A tale of two Paladins Part Four: starter zones Tuesday, Oct 20 2009 

Welcome! Now, go kill things.

Welcome! Now, go kill things.

The Warcraft (WoW) and Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) starter zones throw you into two very different games. While they may share many standard features of MMOs, right way you can see a difference:  WoW and DDO are built on different principles, and the starter zones in each clearly demonstrate this.

Starter zones: making an impression

Starter zones can make or break the game as far as players are concerned. It’s in these areas that we decide whether or not to invest the next couple of months, if not years, of our life with a particular game. So developers need to strike a balance – making it accessible, but also interesting. So how do the starter zones compare?

Let’s have a look.

WoW: solo friendly

My Blood Elf (BE) Paladin starts her journey on Sunstrider Isle, a tiny island North of the Eastern Kingdoms. The art work is very good, I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetics of BE architecture, armour and weapons. It combines a distinctive blend of Medieval Japan and Vikings with a vivid palate of reds, golds and greens. The Isle itself is “shrouded” with a mystical glow.

The starter zone acts as a very gentle introduction to WoW that will teach you the very basics of the game: collect your quests from a NPC with the famous yellow !, kill requisite number of rats, hand in for XP. Oh, and level. Level as fast as you can.

Some of the exciting tasks the quest masters will give you include:

  • Killing feral cats
  • Killing feral floating eel thingies
  • Killing feral trees that look like Druid tree forms

Fortunately the Isle is a well designed and small quest hub, so you can power your way through these quests within an hour. You should zoom past your fith level and collect a few additional spells by the time you’ve completed the quests on Sunstrider Isle.

However the experience is kinda forgettable – nothing really stands out as a fun or unique experience. It’s pretty, and BE’s are the best looking avatars in the game, but really the idea is to put you on the levelling path.  To me, the levelling process is like going on auto pilot – enjoyable, meditative but not particularly challenging.

After the Isle, you’ll move into Eversong Woods and reach the BE Capital of Silvermoon City. The quality of the quests do pick up, and the artwork is simply gorgeous. It’s here you’ll also have a chance to pick up your professions.

The most important thing you will learn is just how easy it is to solo the game. The message is clear: take your avatar all the way to level 80 by questing. Grouping really is an option and for those who like the social aspects of MMOs, or want to see the content. But really, a solid month of playing WoW will allow you to easily level form level 1-80 without breaking a sweat. WoW really is built for the casual player. You can jump in for ten minutes or spend all day grinding quests. Go as fast, or as slow as you want.

Still overall, it’s a good introduction to WoW. If you enjoy yourself here, it’s very likely you’ll love the rest of the game.

Overall ratings

  • Artwork: 4/5
  • Quality of quests: 3/5
  • Enjoyment: 3/5

DDO: instanced group experience

DDO dumps you on the shorelines of Eberron. You stand dressed in rags, confused and somewhat dazed. Wreckage litters the beach, and a small halfing waves you over for a chat. Soon he escorts you to a small camp where you meet one of the Warforged, a humanoid robot thing.

One thing you’ll notice is how much text there is to read. DDO is a very literate experience. Like a true RPG game, you can select different questions to aks the NPC. Reading all the text options gives you the back story. For WoW players this will seem very slow and annoying. “You mean I have to read the text! Just tell me which 10 foozles to kill/collect!”.

From there you’re directed to your first instanced dungeon experience. The starter dungeon teams you up with other NPCs who conduct you through a of walk through of the dungeon. The purpose it to get you acquainted with grouping mechanics and the nature of dungeons in the game. Overall, it’s a fun and satisfying experience. It’s not challenging, as it is effectively a tutorial.

One of DDOs interesting features is the Dungeon Master voice over. As you enter a dungeon, and proceed throughout you will hear a voice tell you “You notice a lever…” or “There is a strange shuffling noise ahead of you…” This is a classic nod to DM’s of yesteryear and adds to the overall atmosphere of the game.

