It’s been a little over a month since Neverwinter soft-launched as a no-wipe open beta. Perhaps some folks are holding off until the “official” launch to play it, but I wager that most anyone who is interested in this game is already leveling up like mad.
I always think that the one-month mark is a good time to pause for evaluation. There’s just too much drama and over-excitement and new car smell that goes on during the first week to keep a level head, so first impressions can be tainted by an atmosphere that will soon settle down. But 30 days seems like a good span of time to get a feel for how Neverwinter is doing, how it’s being received by the community, and what needs addressing.
I’ve been playing every day since the soft launch, although two re-rolls because of guild/server conflicts means that I haven’t achieved the level cap the way that some players have. Still, there’s no shortage to my opinions on what I like and dislike about this title, but I’ll see if I can sum up the salient points for you today.
The core gameplay
I’ve said here and elsewhere that Neverwinter represents a typical Cryptic product, for all the good and bad that brings. The best thing to take away from that is that the core gameplay is solid, enjoyable, and good-looking. After you get used to the mouselook UI (which I adapted to quite easily), fighting is a breeze. It’s not as fluid as, say, Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World if you want to compare Neverwinter to recent MMOs that feature mobile combat; I still dislike the “root you in place while activating skills” mechanic, especially considering how much you need to be moving to avoid enemy attacks. Yet Neverwinter gets pluses for fun dodge/block abilities and attacks that feel meaty and look thrilling.
Neverwinter was initially designed as a co-op title but was shoehorned into an MMO, and it shows. It’s nice to see the throngs of people running around in town, but the second you enter one of the many, many instanced areas in the game, you’re all alone. Hope you brought friends! As a result, it doesn’t feel as MMOish (if that’s a term) as Cryptic’s other games, and the world lacks cohesiveness due to all of the zones being walled off and instanced away from each other.
If you take the traditional leveling path, you’re going to experience the same journey on your first character that you will on your fifth. There’s an insanely linear chain of missions, occasionally with a couple of side quests, that lead you up through the story and levels. It’s functional and at times quite captivating; I quite enjoyed fighting through a burning building in the lower levels. However, I do not feel a huge urge to reroll and experience all of this again. What I hear often is that Neverwinter lacks a sense of world to it, and I’d have to agree with that. Even its contemporary, DDO, has more world-building than what’s going on here.
Cryptic said that it had to limit its traditionally boundless character creation options due to the fact that Neverwinter makes use of gear. That’s all well and good, except that most of the gear I got did not change in appearance once equipped compared to my previous armor, and I got really tired of seeing my character with the same weapon that everyone else had. Getting that +2 sword is still nice, just not as nice as if it looked significantly better than a standard +nothing sword.
Leveling up comes at a nice pace and carries with it a decent amount of choices. Getting to choose my skills and skill ranks allowed me to focus on my playstyle right off the bat, and while the paragon paths are somewhat basic, they are easy to understand and have a couple of nice milestones.
Dungeon runs have left a lot to be desired. They go on for far too long (or seem that way, at least), and healing is just a nightmare since you can’t easily target a player and plop a huge heal on him. I mean, you can, but you have to physically line up the reticule with a moving, hopping, attacking player in the midst of a chaotic battle scene to do so. It’s really stupid — and even Cryptic agrees on this. I thought I’d be doing a lot more dungeon runs in Neverwinter as I did with DDO, but I’ve eventually grown weary of them thanks to the excessive time-to-puny-rewards ratio.
There are a few frills that I particularly appreciate from my time in the game. The profession system, a combination of time-based crafting with Star Trek Online’s duty officer system, is strangely compelling. I instantly gravitated toward Leadership, since that gives me XP, loot, and astral diamonds, and kept my little mercenaries working around the clock whether I was logged in or not.
I also have to give some praise to the Neverwinter Gateway. To be able to access auctions, guilds, mail, and professions from the web without logging into the game is just bliss. It works pretty well (horrible exploits aside), and I can’t believe that Neverwinter has something like this when so many MMOs do not. C’mon studios, it’s time to make this sort of thing a standard feature!
One last thing I love are companions. These are combat pets that come in various forms and aid you in your fights. They definitely aren’t as strong as you are, but they do lend a helping hand and can even heal you, tank a bit, or boost your abilities. Outfitting and training a companion is something I never got tired of doing.
The business model
One big plus of Neverwinter is that Cryptic has really given a lot away for free here. Most of the races and all of the classes are available to anyone, as is the entirety of the game’s content. The studio has instead looked to selling extras and conveniences to make its pay: mounts, companions, everything associated with runestones, extra bag space, and so on. None of it is needed, but all of it is nice. That’s a sweet spot for F2P, although there are those who disagree and feel Cryptic has gone too far even so.
Gold is almost meaningless in the game, as everyone wants astral diamonds. ADs allow you to participate in auctions, buy from special vendors, and convert into ZEN. It’s a little confusing, but I think it works. It’s nice that it gives even the most frugal but dedicated player a path to earning store goodies.
The Foundry was meant to be the cornerstone of the Neverwinter gaming experience, although I don’t think it’s quite there yet. There is a definite push by Cryptic to get people to play Foundry missions, what with daily Foundry missions and Foundry bonus hours abounding. The tool is robust if not exactly easy to pick up; players do need to spend a bit of time reading tutorials and manuals to get the most out of it.
I’m impressed with what I’ve seen players create and how flexible the Foundry can be. That said, it’s prone to being abused, since some players will never stop trying to find a way to turn this system into a device to extract maximum possible rewards for minimal effort and risk.
The five-star rating system is a mess, too. Over time as more and more missions get put into the system, it’s going to be a headache to find missions that appeal to you. If I’m going to spend a half-hour going through a player mission, it better darn well be a good one. The studio can’t yet assure favorable odds that this will happen.
Neverwinter is a game of contradictions. It isn’t polished, but it is enjoyable (I’ve seen many polished turds in my gaming experience, so if I had to choose, I’d rather have a rough gem). It’s generous with the free but reserves the good stuff for the cash shop instead of random drops. It’s got a great player mission creation system, but the system is also prone to abuse and confusion. The action is visceral yet shallow. And so on.
In my opinion, Cryptic should have three priorities moving forward. First of all, as I said in my last column, the studio just has to shore up the exploits and bugs. Second, Neverwinter needs more classes; five just aren’t enough. Third, the Foundry needs more work, more features, and more promotion. Neverwinter can’t differentiate itself from the MMO pack based on its standard, linear gameplay. The studio has to ask itself what will compel players to continue to log in day after day, and the only answer to that is a constant stream of quality player-created content.