Let me be honest: I’m new to massively multiplayer online games. Completely new. But I’m no stranger to hack-n-slash action-role-playing games like Diablo and Torchlight, and that’s partly what developer Cryptic Studios and publisher Perfect World Entertainment have created here with Neverwinter, an MMO set in the Dungeon & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Fresh out of an open beta that began in April, it officially launches today on PC.
Cryptic Studios made games like City of Heroes, Champions Online, and Star Trek Online. Those are all MMOs, so the company has experience with the genre. But underneath its vast communities, reams of user-generated content, and persistent world, Neverwinter is a single-player experience as well — one where 60 hours is almost enough time to reach the current level cap. And it’s free to play.
What you’ll like
Adventure your way
Welcome to the city of Neverwinter, where your journey begins. You quickly learn that the powerful lich Valindra Shadowmantle is leading the attack on Neverwinter and the nearby lands, and her reign of terror has caused a wave of upheavals. As some factions mean to overthrow Lord Neverember, the city’s ruler, others are claiming lands that were destroyed or abandoned due to the terrible Spellplague, a malady that turns normal people into enraged monsters — and is still a menace a century after it hit.
While Protector’s Enclave has survived and all but rid its people of the affliction, other regions have been less fortunate, and all sorts of monsters and creatures from beyond the grave are rising up to form armies. You can stop them — either on your own or with other players.
Adventuring solo is easy, and you can almost ignore all the MMO elements going on in the background. If you wish, you can quiet the active chat box so it only displays your logs and completely ignore the other players roaming around the vicinity. Only Protector’s Enclave, the main hub, is truly crowded: It’s where you return to buy and sell items at the auction house, shop at vendors, acquire mounts and companions (pets, clerics, and various fighters to assist you in battle), and more.
I often melted away into this “private” world when I left the hub, but other times, I chose to make friends. I joined a guild. I competed in player-versus-player (PvP) domination, where you compete on a team against a group of another five players, capturing bases on the map and executing successful kills for points until you win (or lose). I participated in skirmishes, where a bunch of us fought against waves of enemies, and invited several other players to join my dungeon delve or jumped into theirs. Neverwinter’s automated queue system matches you with similarly leveled players so you don’t have to search the chat box for potential party members (unless you want to). Whatever I was doing, it was easy to go alone or band together, and I found that most people were incredibly friendly and receptive to either idea.
I pumped roughly 60 hours into Neverwinter and almost reached level 50, and in that time, I learned how versatile the classes are.
Each class has a special movement ability. For example, the Trickster Rogue can roll while the Great Weapon Fighter can sprint. This not only makes getting around fun but also sets you apart from other players onscreen. Class also determines your skill set. When you’re in a dungeon or on the field, you can discover and interact with certain sparkling hotspots by using kits, and each class is naturally adept at using one type. This helps make empty environments a little more interactive — I felt like I was snagging items left just for me.
Rogues, for example, can also disappear temporarily with stealth and disable traps in dungeons, and daily powers — not so much daily as special and more energy-costly to use — regenerate differently depending on class. All of this combines so that you not only experience Neverwinter a different way but also serve as a valuable asset to any team. Everyone can contribute in a cool way. I didn’t have enough time as I would have liked to play around with all the clases, but they all have their perks. It’s fun to experiment with them.
One of the things that impressed me most about Neverwinter — especially early on — were the skills, or powers. Each time you level up, you earn a point to invest in them. You can either upgrade what you have or learn a new one: an at-will, encounter, passive, or daily type. You use these in different ways. For example, at-wills you can spam as regular attacks, and encounters recharge after a cooldown.
The nice part is that Neverwinter restricts you to a tier or two of powers at a time, meaning you have enough time to really go hands-on with what’s available to you. You can learn what you like before too many options are all vying for your attention. This curbs what I think of as the skill-tree problem, where you randomly pick and try out new powers only to ditch them entirely when some other cool one catches you eye.
And since it has no mana, so you can slam enemies with one power after another as long as you time your cooldowns correctly.
More than enough to do
To speak to the MMO side of Neverwinter, adventurers always have plenty to do. You can waste a whole day just completing enough daily quests to earn Astral Diamonds (ADs), one of the main forms of in-game currency. You can set mercenaries and other laborers to work in the Professions menu and farm resources, and you can collect and fuse like runestones and enchantments to create better socketables for your equipment. You can also perform an hourly invocation to your deity, entering a lottery of sorts where you’re guaranteed to win something. And you can do Foundry Quests, which are completely user-made experiences (more on those in a moment).
