Never Say Neverwinter Again
Neverwinter is a new action-MMORPG from Cryptic Studios. This franchise has its fingers in so many pies, I don't even know where to begin. Do I talk about how it relates to its Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game roots? I don't think that would be particularly interesting to our readers. Perhaps I should spend some time discussing the Forgotten Realms locale, popularized by writer R.A. Salvatore and the character Drizzt Do'Urden? The game is thick with references. But if you haven't heard of it, all I can do is recommend The Dark Elf Trilogy for a good read. Maybe we could dig into the mission creator, reminiscent of BioWare's (unrelated) Neverwinter Nights games? This is more for wannabe dungeon masters than players, though.
After all is said and done, it makes the most sense to compare Neverwinter to contemporaries like Dungeons And Dragons Online, Tera, and Vindictus.
Let's start with Dungeons And Dragons Online (DDO), a game from rival developer Turbine that's still going strong. DDO was one of the first "freemium" MMOs. It was designed around the old subscription-based method and retrofitted for free play. There is plenty you can do without paying a dime, but if you're serious about the game, you'll be constantly reminded about the adventures and features you aren't allowed to partake in unless you pay a subscription fee, or at least buy portions of content with cash. This is the revenue model that Star Wars: The Old Republic took, and it's irritating as hell. Yes, I know I'm suffering from slow XP gain because I'm not a subscriber, but thanks for telling me again, BioWare. As great as The Old Republic content is, I got tired of being pestered before I was engaged enough to spend money.
This is in sharp contrast with Neverwinter's revenue model. No content is gated, and progression isn't slowed for free players. Sure, you can use real money to buy in-game items, but you can also earn those items through by playing and trading in-game currency (Astral Diamonds) for paid currency (Zen, sold online through the game's publisher, Perfect World). This is an ideal way for a free-to-play game to operate: no restrictions on non-paying players, and everything in the cash store can be earned through play. [edit: we should clarify that DDO does allow you to earn Turbine Points in game, but they're relatively difficult to accumulate. More importantly, DDO requires players to purchase access to game content, but all of the content is free in Neverwinter]
Of course, none of this matters if the game sucks. Thankfully, that isn't the case. Neverwinter combines the fast pace of action-RPG games like Vindictus with the rich world and nuanced progression of traditional MMOs. The result is more fun than I anticipated, with surprisingly powerful character abilities right out of the gate, and a rate of progression that keeps you coming back to acquire more powers or upgrade existing ones. Neverwinter's combat system is a lot more twitchy and than I'm used to, and it removes a lot of the power-queuing typical of the MMO genre. It makes you feel a lot more involved and connected to the fight. I'm not a huge fan of Vindictus, so it's a little surprising that Cryptic Studios found a balance that really appeals to me.
What about everything else? For a brand new game, it certainly feels very mature, with rich environments, mini-games, and a plethora of different things to do. There are many standard missions to help progress your character, the PvP arenas are a lot of fun, and so are the group PvE quests, dungeons, and events. You can also manage and level-up your companions (mercenary and animal NPCs under your control). There's even a crafting profession system that's playable in-game or outside the game through a browser that awards the same in-game items (at gateway.playneverwinter.com). In addition, you can create your own adventures using the game's foundry tool, mentioned previously. Others are able to experience and rate those adventures through an in-game job board and NPC informants. As a result, this title feels quite rich. Of course, it's impossible to say how much end-game content there is at this early stage.
So, what about Neverwinter is weak? Well, there's not much of a story arch. The adventure plots are nothing special and you're not going to find any innovation in the narrative department. Don't expect many cutscenes or much spoken dialogue, either. As far as your NPC companions, a human cleric will demonstrate as much personality as a honey badger (read: none). Cryptic can only dream of the budgets that BioWare gets for writers and voice acting. Then again, you can't have a honey badger companion in Star Wars: The Old Republic, so +1 for Neverwinter.
It's impossible to properly rate an MMO without spending a life force-draining amount of time on it, but since the price tag is free-ninety-nine, I heartily encourage you to try it. Progress at least until you've picked up three abilities, since the title's very beginning is fairly weak. The good news is that it gets better quickly.
How does it look? How will it perform on your hardware? Glad you asked...