A second chance?
Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach didn't exactly turn many heads when it was released in 2006. Launched to mixed reviews and a Metacritic score of 74, it forced grouping, lacked content, and had a very small level cap. At that time gamers were looking for the complete opposite, which they found in the form of games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online.
Online gamers are a notoriously fickle bunch. Dungeons & Dragons has managed to survive over the years, though, and recently Turbine decided to revamp their struggling MMORPG. Now called Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited, it is a free-to-play game that relies on an online store and micro transactions, as well as a $14.99/month VIP subscription; a business model that, so far, seems to be working for it.
Dungeons & Dragons Online combines the click-fest combat of the Diablo series with the hotkey mechanics of other MMOs, then throws in some twitch-based action elements like blocking and dodging for good measure. The combat feels a tad unresponsive, however. There were many times I pressed a hotkey to cast a spell and had to wait a second or two before my character began the casting animation. Sometimes, I would have to press the hotkey more than once. It takes a little getting used to and could be a source of frustration to some players.
Also like Diablo, dungeon crawling is at the heart of the game's content. Most areas are instanced private zones for you and your party only. Dungeons come in a number of difficulty settings and their associated quests can be repeated up to ten times before they stop giving experience. Fast-paced and filled with traps, puzzles, secret doors, and optional side quests, the dungeons can be a blast, especially with the deep voice of the Dungeon Master providing some campy, overacted color commentary. They are not much to look at though, at least in the earlier levels, unless you are fond of sewers. Lots and lots of sewers. They are also not randomized, making repeated runs a little less suspenseful and a little less fun after you have learned where all the traps and secret doors are hidden.
Two is Better Than One
As with any MMO, the content in Dungeons & Dragons Online is best experienced with a group of friends. The matchmaking tool in the game, while not difficult to use, seems under utilized. Gamers seem to prefer using chat channels to find groups. If you would rather go solo, Turbine has made it easier to do so with the addition of hirelings and a solo mode for many dungeons. The AI-controlled hirelings are not very bright, but can probably get the job done if you are feeling anti-social and have the gold handy. Solo mode more often than not feels a bit too easy. My multi-classed bard/rogue was able to breeze through them and managed to solo many normal mode dungeons with few difficulties as well.
The game uses the 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons rulebook, but even if you are unfamiliar with all of the rules, the game helps you out with pre-made versions of each class. Since flexible character creation has always been a strong point of Dungeons & Dragons based RPGs, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't play around with the character generator to make that halfling barbarian/sorcerer/ranger you have always had your heart set on. Once you are in the game itself, the rules become even less of a concern. A single d20 die in the lower right corner is the only clue that those rules are hard at work behind the scenes, and the game plays, for all intents and purposes, much like any other MMO on the market.
There's No Such Thing as "Free"
While most of the basic Dungeons & Dragons races and classes are represented, others – drow, monks, and favored souls to name a few – need to be unlocked in the DDO store using Turbine Points. In fact, the term "free-to-play" might be a bit of a misnomer, as a lot of the content that is included in a VIP subscription needs to be bought in the store by the free-to-play crowd. Everything from hair dyes and experience potions, to extra character slots, to new dungeons and quests have to be purchased with Turbine Points and it is not easy to tell what is worth buying and what isn't. All you have to go on to know if that new adventure pack is worth the cash are the online reviews of others, if you can find them. A little help in this area, perhaps a star rating system, would be helpful. The free-to-play model, even if it is not totally free, is a good one though, especially for casual players who can buy the content they need, and only the content they need, when they are ready to play it.
Ultimately, it is the flexibility of the micro transaction business model that makes this solid MMO worth a second (or first) glance. Give Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited a try. While not as big and epic an online game as World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, its dungeon crawling gameplay manages to capture a tiny bit of what made the Diablo series so popular for so many years. Besides, all it will cost you is a little time and hard drive space. Just make sure to bring a couple of friends.
Fast-paced, fun dungeons
Sluggish controls, bland early dungeons