Neverwinter Review

The first real Dungeons & Dragons video game in years is out. It’s called Neverwinter, the most recent in a long line of D&D video games to be centered on that city starting with the oft-overlooked SSI game Neverwinter Nights released in 1991. The name was recycled by BioWare hot off the success of their Baldur’s   Gate  series, who released Neverwinter Nights in 2002. A sequel was released by Obsidian Entertainment, unsurprisingly called Neverwinter Nights 2 . And now we have Neverwinter by Cryptic Studios.

TL;DR

This is long. So if you want the sound bite, here it is: Neverwinter is an action RPG that doesn’t provide solid enough action to really satisfy action aficionados. Similarly  the story is too light to really hold story fans for long, starting well but quickly moving into filler.

As a free2play game it needs invested fans willing to pay, but there’s not enough content to keep people reliably playing repeatedly or enough bonuses that seems worthy of paying for. And it’s easy for people who are invested to skip paying and grind to get that same content.

Prelude

Announced in August 2010, Neverwinter was initially supposed to be released in August 2011 to coincide with the release of the Neverwinter campaign setting book and a novel series by R.A. Salvatore. However, the game was delayed and on October 5, 2011, Cryptic announced the game would be shifting from free multiplayer game to a Massive Multiplayer Online Game.

In interviews, Salvatore mentions the Neverwinter book series (Gauntlgrym onward) was started at the request of WotC and Cryptic, with Salvatore given the responsibility of setting up the city for the state it would be in during the campaign setting and the MMO. With the first book having been released in 2010 and writing taking a little over a year, it’s safe to estimate Neverwinter began production in early 2009 or late 2008, setting the development cycle at four years and change.

Crypticon

Cryptic Studios is the company given the licence to make a Dungeons & Dragons game, so let’s get to know them a little. I like to describe Cryptic as having made three-and-a-half MMOs. Cryptic is an MMO company that was making MMOs before MMOs were what they are now. Their resume includes City of Heroes, City of Villains, Champions Online, Star Trek Online, and now Neverwinter. They’ve never released a game that isn’t an MMO.

I spent a LOT of time playing City of Heroes and it’s sequexpansion City of Villains. I preordered the game, participated in the closed beta, and logged in the first day the game was live. And I was dancing in Atlas Park when the servers went down. It was a decent game and scratched my super-hero PC game itch despite being 94.7% combat driven and overlooking all the non-beating up bad guys aspects of being a superhero. I like to compare the gameplay with Diablo in that you fought through wave after wave after wave of minions before getting to slightly harder boss monsters. But without the loot.

I also played some Champions Online which was really CoH 1.5. It had a nice free-form power system of CO, an improvement over the fixed powers of CoH, but it was really the system they wanted to do in CoH but could not get to balance at the time. Champions Online has a very simplified combat system and feels very much like a console port of a PC game, which makes sense as it was primarily  designed to work on XBox in addition to the PC, however the XBox port never emerged. CO was also announced shortly after Cryptic’s Marvel Universe Online was cancelled, suggesting they just acquired the Champions characters and pasted that over the unfinished game.  CO was similar to CoH in that you spent much of the game endlessly fighting waves and waves of mooks. Only moreso. In CoH it was common for missions to be “Kill 20 badguys” while in CO it became “Kill 100 badguys”.

I won’t heavily discuss Star Trek Online as I have not personally played it. (However, A friend I regularly game with has and when it went Free 2 Play I asked if he wanted to try it again and he declined, not wanting to do all the missions over again, which is telling and relevant.)

Neither Champions Online nor Star Trek Online were particularly well received. The CEO of the company said that they designed those games just like they had designed the well recieved City of Heroes, missing the fact that half-a-year after CoH was released World of Warcraft hit the scene. In the same year CO and STO were released, Wrath of the Lich King had been out for a year and dramatically changed how MMOs could tell a story with its focus on phasing over instances.

Cryptic has also frequently launched their MMOs without endgame content. Both CoH and CoV launched with 4/5th of the game, releasing the final zone and levels as a “free update”. While there is always going to be content that was not quite ready for release, the first three updates of CoH (the better part of a year’s updates) focused on content that was not quite ready for launch. In fairness, holding back end-game content is a standard MMO tactic. Under the assumption it will take some time before players reach those levels giving developers time to polish. This forgets the speed MMO players can consume a game and hit cap. It takes months to generate content that players compete in an afternoon. There are many, many gamers who blow through an MMO and then move onto the next game.

The Open Beta

Cryptic likes its “Open Betas”. They’ve had them for all their games, typically followed immediately with launch. They’re not so much Betas as Demos, only with the “beta” tag as players are often more forgiving of balance and technical issues. Then they wipe the servers and everyone starts fresh and you have to pay. So it wasn’t that surprising that they have an Open Beta for Neverwinter.

With that in mind, what we saw wasn’t really a beta. They weren’t really “testing” anything anymore, almost all the content was available (one class and race is absent) and there are no more wipes. Plus, they were taking payment in their e-store for items. Yeah… it was the launch. A “soft launch” maybe but still a launch.

Still… releasing an unfinished game and actually saying “hey, this is an unfinished game” is remarkably refreshing from Cryptic. It’s not “here’s the game, it’s finished” followed in a couple months by “here’s an extra class and zone as a *ahem* bonus”. And the missing content isn’t the last 5-15 levels or the end of the game but peripheral content, so there’s a complete play experience if less flexible.

Installation

The website gave two options to download: direct or torrent. I started downloading at around 11:15 am, MST, a couple hours after the downloads became public. I had checked the day before, late night on the 29th (read: very early on the 30th) and couldn’t download.

This was a little annoying. They could have easily allowed people to pre-download and install the game but not log in until the Open Beta officially began. And when the game launched there would have been far, far more people seeding than the paltry number I saw, and the load on their servers that morning would be far less.

Instead, I had to wait a number of hours to actually play (over four-and-a-half to be precise) with the direct download initially being much faster than the torrent, which promptly caught up and “won”. But barely.

The cynic in me wonders if this was intentional so the number of players early in the first day would be lighter, spreading the load away from the starting zone.

Now, with many more people seeding and less load, installation should be far easier.

Starting Out

The game currently has 7 races: half-orc, half-elf, human, halfling, elf, tiefling, and dwarf. Drow is in the game but is pay-only at the moment but will be available later. There’s a fair assortment of facial customizations, better than average for an MMO. However, you don’t get to initially customize your clothes or physical appearance as that’s handled by gear. So the game does not serve as a character visualizer. (There is limited customization of gear available, allowing some pallet swapping, but this seems to require spending real money.)

Speaking of armour, I was less than impressed by the gender disparity in armour:


wood elf

half orc

*sigh* It looks so silly. And with body appearance governed by gear people won’t be able to making characters without  curve fitting armour and a boob window.

After race you choose from 5 classes: Guardian Fighter, Greatweapon Fighter, Control Wizard, Devoted Cleric, and Trickster Rogue. There’s a ranger also on the way. Or rather, the Adverb Ranger. As it’s based on classic 4e, each class has a set role, although I wonder if they could have just called the greatweapon fighter the “slayer” or something as there’s only a single version of the other classes. But I suppose they might add a second cleric or wizard later.

You also get to choose your starting region, picking for over a half-dozen places in the Forgotten Realms each with a choice or three for fine-tuning. I’m not sure what the benefit to this choice is, if there’s a skill bonus or small passive bonus. It does give you a free title, so can announce where you’re from. Whee. But it seems mostly cosmetic. You also get to choose your god, which grants another title.

You also roll your stats. Kinda. It “rolls” by handing out a randomized array, arranged to suit your character. So there’s a little variation. There’s not a lot of tutorial on what the stats mean though, which is very different than standard D&D. Each stat does an array of things. I’m uncertain if a balanced spread would be better than a standard 4e specialized arrangement.

Other than that, there’s not a lot of customization. You don’t get to pick powers at first level or feats. Customization comes later, at level 5 and then 10.

Following character creation there’s the big cinematic that establishes the story of the game. There’s an evil lich necromancer, her army of the undead, and a dracolich that is attacking the city of Neverwinter. This is mostly combat between a female rogue that is teleporting all over the place like a fey pact Nightcrawler. Martial power at its least mundane. There’s maybe two lines of dialogue in the entire piece, no motives or story and just action. But it sets a tone for a desperate besieged city.

First Impressions

My first impression was “yup this is a video game”. Standard WASD controls. It’s more First Person Shooter than your typical MMO, with mouse-look is always enabled. It took some time before I discovered that to interact with the UI via the mouse you have to click Alt (click, not hold) or pull up something like inventory or the character sheet.

The game holds your hand for questing. There’s a little sparkly trail that directs you right to the next quest objective. Because following big blinking icons on a map is apparently too hard. But Neverwinter is cut from the action game cloth, so the sparkly trail is similar to the directional arrow you often see pointing to your next story goal. It fits the genre.

You get the standard introductory quest with pop-up tutorials that tell you the basics of combat while you recover your gear from a ship sunk by the dracolich. Yup, starting on a beach washed up after a shipwreck. A dash cliche. Upon rewatching the cinematic, I was disappointed there was no establishing shot of the sea, or quick scene of the dragon strafing ships to further establish the cinematic is NOW. There’s not even really a shot of the sea. You can half-see it in the first shot of the city, but with the lighting and colour you might mistake it for more plains.

After the initial NPC’s mouth didn’t move while talking, I was pleasantly surprised that other NPCs seemed fully animated and all the NPC dialogue was spoken (with moving mouths). After Star Wars the Old Republic, going back to a non-spoken MMO would have felt cheap. However, your PC is still silent throughout. NPCs in chat have an unnerving tendency to stare blankly above you and to your right, like everyone is talking to another adventuring slightly behind you and off to the side. I often looked around to see if someone was standing behind me watching me play the game.

Quest text in MMOs has always been a soft spot of the genre. They often feel like the writer was being paid per-word. Which is ignorable when you can just skim the text and move onto the quest. But having the NPC dialogue spoken aloud really drives home how wordy and chatty every NPC is; I made a modest effort to listen before giving up and reading  text and walking away, leaving the NPC talking away as if I were still there. You have to hit a button to cancel the read aloud quest, which is a feature-bug. If I wanted to hear the text I wouldn’t be walking away, but it does allow you to keep listening while moving towards the quest, checking your bags, or healing at the campsite.

Your first couple quests are amazingly standard MMO fare. You have to heal a few wounded soldiers while sparse opponents wander around letting you choose to engage or not. Lacking the phasing technology of Warcraft, the field was littered with injured bodies so there was the standard MMO experience of walking away from injured soldiers because you had helped all the soldiers you were told to help. There wasn’t even the attempt to justify ceasing to help with a limited use item (“Sorry, I can’t help, I’ve run out of bandages”) or the ability to continue helping without reward, as you stop being able to interact with the injured soldiers once you hit your quota.

After that you’re gathering arrows to replenish the supplies of archers, pulling arrows from corpses. You’re not gathering dropped quivers of arrows or lost crates of arrows but individual arrows, albeit in bunches of 3. So you quickly turn in your nine arrows and everyone seems really happy with your contribution despite the innumerable arrows behind you.

Meanwhile, while gathering those nine arrows, you’re blasting zombies in groups of two or three, flattening a good dozen opponents. This is the type of game Neverwinter is: the quests are a flimsy excuse for you to run around blasting through enemies and little effort has been made to make the quest anything more than a said flimsy excuse. The game very seldom has “Kill 10 boars” quests because you’re going to kill 30 boards trying to get the single MacGuffin at the end of the zone.

Running through the opening tutorial, you also meet the tiefling wizard/warlock/something from the opening cinematic who goes on about the dracolich seen in the same cinematic (dead-ish at his feet) and how it might be permanently defeated. And then it’s never mentioned again.

After some short adventuring you reach a bridge with a young Red Shirt companion. You catch a glimpse of the Big Bad Evil Gal from the opening cinematic who “kills” the Red Shirt before sending some massive boss monster at you – despite the fact she’s an all-powerful NPC she doesn’t just squish you herself but vanishes, likely to appear again closer to the End Game.

Having defeated the boss monster you exchange words with the dying Red Shirt who has enough life left to ramble off half a Dostoevsky novel while slouched on a wall telling you your next quest goal. Then the Red Shirt falls over dead. Or rather there’s a camera change and he’s suddenly laying down, having died in the half-second screen refresh. And your character looks all sad over the death of the chatty nobody Red Shirt despite the dozens of dead people you’ve passed along the way. The funny significance of the Red Shirt (whose rank is literally Private, meaning expendable nobody) is echoed by the next quest giver NPC (also from the opening cinematic).

