Neverwinter Review: Hefting The Axe

Unfortunately, the brilliant combat and restrictive skill system is dragged down by the lack of progression. You don’t start really unlocking skills outside your base set until after level 20, and the grind from 20 to max is excruciatingly long. Restricting skill choices works very well, but Cryptic doesn’t give many skills to lower players, which forces them into same-y builds for a while. Ideally, by the time the player in Neverwinter reaches level 20 (the “no longer a newbie” level), he or she should have at least two completely unique, non-overlapping sets of skills to choose from. Instead, Cryptic only provides one or two spare skills — not enough to make you switch out often. It hamstrings what is potentially the best part of Neverwinter: mixing and matching skills to make your perfect loadout.

Even once you’ve received a few more skills, the glacial speed of the mid-game — when you are struggling to get new skills and new gear while working through foundry and story quests — drags Neverwinter through the mud. For all the emphasis put on making the Neverwinter endgame engaging — with countless dungeons, both player- and designer-made, and a wide selection of PvP battles — the journey there is incredibly tedious and painful. You will spend far too much time running through missions that take place in the same interior, but with shuffled monster placement. Even if you decide to go with working through the Foundry, you will run into this issue.

These Foundry missions, as well as PvP, are the two ways to progress beyond grinding through the linear mission path. Both have their merits, and both are crucial to Cryptic’s end-game content strategy. Where one is a natural extension of the game, though, the other is awkward and suffers from massive balance issues.

The Foundry is a continuation of the best features of City of Heroes and Star Trek Online: the mission creators. While they were mostly fluff in those titles, they are at the core of the experience in Neverwinter. After all, this is a Dungeons and Dragons game — don’t you want to be a dungeon master for some party of adventurers? The selection of Foundry content is extensive, and the budding DMs in geekdom have crawled out of the woodwork to make some really incredible adventures. Though there isn’t much in the way of traditional end-game content in Neverwinter, the Foundry replaces them with endless player-created missions, and unique player stories will always be more engaging than grinding another raid.

As for PvP, it has issues. Poor matchmaking, balance issues, and lack of purpose all sully what could be an engaging system. Neverwinter needs to have PvP with a little higher stakes than just arena fights; something akin to the WvW systems in Warhammer Online or Guild Wars 2 would work wonders. A few character classes — specifically, the Thief and the Control Wizard — are so overloaded with crowd-control spells that they dominate the battlefield. As for the maps, they are functional but not amazing; there are no modes or maps that stand out in any appreciable way. Overall, PvP works, and that’s about as much as you can say about it. People can kill each other, and specific classes will kill others a bit more. Unless you are starved for content, steer clear.

Neverwinter’s presentation suffers from a similar lack of polish, and sticks mostly to an archaic fantasy style without making any significant improvements. It works, don’t get me wrong — there are many fine details in the models and textures — but the overall style is uninspired. While I realize Forgotten Realms is also a generic fantasy setting, based on a system that created the fantasy archetypes for an entire generation, there are ways Cryptic could have made their visuals pop better. Most enemies share the same silhouette, environments have messy compositions and rarely amount to more than monster hallways, and textures are utilitarian. It’s clear that a lot of work was put into making the visuals look good within this style, so it’s more a function of the artistic angle they chose rather than any lack of talent. It is fantasy; nothing more, nothing less.

Heaven forbid if one of those textures becomes corrupted while playing, though. The dynamic patching issue persisted beyond my impressions piece, so I still have to download fairly large patches every time I log in. On the bright side, my load times are exceedingly short, since there is no “mini-patch” to download between areas. There were some graphical issues — mostly with polygon tearing and the camera getting stuck in the terrain — but nothing that disrupted the game in a significant way. Every technical issue, besides dynamic patching working incorrectly, was minor at best. Most notably, the netcode is far better in Neverwinter than in Star Trek Online or Champions Online, which is an accomplishment on its own; every Cryptic game so far has had significant netcode problems.

There is a lot to like about Neverwinter. It has an excellent combat system, the netcode to support it, and player-driven content to keep people engaged and interacting with each other in interesting ways. However, questing in the mid-game could be smoothed over, some extra early-game powers to show off the power switching system couldn’t hurt, and greater emphasis on player-to-player interaction (both through Foundry quests and better PvP) would help give players a continued reason to play.

In a year without high-profile, high-quality MMOs, Neverwinter is the best so far. We’ll see if it can maintain that title against Final Fantasy XIV.

Pros

  • Weighty combat system
  • Foundry support for end-game content
  • Exploratory focus
  • Engaging dungeons
  • Better netcode than any other Cryptic title to date

Cons

  • Incredibly slow power curve
  • Lack of dynamic content beyond Foundry
  • Weak PVP
  • Generic presentation

Final Score: 70/100


Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.


James Murff’s other work can be seen here, and you can follow him on Twitter at @jamesmurff.

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