There was one week left before Aoin's release, and nothing really compelling I wanted to play. As I was constantly seeing banners on the forums for this new 'DDO Unlimited' launch, I thought I should give it a try – and yes that's how bad advertising is, it always eventually works.
Dungeons & Dragons Online was first released in 2006 by Turbine (Asheron's Call 1 & 2, and Lord of the Rings Online are other Turbine's main games). Back at this time I didnt pay attention to this release at all, even being an old Dungeons and Dragons PnP fan. Especially as the game did not make people talk about it that much. It soon acquired the reputation of being more of a 'roleplayer' niche game, and something that most true MMO fans should avoid for being heavily instanced.
Turbine recently relaunched the game on a Free-to-Play model under the name 'DDO Unlimited', not exactly free as of course you have to pay to unlock content and special features. Obviously relaunching the game as a F2P, even with more content, doesn't sound that compelling : it's not like the game was successful at all. Nethertheless Turbine did a good job advertising the game this time, and managed to present this relaunch as an opportunity for the game to get his public, rather than a failure and a downgrade. Note that they also sued Atari, DDO's first publisher, for what they claim had been a very lackluster promotion campaign back in 2006.
I asked a few friends if they were ready to give it a try during this break week before Aion, and there we started. Everything began really smoothly : DDO has this great 'Turbine download manager' option that allows you to start creating your character and playing after just 10 mins of download, and continue to play while the manager still keeps downloading the game. I made a female Elf Barbarian, that sounded pretty awful to the min/maxer demon that dwells inside me and may sometimes get the upper hand, and it certainly is. But I thought it looked cool.
I was not hooked instantly in the game. At the start there were some things I did like, and some I did not like at all. First of all the graphics are pretty decent, I personnally like them as they remind me Asheron's Call 2, one of my first MMOs (both games were made by Turbine). The tutorial was good, the action fun from the start, I liked the dungeon's atmosphere even if I thought that could become repetitive really fast.
However I did not like the D&D rules as MMO game mechanics from the start. For example I had to choose many things at my character creation, stats, feats, enhancements, but at the end all I was doing inside a dungeon was letting my left mouse button clicked to hack and slash through mobs that were dieing pretty fast. I had 10 skills on my bar at level 1, but nothing I found useful, mostly short cooldowns I saw no difference at all while I was using them or not. Something the old WoW player who used to manage his 4 bars of skills during intense arena matches finds pretty lackluster.
Nethertheless, dungeon after dungeon, starting to get some gear, more hit points, and playing with friends, the game slowly started to get addicting. It really captured well this old Dungeons & Dragons feeling that was mostly about the aventure, the exploration, but also group dynamics and players interactions around a table. I started also reading on the boards about characters builds, and I found out it was pretty deep and complex.
Even if it doesn't translate in tons of different and cool skills to use for a fighter for example, everything you choose will affect the game in one way or another and the harder it becomes as you level, the more you'll start to understand what you've done right or wrong. There are also tons of ways your choices will affect the way you play your character, as everything happening in there is based on stat rolls, skill rolls, save rolls... etc, but of course at the beginning you certainly fail to understand all that.
(Taverns can be pretty crowded at any hour in this game...)
Basically each quest in the game is an instance, like a dungeon, a cave, or sometime an outdoor map linked to one or several dungeons (which are other instances inside an instance then). Their instancing model is close to Guild Wars actually as you will only meet other players who are not in your team in towns. But as much as I disliked GW's PvE and mostly played their arena PvP, I must say I found everything to be really well done in DDO's instanced PvE. You can redo each quest as much as you want, and unlock higher difficulty modes by completing them. And that's very handy because that means you can always play with your friends, even if you don't have already done the same exact dungeons before, everything is still accessible. However, there are experience diminishing returns so that you will not be tempted to farm always the same easy quest.
You can play solo if you want and hire an henchman to help you, but the game has definitely been made around teamplay, be it with friends or with random players. There are tons of people on Cannith, the server I chose, and mostly what seems to be a very friendly and informative community. It's really easy to find pickup groups there as far as I have seen, as well as people who're willing to help and inform you.
The really fun thing about this game, is that those dungeons feel really different from let's say a WoW instance. They also do feel different one from each other. It's not about bashing mobs and looting them, at least not only. There are tons of things that usually happen there : like solving puzzles, avoiding and disarming deadly traps, spotting hidden hideways, making good jump or tumble rolls when you want to access this remote area... etc. The teamplay is essential there. Sometimes it's ok just to charge and bash, the game is easy at the beginning. However the more you level, the more you need to start to be cautious and think about what you're doing. Because just a single trap can kill you, or a caster boss can hold you and two shoot you with nasty spells if you let him cast alone behind his minions. There you start to see how those tons of resist or special potions, scrolls and wands can be helpful, as well as the tons of skills and enhancements you have to build for your toon.