Moving into the city proper you enter one of the districts of Neverwinter and apparently the battle has ended. Guards are all calmly at their post and all the merchants are going about their business. Apparently, killing the low level ogre thingy (or really big orc) ended the war and saved the city and the lich just gave up. It’s very off-putting.

I think this is where I miss the phasing tech of Warcraft the most. It would be nice if low level characters not far along the main story saw explosions, siege weapons, fires, and soldiers running around. But high level characters who have saved the city see a calm peaceful place. This thought occurred to me even more after completing the next plot, where I killed the leader of a gang of rebels that took over a district but nothing in the district changed. It was still full of gang members who were still attacking me. As an alternative, employing Cryptic’s fondness for instances might work. It should be possible to have a separate Before & After instance of a zone, so you can have a sense of progress and achievement. But far too late for ideas like that now.

Gameplay

Gameplay is vaguely reminiscent of 4e. Inspired by 4e. You have the At-Will powers that lack a cooldown and Encounter powers with a short cooldown. Unremarkable for MMOs. However, you also have Daily powers, which show some interesting design. During combat you slowly gain Action Points, represented by an icon that resembles a d20 (nice). When you have a 100% Action Points you can use your Daily Power and then you have to wait until it recharges via adventuring before you can use your Daily Power again. Different classes gain AP for different things, such as healing or taking damage or using encounter powers.

After level 5 you start gaining Power Points, which can be used to improve powers, making an At-Will or Encounter power better, or increasing your number of available powers. After level 10 you start gaining Feats, which are really just standard MMO talents with a reappropriated D&D name.

Combat is quick, typically against many foes. The game tries to be a mobile action game with a dodge option and warnings of enemy attacks, so you know to get out of the archer’s line or fire or back away from the big bruiser. (Except for the guardian fighter who raises his shield to block.)

However, the animation of attacks stop movement and often the time between the warning and attack attack is so short you don’t have time to react after your attack animation has ended. And you can’t choose to abort an attack and dodge. Quite often I’d also be hit by an enemy after I was out of range, because I moved away after the animation had started. This could be the result of lag/ rubber-banding but it happened a little too often. Soloing with a ranged character (cleric) the game descended into me dashing away from enemies and then standing perfectly still while attacking. This felt clumsy and was exceedingly awkward (especially as I’ve been playing a lot of mobile FPS lately).

Hitpoints are handled curiously: you begin with hundreds of hitpoints and these quickly increase. By mid-levels you’ll easily have thousands of hp. Which is odd since even at low levels damage seems to be in the double digits. Reducing hp by 1/2 or 1/5 or even 1/10 would have been a nice way to keep the number bloat down. But the high numbers were likely to accommodate the curious choice of healing.

4e has a very video game friendly health system where you can rest and charge to full between battles. I expected swift out-of-combat healing like Champions Online or a Rest power like City of Heroes or Neverwinter Nights. Instead, healing while adventuring is minimal and even the cleric has limited  healing options, as their powers recharging a paltry portion of your staggering hp total. Instead of having full health your hp atrophies slowly over a number of battles until you find a campsite that heals via proximity (and acts as a new spawn point if you die) or you drink a health potion. It’s actually a better representation of Tabletop RPG adventuring than I’ve seen in most video games, but doesn’t feel particularly 4e.

Missions are heavily instanced, like dungeons are in Warcraft. So when you’re in questing in a small zone you’re the only one there. You’re seldom competing with other players, interacting with other players, or even seeing other players. Apart from the opening or when running around the city you might as well be playing a single player game. Group play is strictly optional. It’s comparable to an always online single player game that has a graphically rendered lobby and auction space. That said, there are a number of outdoor zones with filler quests between the big instanced story missions where you do interact with players. This allows some cooperative play, even in impromptu situations.

The instanced dungeon maps are standard nonsensical affairs. Here’s one of the early dungeons.

map

It’s a long giant crypt that doesn’t even try to match the structure it originated from or the space available. There are huge dead areas and negative space. Blizzard always worked very hard to make the dungeons and instances of Warcraft look like they matched the exterior, especially in later expansions. If the dungeon exited onto a balcony then you could see that balcony from the air when flying overtop the dungeon structure.

As a extra example, here’s a map of the exteriour of an orc structure and its interior.

map5

map4

Story

As mentioned, the story begins with a city-threatening siege by an army of undead. And then this story just seems to go away, instead focusing on people trying to steal the Crown of Neverwinter and then orcs that have taken over a district in the city.

