Monday, May 24, 2010

DDO: deep or obtuse?

Dungeons and Dragons Online has an incredibly deep character development system. The game itself isn't all that complex, but when planning characters you may as well be playing EVE. You have to allocate stat points when you roll a character, which is damn easy to mess up when you first start playing. This is not Everquest, where the stats you get from gear will trump any other consideration. You will be feeling the effects of your choices at level 20. You also have to pick one or two feats from a list of dozens, pick out enhancements from an equally huge list as you level, and allocate points to skills.

Unfortunately, the descriptions rarely give you much of an idea of how useful something will be in game. For example, it's hard to know whether "jump" is a good investment of skill points until you know how often you really would want it (I've found exactly one instance so far that lack of jump skill screwed me in, out of dozens), or whether there might be some spell or dead common potion that can boost your jump skill when you do need it (yes and yes).

On top of that, as a friend of mine pointed out last night, the in game feedback often isn't too helpful. He tried to equip spells on a Paladin that had 8 Wisdom. The only feedback he got was "Stat isn't high enough." Umm, what stat exactly? How high does it need to be? An error message along the lines of "Must have at least 12 wisdom to cast level one spells" likely would have been a lot more helpful.

The situation we are left with is that you either have to follow a "flavor-of-the-month" build step by step on the forums, or you guinea-pig several builds until you find one that does what you want it to. There are character planners that can help somewhat, but no character planner can tell you whether an ability or spell is any good for your play-style. You have to take it for a spin.

Added to all of this, the fact that you can mix and match levels of different classes at will means that (A) you can design a character to do almost anything you can think of and (B) your opportunities for gimping yourself are nearly unlimited. I like the depth on the balance. It's a refreshing change of pace from most level based MMOs, where the majority of characters of a given class are nearly identical until at least the mid-levels. However, I have to admit it's not a real pleasure to get some random build up to level 3 and find out I screwed up and have to re-roll . . .for the second time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Solo/ no repeats experiment in DDO

As I mentioned previously, my goal in DDO was to see how far I could get solo without repeating content. As of last night, I have concluded that it's around level six and three bubbles. I could have maybe squeaked out some more levels by banging my head on level 7 content, but that's kind of a losing proposition because I'd have to start in on level 8 and 9 content with fewer abilities to get through level 7.

I have done all the free quests I could find wandering around, and bought nearly every adventure pack with content for level six and lower. One area that I messed up was not getting anal enough about doing wilderness deeds earlier. For example, I would leave most wilderness areas long before I had even reached 400 kills, which is leaving a lot of XP behind. I also didn't start getting really anal about exploration points until level four or so. I imagine I might have been able to make it as far as 7 or 8 if I had planned better.

Still, it's not as if I don't have a ton of things to do. The loot that you get doing certain quest chains varies pretty wildy from one run to the next, and so it's fun repeating them just to see what rewards you get offered. I'm also not having to repeat a lot in the first place. When I got stuck at level six, I went back and gunned through an old five quest chain twice, and viola I was seven and change.

So far I have been able to get by on my Paladin using zero hirelings completely solo. There have only been a few quests I couldn't get through if I was doing them at the correct level, and those were mainly quests hardwired to require a group. For example, in one quest four switches have to be activated at the same time in different parts of an instance.

I have to say rumors of DDO nearly requiring a party seem to be exaggerated. There hasn't been a ton I couldn't do solo. Though, admittedly, this is on a 'toon designed to be a low level solo powerhouse. I imagine a greater proportion of content will lock me out at higher levels, but so far my options don't seem nearly as limited and repetitive as I had feared. The one caveat is that I needed to buy adventure packs, the free content is quite limited from level four on.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Mid Level Doldrums

It seems like in almost every level based MMO, you hit a plateau at the mid levels where you don't have any new abilities to look forward to for a while. Up until then new abilities come at a rapid pace. However at some point you've earned all of your core skills, and won't be getting any major new ones for many levels (in some games, not until you start to approach the cap). Making it seem all the worse, the pace of leveling often slows dramatically around the same time.

