They say that first impressions are everything and by that logic the opening of free-to-play MMORPG Neverwinter sets the stage for an action-packed, accessible jaunt full of beautiful environments and epic battles. Further play, however, reveals that the bravura opening is a very early highpoint that soon falls into the traditional grind of fantasy RPGs – fetch this, kill that, rinse and repeat. Neverwinter’s position as free-to-play amidst the dwindling subscription MMO genre certainly gives it an appeal – the question remains whether it’s compelling enough to devote hours of time.
After downloading the Neverwinter client the game is playable from almost any PC thanks to undemanding but admittedly ropey graphics, thankfully made passable by excellent art design. That’s not to say this is the most original take on fantasy – there are still orcs and elves, castles and knights, ogres and dragons. Compared to market leader World of Warcraft it’s a small step up; there’s a Fable-like roundness to character models, while environments benefit from large-scale, grandiose buildings and the occasionally beautiful skybox. The first few burning sunsets painted across the horizon might not be the most dazzling but inspire awe given Neverwinter is almost a browser-based title.
As with most online games things begin with character creation, selecting an appearance, race and class from a myriad of configurations. Unlike some games where skills and characteristics are disguised behind obscure lore and arcane symbols, Neverwinter is straightforward in explaining the strengths of a particular class, be it the sword-favouring knight or magic-casting mage. Once created the game begins with you awakening on the shore, equipment strewn amongst the sandy detritus to be collected in a clever way to disguise the tutorial. Newcomers to the world of Neverwinter may find the story a little too in medias res to grasp exactly what’s happening from the off but learning the mechanics of the game is readily explained in a straightforward manner.
Concerning the return of Lich Queen Valindra and her attack on the city of Neverwinter, there’s a grander story that inches along while the game concerns itself with meandering, filler quests. An impressive CGI cutscene opening acts as a short prologue while hinting at adrenaline-fuelled battles to come. Whilst the prospect is good, the real meat of the game invokes the staple collect-and-deliver quests that MMO veterans will accept (perhaps begrudgingly). New players, enticed by the free-to-play invitation, may not. Once the introduction finishes - concerned with re-equipping your character and learning the basics – the game opens up, allowing access to the main city hub of Neverwinter. It’s here that the game reveals its true MMO colours as the chat bar spews forth coded-talk while mounted players gambol through the streets and a litany of players amass around quest-giving NPCs. A proclivity towards MMOs does help but those initially overwhelmed by the indecipherable conventions and multitudinous onscreen buttons are helped by prompts and a glittering breadcrumb trail, guiding you towards the next objective in another sneaky steal from Fable. It feels a little too guided to begin with, holding your hand from one quest to the next. When you realise there’s little else to do it instead becomes a shortcut signifier, cutting down precious time walking between locations.
Combat, often a tedious exercise in clicking a button every few seconds in other MMOs, becomes a less tedious exercise in pressing a button slightly more often in Neverwinter. Default attacks are assigned to the mouse buttons while an ability to dodge and roll adds pace and dynamic movement to fights. Skill points earned by levelling up can be used to unlock new attacks that do significant damage but require longer charge periods. While freedom to dodge, parry and block spruces up the stagnant combat found elsewhere it still boils down to repetitious grinding, watching as numbers blip off an enemy. This wouldn’t be a problem were it not compounded with Neverwinter’s rapid repopulation of defeated enemies, occasionally materialising in front of your very eyes. Even this would not be so bad were they not always the exact same troop of enemies as before. Traversing an area and vanquishing all of the enemies within can be empowering – returning through the area less than a few minutes later to find everything resurrected becomes exasperating, especially considering the amount of back-and-forth travel tied into quests.
Aside from character levelling there’s the typical cycle of inventory improvement, killing enemies to drop loot which can be equipped or sold to obtain better weaponry and armour. Couple this with the number of quests on offer and Neverwinter certainly presents a massive amount of content for very little investment, barring time. As free-to-play games go it’s particularly gentle in asking for monetary supplements, rarely pushing you towards your credit card for that extra item. What nudges are there are easily avoidable should you so choose, often requiring little more than time to reach the same result.
Neverwinter’s most intriguing addition to the genre sees a large portion of the game devoted to user generated content (UGC) in the Foundry. Here players can create their own instances and raids for groups and solo players. Based as it is in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, it’s a step towards capturing the creative aspect of a tabletop session, giving players the ability to create their own stories. Quality is varied but a community rating system makes the best examples more visible, avoiding the more experimental (read: ‘crap’) efforts lower in the rankings. While the Foundry is arguably one of the larger selling points of the game, it’s unamusingly gated behind level 15 – a level that will take more than a fair share of grinding to achieve. It’s understandable to require a significant investment of time in order to wheedle out the chaff but for casual users it’s a distant milestone easily forgotten. Despite this investment in content there’s no escaping that the majority of Neverwinter can be dull. Attempts have been made to spruce up combat but once you’ve worked out a set pattern there’s not much more to do. Enemies look varied but their attack patterns reveal behavioural doppelgangers - once a ranged attacker, always a ranged attacker it seems. While environments can look amazing at first sight you soon realise that the majority of quests will confine you to linear dungeons filled with recycled assets and carbon-copy enemies.
Neverwinter feels very much a by-the-numbers MMO with a standout feature and a few ornamental additions. The Foundry is a huge step in the right direction but is equally something that might be ignored, especially by casual players who can’t afford the time investment. Passable voice acting and some eye-catching art design add a semblance of polish but never transcend genre standards. What began with a bang soon plateaus into a competent RPG. What should be enticing feels more like a chore with every respawning enemy and uninspired quest. Kudos to Cryptic Studios for not ramming paid options down players’ throats, as well as creating an MMO that has a more visible narrative than others. The best part in being free-to-play will be that Neverwinter is there for those looking to try and there’s certainly no harm in paddling in Cryptic’s pool. The number of players encountered is a testament to its accessibility. However, veteran MMO players may find it too easy; newcomers may disagree with the payoff vs. time spent. Either way it’s worth venturing in – just don’t expect a tale for the ages.