Initially a footnote of a city in the "Grey Box" first edition release of the Forgotten Realms PnP setting in the late '80s, Neverwinter has become an iconic setting for anything D&D-related over the past three decades, and its status has been helped along by a slew of games, modules and novels.
The first graphical MMO on America On-Line's service was based on the city of Neverwinter in 1991. Then BioWare brought Neverwinter Nights to the PC in 2002, along with the tools to be a digital dungeon master and host player-crafted worlds and adventures. Later, Obsidian Studios flexed its storytelling and adventure chops with another original campaign and a memorable add-on, Mask of the Betrayer.
It has come full circle by turning into a full-fledged MMORPG again with Cryptic Studios and Perfect World's free-to-play Neverwinter, which is based on a narrative that takes place 100 years after Obsidian's Neverwinter Nights 2 campaign. The game utilizes Wizard of the Coast's newest fourth edition of the D&D rule set.
New arrivals are shipwrecked on the shores near Neverwinter, where they are taught the ropes as they go through the obligatory tutorial area.
A lot has changed in the Forgotten Realms since Neverwinter Nights 2. The Spellplague has wrought havoc on spells and mages. This has awakened a lot of bad things, such as a cataclysm that nearly destroyed Neverwinter and a host of horrors that want to tear down what's left. An evil lich named Valindra is leading the latest effort to conquer the city, and this forms the backdrop for the player quests.
It's clear that Neverwinter tries very hard to welcome casual players. Gobs of experience points are tossed around for finishing quests or simply "invoking" a prayer at the nearest campfire. It's possible to solo almost every quest, aside from instances specifically designed for five-member match-ups. Once you hit the current level cap of 60, a few instances can also be soloed if you're bored.
Character creation is straightforward to anyone who has played a stats-heavy RPG. The basic races in D&D are here — dwarves, half-demon tieflings, half-elves, halflings, half-orcs, humans and wood elves — and all have the usual strengths and weaknesses. Next up are the classes, which are still limited to five major choices, with a new one "coming soon": Devoted Clerics, Great Weapon Fighters, Guardian Fighters, Trickster Rogues and Control Wizards.
You can roll your stats after picking your class, but the rolls don't seem to be very random. After rolling through a number of combos, I noticed that certain scores kept coming back to certain thresholds. Unlike a number of RPGs where you can roll terrible statistics and must live with the consequences, your class determines your major stats, which always seem to be high. If you want a dwarven Control Wizard, you can make one without worrying about the old school of thought that dwarves don't make good wizards. In this setting, you can be decent at anything, especially with a race focused on the stats and class that you want.
There are a ton of personalization options for your character's appearance, and it's important to remember that once that's set, that's the way he or she is going to look unless you purchase a token to change it. Afterward, you can choose where you were born and the god that you worship, but this doesn't yet play any role in the game other than in enabling a new title choice for everyone to see. Once that's done, you score your first level-up, and it's off to the game world.
Skill-wise, each class is well represented. A variety of upgradeable powers eventually unlocks more powerful, D&D-flavored variants, and feats and paragon paths crop up later. As my character progressed, he earned a point to be spent on powers (abilities like attacks and buffs) and later, a separate point for feats and, eventually, paragon abilities. Every 10 levels, you gain two points to use on attributes (like strength and intelligence), and at level 30 and 60, you get an automatic point for those across the board.
There are also tool tips everywhere to help clarify things. Bring up the character sheet and hold the cursor over stats. The sheet also shows details like your current defense or power ratings, and it'll explain them with varying degrees of detail.
At first, characters have a number of slots locked on the hot-keyed ability bar, but as they increase levels, more become available. The game is big on using a combination of abilities and skills in combat since individual skills require a cooldown period after use, with the exception of the daily power, which you must charge up through regular combat.
The story line is straightforward with set consequences, and the dungeons exist primarily to blow through for loot, experience, and to progress the lore. Like many other MMOs, Neverwinter isn't so much about story as it is about hacking-and-slashing your way through dungeons.
