Release Date: February 28, 2006
Dungeons & Dragons: the everlasting legacy of Gary Gygax, the name that spawned a billion fantastical scenarios, and the franchise that defined an entire culture with the effortless toss of a polyhedral 20-faceted die. In the ever-morphing lexicon of 20th century pop culture, D&D is easily a contemporary of Star Wars, Pac-Man, and Coca-Cola. No stranger to digital adaptations, there have been video game versions published more or less continually for the last 24 years. From text adventures to top-down isometrics, and from AD&D Treasure of Tarmin all the way up to Neverwinter Nights, this is a beloved brand that sells. It was inevitable that the "MMoRPG" treatment would eventually come along. Turbine Entertainment felt brave enough to tackle the challenge, and the result of their labors is Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, the first persistent-world multiplayer title in the venerable history of D&D. Is this game worth buying and playing? Absolutely. Why, you ask? Read on, and I shall explain.
Out of the gates, Stormreach sets itself apart by not taking place in Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, or any of the tried-and-true world settings. Turbine decided to go with a previously un-coded campaign environment called Eberron. Stormreach is the name of a massive capital city in a land recovering from an epic war. This is one of the last bastions left unscarred by conflict. Coincidentally, it's a haven for adventurers looking to pillage some of the antiquity lying beneath its streets. An ancient population center that hasn't been razed to the ground by factions unconcerned with the preservation of artifacts is a ripe prize indeed for those industrious enough to brave what lies beneath. Currently, Stormreach is a city in the grip of an epidemic; cults, kobolds, and the looming threat of a malevolent ocean giant rising from the depths to annihilate all in its path. All of this is in addition to the infighting and machinations of the four political houses that make up the upper class.
At its core, Stormreach is a third-person perspective 3D action-RPG with a heavy focus on dungeon-crawl adventures designed primarily for single groups of six players. Stormreach uses the D&D 3.5 rules set, so anyone familiar with these will immediately be comfortable with what's available to play: fighter, paladin, barbarian, rogue, ranger, bard, wizard, sorcerer, cleric, and more or less any combination of these you can think of. Races are slightly different, consisting of human, elf, Halfling, dwarf, and a new race known as "Warforged." These are flesh/iron constructs designed to be frontline troops in the aforementioned war. Now that it's over, the remaining golems are left to their own devices and most frequently find work as mercenaries. As their name suggests, they are most adept at melee fighting, being towering behemoths of meat and metal perfectly suited to the giving and receiving of pain.
Like most persistent-world games, Stormreach uses a level system; you generate experience to level upwards, gaining new abilities as you go. What is different is that there are currently only 10 levels attainable, and experience isn't given out per monster killed. Completion of quest objectives is how you progress, but due to the fact that quests are repeatable, it can still feel "grindy" in spots. Though 10 levels seems restrictive compared to the average level-60 cap of other MMo games, one must keep in mind that level 20 is considered "epic" in the tabletop version of D&D. Turbine wanted room to grow later on, and so they chose to use an "optional" rule from the DM's guide: layered levels. Each level has four ranks within it that function somewhat like sub-levels; every new rank bestows an "action point" that grants certain bonuses or abilities. There can only be four of these action point skills granted at any one time, which can be frustrating in later levels, as your accumulated rank points go to waste. Upon attaining your fifth rank, you can train up to your next true level, selecting feats and allotting points to your attributes.
All of this is somewhat academic, though. Because it is marketed as an "MMo," people expect a certain experience, but what Stormreach offers is closer to Diablo 2 with D&D rules than it is to say, EverQuest or World of Warcraft. As mentioned earlier, the majority of the action takes place in dungeons, which are entirely instanced. How this is different than Guild Wars is a simple matter of scale: the instances are claustrophobic and/or cloistered, depending on your point of view. Occasionally, you are tasked with some outdoors action, but that's quite rare.
Once inside, though, the genius of level design evident throughout all of Stormreach becomes rapidly clear. These are anything but standard "kill X number of monsters" missions. Each and every quest is a mixed bag of finding and opening hidden doors, finding and disabling vicious traps (spikes, acid, fire, mix and match), defeating masses of monsters, defeating specific named monsters with various abilities, unlocking and pillaging treasure chests brimming with loot, resting at shrines to regain mana and hit points, and puzzle solving 'til the bovines return to their domiciles. Often, these are multi-stage, with several dungeons to visit. All levels include optional objectives that boost XP and loot. Finally, every mission in the game can be taken on easy, hard, or elite difficulties, with resultant boosts in challenge and reward. The goal of D&D Online: Stormreach was to recreate the heady thrill of a well-sculpted dungeon crawl in mom's basement, and to that end, Turbine has succeeded beyond expectations.
The graphics in this game are good, but not great. What matters most to me personally is that they're serviceable, contain consistent artistic style, and don't lag. On those three counts, I'm happy to report Turbine has done a great job. The model sculpting is fantastic, and the animations are smooth as silk. Textures are a mixed bag of extremely high detail on avatars and building surfaces, with low-resolution corner cutting on things like spider webs and piles of debris. The lighting is decent, with strong relative source use (meaning a torch throws light in all the right directions according to objects around it), although the shadows aren't the most realistic I've ever seen. At least they aren't Lineage 2-bad.
If I had to choose the strongest feature of Stormreach's graphics arsenal, I'd have to say it's the art direction for gear. To be perfectly blunt, I think this game has the widest variety of weapon and armor models I've ever seen in a "MMo," and that makes me extremely happy. Indeed, there have been times when I've kept non-magical gear around just because it looked somewhat unique compared to what I currently had. Coming from other worlds where I haven't seen any difference between swords until I was approximately halfway through the game, this attention to detail is a breath of very fresh air.
Complementing the graphics is a spectacular show of audio work. Everything from the sound effects to the sublime ambient score is flawless. Even the in-game voice chat system is excellent; Stormreach boasts the highest quality chat system I've ever heard outside of a third-party program like Teamspeak or Ventrilo.
Inversely, there seems to be quite the deficit of guild and friend features. For example, guild names don't appear above avatars, the friends list doesn't properly display when your buddies are on or offline, and the looking for group system (while quite detailed) is anything but user-friendly. These are issues I'm sure can be ironed out over time, but I'm given the impression some quality was sacrificed due to time constraints.
Turbine has an active schedule of content updates, one of which has already gone live and added some intense "beat down the red dragon" action. With this kind of support, and the drawing power of the Dungeons & Dragons name, this is a game sure to be around for some time. I do have a habit of writing too much, so I'll try to sum up: If you're looking for the kind of style a more traditional MMo offers, you'll not find it here. I, however, love D&D Online: Stormreach, and I have no qualms whatsoever recommending it to anyone who loves an entertaining action-RPG experience.
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