During this first dungeon you’ll learn about combat, healing stones (waypoints where you regain health), basic group mechanics and traps, locks and puzzles. All in all a terrific introduction to the what DDO is about.

Following this you’ll enter Stormreach, the local town and quest hub. I started just after the F2P launch, so the place was packed with hundreds of players. From there you can gather some quests and jump straight into even more dungeons.

Right at the start you can select the level of difficulty of dungeons: from simple to expert. The simple “setting” is ideal for those attempting to solo. Expert content is great for those in groups. My advice: find a group, and the rewards will be better and the experience will be a lot more fun. DDO shines as a group experience. You can also run the same dungeon again, and again.

The quality of DDO’s dungeons, even in the very early stages is very high. Indeed, some of WoW’s later end game dungeons cannot compare with the variety and ingenuity of an average dungeon in DDO. You’ll be asked to solve puzzles, disarm traps and find secret doors. Because the combat mechanics are very different, each time you run a dungeon the experience will be very different.

There is a profound difference between DDO and WoW. DDO is a much slower experience – it’s less about levelling, and more about exploring dungeons.

However, I missed the feeling of being in open world with forests, skies, rivers and mountains in the background. Because most of the action takes place in instanced dungeons, DDO can feel a bit more claustrophobic than WoW. Like it’s pen and paper parent, DDO is all about dungeon crawling with less emphasis on the wider world. In WoW, you feel your travelling across a large and varied world.

Still, I’m impressed with my first foray into DDO.

Overall ratings

  • Artwork: 4/5
  • Quality of quests: 3/5
  • Enjoyment: 4/5

The point of difference: accessibility versus “challenge”

If I had to summarize the difference between the two is WoW’s accessibility versus DDO’s more traditional RPG focus. DDO is about building your character to compliment its group role. WoW allows you to create an avatar that can easily solo the entire game.

You can take your WoW Paladin into instanced dungeons or group to complete some of the quests, but that’s not really necessary. In DDO, you must group to get the best out of the game. The combat mechanics, emphasis on puzzle solving and grouping make DDO more challenging.

But DDO has a steeper learning curve than WoW, and it’s hard to beat Blizzards knack for making things accessible.

Other articles in series

Advertisements

A Tale of Two Paladins Part Three: Combat Mechanics Tuesday, Sep 22 2009 

Combat: a significant difference

Before moving on to quests and exploring the worlds of DDO and WoW it’s worth examining their respective combat systems. If there is a real point of difference, it’s DDO Active Combat System (ACS) versus WoW tab-target auto-attack for paladins.

Active Combat System: DDO’s tactical approach to battles

Swing, miss! And there's the D20 dice!!!!

Swing, miss! And there's the D&D dice!

It’s with combat that we see a real difference between WoW and DDO.

DDO utilises what it calls the “Active Combat System”. Combat happens in real time, and is dependent on your ability to actually aim your sword at the enemy MOB. Indeed, DDO combat reminds me of the same mechanics as a first-person-shooter: there is a small red circle indicating where you attacks are aimed.

In order to swing you weapon you have to click the left mouse-butto and be in range of them.  Combat involves a lot of clicking: you will miss a lot. Enemies can block your attack and will frequently move out of the range of your sword blows. Often you end up chasing them to deliver a final, killing blow.

As a nice touch, the famous twenty sided dice (the D20) can be seen rolling in the bottom right of the screen indicating your “hit roll”. Pen and paper of old players rejoice!

Combat in DDO is fluid and dynamic, as MOBs dance and jump away from your sword. Situational awareness is crucial: when fighting more than one MOB you often need to decide on taking down the monster wailing on you or running over to take out that pesky caster throwing damage your way. You also need to be careful taking on multiple MOBs when soloing.

I rather enjoyed the choatic, free-flowing feel of the combat. It’s like being an old 1930’s Errol Flynn film where you chase the enemies around a room wildly flinging your weapon at them.

