Neverwinter Beta Impressions: A Strong Start
Full disclosure: I’m not especially fond of Cryptic’s previous games. Champions Online has promise, but it is weighed down by awkward combat and netcode. Star Trek Online is better, but it’s hard to pinpoint why, as the individual elements aren’t especially stunning on their own. It’s more a sum of its parts. With this in mind, I went into Neverwinter expecting a game that was playable, but not especially great.
I’ve never been so glad to be wrong. Neverwinter – at least the first 20 levels or so – is an absolute joy, and one of the best traditional MMOs in ages.
Neverwinter takes place in the Forgotten Realms, a widely popular Dungeons and Dragons setting popularized by RA Salvatore books and some of the most enduring western RPGs (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights). Much as you would expect from a pulp fantasy novel, the plot revolves around attempting to protect the city of Neverwinter from those that would destroy it. It’s standard fantasy fare; totally average in every way. It’s an excuse to kill lots of enemies, which you will be doing plenty of.
The visuals of Neverwinter are functional, but not especially notable. All of your favorite fantasy design tropes are here and played completely straight. Fantasy race stereotypes, medieval armor, and generic magic effects are all present and accounted for. Despite this, it’s still nice to look at, and some of the armor designs are quite interesting. Just don’t go looking for outstanding vistas or incredibly creative character designs; you won’t find them.
Quests also follow this standard of “competent, but uninteresting.” They are decently written, but given the proliferation of fantasy settings and jargon in gaming, it’s difficult to get into unless you’re a real fan of the setting. Likewise, most dungeons revolve around killing The Guy or retrieving The Item. There are bits to spruce it up, though. Traps are present in most dungeons, and many places also have hidden passages that lead to treasure or sub-areas. The dungeon design tries to strike a balance between traditional tabletop exploration and MMO linearity, and while the balance works, it feels as though it should lean more towards exploration. This is Dungeons and Dragons, after all.
With a bog standard story, standard quests, and average visuals, Neverwinter has to ace the combat mechanics to be fun. Thankfully, Cryptic finally struck gold. If you are familiar with action-based MMOs like Vindictus or TERA, the principles are the same: click to attack, chain abilities and items together to finish battles quickly and smoothly. The basic mechanics are simple, but when combined have a surprising amount of depth.
Where Neverwinter shines is in its implementation of the abilities. Each class has a number of powers separated into four categories: At-Will, Encounter, Daily, and Class. At-Will powers can be used at any time with minimal or no cooldown. These are your basic attacks and abilities, and are often plenty strong in their own right. For example, the Warrior’s default attack (Cleave) is a fantastic anti-group attack. Encounter powers are more traditional MMO abilities, and operate on a cooldown. They are often fight-altering abilities rather than straight damage, which makes them more situational than your standard MMO ability. Daily powers are your “ultimate,” and require that you build up a charge of Action Points to use. These abilities do lots of damage, often inflict status effects on players and enemies alike, and usually hit more than one enemy. Finally, Class powers are your class-related active (like Stealth for the Thief) and any passives that change how you play.
There are two reasons why the powers system works so well. The first is that every power has a purpose and use. Rather than overloading the player with tons of abilities that do very similar things – usually straight damage – almost every ability in Neverwinter has status effects or special conditions associated with it. For example, the Thief’s secondary At-Will throws knives at an enemy, and the longer she throws the knives, the higher damage each subsequent knife deals. Her initial Encounter power is a long stun that deals high amounts of damage. Her Daily leaps between a plenthora of targets, dealing small damage to each one. In short, abilities in Neverwinter matter. They aren’t just fodder to fill out your hotkey bar.
Not that you would be able to anyway. The second reason why powers work so well is that there isn’t a hotkey bar that allows you to use all of your abilities whenever you want. Instead, you have to choose a loadout of abilities to take with you into an adventure. You can change at a campfire, but that’s it. It’s a system I’m very fond of, and it creates a depth to character growth that you don’t see too often. You have to choose between making your current build stronger, or adding more flexibility to your build options. It also creates a risk not usually inherent in MMO progression. Do I take this build into battle, or this build? Which build fits me or the encounter the most? It has been a long time since I’ve asked questions like that about abilities rather than items, and it’s refreshing.