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MMO Spotlight: Neverwinter Open Beta

June 19, 2013, Author: Trent Pyro

Dungeons and Dragons is probably the most famous and popular RPG that you’ve never played. Back before the days of immersive video-games, friends would gather around a table replete with maps, playing pieces and bits of paper, and roll many-sided dice to play one of the most beloved tabletop games of all time. Known for its complex rules and dedicated community, D+D has since grown into a monster of fantasy lore, encompassing books, films, games and four revisions of itself.

While there have been numerous attempts at bringing the tabletop experience to the video-game world, MMORPGs have been curiously few and far between. The recent release of Dungeons and Dragons Online was met with a somewhat tepid reception despite, or possibly because of, its action-heavy slant and deep respect to the lore. Cryptic, the masterminds behind popular superhero MMO Champions Online, are the latest bunch to give it shot with Neverwinter. Set in one of the most familiar locations in D+D’s world of Faerun, this action-RPG is currently in Open Beta and I’ve been spending many an evening thoroughly enjoying it.

This also marks the start of a new feature, where I’ll be testing new MMOs and giving you guys a good idea whether they’re worth playing, especially if they’re not Free-To-Play (F2P).

The story
While I can’t say I’ve managed to play it to the end just yet, so far Neverwinter’s main plot is compelling and well-written. Initially taking the form of smaller, self-contained stories connected by the hulking Sergeant Knox, at the point I currently find myself it’s beginning to become a clear tale of arcane treachery and epic conflict.

The key point I want to make is that I’ve never once gotten tired of it. So many MMOs can rely on their multiplayer nature to push out a weak and boring story. Neverwinter treats itself almost as a single-player RPG, with clever quest objectives and neat use of structure to make the campaign feel like a solo release would.

That’s not to say you can’t play it with friends. Cryptic have struck a nice balance between personal story and group quest and the feeling is usually more ‘band of adventurers’ than ‘a hero and his lackeys.’

I won’t spoil the plot and, to be honest, there’s so much to do in Neverwinter the main story is simply one of many things to sink your teeth into. Safe to say, it manages to avoid the common pitfalls that so many F2P MMOs often tumble into.

Also of note is how closely the setting and plot stay to current D+D lore. Recent events in the Forgotten Realms setting, including the Spellplague, are featured. Cryptic have clearly done their homework when developing this new chapter in the story.

Growing your hero
Taking a streamlined approach to levelling but still leaving room for micromanagement, growing your character in Neverwinter is straightforward and enjoyable. Paying homage to the tabletop conventions but not becoming restrained by them, you begin by creating your perfect hero. Following on from Champions Online’s incredibly extensive character creator, Neverwinter offers you six races and a plethora of options to tweak the look, size and build of your hero.

Afterwards, you choose your class and base stats. These take the form of Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma; the six predominant D+D stats. Each one is neatly explained in a tooltip, as is practically everything else. Neverwinter starts helping you right from the off and even complete newcomers will find it easy to decide which class and stat build is right for them.

The sliders! Oh, the sliders!

The sliders! Oh, the sliders!

Classes fit the usual conventions while again giving a nod to D+D lore. The Guardian Fighter, Great Weapon Fighter and Trickster Rogue fulfill the mêlée classes and are each unique and require different play-styles to master. The Control Wizard and Devoted Cleric slot into the AoE and Healer roles and do well at them. Almost all the classes are very well designed, capable both solo and in teams, with the exception of the underpowered GWF (more on that later).

As you level up you earn a number of points that upgrade a number of different trees. Your Powers cover your basic attacks, special moves and passive class abilities, and come in a variety of interesting types. There’s barely a dull power among them and which ones you choose to use will depend entirely on your play-style. The system has flaws, often requiring you to waste points on abilities you don’t want in order to unlock more, but level-up systems are rarely perfect and Neverwinter does a bang-up job of evolving your character.

Feat points allow you to initially apply small bonuses to your character (3% more damage anyone?), but later become your tool for choosing your Paragon Path, essentially a class speciality. While the rewards are at first small, soon you’ll notice the stacking effects. Feats have been designed as a way to gradually boost your characters abilities in the direction you choose.

How fast you level depends entirely on which class you choose and how well you play it. My first character was a GWF, a hulking warrior with a massive sword, and I wrongly assumed that suited my style of bowling in and dealing massive damage. Designed more for crowd-control, the GWF is currently grossly underpowered due to early complaints about its abilities. Cryptic have apparently nerfed (lowered) its stats twice and have overdone it. Barely able to tackle a small group of basic grunts without swilling potions like an addict, I was disappointed at how little fun I had with it.

Creating a second Rogue character led to much more enjoyment. It seems that while the class favours stealth and deft movement, it’s also designed for dealing massive damage to single targets and suited my play-style much better. I seem to have rocketed up the scale with my TR, reaching level 21 in what seems like a very short time.

