Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online

Turbine, Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online logos - all copyrights held by their respective owners.
Turbine has two MMOs out that I've tried recently. One is Dungeons & Dragons Online. What I've been playing is the DDO Unlimited beta, which will launch a new free-to-play service on top of their existing MMO starting in early September. Frankly, I'm disappointed in this. Its flaws are legion, and it really doesn't add anything new to the MMO gaming experience that I feel I need. However, as a break from WoW, I was going to give it a shot... until something fun happened.

While testing DDO Unlimted, the downloader started queuing a beta for the next Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) update. I tried it out and liked it enough to start playing the live version, and I haven't looked back at WoW or DDO since (slight lie, I logged into DDO last night to wave goodbye as they prepared to take the beta servers down for the last time before launch).

What follows are my experiences with both games.

First off: DDO. What I like about this game doesn't outweigh what I dislike, but there are plenty of items in both categories. Its faith to the core D&D 3.5 (or is it 3.0?) rules is fairly good. Of course, a video game has different pacing and needs, and that shows. There are more way-points in the leveling experience and feats have been broken up to give you more progression and less waiting for some future level when you'll get to be useful.

What I really liked was the instancing. Nearly every quest involves an instance, even if it's just a single room house where you'll defend boxes from kobolds. This makes questing much less contentious, but for me it also reduced the amount of social play I felt I needed to engage in. I don't mind leveling solo, but if you do, this might be a small minus. Then again, joining groups to run instances is really easy.

Repair and general selling of loot was easy, but I'll touch more on this in the negatives. PvP areas are clearly marked, which was nice. And one of the most important things: the starting area quests were very nice and smooth introductions to the game mechanics and encounter models. I really appreciated that. Interestingly, this is also something that LOTRO gets right, and which WoW really just doesn't.

Obviously, the game is now free, which is a big benefit. You do not need to buy anything with real-world money, but I plunked down $6 to see what it would get me. The dungeons you can buy are very detailed and large, but the thing that bothered me is that their store has almost no indication of how many players you should have for each add-on adventure pack. The correct answer turns out to be "a full group" in every example I saw, so be aware that adventure packs aren't solo content (unless you're out-leveling them).

The down sides, however, are the reasons I won't be playing DDO when it launches, so let's talk about those. First off, one major issue I have with all non-WoW MMOs I've tried is that WoW spoiled me with add-ons. Users can re-write the UI from the ground up, adding new functionality that's as complex as they want to code. In DDO, that's simply not the case, and I found myself wanting things like a mod that would select what to sell to a vendor, manage bars for me in a better way, etc. This hurts most of all when you deal with the auction house. Auctioneer is the single most game-changing mod in WoW (with questhelper coming a close second), and you just don't realize how much it's come to mean until you don't have it. But, these are things I expect to run into in other games, and I don't hold it against DDO too much that it's not WoW. (Note: Turbine claims that a mod-authoring system for LOTRO is in the works, just not launched yet, but it's not clear what this means for other games of theirs.)

Serious DDO issues exist on their own terms, however. There are three classes of vendor loot. One class you can simply sell to any vendor. One class are items that would be useful to players (gear, scrolls, etc.) and will sell just find to normal vendors, but you get more money selling them to vendors that would sell that kind of item... but, you can't sell it to them if they already have too many of that item. This gets annoying, and eventually I just started selling all such items to regular vendors, taking a huge cash inflow hit. The third type of item are useless to vendors, but have special NPCs you can turn them in to for different kinds of loot depending on the NPC. Nice idea, poor execution. There are a dozen of these NPCs, and you have to go around to each of them every time your bags fill up to sell off the piles and piles of crap you have accumulated. Not fun, Turbine; not fun at all. This could be fixed in one quick move: simply add an NPC that will take all of this sort of item that you have, all at once, and return to you the appropriate loot rewards. This would speed the after-instancing bookkeeping tremendously and improve the game for me by a lot.

Second up is the difficulty of dungeons. I ran into some that I could not conquer until I out-leveled them, even on solo mode. Some, which had no solo mode, were trivially soloed before I was of appropriate level. In one or two cases there are warnings (most of these are actually trivial) but in most cases, it's not clear to me how we're supposed to know which dungeons are reasonable. My sense is that the game is just not tuned for solo play at all, which is fine, but they should either fix that or slap more warnings on dungeons to indicate that solo play isn't really an option (Lightfoot dungeon in the Marketplace, I'm looking at you!) This also gives the impression that they've not done a lot of thinking about balancing the leveling content out to ensure a smooth leveling experience. My caveat, here, his that I only got to level 5, so it may get better or not.

OK, so to sum up: DDO Unlimited is uneven, but certainly for a free game, I think it's worth the price (essentially the download time). Try it out, but don't be shocked if 10-15 dollars per month starts to sound good after you do.

LOTRO is another thing entirely. When I first moved from EverQuest (EQ) to WoW, I found that the game felt very much like an "answer" to EQ. In other words, it did most of the same things, but where EQ did something annoying, WoW addressed it. Corpse runs were much more pleasant, the UI was much more configurable, questing was worth doing, instances made quest mob-camping mostly a thing of the past, etc. The game was clearly designed by people who played EQ and understood it enough for their game to be a rebuttal.

