Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Virtue of DDO

If you've read anything like all of my blog posts (of which you should be very ashamed if you have), you'll know that I once played World of Warcraft for a month. If you were paying attention, you'd have realized that I didn't much care for it. Is it possible I just don't like the conventions of MMOs? Maybe. But then, that makes it slightly mysterious that I've become so fond of Dungeons and Dragons Online.

So, I'll be referring back to my WoW post as I indicate how DDO measures up to my least favorite parts of WoW. Afterwards, I'll get to whatever else is unique to DDO that I like or dislike.

1. Limits on object types. On the one hand, not only can you not use spears at level 1, you can't use them at all, anywhere, ever. Right off the bat, DDO loses big points for me. I'm barred from faithfully reproducing some of my favorite characters from the past, including [you have permission to skip this list, as they're probably of no meaning to you] Ben the fighter/cleric, Calpurnius the cleric, Harek the dwarf fighter/psion, Rendi the cleric, Lyceus the fighter, Tigranis the cleric, Rathric the rogue/cleric, Sonalt the dragonborn warlord, or (most recently) Boreas the eladrin bard. As a matter of fact, nearly all my past clerics have been spear-wielders, mainly because I always thought they were much cooler than maces. On the other hand, helmets, for example, are allowed to low-level characters. And pauldrons, while not a separate item, are implicit in the appearance of most armor that's heavy enough to merit them, which includes low-level gear. The lack of spears really chafes, but on the whole I'd say it approaches things of this sort a lot more realistically than WoW. For example, with the weapons that do exist, you don't have to be trained, or even be able to be trained, to use them. Just as in 3rd Edition D&D, you merely get the nonproficiency penalty, a rather hefty -4 to attacks. It benefits from D&D's simulationist nature.

2. Inherent inability to enforce implicit behavior guidelines. The classes "Paladin", "Cleric", and "Monk" imply something very specific not only about a character's ability set but about his personality. The game even retains D&D's nine-alignment system. But it's all just aesthetics. There is one saving grace, though. Traditionally, Paladins have even stricter moral codes than Clerics. In WoW, it irked me significantly that the class that was most expected to behave was also one of the most popular and easiest to play, thereby drawing more jackasses. In DDO's gameplay, though, I can easily say that the WoW Paladin plays rather similarly to the DDO Cleric -- combining competence in combat with significant healing powers. Granted, the WoW Paladin focuses much more on melee combat, but the DDO Cleric is still tough enough to stick it out on the front lines all by himself -- and his healing allows him a great deal of longevity, especially in a game where just standing around won't heal you in dangerous areas. Anyway, my point is that Clerics are therefore more likely to be popular than Paladins (I haven't seen the actual numbers, alas), so we'll have fewer Paladins acting like immature jackasses and more of them acting like the pious, self-righteous jackasses they ought to be.

3. MMO Language. It's out in full force. If I used chat channels much more, I'd be extremely annoyed at the constant stream of people who WTS their +3 Vorpal Adamantine Greataxes and are LFM for Misery's Peak.

4. Resurrection Abuse. Prominently averted. Death is far less common, more inconvenient in the short term, and, as far as I can tell, less inconvenient in the long term. Most definitely, getting yourself killed in the middle of a quest will set you back a fair way, and is not a viable strategy for finishing it. Let me qualify that: death is extremely inconvenient if you're playing solo. If you're on a team, odds are you'll be able to be brought back fairly close by. But if the fight you're in is tough enough to wipe your whole team, we're back to the same inconvenience. Fortunately, you can expect to go through hours of play with only a death or two.

5. Restrictive Gameplay. DDO is much better at this than WoW, I think. Before 3rd Edition was spaghettified into the maw of a singularity of expansion sourcebooks and munchkin builds, a highly customized character build was what it thrived on. You can multiclass just as in D&D. You can spend feats on weapon and armor proficiencies outside the norm for your class. You can go far either soloing or grouping with others. What's more, you can progress through the game without having to join groups or stop and grind anywhere. Okay, I'll grant that some classes are a lot easier than others. The game is polite enough to inform you how easy it will be to solo with a given class before you start (though popular opinion seems to be that they grossly underestimate the Bard, spooniest of all classes). While I can expect to repeat the same set of quests with every character I run through the game (so far -- I don't know what the world beyond Stormreach will bring yet), there's a delightful element of randomization to the loot. Store-bought weapons and armor may be rather dull, but the higher-quality gear you find in dungeons is all rather unique. There was a point where my dwarf paladin Tetsuemon had some four +1 heavy steel shields in his possession, and I was left to pick based on which one I thought looked coolest. Imagine that! And this was a character who was less than 15%* of the way through the game; I've played characters over 25%* of the way through WoW, and received no such degree of customization.

*These figures are approximations based on how many levels were available in the game compared to how many levels I had achieved with the characters in question.

