I haven't actually played tabletop D&D in ages - other and better games (most of them written by wickedthought) have occupied my attention since I was about 15 ... with the notable exception of the version 3.0 nostalgia campaign that The Hobbit ran, lo these many moons ago. But I've played and enjoyed darned-near every D&D computer game that's come out - always hoping for that online experience that allowed for creative storytelling, rather than just killing monsters to get more stuff to kill more monsters. I want something that allows a Dungeon Master to easily design an adventure using online tools to bring it to life. The preparation for the session shouldn't take any longer than the session itself, and it should allow the DM to improvise what NPC's do quickly and easily... thus making the story dynamic, instead of a series of "if - then" loops.
DDO promises to get as close as anyone has. It's set in the Eberron world setting, rather than the now-ubiquitous Forgotten Realms. Eberron is more high-fantasy than FR - society has evolved as a result of its long association with magic. If technology has changed the face of the modern world, imagine how magic would have done the same - that's Eberron. It introduces a new playable race, the Warforged - living constructs that are left-overs from the Last War. The online version eliminates half-elves, gnomes, and half-orcs, however. This may or may not be permanent - but for the moment, those are the choices.
The install process took about an hour since I had to download and patch the client from the online beta site. It went smoothly, and afterwards I was online making a character. Character generation uses the 3.5 rules. Each character is fairly unique, with extremely realistic facial features. In fact, the faces are so realistic that the somewhat simple body-models look funny in comparison. Also, the starting faces may all be unique and completely customizable - but the standard adventurers kit (at least in beta) consists of either light, medium, or no armor - and every outfit exactly the same. So the players running around in the online game world all look very alike at first level.
You can choose to be fighter, rogue, cleric, sorceror, wizard, bard, ranger, paladin ... all the basic D&D classes. Races are humans, elves, halflings, dwarves, and warforged. You can either choose the default package of stats, feats, and skills - or you can customize each step as much or as little as you choose. I spent more time fooling around with the character generation than anything else - I made the obligatory "me" character who looked as much like myself as possible. (Human sorceror, for the record...) I made my old character, Throckmorton the halfling Paladin, a warforged fighter (Brihkk Hamblin. Hee hee.) and an elven ranger. (female, because the female 'toons are, of course, hot. Not, however, gigantically chesty, which is a welcome change.)
I logged in to the game world - I had a real problem with lag, but then they'd just opened for business so a lot of players were in the same area doing the same thing. Scenarios are handed out by talking to NPC's scattered around the area - and once you agree to do them, it's a unique instance, meaning your adventuring party will have its own experience. There is "dungeon master text" describing the environ beyond just what you can see - and if this is easily customizable, can make it easy to create adventures for a regular group. Taverns are easily located to find adventuring groups if you don't come with your own... and meeting up with a team is built right into the game.
Inventory management and hot-keys are very similar to other online games - and easily customized. Combat is actually affected by what you do in the fight, however - you don't just hit "attack" and then watch. If you tumble and dart in and out, your opponent may miss his attack, and if you see your opponent winding up for a "special" you can quickly roll out of range or block in order not to be hit. Or you can just stand there and suck it - whatever you prefer, really.
Moving around is a little woojy - you can use the standard asdw keys, but also mouse-click by holding down the left mouse button. This is the opposite of a lot of standard interfaces, and also perilously close to the same button as "attack" - which I predict will get lots of people (most of them me) killed accidentally.
I don't have much to say about the game - I ran out of time before I could get much further than the super-simple basic adventure. I have no idea how levelling will work, and how prestige-classes (if at all) will work. I look forward to finding out though - but I definitely need to up my ram. My lag was as bad Ironforge in some spots!
I have no idea how the DM mode will work (or even if there really is one!) but I have high hopes. It would be great to have a weekly game that actually worked. One can hope that they build in something along the lines of team-speak, too - which would make roleplay amongst a set group so much easier!