The lights are on
Cryptic’s latest probably isn’t what most would picture as a Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG, but it works surprisingly well as a multiplayer fantasy action game. Plus, Neverwinter’s powerful creation tools have already borne delicious fruit in the form of player-crafted adventures.
[Editor's Note: Game Informer does not assign traditional review scores to MMOs given their constantly updating and changing nature. This column examines the game with a critical eye, and takes the place of a standard review.]
The last two titles from Cryptic Studios, Star Trek Online and Champions Online, left me cold. Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons is a weird departure for the venerable tabletop role-playing system. The idea of combining the two into a free-to-play MMORPG didn’t exactly fill me with confidence, but Neverwinter succeeds despite its questionable provenance by not hewing too closely to either side of its heritage. More of an action game than a tactical RPG and more of a dungeon-crawler than an MMO, Neverwinter has an identity of its own.
The forgettable story centers around the aftermath of the devastating Spellplague in late-period Forgotten Realms canon, and a subsequent undead siege that threatens the bustling Sword Coast city of Neverwinter. The single storyline that runs from character creation to endgame dungeons casts you as the hero who delivers the city from its ills, ignoring the MMO part of the game in classic hand-waving fashion. The uninspired questing isn’t awful, but the only use I have for the boilerplate fantasy adventuring in Neverwinter is as a backdrop for the genuinely entertaining combat.
The immediate gameplay is closer to Guild Wars than anything else out there. Like in ArenaNet’s exceptional franchise, avoiding attacks through positioning, lining up area-effect abilities, and juggling cooldowns are all critical skills. The strategy ends up being “sloppier,” for lack of a better term, but the chaos is fun in its own way, especially when every build of every class throws out explosive attacks that would be laughably overpowered in any other MMO.
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Nearly every non-trivial fight (read: dungeon bosses and not much else) involves waves of minions that must be dealt with while not letting the main boss kick anyone’s face in. The general idea is to mash your most powerful attack that isn’t on cooldown, dodge like a madman to avoid big-windup telegraphed attacks, and slap any loose monsters with whatever disabling effects you have available. Forget “tank-and-spank,” because even the Guardian Fighter can’t really tank in any meaningful sense and encounters are too chaotic to control anyway. Fortunately, every class has built-in mechanics that let them largely survive on their own without relying on allies to bail them out.
Player-versus-player matches channel the exceptional combat well, with two important caveats bringing down the overall experience. The emphasis on movement powers, ground-based targeting, and manual dodging strain Neverwinter’s netcode to the limit, even in these instanced five-on-five matches. Expect to curse at your screen as the game regularly fails to register a hit for a spell that looked like it connected on your screen. Also, the general wonky class balance (even by just-launched MMO standards) is a particular problem in PvP. Pity the poor souls playing fighters.
Combat is far and away the best thing Neverwinter has going for it. The ancillary systems that make up an MMO are mediocre at best. Gear is hideously boring, with passive stats that have tiny individual impacts on your character’s abilities. The auction house has been badly broken for most of the time it’s been implemented, with searches often returning nonsensical results. An exploit even allowed players to place negative-value bids that both won auctions and sent them the specified sum of money. Leveling is well-paced but sadly lacking in choices until you’re over halfway to the level cap, and even then you’re mostly choosing between small passive stat boosts and which flavor of “attack” or “disable” you prefer. Crafting is built around a neat paradigm that has you sending minions on offscreen tasks, but creating any worthwhile gear requires an absurd amount of grinding and effectively mandatory real-money purchases.
The economy is one of the worst I’ve seen in years of playing MMOs. Two in-game currencies (astral diamonds and gold) are used for different items and services, and the real-money currency (zen) can be spent at the cash shop or bought from other players for astral diamonds. Most things worth spending astral diamonds on cost obscenely high amounts that require either selling rare drops from endgame dungeons to other players, purchasing via real money, or months of grinding. Many all-but-obligatory convenience items, like inventory and bank space, are extremely difficult to come by except through real-money purchase. The whole system is a hard-to-understand mess, and layers pointless complexity onto every phase of the game for no seeming purpose other than to sow confusion in players.
I’m not generally one to moan about publishers pushing real-money purchases in free games – these things cost money to make, and you’re getting the game for free – but Neverwinter grinds your face into its business model with increasingly uncomfortable regularity as you progress. Crafting is one notable area where it’s nearly impossible to make effective progress without dropping cash, but it’s hardly the only one. I find the ubiquity of blind-purchase “grab bags” particularly distasteful, preying as it does on a well-known foible in human psychology to encourage players with poor impulse control or self-discipline to spend more money. You still get an awful lot of game for free here (and thank goodness no energy meter or dungeons-per-day limit exists), and you can avoid most of the cash purchases, but the grab bags are pushed at you with distasteful frequency.
The powerful Foundry tools allow players to create modules for their fellow adventurers to take part in, and Cryptic smartly built it to scale content to the user’s level and give reasonable rewards in XP, money, and loot. My experience with it has been mixed, but the best player-created adventures are better than any of the “official” content, and the framework allows authors to be creative with branching paths and scripted enemy spawns. Finding the good stuff is still much too difficult, but Cryptic has acknowledged that problem and says that a better system for surfacing quality player-created content is in the works.
Neverwinter isn’t perfect and it’s not at all what I expected, but it’s fun. Each class is amusing in its own way, and blowing apart enemies with powerful skills is a blast even when the narrative excuse for doing so is so thin as to be translucent. Approach this as more of a multiplayer dungeon-crawler with the potential for cool player-created content than as a true long-term MMO with an endless endgame, and you shouldn’t come away disappointed.
For more on Neverwinter, check out our recent podcast episode dedicated to the game.