“‘Come into my lair’, said the spider to the fly.“
Dungeons & Dragons Online is one of those MMORPGs we’ve always thought about getting into yet we’ve just never really gotten around to it. It isn’t the free-to-play aspects or anything like that, it’s just that the universe seems harder to get to grips with than the traditional fantasy affair, especially when you compare it to Turbine’s own Lord of the Rings Online.
In an attempt to change our minds, Turbine recently gave us a tour of the the DDO’s first premium-priced expansion ‘Menace of the Underdark’ where we took the new Druid class, with all its transmogrifying skills, for a spin and ventured into the Forgotten Realms.
Having played DDO when it first launched, over six years ago at this point, we were pleasantly surprised to discover how well the game has aged both visually and functionally. That said there’s still that undeniable old school MMORPG-vibe, with multiple tiny skill-bars lining the side of the screen and character animations which don’t quite link together as succinctly as they should by modern standards. Even the new Druid class feels like an archetype from another era, with the ability to transform into a wolf or bear at will in addition to fire and watery incarnations of the human form, in order to campitalise on any enemies weaknesses to the elements. It makes the class incredibly versatile which is perhaps why it’s exclusive to monthly-fee paying VIP players or those who put down $49.99 as a one-time fee.
It’s obvious to see why the magic class is kept at arm’s length from free players though, as it’s really powerful and looks impressive in combat as the Druid switches from one form to another instantaneously. Even in basic traversal they have the jump on the other classes, as they can sail off of high platforms without accumulating damage by automatically using a nifty gliding skill.
If you go for the base version of this expansion pack you’ll unlock the raised level cap, now at twenty-four, with new epic destinies progression mechanic. These persistent skill modifiers add additional effects to existing skills, such as lessening recharge rates or adding additional damage, which you can switch on and off via specific vendors in hub areas. There are ten paths to choose from, but you can only activate one at a time, and it’s possible to unlock every one of them for use – you just need to keep earning XP.
This new progression mechanic isn’t too exciting in of itself, but it does allow players to keep improving and tweaking their character after they’ve hit the level cap. The other big selling point of this expansion is the inclusion of all Forgotten Realms adventure packs, which have an undeniable arachnid feel and see Elminster Aumar guide you through alternate dimensions, with actual voiced dialogue from the wizard himself. In 2012 that selling point isn’t particularly impressive, but for DDO it represents a big improvement on their story implementation, with the elderly fellow sounding sufficiently Gandalf-esque, as transported us to several forest regions occupied by the Drow on our way to the town of Eveningstar.
Walking through these areas which included woods, forests and swampland motifs wasn’t terribly interesting, even with the odd Drow skirmish chucked in to liven things up. However we did spot a new randomised quest dynamic which peppers the wide open spaces with random objectives, be it stumbling across a caravan being hijacked or a Drow patrol, and there were also audio diaries scattered around the environment to encourage exploration.
Undoubtedly the best moments of our whistlestop tour involved venturing into the town of Eveningstar with an extremely gorgeous sunset to guide our way, thanks to the new volumetric lighting system, and a memorable excursion into underground caves. Our Druid even had to equip his Undersun goggles to light the darkness and the numerous half-spider, half-man enemies ahead of him. There were also a couple of enjoyable boss battles; one involving a giant blue worm and another an encounter with a newly revived spider-queen named Venezia who dwarfed the landscape with her giant form and chucked volley after volley of tiny spider minions at our three-man team. All of these quests are aimed at 12 person groups, so don’t expect wipe-free runthroughs will come easily, but our guides were armed with admin privilidges.
Content-wise this expansion certainly seems bulky and the gameplay additions, while not wholly original, are welcome and numerous. The asking price for the additional dozen or so hours of gameplay isn’t worth it in our opinion, but we’re sure fans of DDO would certainly disagree with us as they get to venture into an area of lore which hasn’t bee explored by DDO before. For sure this isn’t an expansion that’ll entice those who haven’t been caught in DDO’s web of intrigue, but frankly it isn’t meant to.
Most telling of all perhaps is that Turbine have said that these sorts of premium expansions will be a regular occurrence in the future, in addition to regular free updates, so expect this MMORPG to continue to be relevant and evolving for at least a few more years to come.
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