Throughout video game history, there have been a few games that have been major influences to the media. For example, I think the argument can be made that Super Mario Bros. and Doom vastly influenced (or even created) the genres of which they are a part. However, one of the most influential games in video game history is not a video game at all, but, rather, a pen-and-paper RPG called Dungeons and Dragons. Would there have even been a Final Fantasy or Baldur's Gate without D&D? Doubtful.
But D&D has been around since the late 70's- this is 2006. Over the years we've seen many video games, for both the PC as well as for consoles, and the franchise's newest incarnation is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG, or MMO). Dungeons and Dragons: Stormreach, developed by Turbine (the developer responsible for Asheron's Call and other titles), carries the D&D series into the MMO genre with impressive visuals, cool quests, and…not much to do. At least, not compared to other MMO's. More on that later.
The character creation system is very detailed, with many different races and classes.
Dungeons and Dragons: Online, unlike the franchise's other PC and console offerings, is not set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, but rather is the first video game set in their new world of Eberron. In Eberron, magic functions like just another technology, and is as common as a rope-and-pulley or blacksmithing is in other fantasy worlds. The usual mix of Elves, Humans, Gnomes, Dwarves are present, as is the vast bestiary that Dungeons and Dragons has crafted over the past three decades- expect to fight against Kobolds, Orcs, Dragons and hundreds of other fierce beasties in the course of the game. Unique to Eberron are the Warforged, a playable race of golem-like living machines.
When you first start the game, you are prompted to create a character. You can choose between five races (Elf, Dwarf, Human, etc.) and nine classes (Rogue, Cleric, etc.). It's quite cool to see your character come alive as you make him or her into the warrior you want to be- the character creation system is very detailed, allowing you to choose a variety of hair styles, skin tones and even little touches like scars and piercing, should you be so inclined. Players' gear and weapons will change as they pick up Loot in Dungeons, offering up further customization options. Stormreach then goes on to do what every other MMO does- throw you into a world, and lets you explore the heck out of it.
Since MMO's are games that are meant to be played for long periods of time, they really need to have good graphics. Let's face it, graphics don't make the game, but if you plan on playing one for over a hundred hours, they certainly help to keep your attention. Fortunately, Stormreach excels at this area, with very good visuals, even at lower settings. The various areas that you go to are also varied enough, so you don't get tired at looking at the same stuff over and over. The only real drawback is that, even with a powerful system, you have to sometimes lower the settings when you are in an area with a lot of people, or the game will run a tad sluggish. The opening CG is also beautifully done. As for sound, the narrator does a good job of telling you what's going on in your current quest, and the music is well done, although the battle music gets old after you hear it a few times. The other sound effects- weapons, water, traps, monsters and the like- are spot-on.
Just as in the pen-and-paper game, the tavern is where heroes go when looking to form a party…
Game play-wise, Stormreach is pretty good. The controls function like those of a first-person shooter, where you move with W,A,S, and D while controlling your aim with the mouse. Combat (and you'll have to fight- a lot) happens in real-time, so be prepared to hit that mouse button a million times. The combat is fun, but it takes some getting used to- it's probably just me, but I never really got used to using the Shift key to look around in the midst of combat. Luckily, all the game's controls are re-mappable. Also, Stormreach has a built-in voice chat option right out of the box, which actually works very well. This really helps you go on adventures, since you don't have to type every ten seconds. It must also be noted that Turbine feels very strongly about the "party-based" nature of D&D, and have designed the game so that almost no areas of the world are solo-able. Expect to spend a great deal of time attempting to get into good pick-up parties, or try your best to convince your friends to sign up, because you won't have much luck trying to do almost any of the game's dungeons by yourself.
Character advancement attempts to stay true to the pen-and-paper game, and utilizes the same set of d20 rules that tabletop players or those that have played games like Neverwinter Nights will recognize. Since the current level cap is only 20, however, the developers have chosen to use a system of "ranks" within each level. As you gain XP, you'll go from "Level 1- Rank 1" to Level 1- Rank 2", then to "Rank 3", etc. Because of this, leveling feels extremely slow, and even in the early game you spend a lot of time at one level. This just gets worse as the game progresses and it takes more and more XP to advance even a single Rank. Just as in pen-and-paper D&D, new Ranks and Levels give you points to spend on Feats- abilities that grant you more in-game abilities.
Nowadays, MMO's are a tough sell. Not only must they be worth the $50 that must be shelled out for the software, but they also must be worth the ongoing $15 monthly fee required to actually play. To be successful, they have to offer something that half a dozen competing games don't also do. Unfortunately, right now Stormreach could use a little help in pulling off that trick. While playing, I began to feel that the game just doesn't offer enough areas to explore and things to do, compared to other MMO's. That will change, of course- Turbine has already offered up a new downloadable content pack (known as a "module" in true D&D fashion) and plans on adding even more dungeons and explorable areas of the world, so gamers can definitely expect more dungeons to explore- but for now the game world feels a bit repetitive and sparse for my tastes.
Stormreach will undoubtedly have its loyal D&D supporters. But, with the vast majority of MMO players being in either World of Warcraft's Azeroth or even Final Fantasy XI's Vana'diel, it will be tough for Turbine to lure enough players to Stormreach. However, if they can, and if Turbine adds enough new areas, this could be an MMO to be enjoyed for years to come.
Sorcerors can cast powerful spells, such as Fire.
Gameplay- 8 The combat system takes some getting used to, and might require some key re-mapping (the use of the Shift key is a bit awkward in my opinion), but the real-time battles are quite fun and even use the classic D&D dice roll system. The very convenient built-in voice chat also makes a big difference.
Graphics- 9 DDO's visuals are good enough to be enjoyed through long periods of time, but run sluggish in areas with a lot of people, on high settings. Luckily, Dungeons are all instanced, so you'll never have more than a small group on-screen all at once in most danger areas.
Audio- 8 The game's musical pieces are very well done, except for the battle music, which gets tiresome after awhile. The narration, which is done to simulate the voice of the "dungeon master", as well as NPC dialogue, is done extremely well.
Value- 7 At the moment, there isn't as much content as other games in this genre have, and what is there feels a bit repetitive, but hopefully that will change. What's there, however, is done pretty well.
Curve- 7 Stormreach is the classic "Why bother?" game. Yeah, it is done well, but with better choices out there, why bother playing this?