Plus, you can join a guild or share quests for even more chances to earn experience, gold, and other assets. Events cycle through the day, boosting the worth of opportunities like dungeon delves, skirmishes, and PvP. But when you’re not killing time, Neverwinter keeps you busy with an assortment of story-based quests. These are variations on a number of basic forms — eliminate a target, kill a horde of enemies, retrieve an item, gather materials, investigate an area, and so on — but they always feel different because they reflect what’s going on in the narrative or because you have a whole new themed region to explore, from frosty mountains to skyships.
Foundry Quests are the real centerpieces, however. Players can build their own very deep and personalized quests, and these are playable anytime. They’re great ways to gain experience. Cryptic Studios has even established an excellent system for sorting through them. Adventurers can leave ratings and reviews, and you can even follow someone to keep track of all their quests. What amazed me, though, is how much creativity and thought players have put into some of these. These are where the real Dungeons & Dragons experiences are since many of the players making them are longtime fans.
While enemies and especially environments are bland at first, they do improve as you progress. I started out fighting bandits, guards, goblins, and orcs — typical fantasy fare and not much of a threat. Later I was scuffling with giant (and baby) spiders, undead pirates, werewolves and electrified storm wolves, ghosts, lizardfolk, demons big and small, and much more — including the occasional gelatinous cube (see the gallery at the end).
These are much more interesting and exciting to see running around your screen, but maybe I’m just a sucker for weird monsters. They have fun personalities, too. The tiny demons — the imps — are a little too excited to try to send you to hell, and it’s not every day that wolves can zap you.
What you won’t like
Neverwinter is free to play, and that may worry a lot of people. It shouldn’t. It’s completely functional without a fancy mount or supercool companion, but you’ll be extremely jealous of the players you see riding around on an armored spider or Inferno Nightmare steed. That doesn’t mean you actually need those things.
While you won’t have trouble acquiring most types of currencies, the value of Zen (the money you need to purchase all those fancy extras) is extraordinarily high. And you have no easy way to earn it. You either pay real money (about $1 per 100 Zen) or exchange ridiculous amounts of ADs for them. You can’t simply buy it with ADs, either. Players must offer them up for trade on the Astral Diamond Exchange, choosing how many ADs they’re willing to give for however much Zen. Then the players with the Zen decide whether that trade is worthwhile.
The going exchange rate is pretty high, too: around 300 ADs for one Zen. This is a pretty steep price for most players, especially early on, when the several daily quests you can do (the biggest payouts) only provide 1,000 or so ADs each. Imagine how long it takes to earn 45,000 — or enough to get 150 Zen if an affluent player deems that a fair trade. As an example, 150 Zen will get you an Enchanted Key, a relatively cheap item that you need to open the dozens of Nightmare Lockboxes (special lottery-like chests) you’ll accumulate during your adventures. I never saw fit to buy a key to open even one.
Sure, you don’t need Zen. But the system is a little rigged. Want to dye your outfit from drab peasant-brown to blue, red, or black? That’ll cost you Zen, but it’s not worth it. As soon as you find a better piece of equipment, you’ll swap it out. Neverwinter restricts you in other minor but annoying ways. Your first choices for companions, for example, are pretty boring — only one animal is available to start, and that’s a gray dog.
When it comes to balancing, Neverwinter suffers in two areas: companion level and PvP.
For most of the game, companions are great company. You barely have to worry about their well-being, and they’ll back you up in a fight. Then their level cuts off at 15 (for most companions, anyway). By the time I was around level 40, my Cleric couldn’t pull her weight. I ended up healing and babysitting her more than she helped me. And before you knock her for being too weak (she’s one of the basic starter companions), note that my rare Acolyte of Kelemvor, who fetches a higher price on the market and can reach level 25 as opposed to 15, couldn’t do much better.
PvP is another problem. First, all that’s currently available is Domination, which gets old fast. Cryptic Studios just released a PvP and player-versus-environment (PvE) expansion today called Gauntlgrym, but that’s for level-60 players only (so I haven’t tried it yet). That doesn’t leave a scrap for anyone else, and it’s strange that adding in an elite PvP is Cryptic’s first priority.
But back to class-balancing in PvP: While it seems that every class has its strengths and weaknesses, their differences really showed in these matches. Some people will definitely disagree with me, but I found Control Wizards to be the most overpowered (at least in PvP). Yes, Guardian Fighters and Great Warrior Fighters are strong, but nearly every time I died, a Control Wizard was behind it. He dealt the damage that made me easy prey for another class or immobilized me with ranged spells and other tricks. These guys can magically push me away from them, teleport to safety as I attack, slow my movements, raise me up in the air to strangle me and prevent me from escaping, and torment me with a special power that hits me wherever I go. And they can do it all from a spot far enough away that you might not even know they’re around.
