[Review] Neverwinter

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[Review] Neverwinter

Neverwinter, a new Free-To-Play Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game from genre titans Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, gathers more momentum with each passing day. It’s rare for a F2P title to be marketed both so broadly and so aggressively, rarer still for such a title to produce such consumer buzz, especially before its release. The inherent qualities of the genre generally make for quiet releases, with low-profile and therefore cheaper and therefore safer marketing campaigns and usually the only way the average gamer hears anything about such a title is via the rumor mill at or just after it enters open beta or launch.

But Neverwinter has been very much present on the radar for some time now. It’s been marketed like any other full retail or pay-to-play MMO title, and it’s something that gamers have actually heard of, and not just the genre aficionados. It is a work that descends from so very many of gaming’s – electronic and otherwise – greatest works. But for all that, for all its varied and brilliant pedigrees and all the qualities that differentiate it within a veritable sea of genre competition, does Neverwinter have what it takes to not simply stand out but shine?

After hours of scouring the depth and breadth of the storied Sword Coast, plunging through dank sewers and trudging through musty caves through seemingly endless hordes of foes we have emerged on the far side with answers for you

The coupling of two factors common to MMOs shaped the format of this review: 1) The degree to which a Massively Multiplayer title is a personal experience, and 2) the sheer depth and breadth of content available. We will be presenting three separate viewpoints on the title, from staff member James Huneycutt (Me!) and guest writer Patrick Little; both of us veterans of a plethora of MMOs and as cranky as gamers get.

   Patrick Little, Guest Writer

Though still in its adolescence, the free-to-play Neverwinter MMO from Perfect World is showing signs that it may be able to endure the rumbling MMO fee vs. free storm, but it has quite a bit of ground to make up and not a lot of time to do so.

Gameplay in Neverwinter is typical for this genre of game. Mechanics are a hybrid of World of Warcraft and the original Guild Wars, adding a few innovations to complement the tradition of third-person, point-and-click style games. The HUD is synced to the gamer’s mouse, with a targeting reticule at the center of the screen that targets or attacks whatever it hovers over. Coupling that with the minimalist action bar – fewer than 10 distinct buttons – makes for a more interesting, action-focused game.

Daily powers, shifts and slides, skill checks, and D&D lore translate into the game more or less seamlessly. All of these things together make for a complete 180 from the macro-laden days of MMO past. The only truly infuriating aspect of Neverwinter’s combat system is how closely spaced each mob’s threat radius is. In open world combat, dodging one attack can easily put you squarely in the sights of another group of angry orcs.

Quests in Neverwinter use the typical methodology: go slay 8 monsters here, pick up 10 things there, kill the boss in that castle over there. I haven’t seen many games pull too far out of this scope until you get to MMOs like EVE Online (which is ostensibly the same thing in different packaging). What sets this game apart, however, is how effortlessly you move from one thing to another.

Quest-givers have full recorded audio (that can be easily skipped) and are steeped in enough D&D lore to world-build with every new line of dialog. Unlike the recent would-be WOW-killer Star Wars: The Old Republic, the motivations each of the quest-givers has for offering you quests feels personal and uniquely crafted, so helping them feels realistic and satisfying.

Visually, Neverwinter wavers between average and adequate. Gamers who crave visual stimulation at least on par with current-generation titles will be left wanting. Perfect World probably chose to focus more on mechanics and immersion than visuals for the initial release – and presumably sought to leverage the game world’s immense, nostalgic fan base – but graphics are reminiscent of older titles like (the admittedly-obscure) 12Sky MMO from Aeria Games, a Korean game from the pioneering days of the free-to-play market. However, animations are a high point: fluid for monsters and NPCs and interesting without being over the top for players. When you’re fighting an orc, you know you’re fighting an orc, and there are even visual clues for enemy abilities which require you to keep one finger near the dodge key at all times.

The background visuals are quite a bit more refined than the foreground and do offer a much-needed layer of ambient stimulus. The world seems sprawling without being intimidating, and after only a couple of days’ playtime, you know that there is much, much more beyond the walls of the city of Neverwinter to explore.

One of Neverwinter’s bigger draws is undoubtedly the Foundry. Much like its offline predecessors Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, the MMO has an ever-expanding, user-designed dungeon creation system that, by itself, can be used to level your character starting from level 15. Though glitchy at times and a bit sparse at present, what is presented to the player is rich enough to provide a decent depth of storytelling choices for DM and PC alike.

At first glance, it’s hard to figure out how this game’s business model makes money. You can play the game thoroughly without spending a dime, and the monetary investments players can make to purchase in-game items seem to be either solely aesthetic or achievable later. That is, until you get to the auction house – no simple endeavor. It’s there, in plain view once you find it, but it is not made a spectacle of. Once you do find it, you discover the financial foundation of Neverwinter.

Neverwinter’s auction house relies solely on a system of currency attained only one of two ways: direct real-money purchases of tradable currency, or after completing daily quests that offer a handful of the currency at a time. This is shaky ground at best given the debacle that was Diablo III’s auction house, but the exploitative nature of the AH is seemingly abated through the in-game trading required to get the currency. It is nonetheless disheartening.

One of the nicer aspects of Neverwinter is its out-of-game user portal –Gateway. By logging into their site, you can manage auction house trades, see and set guild activity and, most importantly, manage your in-game professions. Professions in Neverwinter are handled like professions in SWTOR: you send one of your minions to do a task and after a set amount of time (in game or out) he completes the task and you collect your reward. The difference here is that you can be logged out of game for days and still keep up with the peripheral aspects of the game.

I haven’t gotten tired of this game yet, even though the cynic in me would want to call it generic. It has enough lore and charm to maintain a high level of appreciation and enough clever functionality and pure action to keep me pressing W. To its credit, there is never a time when you don’t know you’re playing a Dungeons & Dragons game. Even with the glut of copycat MMOs out there (with this one among them), the game is fun to play and packed with layers to uncover.

Since this game will inevitably have a strong user base pumping out new content, Neverwinter is definitely a game I would recommend to new gamers or those who are looking for an avenue into the D&D multiverse. For seasoned gamers, I would recommend this game simply for the breather it offers from the fiercely competitive alternatives.

 

  James Huneycutt, Staff Writer

Right from the outset Neverwinter is clearly not an average Free-To-Play MMO. This was not a game developed in a hurry on a small budget to capitalize on the current popularity of the genre, or to take advantage of what has quickly become the most lucrative financial model in the industry. It is equally clear that Neverwinter benefits greatly from Cryptic‘s experience as a developer in the F2P-MMO genre, and from Perfect World‘s experience as an F2P-MMO publisher.

The title itself is prototypical. The venerable bones of Ultima and World of Warcraft are there for all to see, and anyone who’s played an MMORPG in the last twenty years will be right at home in Neverwinter. The core game-play elements that we’ve come to expect from the genre are present with what varies between middle-of-the-road to excellent execution, with some notable and somewhat inexplicable exceptions.

The short verdict is that it is very, very good, at a price you cannot beat. It also avoids almost all of the pitfalls of MMO’s of any variety, and has actually managed to catch the attention of several of the pickiest and crankiest gamers I know.

Developing a Free-To-Play MMO must feel like walking a tight-rope. If it’s free, many people will try it, and many people will play it until either it annoys them in some way/shape/form or until it becomes inaccessible or off-putting. The peculiar difficulty of developing a Free-To-Play MMO is that you have to make it both accessible and deep, walking a very thin line between being Pay-To-Win – which is possibly the single most off-putting quality an F2PMMO can have – or being unprofitable.
The dedicated MMO gamer is a special breed of competitive, cranky, and judgmental, likely quick to drop something they have no interest in. First-time players, however, are likely to be easily bewildered and discouraged. These two demographics are on the opposite ends of the scale, and the F2PMMO developer has to cater to both equally, or stake the success of the title on catering to one. Neverwinter does an incredible job of appealing across the spectrum of players.

Core gameplay is reminiscent of Action MMORPG’s like TERA, though somewhat more forgiving – the mouse drives the camera and must be aimed properly to orient and target. The prototypical 12-deep action bar is eschewed in favor of a smaller, choice-driven action bar and as such, abilities are keyed to the Q, E, R, TAB, 1, 2 buttons, forcing the player to make very careful choices as to which powers they bring into a fight. Each class has a stereotypical progression tree, gaining skill points that unlock or enhance powers as they gain levels.

Cryptic and Perfect World did an excellent job on all aspects of this title, but nowhere was this effort as their adapting the essence of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and Forgotten Realms campaign setting to an MMO. Virtually all of the inherent abilities, class and racial powers as well as the core races and classes themselves are based on D&D 4E, and anyone with even a surface familiarity can appreciate the brilliantly detail-oriented adaptation of the source material. What could be translated literally was, and what could not was adapted cleanly and effectively. The dedication to source material also extends to the spiritual predecessors of Neverwinter. The events and characters Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2 are referenced early and often, as are Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale in a less noticeable way.

Of particular note to fans of the previous Forgotten Realms adaptations is the Foundry, a digital Dungeon Master’s playground providing every play with the ability to create adventure and dungeon modules available to every other player in the game, and could conceivably provide income for the player’s account.

The Foundry has unquestionably been the source of my best experiences thus far in Neverwinter, and could easily extend the playtime of the title for every player in the game. I’ve already stumbled across a fully-fledged adaptation of iconic adventure modules like Ravenloft and The Keep on the Borderlands. The Foundry is the real reason to play Neverwinter, and the real reason to keep coming back. (NOTE: The Foundry is a feature of many of the Cryptic and Perfect World titles, and is not a feature unique to Neverwinter. However, it’s best paired with and executed in Neverwinter).

