All right, I’m sort of in between games right now. I have a regular weekly WoW group where we’re all trying to stay at the same level so we don’t really “free play” those characters so much. I have a few high level toons on a different server and I’m exploring BC a bit with them, but I’m kind of saving most of that for our weekly group when they get there and that will be a while.
I started exploring EQ2 EoF but hadn’t been able to devote much time to it and was a little frustrated by the performance/system requirements ratio. Couple that with the station access fee-asco and I decided, I’d send SOE a message with my feet—Buh-bye (but between you and me, just for now). I’ve also been doing the beta and pre-ordered LotRO but am resisting exploring any more of that game until Open Beta starts at the end of the month, so I’m looking around for something to explore solo until then.
Some of the commentary about LotRO has been to the effect that “it looks too much like DDO.” Not having played DDO (or more correctly, Dungeons & Dragons Online™: Stormreach™, a snappy name that just rolls of the tongue compared to The Lord of the Rings Online ™: Shadows of Angmar™…) , I thought I’d check it out to see for myself. I was a table top D&D’er back in the Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardy era and remember dancing a jig when the Player’s Manual, Monster Manual and DM’s Guide came out. I’m sure I have my polyhedral dice laying around somewhere. Having not revisited the franchise since college (now a distant beer-addled and spotty memory), I thought this might be an opportunity to see how it made the transition to MMO world. DDO has been out for more than a year, so everything should be working smoothly.
Enter the 10-day free trial. Digital download, so what the hey. I’ll give it a go. Digital download of the client is about 2.3 GB and a download manager is recommended. Having experienced the challenges of a DL this large with LotRO Beta, I fired up the Get Right, the download manager I found that worked well for that. Apparently all download managers are not made equal and your mileage may vary, so fumble around and find something that works if you don’t have success with the first (or second or third…) one. With four streams pouring in on my cable connection, download time was only about 2 hours. The big advantage of a dl manager like this is even if its screwed up the first or second time, you can get two or three attempts in the time that it would ordinarily take to do one—aka the dreaded “wasted overnight download.”
After about 2 hours and 45 minutes, the download completed and I started the install. Installation went smoothly. After extracting the files, I had the launcher up and running quickly. After a quick file check, the inevitable update started. After about 15 minutes, I was ready to jump in game.
I had my choice of 14 servers. As a general rule, I never pick the first in the list and try to generally pick something with a distinctly odd or uncool name. Server name selection strategy in MMOs is an underrated player skill IMHO. So on to Lhazaar it was.
On the character creation screen I was given the opportunity to select from six different races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Warforged, and Drow) and nine classes (Fighter, Paladin, Barbarian, Rogue, Ranger, Cleric, Wizard, Sorcerer and Bard). Trying out a game, I tend to go for something basic to get rolling quickly so I rolled a Dwarf Barbarian, Fergorin Cathasaigh.
The screenshots are a fair depiction of the style of the game and you can see where the comparisons to LotRO come from. A definitively stylized game that leans toward “realism” rather than charicature. Pointy elf ears yes, but no ugly dwarves with big feet. Avatar customization is pretty good but there are a few odd choices available. Its always fun to use the randomize tool to see just how bad a combination you can come up with. Dwarves with only a Snively Whiplash moustache really wont cut it, but the opportunity is at least there.
Finally into the world. My initial impression was of a very visually detailed world that fit well with the avatar’s stylized appearance. Textures were nicely detailed and the world (at least in the noob area) looked like it fit well together. “Standard” movement controls, at least for WoW’ers and EQ2’ers is a bit off though. I found myself attempting to bludgeon NPCs everytime I right clicked on them, so I took a few minutes to remap a few basic movement functions. A ten day free trial is not worthy of relearning basic commands yet.
Right off the starting dock, I was handily guided toward the noob quest givers by giant floating blue arrows. Not very “immersive” but highly effective.
The Noob Experience
The noob experience revolves around learning basic character skills, getting used to interacting with the world and getting equipped and is pretty well guided. Context sensitive tips pop up all the time helping to orient the noob.