In an interview, the CEO of Cryptic said “It’s not an MMO in the sense that there aren’t zones with hundreds-and-hundreds of people. You are not fighting for spawns. There’s a very strong storyline throughout the game. So it’s more of a story-based game closer to things like Dragon Age or Oblivion, which we really try to follow.” This struck me as odd as the last two Warcraft expansions have had pretty heavy stories and Star War the Old Republic was ALL about the story with numerous side quests. If you’re making a game that’s going to be competing with other MMOs you should keep abreast of what other MMOs are doing.

Unlike Warcraft that as two factions and often deliberately has two zones of the same level, or SWtOR which has two factions and eight classes each with their own story, Neverwinter has the one story. It’s quite possible to play WoW or SWtOR two times and never repeat a quest and a third time with only minimal repetition  And even the single player games used as examples have some story variation and choices that generate replay value. Past Cryptic MMOs have been criticised for their single set of quest chains and story and I was hoping Neverwinter would avoid this. Instead, the game continues to offer content for a single playthrough.

I also found it interesting that right after you get to Neverwinter and the game actually begins, the game immediately drops the initial story and starts new unrelated stories for five level. And immediately after wrapping up that story you’re shunted to another zone for another story unrelated to both the main plot or the previous plot.  It’s very tacked on.

But even this limited content isn’t really enough. The Nasher plot is ostensibly meant to take you from level 4 to 10 before you start fighting Many Arrows orcs, as reflected by the level of the gear given to you as a reward. But both solo (and especially grouped) I was nowhere near my expected level. So I faced level 11 orcs with my level 9 cleric and promptly got my ass handed to me. Repeatedly. I had to stop and grind a full level to get enough power to continue the story (and even then some timely intervention from other players was necessary).

Curiously, we’re also told very quickly that there are a number of factions fighting for control of the city. I thought this would be an interesting way to have some story divergence: pick a faction and push their agenda with related faction missions. Instead, we’re locked into supporting the guard and Lord Neverember. A very, very obvious missed opportunity for some repeat gameplay.

Except for the addition of player created content via the Foundry:

The Foundry

BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights was famous for its adventure builder and vast community of writers, who slavishly created stories and campaigns larger, grander, and even better than the official story. While tricky to use, this engine powered a wealth of content. NWN2 tried to do the same with some lesser success. And now Neverwinter is doing the same with the in-game Foundry that lets players create, play, and rate stories by other players.

At level 15 you can start making Foundry missions, and can do so without needing to be logged in as a character. Missions can be taken from Job Boards readily available in most zones.

Of all parts of the game, the Foundry seem the least polished. And by “unpolished” I mean “glitchy mess”. I spawned outside of maps more often than I spawned inside maps. Once while testing the game I spawned well outside the city but close enough that I was in play and died and died and died yet couldn’t get into the city no matter how many times I released, refreshed the map, or exited the test and resumed play. It’s frozen on me a couple times, buggered my mouse, and refused to save after much editing. And when I leveled-up a character to test the adventure, it didn’t always give me the appropriate gear (or any gear. I had a few naked runs).

There’s currently no tutorial or wiki but links are set up so they’ll eventually be there. Hopefully for launch. At the moment you have to learn how things work yourself. Having done some NWN modules and Architect missions in City of Heroes before figuring out how most of the featured worked was fairly simple. It’s really quick to learn the basics, and I imagine the Foundry will very quickly be flooded by innumerable basic “kill all” adventures.

There are some fun features. You can customize the look of monsters quite nicely, and add standard gear to humanoid monsters then change the colour palette of the gear. And you can change proportions and the size of some body parts. Plus you can position individual mobs and traps for nice effect, and do expected things like have patrols, triggered spawns, and the like.

Adventurers are also at no particular level. They vary to match the level of the person playing. So you can run through a Foundry mission at level 5 and then run through the same mission at level 25 or 55. And you can choose to playtest a run through your  mission with character of any class at set levels, which are assigned appropriate gear. So you can see how the mission handles for each class.

However, you’re mostly limited to the few monster groups and zones already in the game and it look like there’s only a few monsters not already included in quests (although, that’s hard to say for sure not having seen all the content planned for launch). And you’re limited to pre-built encounter groups. You cannot, for example, add an ogre to a goblin encounter or just have a wandering ogre. Ogres are fixed parts of orc encounters. Nor can you add boss monsters.

Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be options to have treasure chests or crafting nodes. This is likely for balance reasons. So you can’t just hand out treasure like candy.

There is the option to make your own maps, but these are limited to adding structures to outdoor zones and there’s no ability to make your own interior dungeon. Which is a shame because there are really few dungeon maps to use, a fraction of the ones in the game. This is likely because you place items using the same maps used for the ingame maps. Which means you cannot easily use any maps with multiple floors. And anything with special scripting like secret doors and puzzles is likely beyond the Foundry.

Edit: The above paragraph is wrong. There is a make-your-own dungeon feature which is pretty slick, allowing you to piece together rooms. There’s some pretty glaring clipping issues but it’s otherwise nicely done. I don’t know how I missed it earlier as I really looked for it. Glitch? Moment of blindness? 

Not all maps are equal. Where walls end and floors begin is a little fuzzy for caves, and the uneven floor makes placing some items difficult. I recommend running through an empty map first to get a feel for the layout.

Multiplayer

I recruited a friend to play with me and duo through the game. There was the initial annoyance of not being able to group until after the tutorial, despite running around beside each other.

The game also doesn’t seem to modify instances to accommodate parties. The missions my cleric soloed without much problem my friend and I tore through. A couple boss fights I had to play tactically with my cleric we effortlessly shredded as a team, despite the fact Action Points seemed to be gained at quarter-speed.

That said, I was playing a rogue which currently seems quite powerful when paired with a fighter. So perhaps it’s a class balance issue.

Sharing loot in a group is adequate. Coins are automatically shared, but seem to favour the person who picked-up the coin pile. While it might average out, melee characters closer to the loot might get a disproportionate share. But this is likely a low level issue when you cannot half a copper piece. Picking up items was trickier for a couple reasons. First, you have to choose need-or-greed via clicking shit-1 or shift-2 (as the mouse is locked into auto-look) but you aren’t given any information on the item so you still need to free the mouse to hover over the item – which is typically unidentified so you really don’t know if you need it or not. I can easily see this getting really frustrating at high levels with two of the same class but different builds.

There are two other ways to get group play: skirmishes and dungeons. The former is a quick match against waves of enemies that takes 10-15 minutes and gives you some gold and treasure. Dungeons are, well, dungeons. If you’ve played an MMO before you likely know what to expect from dungeons.

Edit: I should mention the one dungeon I played through was pretty much by-the-numbers. There were a couple tank-and-spank bosses that seemed very much like the single player bosses only with more hitpoints. There wasn’t a whole lot of gameplay change, just the standard stay-out-of-zones and watch-adds.

Pay 2 Win?

Neverwinter is a free game but has a market that takes real world monkey for perks. So you can pay real dollars for the ingame currency “zen”, which can be spent on bonuses like companion pets, the ability to rename or redesign your character, mounts, and the like. Cryptic has been firm that you won’t have to pay and that payment is strictly optional and that paying just lets you get things faster.

That said, they certainly want to encourage you to pay. The bank is tiny and you regularly get chests that contain special items that can only be opened by a key that you can only get via zen. $1 gets too 100 zen so you can drop $6 to get a bag of holding, $5 and get a mount, $5 to get more than 2 character slots, or $6 to double your bank space. So the aforementioned key is $2 or so.

But can you pay and win? Yes. Easily. There are a number of level 60 characters already who have done just that.

You can buy zen and exchange them for astral diamonds, which can then be used to speed crafting missions to rapidly gain experience. And astral diamonds are the currency used in the auction house to buy gear, so you can buy zen, convert to AD, and then buy whatever items you want. So if you have enough money, you can just buy a level 60 character and give them decent gear.

Of course, this does mean if you do many daily quests and auctioning, you can earn astral diamonds which you can then sell for zen, bypassing the need to pay. So nothing in the zen store requires payment. If you have enough time to grind astral diamonds. This is actually well done. There have been times playing MMOs I wished I could just drop $50 and get a few extra levels to catch up with friends. And times I’ve played some freemium MMOs and wished there was some way to work towards one of those fancy perks without spending cash.

That said, the store looks a little empty now. I’d love some more fancy clothing and customization options, especially cheaper ones. If you’re one of the people who paid $200 for the big fancy pack of goods, there’s likely precious else to buy in the zen store.

