Thursday, February 14, 2019

Adventures in DDO

After my stint in FFXI, I decided to head to more familiar territory and started playing Dungeon and Dragons Online seriously again.  I would say the game is currently in a really good spot.  The developers have managed to address a lot of the issues that I felt dragged the game down the last time I drifted away, while maintaining and in some cases building on the game's strengths.  As a consequence I've managed to make it a lot further than I ever have in previous stints with the game.

The game has continually been adding options to the already absurdly deep character generation system.  Seen here is one of the latest races added, the Aasimar. It's a a sort of god touched race that can start with up to 20 Wisdom and gets access to an ability similar to lay-on-hands (a strong once per rest heal) regardless of class.  Other recent additions include Dragonborn, Gnomes and Woodelves.  
The game's character building systems is more accessible than it's ever been, but still retains an absurd variety of options.  The move to enhancement trees instead of the old menu based system made it much more clear in general what you need to be working towards.  However when the trees first came out, they also shined a light on one of the game's major flaws: not only builds but whole classes of builds were sub-par.  For example, the Eldritch Knight, a melee heavy-armor tree for wizards and sorcerers, was widely considered a "new player trap."   It looked like fun on paper, but in reality spending heavily in the tree tended to produce a character with mediocre spell casting ability, melee damage that scaled poorly with levels, and terrible defense.

Even after all this time I've been playing I keep discovering quests and areas I didn't know about.  Looking for something new to do, recently I sorted all the level 12 quests listed on DDO wiki into alphabetical order by quest name and started at the top of the list.  That led me to this chapel that has probably been in the game as long as I've been playing, but I've never had a reason to go to.
Over the last few years the developers have been slowly but surely tweaking trees like this that were severely underperforming.  Going back to the example of Eldritch Knight, recent updates have made it a viable option on its own and a great splash choice for a variety of defensive/ tanking character builds. Instead of whether it's possible to lean heavily on the tree and not have a completely gimped character, a point of debate is now whether adding two levels of wizard to a heavy armor focused character is too overpowered compared to playing a pure fighter or paladin.

After talking to a quest giver in the chapel, I ended running a quest in this cave complex inhabited by Duergar and their summoned fire elemental minions. I believe this was the first time I've set foot in it.  The quest there was straightforward, but a lot of fun an yielded good XP.  I'm definitely adding this one to my normal repertoire.
Of course DDO still has some balance issues.  There always will be in a game as complex and flexible as DDO.  However I would say that  you can focus on building around pretty much any tree that appeals to you now and end up with a decent character after a bit of trial and error.  That really didn't seem to be true the last time I was playing the game extensively.

In addition to older content I missed back in the day, SSG has been steadily adding new story lines and new settings to the game.  This is a view from near where you first arrive in Shavarath.  Shavarath is a minor plane home to constant three way battles between devils, demons, and angels.  It's one of the smaller new areas, but it has an interesting war torn exploration area and two fun quest lines.  
However I wouldn't say that viable build diversity is what really drove me away the last time I was playing. There were and still are a huge variety of strong characters you can build if you know what you are doing.  What always caused my runs in DDO to stall out was a dearth of content I found fun in certain level ranges.  This has been vastly improved. There is a heck of a lot more content now (as there should be after all this time!), and most of the newer content has been exceptionally well done.  The content presentation has also become much better organized in general, I don't recall so many NPCs offering to guide you through quest chains when I was last playing.  For example, Saga's are chains of suggested quests that reward large amounts of XP, guild XP, or tomes that permanently increase your skills when you complete them (in addition to all the loot and Xp you get from the quests themselves).  Gunning through a Saga at a higher difficulty yields better rewards, which gives you a good incentive to push your limits instead of coast.  There are also a lot of "challenges" now, quests that you can knock out in five or ten minutes if you need a short play session. 

One of the strengths of the game is the variety of settings it incorporates.  For example, a wide variety of quests from level 15 on are set in the Forgotten Realms, a more traditional fantasy setting than the base game (complete with a "kindly old wizard" that acts as your guide for much of it).  Shown here is a village in King's Forest, an enormous FR exploration zone with roughly a half dozen quests. 
The mainline expansions also seem to have been getting better and better.  Ravenloft, the most recent one*,  is not only my favorite content in DDO, it's some of the best content I've ever played in a game.  The story lines, quest mechanics and item rewards are all exceptionally well done.  You get a very nice power boost by questing there at around level ten, and if you like Gothic horror at all you will be thoroughly entertained while doing it.  It's absolutely amazing to see a 12 year old game knock an expansion out of the park like this.  I am eagerly awaiting the Sharn expansion in the spring to see if SSG can pull off a double.  The high fantasy urban setting, complete with skyscrapers, sounds potentially very interesting.
*You can find an in depth review of Ravenloft at Bio-break  here (part one) and here (part two). Unless you are really flipping out for some of the bonuses that come with the full expansion packages, buying the adventure pack in the in game store for SSG points is far and away the cheapest way to get access to it. I waited for double bonus points and ended up spending much less than even the standard edition.  However the adventure pack  is just the content, it doesn't come with the Aasimar race.

Enjoying the floating rock garden on my guild airship, a shrine that grants a 3.5 hour boost to strength and wisdom.  Since I was last playing guild airships have also been greatly improved.  The old guild buffs are still available, but newer buffs that last for much longer and are not lost on death were also added at some point.  Between the two systems, even a mid-level guild like mine can offer a wide array of amenities.  My guild airship offers a tavern, bank, mailbox and auction house in addition to a huge variety of one hour or longer statistical boosts (something like 20 if I'm not mistaken).       
I have been having a fun time in DDO for the last few months.  It's still not exactly the most new player friendly game on the market.  Infinite build diversity leads to infinite potential ways of gimping yourself, for example.  A lot of new players also seem to have trouble making it past the low level game, which may as well be called "Sewer, Warehouse and Tomb Adventures." However, if it's a game you have ever enjoyed in the past or have been curious about, now is a great time to jump in.  DDO has made remarkable strides in recent years, and with another major expansion right around the corner the future seem bright.