Neverwinter is so-so visually. The art-style is workmanlike and unremarkable, extremely typical of the genre and doing nothing to elevate Neverwinter above its competitors. The audio is less generic, but sadly in the other direction. The ambient audio is acceptable at best, and the music hovers somewhere between ‘Meh’ and ‘I’m humming that opening track from Neverwinter randomly throughout my day’, but the voice-over work is next to awful, and there isn’t even that much of it.

 

If the game-play, authenticity and nearly perfect adaptation are Neverwinter’s greatest strength, it’s greatest weakness are the elements that make it a viable F2P MMO. I must be clear here, I understand that a work of this scale is a momentous thing, and much more so due to the limited funding that most MMOs receive. I also understand that it needs to be a viable source of income for its developer. Many of the things that I am about to criticize are understandable, but I strongly feel that there are better solutions.

One of the more common drops in my time with Neverwinter has been the Nightmare Lockbox. This is a tantalizingly ornate purple chest that could possibly hold many items, all of them wildly useful. It could be as simple as excellent crafting materials or components to killer rare and legendary items to unique mounts. This chest requires a specific key to open, and that key is only available by direct purchase via Zen, the generic Perfect World currency – most readily accessible through the  Zen store for real cash money. A dollar buys you 100 Zen, which will buy you exactly one of the necessary keys.

I have spent my limit of $15 this month (see what I did there?) on these keys, and I currently have 22 of these chests sitting in my inventory. There is no question in my mind that you can easily enjoy Neverwinter without once spending a single dollar, but I doubt very highly that anyone will reach the end of the leveling cycles without doing so. As I have already been ejected from a Dungeon Run for having ‘too low a Gear Score,’ I can’t believe that not spending any money will be a viable option for anyone who wants to be serious or competitive in endgame raiding or PvP.

Afterwards, I began paying more attention to the forms of currency in Neverwinter. To my consternation I found that there were 7 (or 9 depending on your definition) distinct varieties – the ubiquitious Copper/Silver/Gold (used with in-game vendors and gained from regular quests and selling items), Astral Diamonds (used in the Auction House and gained from Dailies, Skirmishes, Dungeons, and Foundry Quests, with bonuses for doing so multiple times in a day or at certain times), as well as Ardent and Celestial Coins, gained from invoking your deity once every hour. When Astral Diamonds are gained in any way, they must be refined in order to be used, and one can only refine so many crystals in a day. Finally, there are many different forms of seals (exchangeable for gear from select vendors) that are gained through questing, drops, or exchanged for the aforementioned Ardent and Celestial Coins.

This is not be to confused with Glory ranking, which also renders one approved for certain items. Finally, there is Zen, which can be exchanged directly or indirectly for most, but not all, of the above.

Now, if the above description of this befuddling web of currency confused you, take solace in the fact that you are not the only one. The profusion of currency is just unnecessarily complicated. I cannot accept that there isn’t at least a marginally simpler solution for this mechanic.

The final criticism may be somewhat less fair due to Neverwinter‘s pre-launch status: the title is incredibly linear. There is a straight line of progression from beginning to end that doesn’t seem to differ at all from character-to-character and class-to-class, and there is no variety to the quests. The levels come quick, and the skirmishes and dungeons do a decent job of breaking the monotony, but if it weren’t for the Foundry, a player would be completely justified in abandoning this title for the sameness of it all.

There are five playable classes as of this moment, each sufficiently different from each other to give the audience a real reason to play an alt. The races, however, don’t feel significantly varied, and there very much seems to be a ‘right’ pairing for each class. Likewise, the classes have separate powers, and only a few can be active at any given time, but the powers scale in such a way that there always seems to be a ‘right’ choice for any given level. The feat system again gives the appearance of differentiating a character, but the end result of wildly differing choices didn’t seem to provide significantly different character build options.

The title also lacks any factional system, and so the PvP has little context. You won’t see anything like the factional rivalries in Dark Age of Camelot, or WoW here. The end result of these issues compounded is that once you level one character of each class you find interesting, you’ve seen it all, and the only reason to find a class genuinely interesting is if you really enjoy how it plays. The PvP seems to heavily favor the Rogue and Cleric classes at this point, and the endgame is hardly finalized enough to critique it in any fair or realistic way.

All these negatives aside, Neverwinter really is much better than it has any right to be, and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that it will be a title that I come back to over and over again in the coming months. It’s the best F2P MMO I have ever played, and I am very excited to see Cryptic and Perfect World’s future direction.

Thanks for checking out our Review in Progress of Neverwinter. We’ll be updating this over the next few weeks, so please check back in with us!