Rapidfire: Good

Bags have a sort feature. And you automatically have two bags: regular and crafting.

You have a second set of clothing, a purely decorative outfit you can swap on with the click of a single button. I love the idea of casual clothes, although I expect getting anything fancy will cost real money.

Harvesting is handled via skills tied to your class. Fighters get Dungeoneering, Clerics get Religion, etc. An interesting take on skills. But you can also buy kits that allow you to have a chance of accessing other skills’ nodes, which is a nice option.

It’s easy to help people in an area without feeling like you’re kill stealing. There is separate loot for different people, ala Diablo 3.

The controls are very keyboard and mouse centric. You attack via mouse buttons and all your powers are close to your WASD keys.

Edit: Additional Thoughts

I forgot to mention crafting. This is similar to the Star Wars the Old Republic system where you have a flunkie that crafts while you adventure. So you can always be crafting. It’s actually well done if simple but fits the game. There’s one type of crafting for each of the armour types as well as the bonus crafting profession of “Leadership” which gives you more experience and astral diamonds. 

The game also has a combat advantage feature, which is easy to miss as I never saw it described anywhere. When attacking with a friend you can see a coloured semicircle around the base of nearby monsters. If you attack from that direction you flank. So positioning matters. 

Naming is well handles. Like Champions Online characters are have names tied to the display name of your account. So if your display name is Bob and you make a character named Doug the character’s full name is Doug@Bob. Which sounds weird but means you can always name your character whatever you want, no matter how many people named their character Doug before you. This is nice.

Rapidfire: Bad

Currently, the game does not automatically move you to a friend’s instance when you log in. You need to switch manually, which is a pain (and can descend into tag if there’s poor communication).

When below half hitpoints (aka bloodied) an injured FX appears that makes the screen hard to see. So when you’re getting beaten-up the game makes it harder to play.

I hate the reappropriating of feats as talents. Standard MMO talents don’t fit the game, and even Warcraft began moving away from finicky talents with Cataclysm. I’d much, much prefer a single big feat every 3 levels rather than small “feat points” every level.

If you accidentally hit escape while looting a chest, you can’t re-loot. You’ve just lost treasure.

Quest rewards have a required level like dropped loot. So it’s possible to get a reward too high to use. If you’re powerful enough to do the quest you should be able to use the reward. Period.

There’s a two character limit per account and you need to spend money to unlock more slots. Or, given it’s a free game, you could just create a second free account. So that’s silly.

There are three currencies in the game: coins (regular), zen (paid), and astral diamonds (misc). It’s not particularly clear why this third currency exists. You earn diamonds by daily quests, refining, and miscellaneous tasks, all typically mid-level.

Auctioning is poorly done. Auctions use astral diamons for payment and the deposit, so you can’t auction anything early in the game. And you can’t auctioned unwanted items to get more gold to get better gear.

When items drop they’re unidentified, and the only way to learn what they are is to use a scroll to identify them. Which means you’re burning money on scrolls and down an inventory slot. It’s a bit of a pain for very little benefit. (I also haven’t found vendors that sells identification scrolls either and once ran out and had a couple items I couldn’t even sell. But I don’t want to say this is a bug as it could just be me looking in the wrong places.)

You’re not given any instruction on some items, like portable altars. As far as I can tell, these act like portable campsites that you cannot respawned at. But I don’t see why they’re called “portable alters” instead of “temporary campsites” then.

Crafting isn’t given a tutorial.

Healing in a group is a pain in the ass, as you can’t target portraits and have to just try and hit the right person.

Non-instanced zones can be crowded with monsters, especially with things that can knockback. I’ve lost count of the times I was sent into another mob or dodged and AoE and aggroed a second group, or had more monsters spawn atop my fight. I’ve ended up in pitched battles against two or three groups.

There’s a mini-event in one zone where you compete for lost relics, golden items made in the name of a goddess. And after the event and all that effort you keep the items but can’t sell them or turn them in for a reward and just have to kinda throw them away. LAME.

And there was that time the “go here” sparkly quest trail led me right over a trap. Thanks.

trap

Edit: Additional Thoughts

Zones are a pain to travel across. You slog through waves of monsters while looking for quest items, end up on the far end of the zone (especially if there’s a quest/instance there) and then have to slog your way back. There’s no “hearthstone” option. Given there’s no real death penalty (if you have a spare injury kit or 5 minutes to kill) it’s easiest to just commit suicide and grab a drink while your injuries heal.  This is a pain if you have to leave the game suddenly, your bags fill up, or a friend logs in and you want to change zones. 

