By Jason Harper (Hhean), OnRPG Journalist
Neverwinter wasn’t always intended to be the FTP MMO it is today. Early interviews from Crpytic had them paint the game as a Co-op game similar to Diablo or Borderlands, but was repurposed after Perfect World bought the company from Atari. It shows. The game is at its best when it provides tightly scripted sequences with interesting set pieces and plots, but any time it falls back on standard MMO tropes, it puts its greatest weaknesses to the fore.
Unlike Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online, Neverwinter doesn’t try to keep to the spirit of D&D. It uses the Faerun setting and reuses a lot of names and stats from D&D, but what these things actually do within the game is nothing more than window dressing. If you’re a purist who wanted an online version of their favourite tabletop dungeon crawling experience, then you’d be best off looking elsewhere. The game is an action RPG first and foremost, with an emphasis on a well-built skinner box rather than any real sense of adventure or exploration.
Character creation features a boilerplate UI that displays a series of drab, lifeless mannequins. Cryptic have never really made great looking games, but their excellent character customisation always made the process of making a new character fun. While you are given a variety of aesthetic options to choose from, no two characters of the same race and gender wind up too different from one another, regardless of what silly hairstyle you give them. While the rest of the game looks better than the opening character select, its muted colour palette, stilted animations and drab characters means no-one is going to call it a great looking game. The game also seems to assume that all surfaces were made of plastic, making everything look like action figures are moving between dollhouses.
You are given the choice of five different classes that share names with D&D staples and little else. The Rogue is a teleporting single target damage dealer who disappears in clouds of black smoke. The Cleric is a ranged healer, a far cry from the healing bruiser in most D&D products. The Guardian Fighter is the standard tank who taunts enemies before smashing them with their shield. The Greatsword Fighter is a burly AoE melee damage dealer that pretends to be a Barbarian on the weekends. Then there’s the Control Wizard, who’s that kid in the playground who holds the nerds down so the other bullies can turn their victim into a punching bag.
This is a game with randomised starting stats. No joke. Once you’ve picked your clay faced adventurer and given them a job to do, you must submit yourself before a random number generator to determine your character’s starting statistics. Curiously, Cryptic seem to be aware of how awful it is to have a character be left to the whims of a digital dice roller, and opted for players to be able to randomise between a limited pool of stat arrays. You cannot simply choose which array you’d like for your character from a list, and have to keep mashing the reroll button until you get a stat block that isn’t going to make your character a waste of flesh. Someone at Cryptic likely thought this would somehow give the appearance of an ‘authentic’ D&D experience, in spite of the fact that the point buy system has been the standard for over two editions now. This is the realm of absolute disasters like Wizardry Online.
After escaping character generation, you will be confronted with some of the worst voice acting found in MMOs. Stilted. lines. read. from. a. script. mount a full frontal assault on your speakers while the camera zooms into a plastic, dead face to draw attention to the game’s lack of lip sync. One of the NPCs even switches their voice every time you speak to him, switching accents and mannerisms with each new quest. You can step away from the NPCs while they’re delivering their exposition and they’ll keep blathering while you can go and do something productive.
The combat will likely make or break your enjoyment of the game, since there’s little else to fill your time. There’s no tab targeting, but the game’s ‘action’ moniker and centre crosshair is just smoke and mirrors. When you use an ability as your crosshair is near an enemy, you will lock on to them, and be unable to target anyone else until they are no longer a viable target or die. The strategy for most fights is to hold down your left click to auto attack the enemy while you slowly build the resources needed to blast them to bits with your various abilities. While there is a dodge function available, it’s only useful to move when an enemy puts the big red ‘I’m about to attack here!’ marker on the floor. It’s a tepid effort, neither slumping into drudgery nor elevating its player to excitement. If you want something to relax to, it can be a good way to switch off.
The few times when Neverwinter’s combat almost drags itself from the fetid pools of mediocrity is when you encounter a new enemy type and have to figure out what new type of red marker they place on the floor. Enemy diversity in the game is very limited, as most packs of enemies will comprise of a combination of a big and small melee guy, an archer or two and a wizard. The odd surprise like some of the monstrous giants and ogres that have deadly, yet easily avoidable attacks are unfortunately too rarely seen outside the games constantly repeating template.
Structurally, the game sticks to what Cryptic already knows. If Champions Online were set in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world rather than silver age comic books, it wouldn’t be too far removed from Neverwinter. The player does one to three quests before fighting in a micro dungeon, ultimately building towards a final boss dungeon before moving on to a new area. It’s not a terrible formula, but it leaves you hungry for a change of pace.
When this structure is abandoned in favour of a tighter narrative, Neverwinter gets off the couch, cleans itself up and screams for attention. During these sections it shows how strong a co-op experience it could have been, had it not been buried waist deep in MMO trappings.
Only, it is sometimes difficult to call this an MMO at all, as most content is designed as a single player experience first and foremost. If you consider that a negative, and was looking forward to something more group oriented, then the dungeons and skirmishes provide a moderately entertaining diversion. The rest of the content in the game won’t scale with the number of players though, so bringing more than a single player to anything else in the game will turn the already easy game into a complete cakewalk.
You might think that with all of these problems, Neverwinter is a thorough chore, and yet it never quite feels like it. Following the game’s glowing breadcrumb trail to complete its never ending stream of tasks is a satisfying experience due to the steady stream of strategically timed rewards. Each level feels meaningful, while never seeming hard to reach. Loot spews out as a glorious golden fountain from fallen enemies as each chest floods your inventory with new toys. Even the game’s simple crafting system is just another way of delivering a steady stream of goods to your pack. It makes it very hard to evaluate the game’s merits while every monkey part of your brain is screaming at you to keep pushing the buttons that keep shooting bananas your way.
The game’s greatest strength outside of its efforts to send you into a greedy stupor is The Foundry, a toolkit given to the game’s players that lets them build their own content. Outside of the inability to customise your own map layouts, and being unable to change the layout of the UI, the Foundry has a more robust feature set than seen in any other MMO. The way that the custom quests and dungeons can tie in with doors in the game world rather than being limited to some terminals off in one corner of the map is incredible. It lets the Foundry’s stories feel right at home alongside the developer made content. Some of the content to be found in just this first week is already more entertaining than most of the developer made stuff, making it likely that the game’s future is likely to be found in the Foundry’s quests.
Neverwinter is a game that’s worth trying out for an evening or so. If you have a download limit and are concerned about using up your cap on something so disposable, then you’re likely better allocating your bandwidth elsewhere. It’s certainly not worth actually spending money on, since the items in-game bought with real money get you little, and most people are unlikely to stick with the game for more than a week. It’s not a bad game, but it does commit one of the worst sins of game design. It’s dull.