PAX East 2011: Stalking through DDO's Update 9

One of the scariest games I ever played has to be the original Silent Hill. A nearly empty town shrouded with fog and featuring one of the most terrifying elementary schools ever devised? Yes, this is why I didn't sleep much in 1999. So when I started to get flashbacks as Fernando Paiz took me through the creepy alleyways of Dungeon and Dragons Online's upcoming update, I had to excuse myself and run around the PAX East show floor for a few minutes while shrieking like a tormented cat.

OK, it wasn't that frightening, but I definitely was getting a Silent Hill vibe from the latest adventure pack that Turbine has crafted for the game. Coming "soon" (TM, all rights reserved, void in Utah and the Yukon Territories), DDO's Update 9 promises to bring a wide assortment of lavish treats to a hungry populace. At the center of it is a level 15 quest chain that centers around mysterious abductions, a skittish population, and nightmares made flesh.

Hit the jump as I recall my brush with certain death in these adventures and relate the other jewels of Update 9!

They call him Mr. Smythe...

If you're a seasoned dungeoneer between the levels of 12 and 19, quests and glory will be calling your name with this four-quest adventure pack. Paiz told me that just one new DDO dungeon takes about two months for a dedicated designer to create -- and that's not including the art, sound, QA testing and other efforts that go into bringing another module to the game. Ergo, these four adventures represent a great deal of work on behalf of Turbine and a greater amount of patience on behalf of the players, but it seems to be worth the wait.

The new quest chain marinates in good old-fashioned horror with a dash of bizarre comedy thrown in for good measure (I've always found that horror and comedy go hand-in-hand anyway). You begin by investigating a neighborhood in Stormreach where people have been vanishing -- and where those remaining have been driven stark raving mad. Diving in and out of houses and outdoor locations -- including a sinister-looking playground -- you chase after suspicious Warforged named "Mr. Smythe" wearing a top hat. Why a top hat? Because it's both classy and evil, that's why!

While not initially super-challenging, the fog-shrouded town bestows terrific atmosphere, as tormented voices whisper on the soundtrack and discovered clues build up the tension.

Warning! There be spoilers ahead, so if you want the rest of this quest chain to be fresh when you first experience it, skip ahead to the next section.

Eventually you corner Mr. Smythe and discover that he's actually a Chaos Beholder -- a previously unseen variation of the creature in DDO -- who's been kidnapping the locals for gruesome Frankenstein experiments. A leg here, a smooshed head there, and a giant eye in the middle of the mass, and you end up with the Taken. The Taken are all-new mobs for the game, and they ooze "wrongness" in a way that's difficult to describe unless you see them in motion.

Mr. Smythe is only middle-management in this macabre scheme, however. In the final quest, you discover that the puppet-master behind the experiments is a truly sick-in-the-head Mindflayer. In a neat twist, the Mindflayer provides the GM narration for this final module (after all, it is capable of talking to you telepathically). After watching its version of a fashion show -- the Taken strutting their stuff down the catwalk -- you're pulled into its mind to do battle with the creature on its home turf. Only cunning and a Wham! soundtrack will save you now!

Crafting perfection

Of course, Update 9 is more than a public service announcement about medical science gone awry. It's also introducing a feature that DDO's lacked for years now: crafting. While high-level players have been able to assemble armor before this point, a true crafting system is coming to the game with this patch.

Each player will be able to level up three separate crafting branches -- elemental, divine and arcane -- in order to disassemble semi-useless gear and forge the weapons and armor perfect for his character. Players will use a deconstruction device located in House K's new crafting hall to pull one effect off of an item so that it can be applied to a different item. As Fernando Paiz explained it, you have the choice of saving an item's level (such as +5), its prefix ("Vorpil"), the base item itself (bastard sword), or its suffix ("of Maiming").

The higher the item's level relative to your crafting skill, the greater your chance to fail in either deconstructing or constructing it (and the greater the XP you'll get as a reward, too).

Paiz said that the crafting system coming with Update 9 is just the first iteration of the feature; another significant revision will come later on, perhaps with Update 11, he said.

Prestige and perfection

Sorcerers and Favored Souls have a reason to rejoice with Update 9, as both classes will finally get prestige enhancements and in doing so will join the rest of the classes in the game. Prestige enhancements are class specializations that come at levels 6, 12, and 18, if you meet the requirements, and they can significantly change and expand your character's abilities.

Sorcerers will be able to become Savants in one of the elemental schools of magic, such as cold, acid or wind. An Elemental Savant gains a free cast ability from that school (which means you can cast it as many times as you want for no spell points) and increases the effective level for every spell in that school by two. The caveat to this, however, is that any spells from the opposing school (such as fire and water) will suffer a three-level debuff to all of those spells, rendering them far weaker than normal.

Over in the Favored Soul camp, the class should become even more desirable as a team player with the Divine Avenger enhancement. Sort of following in the footsteps of a Paladin, the Divine Avenger offers an array of buffs and debuffs that can be applied and transferred between party members and mobs. In this, the Favored Souls will show their colors as an excellent support class.

Paiz was also excited to mention a few of the smaller but no less nifty features. For starters, both the Sunder and Trip skills now have unique animations that weave into the combat flow perfectly. The update also includes a handful of additional cosmetic armors for the store, including two completely new designs.

Finally, Paiz was happy to burble on about special challenge instances that introduce a different type of repeatable dungeon with minigame-like events. One of the first ones will send players scurrying to collect a whole bunch of items using mouthy Kobolds as tools.

While we don't have a name or date for Update 9, it should make big waves when it splashes down in DDO.

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 11-13, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

This article was originally published on Massively.