You'll see a lot of words used to describe massively multiplayer online role-playing games, including "addictive," "immersive" and "expensive." But rarely are they as unapologetically social as Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, publisher Atari's long-awaited take on the first RPG ever. Because if you don't play nice with the other kids in D&DO, you're dead.
If you're the type that likes to play MMOs solo, you'll utterly loathe this one. After a mere handful of solitary training missions, you'll be given quests that absolutely require three to six people, and the more varied the party, the better. A gang of four barbarians ain't gonna cut it; on some missions, you'll need a shifty rogue to pick locks; on others, it'll take all of the magic the clerics and bards can dish out to keep everybody alive. Imagine - a role-playing game where you actually need to play a role! Meeting and playing with a variety of people is the only way to play D&D Online, and it's clearly by design. After all, why pay a monthly fee to play a massively single-player game? At the same time, this forced social interaction, along with the strict mission structure and the more stringent rules about reviving characters, will send some players scurrying back to their power-leveling in World of WarCraft.
And unlike WoW, D&D Online doesn't let you fly up the experience ladder. There's a level cap at 10 - that's right, 10 - and working your way up from level 1 to level 2 alone will take several hours of gameplay. As a result, every level feels like a true achievement ... or a pain in the ass, depending on what you're used to.
The secret of the paper-and-pencil D&D's long-standing appeal is simple: storytelling. D&DO nods to this by preserving the Dungeon Master's role as talespinner. Like the real-life nerds who roll the funny dice to decide the outcome of a tabletop game, the pre-recorded narrator describes the areas that players visit. He might tell certain party members exclusive information - for instance, rangers might be the only ones to hear his comments about hard-to-detect footprints - so team members will need to communicate. The DM acts out parts too, changing his voice for bosses and villains. It's a great way to preserve the spirit of the tabletop experience and give the game a little extra personality.
The graphics do their part too. Sewers flow with green water; taverns glow with the light of powerful crystals; skies stretch out forever with dusky hues, their dark clouds signaling an impending storm. The city of Stormreach looks palpable and magical, until some nearly-naked nimrod named "Sexaholic" runs by to remind you that the only thing that really makes MMOs stink is other people.
We're hoping that the game's flaws at launch - generic character models, an awkward friends system and a tiny map, for instance - all get revised with future updates. Otherwise, Dungeons & Dragons Online feels pleasantly like the game that inspired it, right down to the D&D edition 3.5 rules that govern the hack-and-slash action. If you're not too old to play pretend and mean it, Stormreach proves fun for the whole family. Just be aware that if you don't bring your whole family, you won't have much fun.