Neverwinter's fast, twitch-dodging fight system feels like it's trying to pass for a third-person action game. Dodges are limited only by your stamina and finger speed, and more than a few boss encounters in the team-focused dungeons can be brutal and require close teamwork. It also helps that the battle effects look great, whether it's a Trickster Rogue laying down smoke to daze enemies or summoning a black hole with my Control Wizard, though I wish that quality extended to the rest of the game. Tthe default colors and armor designs for a particular class get boring after a while, and it doesn't take long to wonder if everyone goes to the same tailor.
A bigger draw to those looking to have a more detailed story path is the Foundry, which unlocks after a character hits level 15. It's essentially Neverwinter's mission editor, where players can build their adventures and make them available to the public.
A few are highlighted, and players can also leave reviews and score adventures as they finish them. Cryptic has allowed player-built modules before, such as in Star Trek Online, but seeing it in Neverwinter is also a nice nod to the Neverwinter Nights series. It doesn't delve that deeply into the details, and loot is specifically controlled by the servers — not the players — so there are limitations. I've already seen player-made campaign paths making the rounds on the "job" board in Neverwinter with several thousand plays apiece.
There's also PvP set in a variety of arenas as five-versus-five combat, but unless you're in a party, randomly teaming up with people in this mode can result in a tremendous win or painful defeat. The queuing system, which is heavily used for five-party-member dungeons and other events, such as PvE skirmishes that pit five players against waves of monsters, can be more than a little iffy in matching players.
Neverwinter also has a profession system that unlocks at level 10, and it subs in as crafting. If you have the right materials and assets, such as a tailor or a miner, you can make armor or potions by clicking on the wanted task and then waiting for the results. Professions can be leveled up to a max of 20, though a lot of what I made feels largely useless, aside from the special tasks that appear for a limited time. If you were wondering where the grinding went, here it is in one of its purest forms.
Aside from the flashy combat, occasional dungeon romp, and the Foundry system, the game doesn't feel too different from the open beta, aside from a number of critical bug and exploit fixes.
The late game is rather weak. It doesn't take long to hit the level cap, and after a couple of weeks of dungeon crawling, I hit it without much trouble. Another of my characters hit level 30 from invocation experience rewards alone. On the plus side, it's nice because it doesn't feel like a grind until you've reached level 50. On the negative side, players might wonder what there is to do other than farm for equipment or astral diamonds once you reach level 60.
Astral diamonds partially tie into Neverwinter's real-world money system. They're used as currency in the Auction House and for buying the "really expensive stuff" at astral diamond stores. Gold, silver, and copper coins are used for things like potions, healing kits, or ingredients for profession tasks but little else — unless another player is willing to sell you something.
During the beta and after the launch, Perfect World has promoted a number of cash-only "packs" for players to get a head start. The $200 "Founder's Pack" provides access to the drow character race, millions of diamonds, a unique mount, and a few other assorted goodies. I lost count of the number of players I saw with the "Founder" title below their names.
It's also tough to avoid the brazen monetization in the game, but Neverwinter has to make money somehow as a free-to-play game, and some people are cashing in.
Unlike the packs, players can buy anything they want by simply grinding up astral diamonds. I haven't spent a dime on the game. Neverwinter doesn't restrict you from selling that epic purple weapon to someone who wants it, unless it happens to bind itself to you on pickup. It's largely become the only end-game activity that seems worth doing.
There's always founding a guild, building it up, and then going on random adventures into the top-tier dungeons, but in the end, there's not a lot else other than occasionally checking on how auctions are doing, visiting the Foundry to see new modules, or grinding for resources. Doing a daily dungeon, PvP, or a skirmish for astral diamonds becomes chore-like busywork since the rewards barely match what a player might be able to make in an hour or two. Then there's the random drama that the occasional player brings to a public group.
To the game's credit, it has been keeping up with a number of new additions and free content, such as the recent Fury of the Feywild expansion, which tacks on a new, entertaining area and a new profession that expert players can use to craft powerful purple epics for their classes. There's also the usual wardrobe of new gear, but after playing with it, I often left the game for something more interesting to play.
The journey, however, made me wonder what a single-player RPG using some of the same concepts would look like. As a game, Neverwinter's is something that casual players can easily get into and explore for a few weeks.
As a D&D and Neverwinter Nights fan, I wanted to see what an MMO version offered, and I came away feeling that it accomplished its goals, if only for a month or so. It's like a single-player sandbox dungeon; when I reached what felt to be the proverbial end, it was time to move on.
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