Most western RPG’s and MMO’s can trace their bloodlines back to a single game created way back in 1974; Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is an integral part of the fantasy pantheon, holding a spot of honor with other properties like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. A lot of the core foundations modern RPG’s and MMO’s are built upon came from the wonderful mechanics and structure of a pen & paper game. Over the years, we’ve been blessed with D&D video game titles like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights and more. Eventually we even got a successful D&D MMO in the form of Dungeons & Dragons Online. For many, DDO, while still popular and beloved by many (myself included), was not the D&D MMO we dreamed about because it eschewed the more popular Forgotten Realms setting for the newer D&D setting Eberron.
While DDO has since gotten a Forgotten Realms themed expansion, a lot of fans were still craving a big MMO, built from the ground up in the Forgotten Realms setting. Call it the pull of Drizzt Do’Urden, the familiarity with the lore or the sheer breadth of possibilities a playground almost 40 years in the making provides; fans have been waiting a long time to play in the Forgotten Realms setting in a Massively Multiplayer way.
Such was the landscape when free-to-play D&D Neverwinter peaked its head over the horizon. Developed by Cryptic Studios (Star Trek Online, City of Heroes) and published by Perfect World, the game faces an uphill battle in an MMO space swamped by stiff competition, high expectations, jaded fans and the overriding need to distinguish itself from all the other MMO’s with elves, dwarves and orcs. For the most part, it has succeeded.
• Developer: Cryptic Studios
• Publisher: Perfect World
• Reviewed on: PC
• Release Date: Available Now
Players start their journey by choosing a gender and picking from one of seven currently available races (Human, Half-Orc, Dwarf, Wood Elf, Half-Elf, Hafling and Tiefling). The Drow elves are currently only available to people who purchased the $199.99 Hero of the North Founders pack or those who received a Review Key. I received just such a key just before the official launch on June 20th, almost a full month after I started playing. Next players get to choose from one of five classes (Trickster Rogue, Devoted Cleric, Control Wizard, Great Weapon Fighter and Guardian Fighter). Each race has its own positives and negatives in terms of stats and bonuses, making certain race/class combinations better than others. For example Tieflings, with their +2 Charisma and +2 Intelligence ability score bonuses make them the best choice for anyone looking to play as a Control Wizard.
When it comes to D&D, “rolling your character” is one of the most time honored and important traditions. Ask any D&D aficionado and they’ll tell you they’ve spent countless hours trying to get that one perfect roll. Players may no longer be rolling physical dice but Neverwinter does allow players to roll the “digital dice” aiming to get the best spread across the games 6 stats (Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma). However, the game diverges significantly from past D&D video games (and rule sets) by limiting the range of stats you can achieve. No matter how many times you roll the dice the game simply will not allow you to create a broken character (a poor race/class selection is more dangerous than a bad roll) .
Whereas DDO allowed for the full range of stats to be rolled, creating the possibility for players to roll characters that were fundamentally flawed and weak, Neverwinter ensures that no matter what you do, your character will be viable right up to the end game. The catch is that this setup does impede a bit of the fine tuning D&D fans are accustomed to. If you go into Neverwinter expecting the same depth and strict adherence to a D&D rule set that made DDO famous, you’ll be disappointed – once you roll your stats, that’s it. You won’t be putting points into skills, or picking traditional feats at creation; which is not to say you won’t be designing character builds that are tailored to your play style, simply that the format has changed to one a bit more friendly to everyone, rather than rely on systems that can be overwhelming to those unfamiliar with previous D&D staples.
Neverwinter is built around a modified version of the 4th Edition D&D rule set. The game follows the lore, naming conventions and spirit of the Forgotten Realms setting faithfully, but has gone to great lengths to make the previously complicated and dauntingly massive D&D systems governing feats, skills and spells much more newbie-friendly by placing everything into two categories; Powers and Feats. As you level up your character to sixty, you’ll earn 61 points which can be spent on Powers. Powers are active abilities like spells or attacks as well as passive abilities that provide permanent bonuses. Feats cover things like Toughness, increasing your maximum hit points or Greater Fortune which increases the healing bonus from the Wisdom stat. Most of the Feats further increase the effectiveness of a certain Power(s) and you’ll get 51 points to spend by the time you hit level 60. Each individual Power can be increased three times and each Feat can be improved 3-5 times depending which you select, with each additional point spent further improving that Power or Feat. Feats are always active. Powers on the other hand can be swapped in and out depending on the situation (usually solo play vs group play).
Players can have 9 Powers slotted on the tool bar at any given time. Two of those Powers are passive and always on. Two more are considered “At Will” powers, meaning you can use them as many times as you like (your two basic attacks for example). Three are considered “Encounter” powers, which each have a cooldown. The last two Powers are considered “Daily” Powers and can only be used once a player has earned enough Action Points via combat/actions and are the mightiest Powers available. On top of that every class has its own “Mechanic” that provide two new “At Will” powers while active and they are each unique and influence how that class is played in a major way.
For example Guardian Fighters have a Mechanic that allows them to “Mark” an enemy, lowering the targets damage resistance and allowing your character to generate more threat. This is tied to the Guardian Fighters ability to “Guard” with his shield. Each attack blocked by the shield drains the Mechanic meter. Basic combat actions will refill it. Besides that the Guardian Fighters two “At Will” powers are replaced by two which are only active while “Guarding” (Shield Slam and Aggravating Strike).
Devoted Clerics on the other hand have a Mechanic that is totally different. Clerics charge their Mechanic meter by casting spells and attacks. Once they have filled their meter, which has up to four notches, with each notch consumed by the casting of a spell while the Mechanic is active, they can use their Channel Divinity Mechanic to empower all their spells. This adds to the power of the casted spell as well as adding new secondary effects. Cast your basic Astral Shield spell and it will provide a defensive bonus to anyone standing within the circle on the floor. Toggle on the Channel Divinity Mechanic on the other hand and Astral Shield now heals all those within its boundaries as well as provide a defensive bonus. Channel Divinity even replaces both your “At Will” Powers with two new Powers; Punishing Light (steady beam that does damage) and Soothing Light (steady beam that heals a specific target). Use of Mechanic specific “At Will” powers also drains the Mechanic meter.
While there is nothing unique about an MMO that uses a tool bar for combat, Neverwinter has managed to weave a combat system and tool bar setup that works really well. Rather than have a screen covered in row after row of tool bars, Neverwinters decision to focus on 9 powers and a Mechanic at any given time helps keep things clean and efficient. The traditional tool bar setup that uses the number and F keys has been changed out to one that harkens back to the way PC gamers used to play adventure games before gamepads became the norm. Daily powers are tied to the 1 and 2 keys, Encounter powers are tied to the Q, E and R keys. At Will powers are tied to the left and right mouse buttons. Two slots on the tool bar are for your passive abilities and Tab triggers a classes Mechanic. There are also three quick lots for potions/scrolls tied to the 3, 4, and 5 keys and one quick slot tied to the 6 key for summoning a mount. It’s not a major departure from what other MMO’s have done but I found it much more comfortable than DDO or World Of Warcraft’s setup. The fact the entire UI is customizable is also a nice touch.
Just because Neverwinter is a tool bar MMO don’t assume it’s just another stand in front of a bad guy hitting hotkeys type of MMO. A lot of the games combat revolves around area-of-affect attacks/abilities necessitating different types of dodge and block mechanics. It does not matter if you’re a Cleric or a Fighter, you HAVE to keep moving if you want to survive. It’s not the most responsive system ever built, but it works well. It may take a few hours to get used to the timing required to gauge when to dodge since that action does not automatically override a previous one. If you are mid-swing and hit dodge there is a bit of delay. Eventually though it will be second nature.
This emphasis on AOE and dodging permeates the entire game. For example, unlike games like DDO, healers earn their paychecks casting AOE heals and group buffs rather than hotkey selecting players for direct heals all the time. It can be a jarring departure from the norm at first and requires a brain shift from casting on an individual in need to casting a spell that helps as many in need as possible. Neverwinter is all about this kind of AOE and mob control, with bosses dropping huge AOE attacks, with the more deadly ones indicated by red circles on the ground. Affecting as many enemies or players as possible is often crucial to success and almost everything you do has some sort of group affect. The entire party benefits from a Guardian Fighter marking a target and anyone attacking an enemy whose had Astral Seal cast upon him will receive a burst of healing with every strike.
As the name would suggest this game is set in the city of Neverwinter. Unfortunately for its citizens but lucky for you, the city is under siege by a powerful female Lich named Valindra. The Protectors Enclave section of Neverwinter serves as the main hub for players. The quest system is easy to understand and is not the cluttered confusing mess so many MMO’s expect us to adapt to. The main quest line will take you from area to area, both within Neverwinter and without. Each area has a number of camps and such that hold NPC’s which hand out quests.
