Our DDO: Menace of the Underdark Review
Dungeons and Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark (DDO:MotU) is the newest expansion for DDO. It is also the first paid expansion for the game in DDO's six year history. There have been many highly acclaimed and very successful Dungeons and Dragons RPGs over the years but these games have had one another thing in common besides the D&D name brand: They all took place in the Forgotten Realms. The Forgotten Realms campaign setting is very expansive and familiar to pen and paper D&D players. This popularity is due to source guides and novels written by Ed Greenwood and R.A. Salvatore and the iconic characters they created to populate the realms such as Greenwood's Elminster and Salvatore's Companions of the Hall. The richness that the Forgotten Realms can provide as a backdrop is something that DDO never had, until now, and what many considered to be DDO's fatal flaw. Over the last 6 years DDO has taken place in Eberron. Eberron created a world that is inhabited by typical high fantasy creations but also has machines and airships that are powered by magic.
DDO: MotU literally bridges the gap between Eberron and the fan favorite Forgotten Realms campaign settings. The team at Turbine has done a good job at weaving a tale that incorporates elements from D&D cannon that allows them to create a pathway anchoring one realm metaphysically to the other. Traversing this pathway is where characters will start their adventure at the beginning of this expansion.
There are two different clients you can download to run Dungeons and Dragons Online. You can choose between a standard mode which is DirectX 9 compatible or you can choose the high resolution client which is DirectX 11. Six years ago when DDO was first released it had superb graphics and helped set the standard for what an MMO could do; however in 2012 DDO is starting to show her age. With games like TERA and The Secret World currently on the market you will not be playing DDO because it looks pretty. Taking that into account the new city of Eveningstar does do a fair job setting the mood for Cormyr and distinguishing itself from Stormreach, while still reaming true to the DDO feel. Two of DDO's significant features still remain in MotU: Voiced Dungeon Masters to set the mood for whatever instance you are in and the good 'ol 20 sided die to show you your rolls.
Playing DDO has always felt a little like steering a ship at sea. You always seem to run a little fast and coast by your objective or wander up to it very tentatively in order not to crash into it. While the control mechanics are not absolutely infuriating they can be a bit annoying after a while. If you have ever watched a group member miss a jump for the 10th time in a row you will start to understand. They have a skill for that though (jumping). Since we are on the topic of skills, DDO has a lot of them. They also have a ton of feats. The skills and feats that are best suited for your class are not always obvious at the early game so you can expect to reset your skill points a time or two on your journey. I was never able to really find anyone that was serious about crafting in DDO though you will find a lot of crafting materials on your journey. They are readily abundant. The combat also feels like a precursor to the newer TERA. Even if you do not have your target selected if you point at them with a melee weapon and swing you will hit them and deal damage. DDO was one of the originators of true action combat and it’s still fun today.
The traditional level cap in pen and paper D&D is 20. The developers at Turbine had to create a clever way to go beyond this incumbent barrier. To do this they created Epic Levels which raise the level cap to 25. A single level in DDO equals 5 ranks, so essentially 1 level in DDO equals 5 levels in any other MMO. They came up with this rank structure before the original launch to give a sense of progression on your character between leveling. For Menace of the Underdark they have come up with an additional leveling system for Epic Levels. These 5 additional Epic Levels allow you to unlock epic destinies for your character granting you the ability to personalize your character to your playstyle. There are 10 different destinies and each have their own set of abilities that over time every character can unlock. Even after you reach the new level cap of 25 you will not be wasting your experience. You are also allowed to keep an ability from up to 3 other destinies while you work on unlocking a fourth. These are called twists of fate. These twists of fate could grant barbarians the ability to have self heals. While not necessarily optimal it is functional and allows players to tailor their own individual character.
The druid class is also being introduced in this expansion. The druid is a powerful caster for D&D lore. In DDO your will be allowed to shift into 6 different forms as the main crux of the class mechanic. There two bear forms, two world forms, and two caster forms. In the caster form you can choose between water and fire. While you are in fire form you will strengthen your fire spells and weaken your water spells and vice versa if you are in water form. It’s a class that plays quite well, and very uniquely from others in the game.
The game runs really smooth. After all this time, how could it now? In the time that I have played DDO I have not run into any bugged quests or instances and none of annoyances I observed are specific to the MotU expansion. The game does have extremely long load screens and once you do load into an area it is usually a minute or more before you can move. During that time you can spin around and look at things but you cannot move forward, backward, or side to side. You can spin like a top all you want though. I have also read about server lag on the forums but I never experienced this for myself. I have seen Turbine take their servers down to fix issues but they usually have them back up and going again with a few hours and they appear to be very proactive in attacking server issues when they are identified.
Like most MMO's DDO has a handful of hardcore loyalists that play day in and day out and will be around for a long time. This expansion offers the loyalists a new world to explore, and if Turbine keeps their promise of an aggressive update cycle, a lot of new content to come in the Forgotten Realms for the next few years. However new and casual players could be really put off by this expansion. If a new player decides to purchase the base expansion they will be stuck leveling through a lot of the Eberron content that they probably did not like to begin with. If a person wanted to play in Eberron they would already be playing DDO. They would not have waited for an expansion that takes them to the Forgotten Realms to start playing the game. While I understand that developers want players to grasp the mechanics of the game, they should simply force new players to run through the basic tutorial to learn their class, and not through 16 full levels of Eberron. The free to play option and epic destinies do add to the games longevity and help offset this score. Also once you have purchased the expansion the content is yours to keep and you can walk away from the game for months, and in some cases even years, and return to play your character whenever you want.
Stormreach used to be full of a lot of people that wanted to tell you how to play your character or how they could beat you at PvP in a bar brawl. With the introduction of MotU that isn't the case anymore. Turbine did something really smart as a bonus with the expansion pack and it is having the effect of players being really nice to other players. Forcing players to run through 16 levels of content in Eberron when they really want to go to the Forgotten Realms is a bad idea, and Turbine knows this. In order to soften this leveling curve you can have your character bestowed with a Stone of Experience. These Stones were given to players who purchase the expansion. It is the reward for using these stones on other players that have turned would be grouches into benevolent friends. The third time a player uses the Stone of Experience they are granted a Snow Panther Cub creature companion.
There are two options to purchase Menace of the Underdark. The Base edition includes the three Forgotten Realms Adventure Packs, the Epic Destinies, and a Lesser Tome of Learning which grants your character a bonus 10% experience points the first time completing a dungeon. The Standard Edition includes the contents of the Base edition plus 1000 Turbine points (which is approximately $10 USD). It also includes Veteran Status Level 4, which allows you to instantly make a level 4 character, a Greater Tome of Learning which grants 20% instead of 10% experience gain, and the DDO Classics pack which grants access to some of the old Eberron content that you would have to purchase with Turbine points, and of course access to the Druid class. If purchased separately the druid will cost at least 1000 turbine points and not be available until August. These prices for a free to play game with an optional VIP subscription seem a bit steep. If you plan on buying the druid at any point you should purchase the Standard Edition. The Base edition will end up costing you more in the long run.