I have been playing the hardcore server in DDO all weekend. It's been great fun, and it's neat seeing tons of players running around the starter areas. I have been having a blast feeling like a newb again. No guild buffs, no years of gear banked or crafting bot to fill it out. The first time I found a decent heavy crossbow I was ecstatic, I had been using a plain unenchanted crossbow from a vendor in the harbor to that point. Resist energy wands have also become a precious possession, I won't even try to play up a character that can't either cast the spell or use the wands. So far I have made it nearly to seven on my main, and I have several alts.
Oddly no deaths yet. However, I came really close on my main last night. I've been playing DDO for so long I tend to think I can do anything on Normal difficulty with next to zero risk. I was running Irestone Inlet completely solo last night, not even a pet or hireling. The way the quest is set up you will get unexpectedly jumped by roving packs of mobs. I got a pack of adds while I was already in the middle of fighting a camp of six or ten hobgoblins and kobolds, and it was getting a bit hairy. However, I wasn't worried. I had plenty of instant cast self heals up, and I was mowing everyone down quickly with a slightly OP ranged build.
Then suddenly I couldn't attack or even heal myself, and six or seven guys were still beating on me. My health bar started plummeting and I ran for my life while trying to figure out what the hell was wrong. An icon said I was burdened, so I started frantically dropping suits of armor onto the sand to try and lighten my load. Then it hit me: the Hobgoblin Shamans I was fighting sometimes use Ray of Enfeeblement. My character only has eight strength. Not normally a problem, but when any of your stats get reduced to zero in DDO you become "helpless" and you can't so much as drink a potion.
I lurched through some bushes while getting pelted with arrows and spears, frantically mashing the useless hotbar keys for my various healing abilities. I was way too far from any safe spot, I was certain I was going to die and lose everything. Finally, when I was down to ten health a combination of poor mob pathing and sheer dumb luck saved me. The enfeeblement spell wore off just in time and I was just barely able to pull things out. It was such a close call that I immediately dropped the quest and went directly to an auction house to find something with a strength enchantment on it. My build had a critical weakness I had never even considered. It was a harrowing but thrilling experience.
But is it pay-to-win?
All in all I am having a blast on the hardcore server, but there is one thing about it that bothers me a bit. Part of the idea behind the server is a fresh start and an even playing field. However, the field is not really all that even. If you own 32 point builds, all the classes and all the enhancement trees like I do it's a pretty big advantage. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the Inquisitive Enhancement Tree.
The Inquisitive tree is arguably the single strongest ranged enhancement tree in the game right now. To the point that some players are arguing that it's completely overpowered in the current meta. It also starts strong out of the gate. For example with the right build you can be dual wielding crossbows and getting an extra 3d8 law damage to every attack that lands by the ripe old age of level 2. This damage stacks with damage from every other source, so your old OP crossbow build is now "OP plus 3d8" if you go this route.
Currently the only way to realistically get access to this tree at low levels is to spring for the $80 Sharn package, the cheapest one that comes with it. You can in theory grind out access to it for one character with Sharn City Council favor if you have the $40 package, but it would be nearly impossible to do the quests that grant favor with this faction until the high teens. Even if you did that, the moment you die the character that has unlocked the tree gets banished from the server.
I don't think Inquisitive is really the "I win" button that some players are making it out to be. However it's undeniably strong, and I am seeing an absolute ton of players dual wielding crossbows at low levels on the hardcore server. Obviously it's an advantage that a lot of players are willing to shell out for. I can't help but wonder how many of the players on the server are buying even bigger advantages like +8 stat tomes. Even if they are, it doesn't spoil my fun. However, having so many advantages available with the swipe of a card does seem to go against the spirit of competition that the developers at Standing Stone Games are trying to sell us on.