Though the gameplay in Neverwinter is not especially innovative for an MMO, it's more varied and interesting than expected from a free-to-play MMORPG, and around every corner lurks another reference to the already-established Forgotten Realms world that makes a lore-nerd like me feel right at home. More importantly, it's fun.
At the time I played, there are four player classes available: Controller Wizard, Defender Warrior, Devout Cleric and Trickster Rogue. They are exactly what they say on the tin. There are hints that a fifth class will be available as well, but beyond the "Coming Soon!" message on the class select screen, I can't seem to find any information on what it might be. The classes, their abilities, and their roles in a fight are all taken directly from D&D 4th Edition; anyone who's played any D&D since 4e came out will find combat very familiar (though anyone who remembers 3.5 rules from Neverwinter Nights 2 will be very confused).
In D&D 4e, there are your four basic types of classes: Controller (some damage, mostly crowd control), Defender (your tank), Leader (heals please) and Striker (all your dps classes fall here). All four are obviously represented in the currently available classes. The ability types are even from the Player's Handbook. You have at-will abilities, which you can spam constantly; your encounter abilities, which are on a short cool-down; and daily abilities, which 1) have a decently long cool-down and 2) you have to fill up the d20 in the middle of your action bars over the course of combat.
There's also your class ability, such as Stealth for a Rogue. While these are all familiar to those who have played 4e, I can't help but wonder if they won't confuse those who haven't. Dailies, after all, can be used more than once a day and encounter powers more than once an encounter. I understand wanting to stick to the source material.
Somehow, character customization manages to seem very simple and overly complicated at the same time. You have about a dozen hair styles, face options, scars and tattoos and all the things you expect from an MMO, and then you get to the slider options. With sliders, you can adjust everything from the obvious, like your chin size and eye tilt, to the nearly ridiculous, like your fingernail length. On a scale of WoW to Aion, I'd say Neverwinter's character creation options rank a solid APB. Once you've decided how you look, you're still not done. You need to choose a backstory, of which there are two dozen options, a diety, and your starting stats, which you mostly roll until they are what you want (again, much like tabletop D&D).
Combat is fairly simple. While it's action-oriented, with your character's animation varying enough that it doesn't look like you're just standing there casting the same spell over and over, you're really just standing there … casting the same spell over and over. You can't move while you're attacking, so if you need to roll away from a big hit or get out of the fire, you have to stop attacking to move and then continue attacking. With only a handful of abilities on your bars at any given time (two at-will, three encounter, two daily), it starts to feel repetitive, though it looks cool.
From what I saw, the quest system is also pretty simple, with the standard trifecta of quest times: Kill 10 Rats, Bring me 10 Rat Heads, and Escort Me Out of the Rat Den. Beyond that is the Foundry, which, while I never tried out, will keep Neverwinter alive long past endgame. The Foundry is player-created content, dungeons and quests and raids (maybe) that were made because someone had some free time and the desire to see their content in a video game. While this means that there's a lot of margin for error — no two people have the same idea of what's fun, and we're not all creatively equal — in my experience, the Forgotten Realms community is full of creative, talented people, some of whom I wish would be given the budget to create games of their own. The Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2 communities are still actively churning out new content in game worlds that are seven and 11 years old, respectively. If they join the new Neverwinter creation community, there's no telling what kind of amazing work we can expect.
The lore of Forgotten Realms is very present around every turn. There's the Deekin District (doom doom doooom!) in Neverwinter, the capital city after which the game is named. One dungeon involves taking back the Cloak Tower from orcs who have made it their new home. Everywhere you turn, there's another reference, another familiarity to people who have read the books or played the games. While I appreciate sticking to the source material, I wonder how much wiggle room that gave them to create a unique story with so much history and world-building from other people.
All in all, Neverwinter shows promise. Starting from the first day as a free-to-play MMO may be a boon or a curse. Many people, like me, are too broke or fickle to play a pay-to-play MMORPG for any length of time, and for them, Neverwinter may be perfect. It features enough community-created content to keep it alive indefinitely. For many, any MMO that doesn't demand money up front is considered not good enough; I've seen plenty of people say that if [Insert MMO Name Here] ever goes free-to-play, they'd quit because it means it's not a good game anymore. Chances are that they won't touch this game, which may be reason enough to play it, if you ask me. When it comes down to it, Neverwinter looks like it could be a solid choice in the rapidly growing pond of free-to-play MMORPGs, and I'm excited to see where we go from here.
Editor's Note: Do you want to see how Neverwinter is shaping up for yourself? Then head on over to the official WorthPlaying Twitter feed. Today (3/22/2013), we're giving out keys for this weekend's beta access as part of our regular #FreeCodeFriday promotion.
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