The main quest line takes you to a camp, you grab the the next quest in that chain from an NPC as well as a number of side quests which can all be completed in the same general area. Players move camp to camp, grabbing all the quests for the area they are about to battle through. They then turn in the quests and move on to the next camp. There is no grinding in the traditional sense. You don’t need to spend hours killing the same few enemies in the same area just to get ready for what comes next. Players will be able to level by simply completing all the quests in a given area and moving on. The system is setup in such a way that as long as you’ve done all the quests there’s no need to grind like an automaton.
Although you can certainly level faster with a group, the majority of the journey from level 1 to level 60 can be enjoyed and completed solo without any problems. Each quest area is built around a fairly large open area with a few instanced dungeons suitable for solo play and a number of mini-bosses to fight. Most of the areas culminate in a 5 person Dungeon Raid. Completion of an areas 5 person Dungeon is not required to advance the main story-line however. While the game may not have the same kind of insane amounts of voice acting a game like Star Wars: The Old Republic has or push the envelope when it comes to visuals, Neverwinter has some pretty fantastic writing and looks pretty enough without limiting the number of people who can run it on their PC’s.
Some of the most impressive story-lines and quests were actually created by the community via Neverwinter‘s Foundry. The Foundry is one of the things that helps Neverwinter distinguish itself from its many, many competitors. Once players reach level 15 they gain access to the Foundry which is an editor that allows players to create a story, build custom maps, and even multiple levels that form a quest line. Foundry quests are open to the entire community. These are not just cheap throwaway quests either. There are rewards for creating and/or completing Foundry quests. If you wanted to you could level to 60 just running Foundry quests.
The value you ascribe to the Foundry will play a big part in how much you enjoy the game long term. No more waiting for new content, now you have over a million people with the capacity to take you on all sorts of adventures. Quest creators can even accept tips from people who enjoyed what they created. Sure, getting 100 Astral Diamonds (the games core currency) may seem insignificant, but when you consider the fact thousands of players could play a quest you created, the amount of Astral Diamonds you could pull in is staggering. I know of more than a few Foundry-made millionaires. In many ways, the Foundry is a game all of its own and when you consider D&D‘s legacy of friends getting together to have a Dungeon Master guide them through a story its appeal to the hardcore D&D crowd cannot be understated. Cryptic Studios seems dedicated to improving the Foundry and I expect that in a years time the editor will be even more robust than it is now.
When it comes to group specific content Neverwinter has three variations; Skirmishes, PVP and Dungeons. Skirmishes are 5 man mini-raids that take about 30 minutes to complete. Dungeons are much larger 5 man raids that can last an hour and a half if not longer. PVP matches are a 5v5 point control affair that last about 15 minutes. The game has no factions, everybody is on the side of the good guys and PVP matches simply put 5 players against another 5. There is no 1v1 dueling to speak of.
Besides the Foundry Neverwinter‘s other ace-in-the-hole is the Event system. Every hour a new Event becomes active across the game world that provides extra rewards depending on the type of event. One hour it may be a PVP event, rewarding you with 150% more Glory (a PVP point system that rewards players with PVP specific gear). The next hour it may be a Dungeon Delve event that guarantees you a chest with superior loot should you start a Dungeon while the event is active and successfully defeat the final boss. There are also Events for Skirmishes, Foundry Quests and Professions (earn more crafting items during the hour).
Combined with the Neverwinters Queue system Events help maximize group play. Want to play a 5-man Dungeon Delve? Just select the Dungeon you want from the in-game menu and queue up. Since everyone across the game world will probably also be looking to run a Dungeon during the event, it’s pretty easy to find people to play with. This makes finding a guild and/or friends much, much easier. At any time a player can queue up for Skirmishes, PVP and Dungeons quick and easy without having to bleat like a lost lamb in zone chat (though many people still do that for some reason).
Neverwinter does have a bit of a balance problem when it comes to the classes in PVP, which is why there is no 1v1 PVP. The game is built around 5-man groups so the idea a Cleric can go toe-to-toe with a Rogue who does the most DPS in the game by a massive margin is ludicrous. Unfortunately the current PVP system has not been fine tuned yet. You can still join PVP matches and find you have 3 Wizards and 2 Clerics up against 2 Guardian Fighters and 3 Rogues making a Fighter/Rogue victory a certainty. There’s also little variation PVP match to PVP match. Just the same few maps capturing points over and over again. I currently have over 20,000 Glory saved up with absolutely nothing to spend it on as there is currently only one set of gear per class available from the PVP gear shop. Being a new MMO balance tweaks and nerfs will no doubt be constant for a good long while across the entire game.
The endgame experience right now involves running Foundry missions, PVP and Dungeon Delves. Currently, there is no level 60 Skirmish (the last is level 59). Most of the main Dungeons from the trek to max level can be relayed at 60. Entry into these high-level versions are dependent on your Gear Score (the cumulative value of all gear being worn). The easiest way to get a Gear Score to run the initial level 60 dungeons is to run PVP for a day or two and equip the rewarded gear – no need to waste Astral Diamonds or spend real cash. Besides Gear Score, the level 60 dungeons are separated into two types; Tier 1 and Tier 2. There are armor sets to be collected running all the Tier 1 Dungeons which will allow you to acquire a high enough gear score to tackle Tier 2 Dungeons all in preparation for the big Tier 2 Dungeon Castle Never.
When the game went Live on the June 20th Neverwinters big end game package, Gauntlgrym, was supposed to launch and provide a Guild-centric endgame experience covering PVP and PVE events. Unfortunately it was not even up and running a few hours before it was taken down and as of this writing, remains down. While it is certainly fun running tougher versions of the games many Dungeons, rocking some PVP, running Foundry quests and crafting, the lack of a true end game hurts Neverwinter immensely. I even held off on my review on the hope Gauntlgrym would be back quickly but alas that has not happened and I cannot credit the game for what I have seen of Gauntlgrym on the test server since that has yet to be made available to all and still appears unfinished.
Loot and Gear in Neverwinter are a bit underwhelming. There is not a lot of variation in terms of appearance when it comes to the different armor sets and only a few look distinct and outright cool. Even the ability to dye your armor does not help much. Most of the loot you’ll pick up on your journey will be sold for copper, silver, or gold so you can buy more potions and such. Except for bosses and the random sweet drop, 90% of the chests you’ll open will simply contain profession/crafting materials or enchantments/runes which you can use to improve your gear and companions. You will be able to keep your character well geared on the way to 60 via drops and such, but it’s not a very rewarding setup; every area or so you’ll replace something with a piece of gear that is a little bit better. Loot has four color based levels of quality ranging from crappy white items, to standard green, improved blue and epic purple. Level 60 is when the gear game picks up speed and that’s disappointing.
Like so many Free-to-Play games Neverwinter has too many types of currency. You have your basic copper, silver and gold coins you earn by killing mobs and selling stuff to a general vendor. This currency is used to buy potion and crafting materials. Next you have Astral Diamonds that you earn running Dungeons, Skirmishes, PVP and Foundry quests. Astral Diamonds being the core reward, with Events rewarding extras. Astral Diamonds are what you use to buy/sell things on the Auction House. Next you have Zen, which is the currency you are given when you use real cash. Zen can be used to buy things in the Zen shop ( the for real money shop). Luckily you can convert Zen into Astral Diamonds and vice versa.
On top of that, you also have Seals, which can be collected from certain areas and span different level ranges that can be traded in for blue and purple gear. You also have Glory points you earn running PVP matches and reward PVP gear. The game randomly drops Nightmare Lock Boxes that require a key which costs Zen or a fair amount of converted Astral Diamonds to open. The rewards range from basic profession supplies to Purple Mounts and Companions. These lock boxes also drop Trade Bars which can be collected and returned for different rewards. There’s just way too many types of currency. At the very least, Seals should be changed to a level 60 only reward or abandoned outright as except for a level or two on the way to 60 you’ll find you’re just selling the gear you get from Seals anyway and the payouts leave a lot to be desired.
Neverwinter also allows every character to pray to the gods once an hour. These prayers provide free XP, Astral Diamonds, Potions and Buffs. On top of that once a day a specific character is rewarded with an Ardent Coin and a Celestial Coin. You only get one of each a day and if you skip a day all your Celestial Coins will disappear but the Ardent Ones will remain until spent. Ardent Coins can be slowly saved up to buy Seals, potions, gear, a mount and a companion. Celestial coins reward players with a potion, profession resources or enchantments/runes.
The game features more NPC companions and Mounts at launch than I have ever seen. They range in price from a miniscule 5 gold coins for a basic 50% speed mount all the way up to 1 million Astral Diamond mounts that run at 110% speed and a bunch that require Zen. The only stat difference between mounts is how fast they run and except for PVP having a fast mount is just about convenience rather than necessity. A basic white level horse that runs at 50%, which you can acquire at level 20 will carry you through to level 60 and beyond just fine.
Companions are even cooler with a wide range of bonuses and companion types – everything from a house cat to an angel. Like mounts, you’ll be able to get a few companions pretty easily starting at level 16 and the sheer breadth of options available for gold, Astral Diamonds and Zen is astounding. Not only that, Companions level up, wear gear and change appearance as they grow in power. It’s a nice touch and walking around Protectors Enclave with all the players riding mounts with companions in tow makes the game world seem much more alive. Now that the game has been out awhile the days of everyone having the same mounts and companions is over.
