Cryptic Studios and Perfect World are two companies not unfamiliar with developing massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Between the two of them, they've made more than a dozen different titles ranging from martial arts adventures to piloting a starship. Their latest creation is Neverwinter, a free-to-play MMO set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. It doesn't quite live up to its namesake, but its mechanics elevate it to what would otherwise be a blip on the radar.
There's a lot that's immediately familiar when creating a hero. All the classic races are represented between eight available choices, from tieflings to halflings. Ability scores can be re-rolled in an effort to get that perfect balance between Intelligence, Charisma and Wisdom. And true to form, feats - or passives - can be chosen when gaining levels.
The most important choice, however, is the character's class. There are currently five available with an unknown sixth forthcoming. These too are what you'd expect. The Trickster Rogue is the game's damage-per-second monster, dealing incredible punishment to single targets and using stealth to its advantage. The Great Weapon Fighter and Guardian Fighter fill the role of tanks, the latter using its mighty shield to quite literally shrug off enemy attacks. The Devoted Cleric heals and attacks with holy magic. Lastly, the Control Wizard locks down the battlefield bluntly or with precision through a myriad of crowd control spells.
Every class is enjoyable, thanks in large part to how fast Neverwinter plays. It has the definition of an action RPG over that of a traditional MMO. In fact, it's better to think of it like a version of Diablo 3 with a third-person perspective. It's a change of pace I'm perfectly happy with, as it proves to be quite a bit of fun.
Rather than juggling dozens of different abilities among several hotkey bars, Neverwinter's controls are at most spread across eight to nine actions. The left and mouse buttons control "at-will" powers that can be used continuously, while three to four keys are mapped to those on cooldowns. Two daily powers can also be equipped, but unlike their pen and paper counterparts these devastating attacks can be unleashed after building up a meter by dealing damage. Aided by the ability to avoid enemy strikes through dodges, teleports or shield raises depending on the class, Neverwinter has very active mechanics. It engages me in the action instead of forcing me to stand still or look away from combat to focus on the too many cooldowns on too many bars that plague other MMOs.
There's also a good sense of strength with each class. Trash mobs tend to die quickly, and the flashy powers send them careening through the air. Opening up singularities or teleporting around the battlefield rarely stop looking cool. And there's never really sense of being under-equipped as loot drops are frequent.
Traversal through Neverwinter's world is equally paced. It's defined by a central hub and smaller, instanced surrounding areas. It's impossible to get lost. Each area is fairly linear and it doesn't take long to get from point A to B. Its scale is obviously limited, but there's still plenty to do.
Side-quests are sprinkled along those paths and optional dungeons and skirmishes - wave-based arenas - are generally available every half a dozen levels or so. Players can even create, share and rate their own quests through a feature called the Foundry. These too don't require much commitment to complete, but the game's content is also rather easy. It's very possible to solo most of what's offered due to generally nonthreatening mobs and an abundance of health potions. Group content requires a full party to start, but I frequently had one or two players disappear or lag behind and we had no trouble making it through without them. Those looking for a challenge may want to look elsewhere.
On the other hand, that meant I could play whatever class I wanted, with whomever I wanted, without feeling that my or our composition wasn't ideal. And as someone who is more limited with time, I never felt my momentum stalling thanks to the speed of that content. I could play for short periods of time and come away with progress.
Difficult to play or not, it's not hard to find a group to play with. Available and upcoming dungeons and skirmishes are shown on an independent screen; and because they require full parties, joining other players is as easy as pressing a queue button. It's also possible to bring up a list of current parties in an instance with the option to send a join request. If that doesn't work, there's a good chance of running into a helpful passerby. It wasn't uncommon for random players to simply stop and aid me against my targets, something seen far too little of in other such online settings. If I wanted to be sociable, the game made it easy for me to do so.
Neverwinter does have its faults. It initially left a very sour first impression with certain complaints that still persist. Its engine is one such offender. It's not necessarily a bad looking game, but neither is it great. Textures aren't exactly sharp and the environments and geometry are rather simplistic. Character models are likewise unimpressive with faces that look like they've been molded from clay. To the game's credit, those environments do get better, but it's very easy to thumb one's nose at its beginning sights.
It's also plagued by very poor voice acting, though they did manage to patch out one of the more egregious examples. It seems like half of the work was voiced by their own development team. The material they're reading isn't any more exciting. If it weren't for its title and the occasional name drop, it's easy to forget that this is set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. The quests are of the cookie-cutter variety and Cryptic Studios doesn't do anything particularly interesting with the setting.
Despite being a game full of loot, they're too broadly tiered. Equipment at the very start of the game looks exactly like those found ten or fifteen levels later. There's a lack of visual diversity that results in most everyone having a similar resemblance. For a game that apparently wants to be an action RPG, it seems to have missed the memo that we like our abundant loot to appear abundantly different.
These are issues that don't quite dismiss the stigmas levied against free-to-play games, nor does its own free-to-play model help matters. To be fair, Cryptic Studios has to earn its money somehow and it's not overly restrictive. The entirety of it can be played from start to finish without paying a cent. It's certainly not barbaric like The Old Republic. But it does go out of its way to alert you of its presence and the fact that you're playing a game more than is required.
There are several different currencies to juggle to the point where it becomes hard to track them all. The primary two are Perfect World's Zen and an in-game currency called astral diamonds. The latter can be earned by playing the game, but of course real money can be spent for Zen to acquire it faster. And every screen seems to have an alert about items, services, and events to spend and earn currency. Notifications even clutter the chat window announcing to the server when a player acquires a juicy item through lockboxes, special chests that can only be opened with keys typically bought with Zen.
Neverwinter wants you to think it's a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. If you go in with that expectation, you'll be disappointed. Its complexion is rough and its content generic. But if you can get past the initial hump you'll discover the soul of action RPG with fun, engaging combat and exciting powers. If it required a monthly subscription, it would be difficult to recommend. As a free-to-play game, it's definitely worth a download.
Neverwinter: 7 out of 10
Cryptic Studios' Neverwinter was released on June 20. It is a free-to-play game with microtransactions. Review materials were provided by Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment.