Neverwinter Review: Hefting The Axe

There’s a reason we do impressions for MMOs first, then do the review a bit later. The first few hours of an MMO are always designed to be exciting and engaging, and the end is usually many dozens of hours into the game. This system gives us time to muse on a game before issuing a final verdict, which is especially important when the game can change so drastically from start to finish.

If there was any game this system was made for, it’s Neverwinter. While I was impressed with my initial impression, I grew to be more annoyed the longer I played. Don’t get me wrong: I still think Neverwinter is the best game Cryptic has ever made. It’s also the best MMO this year so far, but it’s not exactly up against any heavyweights.

Neverwinter
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Cryptic Studios
Publisher: Perfect World
Released: June 20, 2013
MSRP: Free

Neverwinter takes place in the titular Forgotten Realms city of Neverwinter (the same city of the Neverwinter Nights games) after a magical cataclysm. You play, as expected, an adventurer out to make a name for yourself in the tumultuous times of upheaval surrounding the cataclysm and the reconstruction of the city.

It’s a mildly interesting narrative, but if you aren’t familiar with the city of Neverwinter — either through Neverwinter Nights or Dungeons and Dragons — it probably won’t grab you. The game tries to introduce new players to the setting in a slow, measured way, but Cryptic’s writers are not as talented as those at BioWare during the time of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Characters are dull and lifeless thanks to utilitarian dialogue, plotlines are predictable to the point of tedium, and environments never strike out beyond “fantasy town and wilderness.” The cataclysm gave Cryptic a chance to rebuild Neverwinter without history bogging them down, but the reconstruction makes it look like yet another fantasy city instead of the unique locale from earlier games.

Many people can only get through these stories, however, if the meat of the “game” portion — combat and progression — is strong. Neverwinter does combat exceedingly well, but issues with progression drag that brilliance down. It’s a shame, really; there’s potential here for something truly great.

The combat in Neverwinter is reactionary and position-based. Rather than going with the hotkeys system of most modern MMOs, Neverwinter opts for a system more akin to an action game, much like its eastern cousin Vindictus. Whenever you perform an attack, your character freezes in place briefly while an animation with serious snap and weight plays. It gives you the sense that every attack matters, as every attack holds you in your spot while you perform it. As for actually fighting enemies, engagements are driven more by location than cooldowns, and comboing intelligently is crucial for survival. Most attacks can be dodged in some way, and all characters have either a block or a dodge to mitigate damage with.

Most importantly, you can’t take your full repertoire of skills into combat at once. You only have two basic attacks, three normal abilities, and two ultimates. This intense skill restriction helps to make Neverwinter feel more unique and engaging, as building a good character isn’t just getting good gear; you also need to figure out your optimal skills. Restricting skill choice (but not collection) is one of the best ways to avoid the problem of skill inflation (the confusion that results from having a huge list of skills and no idea how to use them) in an MMO, and Neverwinter’s approach is theoretically a perfect implementation of it. You have just enough skills to make your loadout valuable, but are restricted enough to force you into different choices from time to time.

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