, where the pace is slower. This is true to a lesser degree for those who adopt the role of spellcaster or the sneaky fellah lurking in the shadows. Luckily, true success in the game belongs to those who take time for non-mashing moments, such as sneaky rogues who can discover traps before they injure the characters in a party (and then with luck turn the traps off).

Turbine Software, the company that bought the rights to make this game from Wizard of the Coast (which in turn owns the venerable TSR, the Wisconsin company that the inventors formed to sell the game and the many spin-offs that came after) did many, many things right in DDO. Anyone with a technical background and experience with online games knows that crafting a duplicate of the PNP game in an online setting is not feasible. However, Turbine has come close. Character creation is largely like the PNP game, and adventures progress in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever completed what used to be called a "dungeon crawl."

As an automated system, that's about the best DDO can hope to offer -- adventures that take place within confined, scriptable settings. In PNP one can say to the "Dungeon Master" (old school term) or "Game Master" (newer school) "hey lets go around that corner there and holler until someone pays attention to us." Unless that possibility has been explicitly coded in, one can't do that in DDO. Find a quest, gather fellow players, adventure one's way through the quest, and reap a reward -- sure, absolutely.

Although the playing experience is necessarily foreshortened, it is still deeper and richer than in any previous game. In DDO, rewards are not given for mindless activities repeated over and over, such as killing rats or some other wee creatures. Instead, rewards are granted for completing socially complex activities such as gathering a party of adventurers and then playing together (in an ideal world) in order to fulfill the terms of the quest, such as discovering and slaying the new kobold leader in the sewers beneath the city.

For those who approach the game with a "lets have fun" attitude, that is how it works. For gamers more accustomed to the mindset established in earlier games of this sort, instead of smacking rats over and over for tiny awards it is possible to ram through complex adventures over and over in order to stack up the rewards they offer. The foot is in the door, but much of the body attached to that foot likes to play the game as if it were an arcade or console adventure, intended to be "beaten" as fast and as efficiently as possible. We used to call that "mini-maxing" in yesteryear.

Turbine's success here should be measured by the degree to which players can adopt roles within the game and then act them out. Players may or may not speak "in character," but then in PNP games in-character speech (often with silly accents to match) such literal role-playing was often limited as well. The role of a melee specialist such as a fighter, paladin, or ranger is distinct from the role of a rogue, and these roles in turn are very different from the roles played by wizards and sorcerers…and clerics are different yet again. In this sense, DDO is very successful. Game play as a fighter is distinctly different than game play as a sorcerer. Aspects of the game that are child's play as a cleric (healer) are a pain in the rear as a rogue.

In short, DDO offers gamers interested in a layered, in-depth role-playing experience a great opportunity to experience D&D. It is a foreshortened and limited experience to date, but the shift in paradigm Turbine has carried out is important.

Are there problems? Yes. DDO is a technical beast. The sheer complexity of the D&D 3.5 rules that have been implemented (and they haven't all been implemented yet -- there is a level cap, for example, and there are many spells and effects the game either doesn't implement or implements differently than the PNP version) and the stunning graphics make for a machine-eating piece of software. In addition, Turbine's offering suffers from classic "software offered commercially too soon" syndrome. Lots of bugs have been observed to date, and more are certain to follow.

Turbine's in-game support is excellent, however, as just yesterday this reviewer was rescued from an in-game situation that required the intervention of a live person. There is an active player community as evidenced by a community forum that can provide answers to just about any question a new player might have. And while there are bugs, they don't interfere with gameplay to any great degree. As the Turbine design team finishes implementing the rules system, the game's depth and complexity increases.

There is too much to say about a game such as DDO for any one review. Let me finish by observing that the game that reflects one of the most important texts of the past century (Tolkien's LOTR) has in turn influenced many fantasy novels either directly (as in the Dragonlance saga) or indirectly, by mimicking the themes and tropes that often appear in role-playing games. As computer games make more money than Hollywood, look for games like DDO to have an ever-increasing impact on our popular culture.

I personally find this game to be excellent -- but my standards and needs are different than those of a player who played and excelled in EverQuest or World of Warcraft. I'm also fairly forgiving of the technical and design shortcomings because they appear to be the kind that will be ironed out in weeks or months -- and this game will likely run for years. The technical specifications to play the game are steep -- a good to great graphics card is necessary, as is a moderately speedy system and substantial RAM. Ultimately, the complexity of DDO means that to a significant degree what one puts into the game reflects what one gets out of it. Good social skills can lead to much better play experiences: the underlying premise of DDO is that it is a team game. Good team means a good time.

Edward Carmien, in addition to his ancient computer science degree, once worked as a freelance writer for TSR, Inc. in the 1980's. He is therefore well qualified to expound about computer games and role-playing games. He has no connection to Wizards of the Coast, TSR or Turbine Software.

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