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Few tasks must have been as daunting as the one faced by game programmers when the official Dungeons & Dragons brand decided to launch itself into the massive multiplayer online market. Could an experience enjoyed by millions all over the globe be transferred successfully online and compare favourably to the current leader of MMORPGs, World of Warcraft? We're pleased to report that Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach has met those lofty expectations.
From the start, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is about one thing and one thing only -- unrelenting action. In MMORPGs gone by, players would typically have to spend their first few hours (if not days) racking up experience points via repetitive mundane tasks -- only after this grunt-work would players earn the right to swing a weapon and start having some fun. This often left a bad taste in the mouth of some gamers, and would serve to discourage new players from joining.
Fortunately, somewhere in this game's design stage it was decided that the best way to keep new users involved would be to throw them into the action straight up. After completing the tutorial section, it is simply a case of talking to the first NPC you meet, turning to the right and moving forward a few steps and voila -- you're involved in your first mission (complete with kobolds and ooze). While kobolds hardly compare to the Red Dragon present on the game's cover, it is purely a matter of minutes before your character reaches level one in experience, ready to set off on more quests and earn a fortune.
Players from the traditional realm of pen and paper will immediately feel right at home, as the game uses the official version 3.5 ruleset. All of the spells, feats, races and classes are present, and seeing a d20 roll in the corner everytime you attack or perform an action is a constant reminder that you are playing D&D. A key aspect of the traditional form of D&D is the social interaction between players -- while the online variant cannot offer the same face-to-face experience, it is still possible to enjoy oneself and have a bit of a laugh between encounters. For the beginner player without any contacts in the gameworld, there is nothing to fear about being left behind without a party. Finding partners is as easy as advertising that you are looking to join a group and/or asking a party leader to invite you. Once you have encountered a number of party members that you wish to remember, you can add them to you "Friends List", which allows you to see their status at a glance. Alternative to this is the Guild, which behaves the same as the Friends List but also gives you a separate channel to communicate amongst guild members.
While the social communication within a party or guild is good, the omission of player vs player areas and quests does leave the game lacking a key feature. This omission may prevent unwanted behaviour that plagues other MMORPGs, such as high level characters killing off lower level characters, but there is always the desire to see who really is the best player/character and would be a useful additional to any future expansion pack.
This desire stems from the ease with which experience points are gained throughout the game. After barely a week with the game, it is possible to have a character reach level four (out of a maximum of 10 levels). Each day more and more maximum level characters can be seen throughout the game and this is something that will have to be addressed to sustain the game's shelf life.
With a burgeoning community already in place and with the feel of the pen and paper game captured wonderfully, Dungeons & Dragons Online can provide players with an on demand experience that most D&D aficionados only ever get in their weekly "real world" sessions with friends. Complete with version 3.5 rules, it is a familiar environment for players and eases any teething problems. With a couple of fixes and the ability to fight other players at some point, it may be time to consider putting the dice bag away for good.
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