A weekend break in the city of Neverwinter
Neverwinter Nights is possibly my favourite BioWare roleplaying title, for reasons that have nothing to do with what one typically associates with a BioWare RPG. The story was forgettable, the characters were two-dimensional and it never really demanded I play it more than once. What hooked me were the tools, specifically the Aurora Toolset. With it, the modding community did amazing things, making completely new games, art, and, most importantly, telling new stories. I spent years in persistant worlds, essentially constant D&D sessions, and writing about that experience in a retrospective was my first foray into the world of game journalism.
So, the setting of Neverwinter is very dear to me, which is why my interest was piqued when I discovered that Cryptic would be making an RPG set in that fantastical city. Then this new Neverwinter became an MMO, and my interested started to wane. Then it became a free-to-play action-based MMO. I was, I confess, concerned. Yet the spirit of adventure still resided within me, and for two weekends I’ve been plumbing the depths of this curious game and I have thoughts about it — thoughts aplenty. Also, pictures, for what holiday would be complete without snaps. So join me on my trip to Neverwinter, with my tiefling wizard enjoying his first package holiday.
One thing is immediately clear about Neverwinter – it’s not a Dungeons & Dragons game beyond the setting. While Dungeons & Dragons Online is D&D game working within the framework of an MMO, Neverwinter is more of an MMOARPG, an acronym I promise I will never use again. Rather than being the hotkey-fest one normally expects from an MMO, characters are restricted to a handful of abilities that can be switched out to tackle different situations. Loadouts, if you will. It’s a wee bit like a MOBA such as League of Legends, in this regard.
Ostensibly, the benefits of such a system are that abilities see greater use and are more meaningful. If I look back at my ridiculous hotbar-filled screen in World of Warcraft, where so many of my abilities would barely ever see use outside of very specific situations, I can certainly see the sense behind cutting that out. And it does makes the game feel more action-orientated, especially with my standard two attacks being mapped to the mouse keys. In fact, it felt not particularly far removed from ARPG romps like Torchlight or Path of Exile.
Each class, of which the Guardian Fighter, Control Wizard, Devoted Cleric and Trickster Rogue were available to play, has a unique ability to help them avoid becoming snacks for undead and such. The Guardian Fighter can block with their shield, which is an active ability, and the Control Wizard, which I’ve spent most of my time playing, can bamf out of trouble. These abilities are limited by a stamina bar, but it recharges pretty damn quickly.
While the attacks of my Control Wizard felt pretty punchy, and often had nifty secondary effects like the ray of frost slowly encasing foes in ice, one strange choice Cryptic has made makes the combat feel less action game it professes to be. While attacking, you can’t move about. This sort of static combat is more the hallmark of traditional MMOs, not this new breed of energetic action-based ones. With my spellcaster being rather squishy, I did get a tad frustrated that I could not continue my attacks as I retreated. I want to emphasise retreated, not running away.
By the time I reached level 20, I had enough spells so that I actually had to start choosing my loadout rather than using everything in my bag of sparkly tricks. My spells, like all attacks, were split into three categories. First off are the basic attacks, mapped to the mouse keys. There wasn’t a cooldown on those, and I could simply hold down the button and spam to my heart’s content.
I began with the traditional magic missiles, quickly adding ray of frost to my repertoire and right mouse button, and both of those spells were upgraded a couple of times as I levelled up. Eventually, I ditched the magic missiles in favour of another ice-based attack that I’ve completely forgotten the name of, as it had some synergy with my passive ability that made my frost attacks more effective.
Then there’re the encounter abilities. These were mapped to the Q, E and R buttons and did have cooldowns. More powerful than the standard attacks, they often played into my wizard’s control role. With one spell, I could raise a foe above the ground and slowly choke them, Sith Lord style, and I was able to keep flinging spells at them as they dangled in the air.
The last set of active abilities come in the form of daily powers. They are something of a misnomer, named for the D&D spells that can only be used once ever 24 hours, but in Neverwinter, you can use them once you’ve generated enough action resources, usually once every few encounters. I was only able to select two by the time I reached level 20, but damn were they useful.
Ice Storm was visually the most impressive, as my wizard channelled powerful arcane forces, which he then unleashed as massive spikes of ice ruptured out of the earth, throwing all enemies in the radius a fair distance, doing substantial damage. The second one I grabbed, Oppressive Force, sucked in all enemies nearby, caused them to blow up, and then dazed them — very handy when you’re playing a class that can get overwhelmed quickly.
Cryptic is one of the few MMO developers I rate highly when it comes to quest design, as they tend to stay aware from dull kill and fetch quests, preferring to to tell a story or give the players an opportunity for adventure. In this regard, Neverwinter successfully continues the studio’s legacy. While the writing and voice acting is nothing to write home about, I did feel like I was questing for adventure rather than experience points.
I hunted down terrorists who stole the crown of Neverwinter, a group who actually considered themselves loyalists to the previous administration; I uncovered a plot to rip apart the city, kill everyone and turn a mage into a god; and I even helped out those lame do-gooders, the Harpers. The actual locations were extremely varied, from the bright, colourful city centre, to a once wealthy district ruined by toxic liquid and volcanic corruption. There was even an orc tribe residing in once district, part of the city they had claimed for themselves and turned into a right mess.
Fidelity-wise it looks pretty good, though sometimes the art direction is a bit uninspired. That said, there were some locations that impressed me, and there were some notable buildings which I never got to enter that did look rather stunning, especially Castle Never, which is infested with all manner of beasties. Character models were less easy on the eyes, generally looking creepy and lifeless, though there’s a decent amount of character customisation available to players, despite this being an early beta.
The Foundry, a tool that has seen great use in Cryptic’s other MMOs, makes a return in Neverwinter, allowing players to craft their own adventures. The editor is pretty damn flexible, and players have already been at work creating quests and storylines for others to enjoy. It’s pretty easy to find them, as well, with NPCs revealing them in-game. Since so many of my memories of Neverwinter Nights are attached to community creations, I’m glad to see this sort of thing making its way into the MMO.
These beta weekends have certainly rekindled my interest in Neverwinter, though they are far from enough to get a proper beat on the game — that will have to wait until launch. However, there’s definitely potential here, and I think that Cryptic are making some smart decisions by starting this as a F2P title instead of failing to maintain subscriptions and then switching model like they did with their previous MMOs. I’m sure I’ll have even more thoughts as the game progresses and I get to take another look.