It’s also a lot of fun.

  • Advantages: tactical combat that is interesting and skills based, therefore more of a challenge.
  • Disadvantages: it can take some getting used too, especially if you are used to conventional MMO combat systems.
  • Rating: 4/5

Warcraft’s Tab-Target approach: familiar MMO territory

Die magic eel!

Die magic eel!

We’re in safe and familiar territory with the WoW combat system: target your MOB by either clicking on them or hitting the Tab key; pull them with a spell or get within aggro range; let auto-attack do the work and cycle through your abilities in the Action Bar; watch your health so you don’t die; rinse and repeat. Abilities will be subject to cool downs: manage these as best you can.

MOBs in WoW are suicidally stupid. I mean, really, really stupid.  They will run up to you and stand there until they die. Occasionally humanoid MOBs may try and run away. Unlike DDO’s MOBs who jump around and try to avoid being killed, MOBs in Warcraft have a death wish.

Knowing what your abilities do is obviously helpful, so take the time to learn these. As you level you will get more offensive spells (Judgements etc.) and buffs that will enhance your defence or attack capabilities.

Situational awareness plays a small part in combat, at least in the early parts of the game. For a plate-wearing melee class it’s enough to simply walk up to a few MOBs, throw a Judgement of Light spell on them and whack, whack, whack.

The combat animations and sound effects are themselves interesting: and they have to be. You don’t actually need to pay much attention to the combat on the screen, unlike DDO when a MOB can dance out of range of your sword.

WoW combat is about managing your cool downs and your health.

  • Advantages: it’s simple, it works and anyone can master the WoW combat system.
  • Disadvantages: no real disadvantages to WoW’s combat system, except that it lacks any excitement. This is especially the case at the lower levels, where the lack of offensive spells and abilities for the Paladins mean you’re almost completely reliant on auto-attack.
  • Rating: 3/5

Riddle me this MMOs: what ever happened puzzle solving? Thursday, Sep 17 2009 

"Riddle me this: how many rats can you kill in ten minutes?"

"Riddle me this: how many rats can you kill in ten minutes?"

In experimenting with DDO and other MMOs I’ve been struck by the lack of challenge some of these games offer. I’m still in the early stages of exploring Dungeons & Dragons Online, but one of the features I noted and liked was having to solve puzzles in instanced Dungeons.

One of the very early quests asks you to go to a storeroom in Stormreach and find a missing parchment. It’s an instanced dungeon, rather small but nicely designed. However to get the parchment you don’t simply kill X amount of MOBs and wait till it drops.

What’s different?

You have to do some problem solving in order to retrieve the item.

Sure, along the way you kill giant spiders and reanimated zombie rats (that’s right – you have to go kill the proverbial ten rats). However, in this quest puzzle zolving is central: the parchment is held in a magical field. To deactivate the field you need to rearrange the surrounding floor tiles – which are decorated – into a pattern. Once they are into the right pattern the magical field drops. Following tht you collect the parchment and return it to the NPC for your choice of reward, XP and currency.

All good fun.

Whoa there! You want me to think through the problem?

Hours of fun... or frustration?

Hours of fun... or frustration?

When I initially when I entered the chamber I stood there numbly… the room was empty. I was expecting to see a semi-elite MOB I’d have to kill. Maybe a few trash MOBs around them. I was ready to pull, auto-attack and thump some keys to activate some abilities. But, something was different…

“What the hell?”

Panic! What should I do? How do I complete this quest!?!?!?

Maybe I should Alt-Tab out and go online and Google the answer? Is there a DDO wiki? If this was WoW I’d have half a dozen resources to consult, and maybe a add-on or two that would tell me what to do.

“Right…” I thought “…breathe…maybe I’ll try something different. Let me try and solve it by myself.”

It took me a minute or two, but I solved the puzzle. And gosh, didn’t I feel good! OK, it isn’t a MENSA test, but the simple act of attempting and solving a puzzle was enormously satisfying.

