D&D Online -- A Longtime Gamer's Perspective
By now, you've heard a lot about Dungeons & Dragons Online, and so I won't write this as if you know nothing. For a primer, you can visit the DDO website, or check out one of the more detailed reviews popping up online. What I will do here is share my overall feelings on the game, laying out what I think are the positives and the negatives.
I've been playing DDO for about a month now. It's only my second real MMORPG experience, the first having been with City of Villains, the follow-up/add-on to City of Heroes. One of the things I like about it most is that your party size is limited to 6 (I believe it can go to 12 during special Raids). Six is, I feel, the perfect party size; in my own real-life gaming groups, I generally felt overwhelmed if we had more than six at a table, and a bit stifled when we had fewer than 4 or 5. Six allows me to do my thing, easily keep track of where everyone else is and what they're doing, and communicate well with everyone.
...simply charging into every battle will quickly get everyone killed.
Six is also a good number in terms of party balance. Rare is the party of six that contains three fighters, or five barbarians -- to fully experience every aspect of a Dungeon (and I use the term loosely here), you'll have to make sure your party includes a fighter or two, some ranged experts, a wizard or sorcerer, a cleric and a rogue or bard. Many Dungeons (though not all) contain traps, secret doors and narrow ledges that scream out for a rogue's skills to shine, and others contain Runes that can only be unlocked by spell casters with high Intelligence or Wisdom. The same goes true for combat as well; simply charging into every battle will quickly get everyone killed. Some encounters call for stealth, and others for ranged attacks before closing in for a final kill.
While on the subject of attacks, I will add that I dislike the Active Combat in DDO, not because it isn't fun, but because it's a strain on my clicking finger. If you are a melee fighter, you'll be Click Click Clicking away all night long, and most of those Clicks will be Misses. Maybe it's just me, but if the electronic dice used in this game were real dice, I'd have thrown them away long ago and replaced them. Bad rolls are much more frequent than good rolls.
A much better option, I've found, is ranged combat. With a bow, you can sit back and simply Tab between enemies while the game handles the automatic attacks. Granted, the auto attack feature is also functional while using melee weapons, but the Clicks you save there are replaced by a constant need to spin around to face your enemy. Not even the lowliest kobold will stand still for you; you'll constantly be moving and clicking to keep your prey in sight. Firing arrows into the fray is much easier on the wrist.
...it's difficult to find a gaming group that has a good balance.
What's never easy is finding the right party. Like in real life (as any long-term gamer knows), it's difficult to find a gaming group that has a good balance. I've left more than a few groups because one or more of the gamers were either complete dicks or utter morons, and yes, those same sorts do play DDO. The good thing about this is that it's much easier to leave a party online; you just click and you're out. No need to make excuses. And you'll know right away, too. A bad group will be stumbling about, falling into traps, getting killed while the cleric is off looting chests, and generally not communicating with one another. A good group is a well-oiled machine, with party members calling out instructions over Voice or Text chat, thinking ahead to the next encounter or trap, and taking care to watch out for the other party members at all times. When it's working, it's really working well; when it's not, it's like being in a basement with someone who hasn't washed his socks.
There are also some frustrations when it comes to the translation from print to online game, as I expected. Several changes -- such as giving spell casters "spell points" are controversial, but make sense. Other changes are less obviously beneficial. One example is the Uncanny Dodge ability. Given as a feat to rogues at level 4, it provides a constant AC bonus against surprise attacks in the print version of D&D. In the online game, you get to use it twice, for 30 seconds each, per "rest period".
Some skills have made the transition for the better: Swim and Jump, for example, are enormously useful in the game, and work just when you'd want them to work. Others seem clunky and geared solely towards combat: Diplomacy, Bluff and Intimidate, for example, are used to avoid Agro, decrease a monster's AC, and pull Agro (respectively), but it's somewhat ridiculous that covering your face (with Diplomacy) would make a charging Minotaur suddenly decide not to attack you.
Also ridiculous (but perversely enjoyable) is the inevitable "Monty Haul" style of gaming introduced here. It's remarkably easy to get many multiple +1 weapons, and within a few hours of playing with a good party you'll be so full of magical loot that you'll be deciding which ones to junk because you're out of room. With the ones you keep, you'll quickly stockpile a fortune in the hundreds of thousands of gold. None of this is anything you'd experience in a tabletop version of the game -- any DM doling out such loot would quickly be shot.
...DDO is not D&D. Period.
But of course, DDO is not D&D. Period. Several ads have proclaimed it to be so, but it is not. It is a completely different experience, and one that I think I might enjoy. What remains to be seen is if the content can keep pace. I've done about half the quests in the game so far, so in a few months I might find myself with nothing new to explore. And as we all know from tabletop gaming, running through the same Module six times in a row just ain't fun once you've memorized all the encounters.
What DDO needs more than anything else, in my opinion, is variety and surprise. As it stands, no encounter is truly random, and no surprise is a surprise the fifth time it's sprung on you. In short, what it lacks is that level of creativity, cruelty and impish behavior that the best real-life Game Masters can bring to the table. Whether it can mimic that experience remains to be seen.