Crafting is efficient and easy, if not exactly engaging. As you quest, you’ll pick up different crafting materials for one of the games 6 Professions. Players train workers for each specific profession and send them out on missions/tasks, slowly leveling them up to level 20. Professions reward players with gear, XP, copper, Astral Diamonds, crafting materials and more. It amounts to a tight system but one that is really just a fire and forget type of thing you check in on once or twice a day as tasks take hours to complete.
Many players, myself included, have taken advantage of the fact you can manage all your professions via a web browser portal or via mobile device. I have my main level 60 character and 6 alternate characters all running professions quests. Between daily prayers and profession tasks all my alts have leveled from level 11 to 20+. It would be nice if we could pray via the web portal as well, thereby allowing players to handle all their housekeeping without having to log in and toggle between characters. It’s something to hope for in the future. This is how I am able to afford the more expensive items in Neverwinter. Between the gear, packs, and astral diamonds I can pull thousands of Astral Diamonds in just by taking 5 minutes out of my day to pray and set tasks. If you can make it a habit like checking your emails it really is rewarding despite recent nerfs. Professions even have their own version of the event system with certain tasks being time sensitive that reward higher than normal rewards.
Wow this is a long review; guess it’s time to talk about the nitty gritty of the games take of Free-to-Play. According to Raptr I’ve put 153 hours into Neverwinter to date. While I did receive a great Review Key containing the Drow race option, Greater Bag of Holding, an Acolyte of Kelemvore companion, Heavy Worg mount, profession packs, a dye pack and 200,000 Astral Diamonds I was already rocking a level 60 Dwarven Devoted Cleric geared to the teeth with a purple mount and blue cat companion I’d earned just playing the game. All told I have spent $50 on Zen during a Zen bonus sale, but I have only spent $30 of it so far (on character slots and bank space). One of my biggest gripes with DDO was that it held quests from the original core game behind a pay wall. You can’t even hit level 10 in DDO before you slam into a pay wall asking you to cough up cash for the privilege of entering a specific quest series. This is jarring even if there are ways around it like subscribing or grinding. Neverwinter does not hold back any content behind a pay wall whatsoever. Every single quest is available to you from 1-60 and you can convert Astral Diamonds into Zen to buy anything you want without having to spend real money if you don’t want to. I figure I spend $60 on retail games all the time so $50 on a game that has given me 153 hours of entertainment is a pretty good deal.
Which is not to say you won’t face down some elements that demand your money. Bank space is insignificant at the start and expensive to expand. Sooner or later you’ll drop $6 on bank space. The other element you’ll likely spend $5 on is character slots as Neverwinter only give you two to start. Besides the Nightmare Lock Boxes that drop you’ll probably not feel any strong push to spend real money until you hit 60 and even then you can work the system to mitigate any expenses. While bag space may seem limited at first you’ll receive two bags of holding for free just by questing and if you simply sell off non-essentials every time you return to town you’ll have enough room for anything you may stumble across. Your basic mounts and companions are also cheap and easily attainable without spending any real money. The catch, of course, is that if you do want to spend real money you’ll spend a lot. Neverwinter has some of the most expensive items I’ve ever seen in a real cash shop. Most of the Zen store items are extras; things that make things a bit easier or look a bit cooler but none of it is essential save for bank space or character slots. I prefer this setup to other MMOs. I’d rather have really expensive cash shop items than mid level charges spanning every facet of the game, constantly asking you for cash.
At the end of the day whether you like Neverwinter enough to spend real money will rely on your love of the Forgotten Realms D&D setting, the amount of value you pull from The Foundry and how much you like the combat. Neverwinter managed to launch with pretty much all the core features MMO gamers now expect from their MMO’s with the one big negative being a still unimplemented end game. I think it’s fair to call the game a beginners MMO as it does not have the fathomless depth of games like DDO or Eve Online but still has the capacity to sate hardcore D&D fans should they become invested. The Event system and ability to manage all your professions via web portal or mobile device are great additions I wish more MMO’s would adopt. At the very least the games F2P nature and lack of major pay walls should allow anyone interested to have a lot of fun before they have to decide whether this is a game they plan to stick with.
I’ve found a great Guild, made a lot of friends and found ways to work the system to minimize the amount of cash I feel the need to spend. So I expect to be playing Neverwinter for months, if not years to come. I never thought I’d say that about a free-to-play MMO.