Overall the classes seem well-constructed for a number of play-styles but currently lack a strong, non-magic ranged class, and some of them can feel a little too focussed to be completely successful in solo play.

State of play
Taking a much more action-based slant than a lot of its fellows, Neverwinter plays almost like a hack ‘n’ slash adventure more than a traditional MMO. Rather than use the standard ‘click-to-target’ system that so many MMORPGs stick with, the game allows you to assign ‘At-Will’ abilities to both mouse buttons which then become triggered attacks.

Encounter abilities are can be assigned to Q, E and R and work on a cooldown system. Daily abilities are linked to the 1 and 2 number keys; 3, 4 and 5 are your item pockets; and 6 functions to summon your mount once you acquire one. Shift is your defence, which differs dependant on class, and Tab activates your special class ability. Movement is handled like a third-person shooter, with your reticule dictating what you attack. This creates a fluid and enjoyable system rarely seen before.

Taste my steel, Orc scum!

Taste my steel, Orc scum!

For example, my Trickster Rogue begins with a basic combo on the LMB and the ability to throw knives on the RMB. As you level up you can unlock a couple more At-Will abilities, but it’s the Encounter and Daily powers you’ll be using to mix things up.

Encounter powers are basically special moves that have a variety of effects. My Rogue can currently leap in the air and deal a crushing, stunning move; slip behind the enemy in a puff of smoke and deal nasty amounts of damage; and spin with both his blades to deliver a heavy, damage-focussed attack.

Forcing you to choose only three to have ready at a time may seem restrictive, but it allows you to build your own combat routine and get used to using it. Crucially, it also allows players of the same class to work together without treading on each other’s toes. While your fellow Rogue may have the stunning move, they may choose to use a move to lay a trap or sling a flurry of daggers instead of the ones you’ve chosen.

Daily powers are not exactly what they seem. As you deal and take damage, a gem fills on your HUD. Once it’s full, you can activate a Daily. Essentially powerful special moves, they often deal exceptional amounts of damage or allow your character superhuman abilities for a short time. Again, only having two available in combat allows you to easily access your favourites without sifting through multiple ability bars.

Defence for the Rogue comes in the form of a deft dodge-roll and drains the Stamina bar. This refills over time but currently seems to drain much too quickly, allowing you only a couple of rolls before you have to try other means of defence. While I’m not sure making defence moves class-specific makes total sense, it lends each class a further degree of uniqueness.

Class abilities drain another bar that currently sits annoyingly next to your reticule. The Rogue can turn invisible for a short time, losing all enemy attention and opening up additional effects for Encounter powers. While it has its uses and helps to add variety, it’s hard to use it as a key part of your combat strategy.

Distractions
So the combat is tight, responsive and enjoyable, but what about the other stuff? As with any good MMO, Neverwinter is stuffed full of additional content, mini-games and loot.

Instanced dungeons feature heavily and the game has a very effective queueing system in place to ensure you can always find a group. Although it can sometimes take forever to find a team, once you’re in, these little narratives are always fun, challenging and designed specifically for party combat. By separating missions that are playable solo from these team-based quests Neverwinter manages to cater perfectly for both. An NPC in the main area of Protector’s Enclave even allows you to play these dungeons as a quest and earn currency.

PvP is also here and is mildly entertaining. Bringing everyone up (or down) to the same level stops anyone dominating with stats alone and makes for a tense and enjoyable match every time.

There are a number of different collectibles, earned from various activities, that can be traded in for goodies at various NPCs in the market. Most of this stuff is high-level so the system is obviously designed to give level 60 players something to do regularly.

Generally, the additional activities and content is substantial, well-designed and nicely balanced. I get the feeling Cryptic want to make sure you’ve got at least three things you could be doing at any one time and that’s very good. Nothing is worse than an MMO where your only options are to do a story quest or spend four hours killing minions.

Worthy of special mention is a revolutionary Foundry mode. Here, you can create your own quests and campaigns in a never-before-seen way. Allowing the community to create content is genius and while the system is complex and initially baffling, I imagine it’s much easier than regular modding. There are already thousands of player-made quests to play and Cryptic run a ‘Foundry Quest of the Week’ blog to make sure you know which ones are worth playing. It’s a concept I’ve been wishing for for a long time and Cryptic have realised it brilliantly.

It's more complex than it looks, but the potential is staggering.

It’s more complex than it looks, but the potential is staggering.

Another world
Visually, Neverwinter strikes a good balance between lush and cartoony. While it’s not cel-shaded there’s an almost comic book quality to everything. This style is practically a Cryptic staple, following on from Champions Online, and works very well. It allows the developer to create nice-looking, vibrant locations that don’t make your graphics card wheeze. While my card is powerful enough to run most things, it’s comforting to know that most people will be able to play Neverwinter without it looking like shit.

