Oh Dungeons & Dragons, how I missed thee.
The massively multiplayer online genre has been crammed with games following the monumental success of titles like Guild Wars and World of Warcraft. However, few of them have had any long-term impact or sustainability. Typically, a new release signals the flood of genre refugees looking to spark the same excitement experienced with their first beloved MMO. Those online worlds soon become little more than a short vacation spot and before refugees know it, they're back to their old habits.
Cryptic Studios has been one of many important contributors to the MMO genre over the years with games like City of Heroes and Champions Online. But now it’s decided to take a crack at one of gaming's most beloved IPs: Dungeons & Dragons. It isn’t the first time the fantasy world of D&D has shaken hands with online RPGs, but it’s the most thoughtful rendition yet.
Neverwinter immediately graces D&D fans with eight familiar races to play as including the unmistakable Tiefling. The character creation process is simplified but allows enough customization to differentiate yourself. Each race has its own base stats and perks, so those looking for optimization will want to do a little research before committing. Beyond choosing a race you also get to select an origin for the character and a deity affiliation. Neither has any effect on gameplay but fans will be happy with these touches.
During character creation you’ll also need to choose a class to play as. All five use a different weapon type and have a distinct class mechanic. While the Trickster Rogue can stealth mid combat to add an additional effect to its next ability, the Great Weapon Fighter can become an unstoppable force immune to movement impairing effects. You have a choice as to which type of gameplay style you specialize in with the feats system, and all essential roles are present including DPS, tank, and healer. Yes, that means this game follows the classic trinity formula, but that doesn’t mean it plays like a classic MMO.
Neverwinter’s greatest asset is its combat. Your mouse guides your point of view and whatever you center your screen on is what your spells and attacks collide with. In a way it feels like you’re playing a game like Diablo 3, but in third-person without the aging tab-targeting system. Careful aiming is necessary during fights with multiple enemies in an effort to focus primary targets. There’s also an active dodge mechanic that provides a means of avoiding devastating area of effect attacks and critical strikes.
In addition to choosing where to place stats and feat points, you also get to select what abilities to equip and upgrade for your limited slots. They unlock as you level and by the time you hit 10-15 you’ll have all the allotted slots filled. You have your choice of two at-will powers, three encounter powers, two daily powers, and one utility power exclusive to your character’s class. The encounter powers are cooldown oriented while the daily powers—despite their name—are ultimate attacks that can only be used once every several minutes. As a result most of the time you’re stuck depending on using your basic left or right-click attacks while waiting for abilities to come off cooldown. The combat could certainly benefit from having more choices available, but what is available is engaging and fun.
The world of Neverwinter looks great and utilizes the dark tones that D&D is known for. Many different areas are made memorable by large structures and vistas. But the presentation isn’t perfect. Character models appear aged with a noticeable lack of detail. It doesn’t help that gear progression is extremely slow and you’ll feel like you look the same at level 30 as you did when you made your character. Zones are tight and give a sense that you’re playing a single-player game since they’re instanced with a low player cap. It doesn’t feel like a place that exists to immerse you or drive a sense of community.
NPC conversations are fully voice acted to add personality to the hundreds of characters you’ll interact with during your venture through the grueling journey to level cap. Although the voice acting execution is laughable at times, it should help many follow the story since quest text has never been very popular with gamers. You’ll also find notes scattered around the world that offer additional insight into the happenings of Neverwinter’s fictional universe.
As you should expect from an MMO, there are a range of dungeons and skirmishes (group events) to earn rewards from. Unlike many contemporary games, there’s an option to queue up and be paired with other players so you don’t have to spam general chat endlessly. The interface for finding groups is streamlined making participation in content with others an absolute breeze. Even better, the dungeons are well-conceived with attention to detail and boss fights that will test your team’s ability to pay attention to important mechanics.
The Foundry is where Cryptic Studios shows strokes of brilliance. In essence it’s a toolkit that allows players to craft their own quests, zones, and stories all within the game’s client. There are already thousands of user-created quests to engage in with hundreds added every day. Sure, some of them aren’t worth your time but that’s what the review system is for. You can specify search parameters so whenever you play with The Foundry you’re sure to have a good time.
There’s also PvP but it’s extremely limited and unbalanced. Its single game mode called domination pits two teams of five players against each other in a battle for control points. You’ve certainly seen such a style of competition before but it’s a good way to unload after a long day of grinding. Well, assuming the playing field is even, anyway. Those who have invested real money into the Zen Market have the advantage of faster mounts and high-quality gear that would otherwise take weeks if not months to earn.
The free-to-play allure of Neverwinter quickly loses its shine once you head into the cash shop for your first time. All items including mounts and companions are extremely expensive. Inventory space is painfully limited in the game unless you cough up $10 per additional bag. Respecs require real money as do bank slots. Although you can put up with the inconveniences, players having access to rare gear with real money is distasteful. Consequently, when you see other characters with powerful gear you have no idea if they earned it or just plopped real-world currency into the Zen Market.
If you’re in-between MMOs and looking for something to soak up time, Neverwinter is a good choice. Its action-oriented combat will make your stay memorable, and you might find yourself spending long nights in The Forge. Once you realize it doesn’t make an effort to build community and heavily rewards those who invest wallets full of money you may become turned off as quickly as you fell in love. If you’re a Dungeons & Dragons fan you may be willing to push aside the shortcomings. For everyone else it’s a great vacation spot but not the kind of place you’d want to live in.
Code provided by publisher. Exclusive to PC.