One interesting thing, as an implementation of D&D, there doesn’t appear to be very much easily accessible help on the underlying game mechanics. My distinct impression was that you should know what D&D is about to really have a goo d grasp of game mechanics (i.e., what matters and why when it comes to items, abilities, stats, etc.) Long story short, DDO evolved from the table top rulesets which are based on at least two fundamental principals: character attributes affect player abilities (e.g., the now familiar strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc.) and item and attribute “statistics” are based on polyhedral dice probabilities (e.g. a one-handed sword’s damage is expressed as being capable of doing 1d6 damage +1).
For folks like myself that cut their teeth on this system, while obscure, understanding this became second nature of necessity. While compliant to the ruleset, and yes, a bit quaint in a nostalgic sense, the whole dice rolling thing was simply a way to quickly and conveniently manage combat in what was in reality a micro turn-based game. This is something we have computers for now and I gotta question whether it really has a place in a game based on real-time combat. Sure its old school, but so is an abacus.
In going through the noob experience and the first few “real” quests thereafter, I quickly came to the conclusion that combat pretty much sucks. Now this is just my opinion after a few hours play and getting Fergorin (a melee character) up to level two (level two involves progressing through 5 ranks of level one, so its probably equivalent to level 4 or 5 of other games). All of the opponents I encountered in the early quests (all in instanced areas by the way) pretty much popped like soap bubbles upon dashing themselves against me.
The vast majority of creatures went down in one fell swoop of my noobie club. As a matter of fact, some went down in under one swoop. They died so quickly, apparently the animation for a swing couldn’t even be executed before combat was over. Or sometimes whether they were even near me. Hmm. Maybe not so hardcore after all. Granted, each of the instanced encounters offered me a choice of escalating difficulty: solo, normal etc., but jeez, self-destruct?
As I progressed through various quests, I didn’t see any need to really begin using any particular character skills other than my basic melee attack. And, in a fit of Diablo-iana, there are lots of crates and barrels to smash which often yield little piles of gold or loot. By contrast, mobs seldom dropped loot. This was definitely starting to feel more like Diablo or Dungeon Siege as things progressed.
What’s that in the road, a head?
One other aspect that caught me off guard, was the narrative voice overs for many encounters. The narration is done from a dungeon master’s perspective, i.e., as if you were playing a table top game and the DM had to explain, describe or act out aspects of an encounter. Text based games did this with, well, text. You had to. You had nothing else to use. While aspects of this actually helped set the scene or describe the rationale for a particular quest objective, at othertimes it was laughably annoying. For example, when encountering the boss mob for a quest, rather than having a mob voiceover that said “Who dares disturb the tomb of Blahblahblah? Prepare to Die!” the now ubiquitous narrator/DM’s voice says, in a suitably movie preview voice, something like “As you enter Blahblahblah’s crypt, you hear an otherworldly voice shout ‘Who dares disturb the tomb of Blahblahblah? Prepare to Die!’” except that narrator/DM, when quoting the mob, attempts to voice act the mob’s voice, badly. The first time I heard it, I almost fell out of my chair laughing. It felt like creepy Uncle Bob (who drank too much) getting a little too into the bedtime story he was reading the kids. While attempting to recreate the table top experience is an admirable goal, this “feature” just fell flat to me.
In a similar fashion, the tension between trying to emulate the table top game and be its own immersive MMO world seems to have resulted in a number of casualties to game play. Reiterating the table top experience continually reminds the player that this is a game, not a game world. By definition, its immersion breaking. Also, whether by neglect or design, I didn’t really hear much from my character in combat or otherwise. Combat sound effects (clanking, whooshes, etc.) were pretty minimal, but player combat reactions (grunts, winces, wails, shouts, etc.) were almost nonexistent. The initial impression is a bit of a lifeless world.
The end result for my initial outing was that that I was not terribly impressed. As a matter of fact, I was kind of depressed that a game that looks this good was this unfun. A few hours is not enough time to reach a conclusion on a game, but in those first few hours, you’ve got to grab a player and make sure they “get to the fun.” I will continue to explore during my nine remaining trial days, but initial impressions are hard to overcome.