Developer: Cryptic Studios / Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment / Played on: PC / Price: Free / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
I can’t tell you how many F2P MMOs I’ve played that promise to deliver a retail-quality experience without the pricetag. Even though Neverwinter never explicitly made that promise, it’s the first F2P that satisfies it. Not once while playing Neverwinter did I have to excuse a problem on account of it being free. It’s not only a solid (if traditional) MMO, but it introduces a lot of great ideas that would justify a retail price tag.
Rather than adopt the old WoW template of manual targets and toolbar skills, Neverwinter uses the new TERA / Defiance scheme. Your targeting cursor is locked to mouselook, and you attack enemies by aiming and triggering one of a limited set of actions (4-5 as opposed to WoW’s 20).
These mechanics make the combat more immediate and intense. For instance, dodging attacks isn’t stat-based — either you move or use an evasion skill to slip attacks. Luckily, large hits are telegraphed via glowing areas on the ground, making large boss fights much more approachable than, say, WoW’s raids. My only real complaint concerns Neverwinter’s liberal screen-shake during most attacks. It looks impressive in the early hours with Neverwinter, but after an extended session my eyes grew tired of the effect.
Though questing is traditionally the go-to activity in any MMO, it’s actually the most boring in Neverwinter, but that’s a credit to the game’s other activities. Neverwinter’s questing isn’t bad, it’s just completely predictable. You scoop up a list of tasks from various NPCs, all of which rotate through MMO standards like “kill seven of an enemy” and “gather four of an item.”
As such, questing ends up being a time-killer while waiting in queues for other, more interesting events. It’ll whittle away twenty minutes here and there, but over an hour of questing pushes you far into bored territory. Neverwinter does, at least, cut out the fluff from questing. Glowing trails and clear map indicators show you where to go and what to do plainly, which is appreciated since all you’re doing is turning the exp crank.
Neverwinter’s user-generated content is more interesting, mostly because they’re more willing to stray from MMO norms. Of course, the quality of that content is equally mercurial. I’ve played genuinely funny, engaging missions alongside poorly paced quests with bizarre visual glitches and dialogue riddled with grammatical errors.
The bottom line is that the toolset has the capacity to produce amazing content, and seeing a list of new content every time you log in is extremely refreshing. It’s exciting to dive into random quests with no idea of what to expect.
Though Neverwinter’s dungeons play out similarly to most other MMOs — it’s a series of hallways and rooms, capped with a huge boss encounter — the environments are well crafted and fun to romp through. The variety of environments is impressive. In a given dungeon I’d move through up to eight visually distinct areas ranging from ancient towers with vaulted ceilings and closed-in caverns rimmed with glittering, glowing gems. It creates a real feeling of movement and exploration, which WoW’s broad and flat dungeons can’t compete with.
The boss fights get intense as well. One fight flooded the boss arena with increasing numbers of normal enemies. The longer you took fighting the boss, the more would come out. Functionally it’s a DPS check to make sure you’re not cheesing out the boss, but it also means that you’re fighting a swarm of fifty dudes, something I haven’t experienced in any other MMO. Incidentally I had a super move that deployed a small, magical black hole that sucks enemies up and spits them out. Brother, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen fifty little dudes spray out of a magical vortex.
Neverwinter’s PvP is, surprisingly, amazing fun. Thanks to Neverwinter’s more responsive combat, PvP ended up being my favorite mode of play. The rules are typical: 5v5 capture and hold between three points. While the ruleset doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Neverwinter’s magic is in the interplay of the classes. There’s a robust rock-paper-scissors interplay between the classes, their skills, and the related cooldowns.
For instance, I played as the “Control Wizard” which can lock other players in place by freezing them or choking them in a small magical vortex. This is invaluable when enemies try to flee from team battles; if you hold them in place the rest of your team can pile on and finish the kill. Naturally, other classes have abilities that allow them to break any holds, meaning I had to bait those out with other skills to lock them down with longer roots. It’s a mindgame, and an enjoyable one at that.
While most of Neverwinter is a predictable-but-better version of other MMOs, the crafting really caught my attention. It’s still an assembly line where you feed ingredients into one end and get a new item from the other, but it borrows from The Old Republic by letting you queue up crafting tasks for NPCs. Here’s the brilliant bit: you can access this system through a web portal; just by clicking a bookmark, you can collect revenue from completed tasks and assign new ones.
There’s a bit of a Facebook game slant to it as well. Some crafting tasks can take a long time (up to eighteen hours) but, wouldn’t you know it, you can spend in-game currency to finish the tasks immediately. It’s not as obviously scheming as social games though; the currency you spend is not purchased directly with real money… but more on that in a bit.
Currency implications notwithstanding, exposing crafting through a webpage is fantastic. I’d queue up long craft jobs during the day and accrue a pile of money, experience, and treasure chests that’d be waiting for me the next time I logged in.
Regardless of how fun the game is, every F2P has that point where the penny drops and you see just how the game intends to part you from your money. Pleasantly, Neverwinter is tasteful in that regard… with a few exceptions.
To start, there is no currency in the game that is purchased with only real money, so it is possible to work your way to buying anything in the game. It works through a currency exchange, in which you can trade astral diamonds (a currency you accrue through daily quests and crafting) for zen (the currency that can be purchased in bulk with real money). Naturally, exchanging astral diamonds for zen is so expensive that buying worthy items just through astral diamonds would take ages… but it is possible, so that’s nice at least.
Items bought with zen are largely ornamental: cool clothes, vanity mounts, visual effects, and digital trinkets of that nature. The biggest schlocky temptation to spend real money takes the form of nightmare lockboxes, which can only be unlocked with nightmare keys… which can only be purchased with zen. It’s not a criminal offense, but there is that nagging reminder of mysterious treasure constantly kicking around your inventory unless you’re stalwart enough to trash the box right away. Ultimately, free games have to make money, so an amount of nickel and diming is to be expected. I’m glad that Neverwinter does it in a respectful, unintrusive way.
I wanted to pay special praise to Neverwinter’s production values. The environments, graphics, and audio are all on par with a retail product, and more than that a good retail product. The city of Neverwinter itself is wonderfully constructed, complete with an especially-magical floating island. Moreover, I especially like the voice-overs that continue playing even after you’ve accepted a quest. It’s a great way to get a dose of lore without being locked to a wall of text.
Even though Neverwinter doesn’t challenge MMO norms in terms of content structure, it delivers retail-quality gameplay, endless expandability with user-generated content, and a fantastic twist on crafting that had me obsessively checking my crafting queue for hours. With a pricetag of free, all you have to lose is your time, and I can imagine about a hundred worse ways to spend your evening than playing Neverwinter.