The last MMORPG I attempted was City of Heroes. I say “attempted” because I discovered something I probably should have known deep down—I need to play with friends. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the occasional multiplayer game these days, but rather, I need to know who they are, and they should probably be in the room with me. After trying COH out with two different heroes and enjoying it for a spell, I soon found the missions too challenging to handle alone. I’d try to bait enemies one by one, but the game wanted me, begged me, to play with strangers. After a few attempts at doing so—some successful, others irritating—I stopped playing forever.
Now, 12 years later, I was asked to give Neverwinter a go on the Playstation 4. Released in the middle of July, it represented the console version to the Dungeons & Dragons MMO on PC. It’s also ostensibly free-to-play, a system I approach with significant trepidation given the often negative connotations associated with it. After constructing the nicest-looking, ugly sun elf the customization options could muster, I set foot into Neverwinter to slay things.
I suppose I’ll change tactics and begin with the surface of the game: For a PS4 game, the graphics are remarkably lackluster. I wish I could say that this is in contrast to the PC version, but it seems that they are only mildly less refined. Character customization seems to have a lot of options, but they all add up to one of the least satisfying creators since Dark Souls. The world around my avatar seems to have suffered a similar fate. Although the environments do display a level of artistry, typically via color and some light filters, the fidelity of the materials within them is disappointing. Add on the fact that you’ll see a lot of repeated objects, often resized and rotated to appear dissimilar from previous iterations, despite their size, the worlds lack any real panache.
Of course, being that this is an MMO, you’ll be viewing anything worth seeing through the lens of a stunningly large HUD anyway. (To that end, I am appalled that many of the promotional screenshots exclude it entirely, not that there’s a button to hide it.) The only clear visible space on screen is a thin horizontal bar, if you will. The entire rest is personal stats, quests, social information, a continually scrolling log, your abilities, and the mini-map. Needless to say, it's busy, and if you do find a moment worth capturing via the Share button, it’ll be marred by the MMO HUD elements. It’s not even attractive, like in the Persona games, just very common for fantasy RPGs.
Having said my piece about the looks, let’s dive below the surface. The gameplay itself is rather mindless fun. Given a bevy of abilities—at-wills mapped onto the triggers, ones with cooldowns on your face buttons, and ones you build up tucked beneath those—you’ll soon be slaying foes left and right. My character is at level 37, and thus far, I have not experienced a real challenge. I’ve only fallen in battle once, which was while battling a dragon, but it was the proximally-placed randomly-refreshing enemies who aggro-ed me that did me in. I’ve since beaten the dragon and his friends three times with large groups.
Yes, I’ve played with large groups. Yet Neverwinter is astoundingly single player-friendly. After completing a nice amount of early quests, you’re given a companion to assist you. And they are all you need, really, to do practically everything. Health items drop so frequently that I rarely found myself limping to the rejuvenating bonfires strewn about. But there are quests you can do with strangers via an easy menu-accessed queueing system. As for the aforementioned dragon, despite assuredly killing it dead, creatures like it spawn in place at regular intervals on the public maps, so whoever shows up gets a go. It is a sight to behold, and you certainly cannot do it alone (there’s a time limit), but it’s less like a coordinated flash mob and more like the audience at a concert—you’re all just individually doing the same thing and enjoying it.
Missions are not notably-inspired. The story driving them can be interesting at times, though of course, it’s easy to ignore when you aren’t into it. You’ll meet plenty of characters along the way, but they mostly stay in place. Surprisingly, the bulletin boards that appear in many areas collect dust while you speak to the humanoid versions of that very thing. The missions that send you into dungeons generally involve tackling enemies down hallways with some highlighted encounters and a final boss fight. Almost everything else asks you to run around the public map doing five or six of something—killing, collecting, destroying, etc.
Watching other players run around is cute until you realize you’re watching them do what you just did a minute before. This reinforces the lack of importance or permanence to your actions. Whereas in an exclusively single-player RPG, your actions can have a meaningful or final effect on the world, the MMO’s threads are laid bare. Nothing you do matters except to you as you collect money, experience, and gear. You’re all just ghosts experiencing the same limbo at asynchronous times unless you queue up. This, then, turns Neverwinter into a grind-fest because your story, as interesting as it is sometimes, belongs to everyone!
However, this is not what I’m truly cynical about. It’s currency. The game is full of it. For a free-to-play piece of software, it sure has a lot of different currencies. Beyond money made of the three common metals, you’ve got astral diamonds, rough astral diamonds, companion tokens, mount tokens, trade bars, ardent coins, celestial coins, and so on. This is not including Zen, which is arguably more cynical than I am about it.
Named for a school of Buddhism, one that focuses on understanding through meditation and self-control, Zen is a valuable currency you can purchase with money or, via a punitive conversion rate, an absurd amount of Astral Diamonds. I suppose, like material objects in a meditative religion, you don’t explicitly need it. But if Buddhism were more like Scientology, Zen would grease the wheels of your ascendance. And you can use it to purchase better everything than you get just by grinding. Perhaps it’s strange to excoriate such a common practice in F2P games, but damn if it isn’t mockingly bullshit.
With the always-online aspect looming about, there are sure to be some associated bugs and drawbacks. Inside the over-populated walls of Protector’s Enclave, the starting area and general shopping hub, slowdown is frequent, though not notably pernicious. Since you don’t do battle there, it’s hard to deride that too much. Out in the world, I would infrequently experience what I assume are syncing errors. Basically, I’d travel forwards, but the game would repeatedly set me back a few steps, suggesting client and server were not agreeing with each other on where my character existed while moving. But this error was sparse, and I suffered no negative impact whatsoever as a result.
No, that arrived this week, now two weeks after release. Starting on Sunday, July 31st, every attempt I made to log on with my character would freeze. The loading circle would stop swirling about, and no scenic images would load, though the theatrical music would continue playing. This wasn’t acknowledged by the developers on the official Twitter account until mid-afternoon on August 1st. It appears the workaround was logging in with a completely different character and then trying again with your main. Though downtime is understandable, even though this was actually a bug, some communication via email would’ve been welcome. But it’s working now. It’s fine.
To an extent, I did enjoy my time with Neverwinter. It’s extremely mindless grinding, which can be fun now and again when you’re feeling non-committal. And from what I’ve learned of the endgame offerings, when you’re fully leveled, you can just experience much of the same. I’m not sure how long someone would want to experience more of the same, and I don’t feel like anything I’ve played warrants going through it all again with another character. It’s just not all that compelling, but if you have friends you’d like to quest with, it’s certainly something to do… like many other things.