The Foundry Editor
Although I loved playing Foundry Quests, I groaned while trying to make them myself. The Foundry Editor is a complicated program that you can open at the start screen, and it resembles some boring, grey Windows application that you don’t want to even try to understand. I made an effort, though, and even followed the wikis that are available to players. I still found it incredibly confusing and painstaking.
In places, the Editor tries to simplify tasks for you. It splits the process up into manageable sections, enables you to test your quest by playing it from any major point, and even alerts you when something is wrong. But it’s still complex, and I found myself wishing that I could create quests in real time on a 3D map of the environment. I felt like I was working blind from within the program; when I went into the game world to test, what I thought I had done was much different in execution.
We need a Foundry Editor for dummies, Cryptic.
Dungeons & Dragons lite
Now, I’m not a D&D player, but I did ask a few friends what they valued in the game before heading into Neverwinter. Choice, they said, and customization. The ability to control or shape the quest as it happens. And lots and lots of mythology.
Well, Neverwinter has customization, and it has mythology. You’ll gather countless pages of lore and learn about all sorts of coups, races, monsters, history, and so forth. What’s missing, though, is that sense of either playing Dungeon Master or manipulating the quest as you go along.
That’s where the Foundry Quests come in. Aside from the lore and dice-rolling, which determines which players win what loot, Neverwinter is light on a traditional D&D feel. But in their custom quests, players often create areas with much more mystery than what you find in the actual game. They describe objects you see and add a little enigma to it. I wish the main game had nearly as much atmosphere and imagination underlying its quests, which you do with routine efficiency.
You might think it’s nice to be able to skip dungeons, and in truth, it kind of is. These are party-based affairs, and they usually take at least 45 minutes to complete. However, when I missed the Lair of the Mad Dragon quest (my level got too high) and then realized I could do the same for the other dungeons, I was both irritated and disappointed. Unless you look up where the dungeon is later, you’ll have trouble finding it when you do want to play it. It’s not marked on your map. And missing these quests the first time around renders your role in the story, well, kind of useless. You’re supposed to fight the big bads there, but really, you’re disposable. Neverwinter will get along just fine without your heroism. It’s got a hundred other adventurers to fill in. This more than broke my immersion in the world and narrative.
A little buggy
I didn’t encounter too many big bugs during my playthrough (spiders don’t count — they’re arthropods!), but Neverwinter is filled with little glitches. It it fresh out of open beta, after all, but it’s hard to go a few hours without noticing something that’s off. Thankfully, when you do run into a nasty problem, Cryptic has a good system in place to get you out.
My real gripe, though, isn’t a glitch, but it is something dumb that I feel Cryptic should address immediately. (When they made the nonplayable characters less chatty, for example, it was the best news ever.) Not all like items will stack together in your inventory because they’re either unbound or bound to your character. They do this so you can’t sell used equipment and items at the auction house. This creates a scenario where you can’t group all your potions together, for example, because most of them are probably unbound while a few are bound. If only you could click an option to bind them all, it wouldn’t be as big of a problem. Right now, it’s just an annoyance.
Neverwinter is a fun game, and it’s an excellent introduction to the MMO genre. It doesn’t feel like you need to dump hundreds of hours into it, either, which may be a drawback for those concerned about endgame. However, I only made it so far through, and Cryptic seems prepared to support the game with new content like Gauntlgrym and the free expansion Fury of the Feywild, which is due this summer.
While the free-to-play system doesn’t cripple Neverwinter by any means, it will start to annoy some players because of its weird restrictions. “I hate those guys with the giant spider mounts,” one player told me in game. I agreed. Cryptic could benefit from lowering the value of Zen a bit or making it more accessible to players who don’t want to spend real money (maybe by allowing them to buy it with ADs?). In addition, the developer’s next focus should be to continue cleaning up the bugs, refining and adding more PvP modes, raising companion level caps, and definitely working on a more user-friendly Foundry Editor.
It may have its flaws, but Neverwinter is highly enjoyable and accessible to veteran, beginner, and casual players alike. I’ll see you in the city.
Neverwinter is out June 20, 2013 for PC. The developer provided GamesBeat with a press key to assist with this review.
Photo credits: GamesBeat