In my view it was a true D&D experience: a dungeon, some monsters to kill and puzzles to solve. Puzzles in DDO clearly signal the role playing game (RPG) heritage inherited from D&D. Dungeons required players to disarm traps, explore and solve problems. In contrast, dungeons in games such as WoW ask that you learn a scripted fight.

Do gamers want puzzles in their MMOs?

It did make me think: we aren’t MMOs doing more of this? WoW clearly doesn’t, or at least not in the quests I’ve seen. WAR certainly didn’t. Both MMOs are built around the concept of killing vast numbers of MOBs and looting items from their corpses. Puzzles offer something different and fun. They can offer a challenge.

Strangely I don’t think gamers would be immune from charm of puzzles. The enormous popularity of Tetris, Peggle and Puzzle Pirates indicates that gamers would be amenable to the challenge of puzzle solving. So why have games lost their puzzle solving elements over the years?

It would seem MMOs have become more and more like conveyor belts, placing the player on a path that will level them as quickly as possible. And while it may be great to get to level cap and experience the “end game”, such an approach degrades the fun and challenge of levelling a character.

Most WoW players pride themselves in how fast they can level a character these days. No one takes pride in completing a quest. And how could you? The mechanics of most WoW quests are fairly basic. Go here, kill this, come back… here is the XP you need to level as fast as possible. Rinse and repeat for eighty levels in WoW or forty in WAR.

But maybe it’s the journey we should value more, not reaching the destination as fast as possible.

My view? More puzzles please.

Next instalment: my comparison of the DDO and WoW user interfaces.

A Tale of Two Paladins Part One: DDO vs WoW Monday, Sep 14 2009 

DDO v WoW: bring it!

Will it be worth my time?

Will it be worth my time?

Being the perpetual MMO tourist I am I decided to check out Dungeon & Dragons Online (DDO) which recently went free to play (F2P). DDO is of course based on the “dungeons and dragons” intellectual property, using the same rule system, character classes, monsters and settings as the table-top version of the game.

As an MMO it wasn’t as successful as it could have been. Rather than shut it down or let it die a slow death, the developers Turbine have “rebooted” DDO as a F2P game (with micro-transactions of course).

So rather than “Here is a game review blah, blah, blah” I decided to compare and contrast playing the Paladin class in both DDO and World of Warcraft (WoW).

Why?

Well, the Paladin class is an iconic symbol of both table-top and online fantasy gaming: the veritable knight in shining armour of the genre. Paladins, in case it may have escaped the readers attention are my class of choice.

I’m curious to see if DDO  can offer a gaming experience comparable to the industries leading MMO. Is being “free” enough of a carrot to keep players going? Is the game worth playing? WoW is a useful benchmark, so let us begin.

I’ll be exploring both games from the newbie (i.e. new gamers) experience: from character creation, working the UI, questing and combat. I’ll be looking at DDO with fresh eyes and trying to do so with WoW.

Ranking the game experience

I’ll be using a simple ranking system 1-5 to score different elements of the games:

  1. Very bad
  2. Bad
  3. Average
  4. Good
  5. Freakin’ brilliant

So with that, let’s begin with one of the most important stages in an MMO: creating your character.

Say hello to my little friends…

For this exercise I rolled Paladins in both games. In WoW I created Angelarmor a Blood Elf female Paladin. In DDO  I rolled a toon called Augusteen Angelarmor, a Human male Paladin

Creating a character: choosing your online self

I love this part of starting an MMO, as character creation can be fun. It’s one of the most exciting. For veteran MMO players the next step is as natural as breathing: choosing your class, sex and the look of your avatar. However the experience in each MMO is unique.