There’s precious little powers variation. The pre-reqs for putting points into powers are high, so you end up having having spare points you have to spend learning powers you already chose not add points to and have no space for in your action bar. You’re picking the order you want powers, not what powers you want. 

There’s little lore on things like the destruction of the city or the Spellplague unless you go looking for it. I saw an NPC that described this stuff but walked away to do a quest turn in and now I can’t find him again to read the lore.

There is no swim animation or interaction with water. You just pass through it and run normally. 

You cannot swap characters easily. You have to log out all the way and then type in your login information again. This would be a pain if it just made you enter your password and reconnect, but it also wipes your email/account name requiring that to be re-entered.

Conclusions

The game design is similar to Cryptic’s earlier efforts: a simple hack-and-slash experience. It’s mindless. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it also describes many other games I’ve enjoyed, such as the Diablo franchise and its clones. And it’s not a gameplay style anathema to D&D, demonstrated by games such as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, which I spent endless hours grinding away, typically with a friend manning the other controller.

Really, it’s a Dark Alliance MMO more than Neverwinter. I’ve also heard comparisons to DragonAge II which is a pretty good comparison.

In that respect the game does what you want it to. The story keeps pointing you at the next zone and the new groups of enemies to fight before shaking things up with new enemies that have new tactics and powers.You can play alone but you’re more effective as a group and everyone gets to contribute and blast away. You get new powers and options, but you never have so many powers at once that you have too many choices. And the game really shines in multiplayer. While I can’t give the game a great review I am enjoying playing it with a friend.  In a group things just go faster, so I spend less time noticing the little problems, like the inability to attack while moving, outdoor zones where you can’t take 5-steps without aggroing, the slightly imperfect hitboxes, etc. It’s not that my problems go away, it’s just that there’s much less time for them to happen so I see them less frequently and are thus more easily ignored.

But the game has its problems. The static world reflects a style of MMO design on the way out. It’s very much a third-generation MMO despite every MMO in the last three or four years trying to become an early fourth-generation MMO. There’s not a whole lot of innovation. Excluding the Foundry, it’s an unremarkable game I would have not looked twice at had it not been using the D&D licence (and even then, only because it’s free).

There’s also only enough official content for a single playthrough. There are a lot of players who just play MMOs, who will blow through the content and move onto the next game. It’s quite possible to reach cap in two-days (without paying). If people feel like they’ve seen everything the game has to offer in a long weekend they’ll move on to their next game. If the game cannot hold a fanbase’s attention for long, few people will become involved enough to give it money. I’m enjoying it now

The existence of the Foundry, which exists to scratch people’s need for side quests and tangential tales, makes the extremely tacked-on main story all the more needless. If I wanted to spend ten levels wasting my time with rebels and orcs I would have picked Foundry missions focused on rebels and orcs. While player-generated can help, this content can be extremely hit or miss. And unlike the official content, it’s less likely to be continually checked for bugs and balance after each update and patch. At best, this makes the game feel like a limited single player game with a lot of fan mods.

Combat is also problematic. Not just for the small balance issues but for the inability to move and attack in a game designed around mobile action. Plus the slight disparity between the graphics showing a hit and the engine acknowledging a hit. But this isn’t insurmountable and is fixable after launch with a little effort.

There also isn’t a whole lot of D&D in the early game. It has some lip service to the Forgotten Realms with the names of gods and places, but the game could just as easily be set in any generic fantasy world (that has reptilian kobolds). The D&D experience is a large one, so this may vary due to personal experience. Really, if you find D&D 4e doesn’t feel like D&D than neither will Neverwinter. Although, the lack of tactical play in favour of button mashing doesn’t particularly emulate 4th Edition very well either.

Neverwinter is emblematic of Cryptic Studios. It’s a hack-and-slash online multiplayer game that isn’t quite “massive”. Their graphics have improved over the last decade by the gameplay and design is pretty much the same. If you liked Dark Alliance or Diablo but wanted something a little more 3rd Person then Neverwinter might be for you.

But don’t take my word for it. ENWorld has a good review as well.