6. No opportunities for self-imposed challenge and appropriate reward. Well, the game does have options for changing the difficulty level of quests, which I rather appreciate. Loot in dungeons is generous enough, though, that players shouldn't find themselves handicapped for lack of good equipment.

7. Too narrow threshold for efficient questing. Averted pretty well, mostly on account of the great duration between levels (due to there only being 20 of them in the game). Yes, the game does give you minor abilities at several milestones between levels, but the most substantive changes take place at the true levels, so odds are you'll have a long way to go with quests at just the right level for you.

8. Lack of variation in quest trees. Due to the lack of multiple starting locations, I'd say DDO has this even worse than WoW. However, the quests themselves are often well-designed enough that I don't mind.

9. Gameplay focuses too much on aggro management. Almost completely averted in DDO. In dungeon settings, groups of monsters are deliberately placed in such a way that you should be able to handle the lot of them at once, and they're far enough apart that you almost never risk pulling more than you can chew.

10. Meaningless stealth. I haven't gone very far with a rogue, so I can't say whether I could be using stealth to evade difficult encounters. Probably not. But the prevalence of traps in the game gives rogues an additional unique utility that makes them worthwhile.

11. Too much difficulty in plot-insignificant encounters. Averted. The groups of enemies you encounter most often will be large slices of cake.

12. Required grouping. Averted as far as I've played. I even managed to complete a mission of my level designed for a group in which I had to murder a constant stream of 200 kobolds, although it depleted almost my entire stock of potions.

13. Inverted exponential advancement. I suppose it's present to a degree. I haven't really seen enough of the game to say how tedious it gets later on.

14. Inane quests. Pretty well averted. They do a good job of imbuing each individual quest with plot significance. I'm not finding myself harvesting organs for some dwarf's latest casserole recipe.

15. Proper nouns created by welding common nouns artlessly together. Well, I'm currently adventuring out of the city of Stormreach. The Eberron setting, on the whole, does a good job of hitting us with a deluge of truly invented proper nouns, though.

Now, I'd like to discuss the unique aspects that DDO brings to the table, both positive and negative.

The appearance customization of WoW is laughable in comparison to DDO's. In addition to the variety of styles that exist for various bits of equipment, you have a great many options for hair, skin, and eye color, as well as different facial features, hairstyles, and beardstyles.

On the flip side, there's one glaring inadequacy in the visual customization: only the armor, head, and hand slot items are actually visible on your avatar. I would be able to forgive this if only they had allowed cloaks onto that list as well. While I'm glad that my heroic paladin isn't stuck wearing some dinky little cape that doesn't go past his belt, I just wish I could see the bloody thing.

While we're being superficial, I am rather fond of the graphics. They have some fantastically neat lighting effects in the interior areas -- which make up the majority of questing areas -- and I found the water effects rather impressive when I turned up the graphics to the modest level that starts to display them. I was really quite impressed that my computer, a non-optimized year-and-a-half-old laptop as it is, was able to produce something so pretty. Good show.

It's based thoroughly on 3rd Edition D&D. As such, I find the system for building my character to be laughably familiar. That's mostly a personal thing for me. I often found myself feeling inadequate in my knowledge of how WoW worked on a mechanical level, but I can come into DDO with my expertise already in place.

The adventuring areas seem to be engineered, not just designed. In WoW, you spend the majority of your time wandering around open wilderness areas, picking off whichever monsters of the appropriate type happen to cross your path. WoW's typical dungeon areas are little more than bottlenecks that force you to fight enemies in close quarters in order to achieve some objective. DDO's dungeons, which so far have made up the vast majority of my play time, are built to give you a variety of experiences, requiring you to locate keys and switches, and sometimes including genuine goddamn puzzles. It's a lot more exciting than just fighting a series of guys before fighting one really big guy.

Oh, and one more thing: it's free. How about that. Now, granted, there are limitations on your freedom. You have to have leveling sigils to progress past levels 4, 8, 12, and 16 (one sigil for each, of progressive different types). These can be found through normal adventuring. Or they can be bought. My dwarf paladin Tetsuemon found his first one when he was only level 2. If that's any indication, I'll probably be getting another one before 8 without having to grind a bunch of quests over again. But! Apparently, you get some amount of points for the online store for free. The first time I checked (fairly recently) I discovered that I had 275 points. I went to look at how much it would be to get my next leveling sigil. 10 points. How about that. Of course, there are still features that are locked out: two races (drow and warforged) and two classes (monk and favored soul) must be bought, and their prices are in the several hundreds. I might manage that many with just the one character by the end of his career. Considering I've got 275 already and I'm at level 3, I daresay it's likely. So yes, it's limited, but not as limited as it might seem.

On the whole, it's been very fun. I don't know if it's going to take a turn for the boring eventually, but I can take solace in the fact that I probably won't have spent a dime by that point.

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