So, enter LOTRO. This game feels like a rebuttal to WoW, but in some ways it fails and in some ways it succeeds brilliantly. One of the first things you'll notice, but won't get a good sense of for a bit is that the overall feel of the graphics and the aesthetic sense that the game has, is very, very different from either EQ or WoW. It's a much less explicitly fantastic feel, and really doesn't seem like a fantasy game at all until you see a ghost or some other fantastic creature at later levels. Sure, it's low-tech looking, but even the orcs aren't really all that strange looking. They just look like ragged humans unless you zoom in. Elves have pointed ears and dwarves and hobbits are short... but that's not much in the way of fantasy flavor. In a strange way, this makes the fantasy "pop" all the more. When you see someone throw a lightning bolt or wield a flaming sword it really makes you sit up and take notice.

The next thing you'll notice is that inventory management is fairly klunky. Yeah, that doesn't really get any better, and the UI needs serious attention. There's issues of what right-clicking means. If you're interacting with your bags, it means "use or equip," but if you're looking at your items through a vendor, it means "sell" and if you're looking at the contents of a container, it means "take." This leads, all too often, to wearing or eating something that you meant to store in your vault (bank) or sell. There's also the bags... no search, very inspecific looking icons... color borders for item quality are too small and hard to distinguish... The game really needs an inventory management overhaul that resembles WoW with ARKInventory or one of the similar bag mods.

On playability, I just want to make some high level negative notes before I get into what I like:
  • There's too much travel at low levels when you don't have a mount. They need to cut this down or increase run speed (playing a hunter helps, but not a lot).
  • On a related point, decreasing the milestone (hearthstone in WoW terms) cooldown would help a great deal.
  • The Auction house needs to provide some pricing stats in the post window.
  • The Auction house should also not default the price of a stack of items based on the previous stack price, but on the previous per-item price. I really hurt myself selling a stack of 20+ silver bars for the same price I'd just listed 3.
  • Quest tracking is black magic to me. Improvements that would help are: pinning a goal should extend to followups; removing a quest from the tracker should pull in another quest to replace it; there should be a "reset tracker" option; "cancel" is a bad label for "abandon quest."
So, it sounds like I hate it. Not so. This is a really good game, and the real win is in the details. Creatures that "threaten" to attack make gathering skills much more reasonable, and I actually don't mind going around gathering up ore or wood in this game. Also, the trade skill animations are amazing. WoW's animations always seemed a bit cheesy, but now I'd have a really hard time not simply laughing at them. When you make leather from hides, you actually whip out a stretching frame and scrape down the hide. It's stunningly detailed! They do need better descriptions of how the professions map to individual skills (e.g. if you're an "explorer" that just gives you a pre-set group of three skills).

The built-in quest tracker with location info is nice, though I always have a hard time figuring out when and under what circumstances it doesn't have location info (which seems to sometimes be associated with quest targets being indoors).

However, the real item that will retain my interest is the class mechanics. I've played four classes now up to at least the teens, and I'm thrilled with all of their mechanics. Each class has some way to "build up" to more complex skills, much like rogues in WoW, and each of them does so in a different way. There are also equivalents of "talents" from WoW, but instead of getting them based on your level alone, you actually have to use the appropriate skills in order to "earn" or "unlock" access to each trait before you can go to a bard to allocate your traits. This gives you a chance to start doing something new, but to slowly become better at it as both you and your character get used to the new role.

On that point, most classes can do more than one thing. My rune-keeper is either a healer or a nuker, and can switch with minimal difficultly between the two on an encounter-by-encounter basis. The same is true for most other classes, though the healer/nuker roles of the rune-keeper are probably the most extreme difference in play style.

I find the solo game to be fun in LOTRO, but escort quests are fundamentally a harder thing than in many other games, since the NPCs are much weaker and seem to attract agro easier than in WoW, for example. However, the death mechanic is quite forgiving of small mistakes and the quests are nicely varied. It can be hard to tell what quests are intended for groups (I know there's an indication somewhere, but I can never find it), which is one down-side.

There are also quest chains that follow you from character creation through to the end-game, which I find very appealing. This allows a character to pursue their epic quest line, but at the same time pick up other quests along the way to level appropriately.

The stunning part of the game, though, are the roleplaying (RP) touches. If you're someone who likes to RP in other MMOs, you're going to love LOTRO. There are a dizzying array of non-combat clothing options and dyes. There are personal housing options that you can customize to death and lots and lots of emotes, even making WoW look rather sad. During the current summer, there are even dance-emote-related quests where you have to dance with an NPC in order to gain access to new emotes. LOTRO doesn't require using its RP features, but if that's your thing I can't recommend the game highly enough!

So overall, I'd suggest LOTRO over DDO Unlimited, but both are decent games at a minimum. If you're a WoW player who is burned out and looking for something else to do until the next expansion comes out, like myself, then I recommend checking out LOTRO. It's a really reasonable stop-gap.

However, the lack of a mod-authoring system (for now) makes the games feel slightly more clunky than I think they need to, so I'll likely go back to WoW when the expansion comes out... or so I think now. We'll see how I feel when I'm higher level.

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