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Ten years ago Bioware released a game called Neverwinter Nights. Though disappointing as a single-player RPG, the campaign wasn’t really the point. Instead, the game focused on user-generated multiplayer content built with the amazingly powerful Aurora toolset. Players eventually used the game and its sequel, Neverwinter Nights 2, to build sprawling co-op campaigns and miniature MMOs.
Now, with surprisingly little fanfare, a new Neverwinter title has been released by Cryptic (better known for Champions Online and Star Trek Online). It ignores single-player entirely and instead is a full-blown MMO, but with a twist; you can still make your own content and play campaigns made by other people. Does this make it stand out in the absurdly crowded free-to-play market?
Creating a new character is an important part of any role-playing game, but it’s particularly important for Neverwinter because the game is based of Dungeons & Dragons and uses the standard Forgotten Realm setting. To keep true to these influences, the developers have served up an array of characters from D&D’s Player’s Handbook 1 and 2. They’ve also created five classes based on specializations of classes found in Player’s Handbook 1.
This is an interesting approach, and one that serves up a bit more flavor than the typical role-playing game. None of the races are unique (besides the Tiefling, perhaps) but all of them are backed by loads of lore which is expressed in-game through occasional racial quests. Players must also select a background and deity, two choices that have no gameplay effect but serve to encourage role-play.
While the flavor is great, the game does suffer from controversial character models. Cryptic’s arts have obviously tried to re-create the cartoonish yet conventional style found in D&D’s official books, but this sometimes translates poorly to 3D. Dwarves and Elves are particularly cartoonish and every race suffers oversized eyes, though the advanced character customization panel lets players resize them.
Neverwinter is not a traditional MMO for reasons that go beyond user-made content. The combat system is heavily based off action-RPGs and focuses on proper use of a small selection of abilities. Auto-attack and tab-targeting have been replaced by a reticle and attacks tied to a handful of buttons. What to hit something? Line it up and use a power!
This action-RPG approach throws a wrench into the traditional MMO trinity of tank/healer/damage, but these roles aren’t gone, either. The Guardian Warrior class can attract some threat and has a unique block mechanic that can be used to negate damage, but encounters don’t revolve around every enemy attacking this tank. The Devoted Cleric Class has some heals, but this heals trigger either through damage dealt or through healing beams targeted at players.
The other classes, though technically damage-dealers, all have their own tools; the Trickster Rogue can stealth and flank enemies for maximum damage, the Control Wizard can force-choke and freeze opponents to stop or delay them, and the Great Weapon Fighter can take out multiple opponents while acting as an off-tank.
Questing in Neverwinter is less unique. There’s still a fair number of “grab ten bear butts” quests, and while the combat makes these more engaging, don’t expect to be impressed. The game saves itself some trouble, however, by making the entire world on a smaller scale; there’s simply no room for annoying fetch quests in this game’s claustrophobic dungeons and small outdoor areas.
Players may forget the dull quests, however, because the game quickly dishes out rewards and new abilities. You’ll be using some cool powers by level 10, and that’s just the beginning; at end game, players have incredible powers that are visually stunning and satisfying to use. Part of that satisfaction from physics. That’s right – physics in an MMO! Killing an enemy with a powerful attack can send him sailing into a pit below (but don’t worry; the loot doesn’t go with him).
Neverwinter isn’t Cryptic’s first try at player-created content. The developer has implemented systems like this in previous games, and its experience shows. There is no veil or obstacle between players and content made by others; instead, the game goes out of its way to help you find it. There are job boards placed across the game world that let players pick a campaign and even NPCs that, when spoken to, will direct players to user content that begins nearby.
As you might expect, all of the user content is instanced. But I think that’s actually a boon because when you build your own MMO, it allows players a great deal of creative freedom. There are dungeon crawls, larger open-world areas, huge campaigns and tiny quests. Difficulty can range from casual single-player strolls based more on lore than combat to grinding dungeon slogs only the toughest groups dare try.
The inclusion of user-generated content should provide end-game variety not typically found in MMOs. Most games in this genre have to rely on repeatable dungeons and daily quests, but there will also be a new user-made campaign to experience in Neverwinter.
You might think that the tools used to create this content would be difficult, but they’re actually quite simple. I’ll even go far as to say this is the easiest level editor I’ve ever used. Levels are built with a toolbox of pre-built assets and scripted story events can be easily handled with the story editor. With that said, even a small level can take hours to perfect, so content creation isn’t a task for those short on time.
The Business Model
No free-to-play game review would be complete without a look at how it generates money. And this is unfortunately an area where Neverwinter stumbles.
The problem isn’t value. The game offers a lot of content for free and I believe all of it is accessible to free players. Extra like bags and special mounts are expensive, yet, but the overall cost of playing this game will should come in far below buying a $40 to $60 game and then paying for a subscription.
So what’s the issue? Confusion! Most vendors in the game come in two flavors, one selling items for gold and another for Astral Diamonds. Astral Diamonds can be bought, but aren’t an entirely paid currency, because you can also earn them in-game (a fact that isn’t transparent in-game). And then there’s yet another currency, Zen, which can only be bought with cash. This is what you need for certain premium items, like costumes and mounts. The confusion of managing three different currencies is only made worse by poor storefront presentation.
Another beef I have is a missing subscription option. I personally don’t like micro-transactions, so I usually pay for a subscription if I think I’ll be playing for more than a week. In most games, subbing will let me ignore the cash shop and just play. But that’s not an option here, so there’s no way to avoid the currency confusion and terrible storefront.
None of this kills the game, but it doesn’t help, either. I’m sure some will become frustrated and simply decide to move on to another, more intuitive game.
Neverwinter is a surprisingly unique entry into the MMO genre. On its surface, the game seems like a standard online fantasy RPG, and you might wonder why it was even released when Turbine’s Dungeon’s & Dragon’s Online is still operating. But jump in the game and you’ll quickly see that Neverwinter is quite different from its competitors and offers a breath of fresh air.
How the game operates in the long term will depend on how well the developers can carry their current momentum. The game has just five classes and lackluster official quests, so players may get bored and move back to their MMO of choice. New classes and content must be added quickly.
But this is a free-to-play game, so the question is simple; is Neverwinter worth your time? Absolutely! At the least, it’s a good action-RPG likely to consume thirty or forty hours of your life. If new content is introduced at a reasonable pace this game could put a wrinkle in the genre. This is the first MMO I’ve played in years to successfully re-think combat.