James puts on his robe and wizard hat.
By James Pinnell on May 10, 2013 at 12:51 pm
NeverWinter is still “technically” in beta (although characters will not be wiped before launch), meaning much of the foundation content may change before full release. Please consider this more of a “detailed hands on” than a comprehensive review, especially since it’s likely to rapidly change over the course of the next few months.
When it comes to the MMO genre in 2013, a particular saying instantly comes to mind — “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. The formula for success has been been well and truly established, over the ashes of a plethora of failed titles. Developers now know what works and what doesn’t, replacing potentially risky gameplay mechanics with small refinements to well trodden, successful systems such as real-time combat and dungeon crawling.
So if anyone should be in a position to know precisely what failure looks like and how to hopefully alleviate it, it’s Cryptic Studios, reborn under the Perfect World banner to develop the second Dungeons and Dragons MMO – Neverwinter. With three (and a half) titles under its belt, Cryptic are one of the most experienced development houses in the industry, coupled with a publisher (Perfect World) considered a rising star after a host of successful free-to-play efforts in both Asia and the US. Can this team strike gold with one of their most ambitious projects yet?
Let’s face it, if you’re thinking about playing Neverwinter, then you’re in one of two boats. Either you’re a complete MMO tragic and pretty much jump at the chance to dip your toes in yet another virtual world, or you’re a bit of a DND fanboy, secretly harboring fantasies about shooting magic missiles and shouting “Huzzah!” while you adjust your wizard hat. The good news is that both boats won’t be disappointed to dock at this port — Neverwinter is a remarkably polished and well-designed playground. Very little has been promised, in terms of majestic sandbox elements or siegeable guild halls, and so as a result, you don’t feel gazumped once you realize that these are the same old quests, you’re the same old warrior and that red dude over there probably wants to skewer you with his long sword.
Dig a little deeper, however, and things aren’t quite as they seem.
Cryptic have gone back to the drawing board when it came to designing Neverwinter‘s combat system, which is not only clever in its operation (easy to learn, hard to master), but actually manages to inject some much needed strategy into the same old dance. The removal of automatically regenerated health prevents you from using time to barge your way through dungeons, and instead forces careful movement during battle, actually thinking about each thrust, cast, block or dodge in order to preserve precious (and expensive!) potions or managing cooldowns on healing spells. Everything is in real-time, with both mouse buttons dedicated to raw strikes while the keyboard maps certain skills that require selection before combat begins. There are no enormous skill mazes here here — taking a page out of the book from Guild Wars 2 and TERA, the game offers a limited set of abilities that can be learned or upgraded via skill points assigned during leveling.
Unfortunately, progression is remarkably linear, with the main questline following a reasonably straight path of missions above and below ground, coupled with a talent tree that doesn’t enjoy much branching out. If you decide to be a Guardian Fighter, for example, you’ll likely find yourself doing a lot of blocking. All of the time. Thankfully, the various dungeons are long, sprawling and varied in their design and structure, with difficulty levels curving at an acceptable rate. Cryptic have also thrown in timed events that reward you for completing certain quest or mission types within a certain period; such as fighting back a player-created invasion via the Foundry, or competing in a skirmish with other players. The only problem with this system is that some of this content can take much longer to complete than the time allows — I remember rushing through dialogue and battles as the seconds ticked away, eventually losing my 150% experience reward.
It’s also quite difficult to feel like you’re part of a community — while the cities are (currently) bustling with commerce, people and a surprising lack of spam, the game feels a little lonely. Entering dungeons, where you will spend a significant amount of your time, are instanced affairs that feel cut off from the wider fight. Unless you’ve made a conscious effort to find other players, whether via chat, your guild or matchmaking, you’ll probably take advantage of the companion system, which allows you to purchase allies to fight alongside you.
Many might hail this as a clever addition for players who enjoy playing it alone, but its quite a blow to building a community of social raiders that are forced to rely on one another to expand. None of the content is especially enthralling in a solo context, and while it is certainly a challenge to try and complete it without a team, it’s also a little boring and disheartening to take down a tough boss without a single other player to share it with.
And then there’s the supposed killer app, chopped and changed from its original incarnation in Cryptic’s other offering – Star Trek Online. Neverwinter‘s Foundry system unlocks for players once they hit level 15, which probably takes about seven or 8 hours of play on average, and unlocks a very detailed and easy to use editor that sits on top of the main client. From here, players can essentially customize an entire story based quest-line from painstaking building a plot and characters, to building maps, items and even costumes. Feel like basing your adventure inside a tall and ominous tower? Sure. Want all of the NPCs to speak Farsi? Why not. Feel like recreating the plot of the 1997 masterpiece, AirBud? Well… that could be a little difficult. But my point is that creating strings of quests alongside a team of NPCs inside an environment of your own choosing is astonishingly accessible. If you ever tried creating your own quests and dungeons in Skyrim, you’ll probably feel at home here, although the Foundry does a much better job of containing your ridiculous fantasies inside a relatively open sandbox.
Sadly, not as much kudos can be given to a lot of the content created by the current crop of players. While there are some obvious standouts (An adventure called “I am Slayer” is a fantastic demonstration of how the system can be easily adapted to existing environments) others are just messy, broken and plain stupid attempts at cashing in on memes, recreating quests from other games or building poorly designed, maze-like dungeons with duplicated assets. In order to combat a sea of crap, however, the game allows a voting and rating system to push most of the garbage out of plain site, and even allows approved player made content to be played as a “daily”. But already, players are exploiting this system in order to easily farm equipment, gold and experience by developing clever, easy, environments that meet the specific requirements on the surface to become “reward quests” but allow for easy, repeatable extraction.
But these are largely teething problems, and the concept of the Foundry feels like a much better fit within a world and gamestyle focused on contained and rigid environments than a title promising deep and wide space exploration. The tweaks to the editor make using it breathlessly easy after a few hours of experimentation, and the ability to explore and play your creation in real-time, as the developers would, is very cool and allows for almost unlimited content. The developers are obviously planning for expansions and dynamic content to be introduced into the game, but as yet it’s unknown how this will be offered. Being F2P, Neverwinter has a cash shop and a number of “packages” that offer extra items and bonuses to experience. At present, free users are restricted to 2 character slots per server, a surprisingly small inventory and reduced bank slots. Personally, I found no impediments of disadvantages for not paying a cent, and like other Perfect World games, there are very few pokes and prods for you to purchase anything.
For a game that almost came out of nowhere with very little fanfare, I’m very pleasantly surprised with Neverwinter. It does little to overhaul or revolutionize the MMO roadtrain, but where it excels is within its challenging and strategic combat system, that encourages players to mix up their parties and reduces the traditional disadvantage of healing or tank characters. The addition of the Foundry makes this title almost mandatory for gamers who enjoy customising and building their own experiences, and offers it in a manner that is very polished, user friendly and accessible. Sure, the quests aren’t much and the road to endgame is about as non-linear as Call of Duty, but who cares?
Maybe MMO developers need to stop promising the world when they can only offer a city, and instead focus on making what they have just plain, good old fun for everyone.
Sound like fun? You can download the Neverwinter open beta client from our file library right here, and save yourself 3GB of quota (iiNet group customers only!).