(Some of those traps can one shoot you on higher difficulty settings, and not going with a rogue you must be very careful...)
By the way DDO is the first MMO I ever played that actually doesn't reward you for killing mobs at all, and that's quite an innovation. The progression and the experience your character gains are entirely objective based. That means you can choose to play a stealthy character that is going to skip most of the encounters to go directly to the main objective and it's totally fine. It makes for a great diversity of playstyles, and the more you go through the different styles of missions, as well as the endless possibilities to build your character, the more you start to see the really strong points of DDO.
I was actually surprised by the ton of content there is in the game. I actually thought the tutorial starting town was the main town, but it gets much bigger once you get to Stormreach the capital. The dungeons also start to be more complex, to feel different, some of them with scripted stories and so far I have not had this 'being there done that' feeling that so often goes along with quest based MMOs. Neither has some npc asked me to bring him back 10 wolf tails. Even if I must admit that mostly playing in a team I rarely read quest dialogs, what you're supposed to do is really different from one adventure to another. It has just been 3-4 days of gameplay however, and that's for sure to early to know if the game does or does not really get repetitive later.
The max level in the game is 20, each level being divided in 5 ranks. Each rank you get an action point to spend for new new enhancements to your main feats and skills, each level you become globally stronger and gain more hit points as well as new feats, new spells for casters, and sometime stat points. The progression level wise is much slower than what you get used in other games however, but the ranks make up for that. If you reach level 5 in the game, you have already achieved something and seen some content.
The combat system is quite good too and really fast paced. It's close to Age of Conan as you don't have to target a mob to hit it, you just hit what is in front of you, and sometime that's more than one mob if they're closed to each other. And I must say that AoEing large packs of kobolds with some good greatsword swings is a lot of fun. The hit points and spell points regeneration is special however as you cannot regain them like in the other games : you need to find rest stones for that, or get healed or recharged by spells or potions. Sometime you have to attack this room full of kobolds with only half your hit points, while your healer has only one or two heals left, and it can be quite a challenge. It also makes for something really original and different once you pass on the annoying factor that it's not like in every other MMO you have played before - yes, we're all conservative in the first place, and need to be convinced when facing something new.
(Making your way through Kobolds and Troglodytes is always fun...)
Once you reach level 4 or 5, you quickly understand however that the 'free' model was too good to be true. Getting to the next area after Stormreach Harbor, you will find most of the quests to be locked. There are still a few you can do with a free account, but for most of the content you need either to pay in the cash shop to unlock adventures packs, or to get a VIP month. Well, nothing that shocking and we cannot blame Turbine either for that, they have to pay for their bills, their servers and also make some money from their game eventually. And I think their payment model is quite well thought actually. If you unlock for example a new race or a content pack from their cash shop you get it bound to your account for life. Or if you choose to pay 15$ a month, you get everything unlocked, but just for one month. So it's either F2P or P2P, you choose. But at the end, you still have to pay to fully enjoy the game.
I must say that I had so much fun in the game those last three evenings that I would have instantly subscribed for a month if there wasn't Aion's release coming in a few days. Now that's quite a dilemna. I will probably rather keep on playing DDO this end of the week on a free account, then move to my Aion's preorder (most of my friends preordered too) and see how it goes. If I don't like Aion that much for one reason or another, I will definitely go back to see more of DDO, and this time with a VIP month pass. Anyway in the worse case scenario, I'll be long of two good MMO games to play with, and that's certainly not that an unfortunate position.
I must say that DDO is really a refreshing experience I did not expect at all. At the same time it did a great job to recapture the spirit of the 'Dungeons & Dragons' pen & paper game sessions as they were played a long time ago, it also feels like something original in the MMO genre compared to the other games out there. Definitely something you should give a try if you're short of anything good to play, and can gather a few friends to go with you.
To sum it up, you should definitely check DDO if :
-You're looking for something different from the mainstream MMOs and you don't mind to loose some of your usual routines for a game that has its own depth and complexity.
- You like to spend alot of time thinking about your character development and your build choices.
- You like to party with other players, either friends or random people.
- You like exploration in MMO games, you like also being surprised, or have to think about how to complete a quest or mission.
However you're less likely to enjoy it if :
- You're looking for something standard that will not be too complex or too long to get into.
- You don't like the possibility that your character may be gimped due to bad creation and leveling choices, and that you may have to restart it.
- You like to solo alot while leveling, you don't want to PuG.
- You don't like instanced games, you prefer to play in an open world the whole time.
- You like PvP and don't want to play a pure PvE game.