A lot of MMOs break this up a bit by giving you a mount, the right to buy a house, or some similar tangential increase in character abilities in the middle of it. The mid levels are also generally when the trait/ talent/ specialization system starts to really come into it's own. Despite these distractions, the mid levels are where I am most likely to stall out in an MMO. Recently Allods Online, Age of Conan, and Warhammer Online all lost my interest during this time. Numerous alts in WoW and LoTRO have also stalled out in the mid-levels. Unless I really like the game and class I'm playing, it's a rare character indeed that makes it to the cap.

As of last night, I seem to have hit a mini-doldrum with my Paladin in DDO. Hitting level six was a big power boost. I can now memorize a second spell, I can cure disease, and my spell points more than doubled to 107 (up from 45 at level five). However, looking ahead, it seems that level seven is not going to be a very exciting one. Until I hit level 8, the only new abilities I'll get will be whatever I purchase through specialization points. Even then, the level two spells don't look all that exciting to me. Bull's strength will be nice (essentially +2 to hit and damage in melee). And the similar spell that boosts charisma might be worth using. However, I won't be getting a better healing spell than the one I'm currently using until the ripe old age of 11.

Despite all this, I'm having enough fun that I don't really care for the time being. DDO may prove to be the first MMO since LoTRO that I manage to push through the mid-level doldrums in. More than anything, it will come down to how engaging the mid level content is to someone that is largely a soloist. I'm having an absolute blast with the lowbie stuff I'm doing right now.

Even if the mid-level doldrums stall me out again, the character creation system in DDO is deep enough that I still have a lot of decent fun messing around with alts ahead of me. It's one of the reasons I've bought most of the low level content. I know I like the 1-6 game. Getting to play that game without paying any more from here on out would be far from tragic.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Played lately: DDO

Posting has been a bit slow (i.e., absent) because I was out of town over the weekend (in Sante Fe, NM). Going from 6000 feet and light snow to 85 degrees at sea level in one day when I came back was absolutely surreal. Since getting back, I've been putting more time into Dungeons and Dragons online. I now own every race and class apart from Favored Soul, and most of the low level content packs. My main, a drow elf paladin, is sitting on the cusp of level 6.

Paladins are a solid solo class in DDO. They wear plate, hit like trucks, have very good saving throws [think resists in a typical MMO], and by level four have a lot of self healing abilities. In the great bulk of instances, I can get by without using any consumables at all. For the really gnarly instances Paladins can also use wands of cure medium wounds, which are abundant and inexpensive on the auction house. I have been able so solo several long encounters meant for a balanced party on normal without resorting to hirelings.

My goal in the game is to see how far I can get without repeating any content, and without using hirelings. That means I am buying a lot of content packs, but that's OK because it also means more for my alts to do whenever I start raising them. The one instance I've broken that rule with is the one where you can get Muckbane. Muckbane takes zero damage from oozes [mobs that will trash your weapons very quickly if you engage them in melee, destroying them altogether if you aren't careful], and is a low level rare drop I consider nearly essential. If you follow this walk through, you can make a run for it in around ten minutes. It took me three tries.

My favorite content pack so far is Three Barrel Cove. It contains a huge outdoor area with tons of objectives. The two dungeons I've been through in it are also some of the most unique I've encountered in DDO. It's a bit pricey at 650 points (roughly six dollars at the best exchange rate), and is challenging to solo (likely impossible without hirelings for some classes).

Despite the fact that it's rumored to suck, Catacombs was a close second for me. A bit combat heavy, but I enjoyed the storyline a lot. For a melee class blunt weapons area nearly required, some of the mobs are practically immune to slashing weapons. The quest chains it contains are great for a short burst of fun.

In my experience, purchased content packs are noticeably better than most of the free content. DDO is free-to-play by definition, but I suspect it would be pretty grindy without premium content. Which is pretty much as it should be, Turbine isn't a charity organization after all. I feel like I've gotten a good value for the money I've spent so far. Regardless , the first three or four levels are absolutely free, and that is more than enough playtime to figure out whether the game is for you or not.