Step one: choosing a server and faction

Warcraft 

Gosh this is familiar. I must have at least a dozen times… Any way let’s look at it from the perspective of a new player. Here they start with two choices: the type of server and their faction. These two choices alone will greatly impact their game play experience. The experience on a dedicated PvP will be radically different than that of a PvE one. The choice of faction – Horde or Alliance – will have also have an enormous impact. This choice will dictate the type of zones they will level through, the quests they will perform and the type of players they will encounter.

Dungeons & Dragons Online

There are only six servers at this point in time, so the choices are limited. The major difference between DDO and WoW at this point? DDO has no factions. Unlike WoW or WAR, DDO lacks factions locked in perpetual conflict. Your enemies will always be AI controlled MOBs.

Note: DDO does offer PvP, but limited.

Overall, not much to distingush the two games here: log in and select a server. Faction selection only applies to WoW, and why players shuold choice Horde or Alliance is a complete mystery. In the end I think choices are often made purely on aesthetics. Do you like the bad arse Horde or the pretty Alliance?

Ratings:

  • WoW – 3/5
  • DDO 3/5

Step two: class selection and character customisation

Warcraft

WoW makes it easy on the player here: click on the various portraits to get a review your class options.  Some generic text is displayed on the right which gives you a feel for how the class will play. Again, it really comes down to what your prefer. If you like bashing things, chose a Warrior. If you like throwing firebolts, chose a mage. I like Paladins, so I selected Paladin. Well duh.

I’ve played Alliance, and not much Horde so I decided to go select this faction so that my experience will be “fresher”. Thus I made a pretty little Blood Elf Paladin called Angelarmor. Ta da!

Faction, class, sex and some basic avatar features

Class, Path and sex...

Awwwwwwwh, isn’t she cute!

Selecting facial features, hair styles etc. is very simple. But as most WoW players know, your options are limited. The character customisation options don’t give you much to play with, so WoW avatars of the same race/class all look a bit the same.

Dungeons & Dragons Online 

DDO does offer something very different. Indeed, the whole process is like creating a D&D pen and paper character. You can, if you chose, build your character completely from scatch. I have to say I was impressed.

I could also chose three different “paths”. These are somewhat analogous like WoW’s talent trees, each path giving a different emphasis to the play/fighting style of your character. In selecting one,  a different emphasis on will be placed on charisma strength, intelligence etc.

Players can select an offensive specification, one that is allows you to support a group with buffs/protective spells and a third path that offered a mix of the two. DDO also notes how effective your class and path selection is for solo play.

Again, I’m impressed. I like that I can shape my gameplay experience right at the start, rather than waiting to accumulate talent points as I level. One of the great challenges for WoW players is learning how to effectively place their talent points. There are plenty of online guides out there, but these are created by third parties. DDO gives you this option right at the start.

If you want to be a bad arse fighting Paladin weilding a two handed weapon, then select this option when you create you character.

Customising the look of your avatar in DDO is brilliant: you have a wide range of facial features, hair styles and colour palattes to work with. Unlike WoW, you can create a truly individual avatar. Indeed, the character customisation tools were a lot of fun! As an added bonus, when you name your character you can also have a surname.

Create a unique avatar...

Create a truly unique avatar...

Overall comparison?

  • WoW – 3/5
  • DDO 5/5

Creating a character in WoW offers an average experience. Not bad, but not that exciting either. However it is simple, no fuss and gets you playing in minutes. Making things accessible is what WoW does well.

DDO’s character customisation is very sophisticated, allowing you to both design the look of your avatar and select it’s key attributes. In this way DDO it is exactly like pen and paper D&D. However this very varitey may be daunting to really casual players. If this is your first exposure to the world of MMOs then DDOs options may be a little confusing.

Conlcusion

Well, so far I’m impressed with DDO. Creating and customising the look of your character is a lot of fun, while the tools allow you to create a much more individual avatar than WoW.

However, one can’t underestimate just how easy and accessible WoW’s character customisation process is. For complete MMO virgins, WoW makes it easy.

Next installment: the UI and opening quests