While you’ll be trudging through similar-looking sewers and dungeons at first, Neverwinter the place soon shows itself to be varied, interesting and unique. If a location is pitched as dark and scary, it’s dark and scary. The safe areas are a lush green and blue, with the sun shining and everyone feeling positive. The dangerous zones are often full of fire-damaged rubble, screaming civilians and gruesome, well-designed enemies. A lot of effort has gone into making Neverwinter feel every part the epic landscape the tabletop lore describes it.

The variation in enemies is commendable and keeps the game fresh for as long as possible. Aside from their differing tactics, each faction is instantly identifiable, with very few basic kinds. While the contained minions usually share only a handful of skins, the wide range of enemy types makes up for this and when you’re cleaving through hundreds of them each session it’s hard to care about minor similarities.

From up high, Neverwinter looks surprisingly lovely.

From up high, Neverwinter looks surprisingly lovely.

Banding together
An MMO lives or dies by its community, and by the looks of things, Neverwinter is as healthy as they come. Griefers and trolls are startlingly rare considering the open nature of the Beta, and most players are friendly and willing to party up. Even the PvP is mostly civil, with players commending each other and regular shouts of ‘good game’ after a great match. Although no-one seems to be using the voice chat much, the text window is full of conversations and discussions, even if they are buried in the usual market chatter in Protector’s Enclave.

Crucially, even the most basic cries for help are usually answered promptly and with little malice. So often do I see experienced players scolding newbies for asking ‘stupid questions’ when a game doesn’t explain something properly, so it’s refreshing to find such a helpful community. High-level players regularly offer to help newbies through tough dungeons and the game’s flawless quest sharing system makes this effortless. It creates a culture of assistance and friendliness that is rarely found and I really hope this carries over when the game is released fully.

There are already hundreds of guilds in Neverwinter and in my experience joining the right one is not only easy, but relatively pain-free. It took just a few minutes for me to find a guild that interested me using the excellent search system, message the highest-ranking online member and be accepted to join. Although you have to be level 15 to send private messages, limiting your likelihood of being able to join that way, the guild masters set any level requirements to be a member so you could potentially join at level 1.

Recruiting stuff like this is common and encouraged. Maybe they'll accept you into their ranks?

Recruiting stuff like this is common and encouraged. Maybe they’ll accept you into their ranks?

Another interesting thing to note is how the game seems to promote natural co-operation. Maybe it’s the action-heavy nature that causes most players to jump in and help each other, but whatever it is, it feels brilliant. Working my way through an enemy-infested area I’d regularly be healed by passing Clerics and nearby warriors would weigh in on the large enemies roaming about. I’d return the favour, dashing daggers at enemies grouped around fellow players or storming in to help take down a mini-boss.

Things can always get better…
At present, Neverwinter is not only one of the finest Beta MMO’s I’ve played, but likely one of the best MMO’s I’ve experienced in general. That said, there are a number of issue that I’d like to see worked out by the time the game is officially released.

The classes, while varied, are currently woefully imbalanced. The Great Weapon Fighter, as I mentioned before, is horribly underpowered. Not only is this irritating from a gameplay perspective but it makes no sense in-universe. I’ve also heard that the Control Wizard and Devoted Cleric classes can be very hard to solo with, making them great team players but pretty miserable otherwise. While I can’t confirm this from person experience, I’ve heard enough of it in-game to know it’s a definite issue. I just hope they bring these classes up to scratch rather than messing with the others to compensate.

The armour and weapons are mostly well-designed but there’s not currently enough variation to match the influx of loot. Only every so often will you find a sword that looks different from the one your already have. In a game where customisation and uniqueness are so important, having essentially the same sword for days on end gets old quickly. A system for wearing one type of armour but displaying another (used in other games such as DC Universe Online) would be nice.

Foundry, to be honest, needs fixing. While many players have commendably battled through its various issues and broken bits to create fantastic quests, the system is currently crippled by some nasty problems. You can’t create boss characters, the test run system can often fail and overall the thing is poorly explained. There are links to a wiki and a tutorial on the main menu but both these are currently ‘Coming Soon’, so it’s a point of importance that Cryptic rapidly remedy this. Foundry is a ground-breaking tool and it will succeed or fail based on how accessible it is come launch.

Mounts, available at level 20, are insanely expensive. Despite selling all the loot I came across and only buying the odd health potion, I had nowhere close to enough cash to buy one when I could. You get a number of rental tokens when you hit the required level but that’s a small recompense for the disappointment. Luckily I had some Zen (publisher Perfect World’s real-money currency)  leftover from another game and so I could buy a permanent steed, but this shouldn’t have to be done. Real-money mounts are fine if they’re special, but every player should be able to acquire a reasonable mount with in-game cash without having to sell their grandma.

As expected in a Beta, Neverwinter has a long list of minor bugs and glitches, some of which are exploitable. There was a recent, server-wide roll-back due to a bug that allowed the rapid accumulation of illicit Astral Diamonds, a valuable in-game currency. As this currency can be traded for Zen it was essentially fraud and therefore taken very seriously. My primary character at the time was taken back six levels and my secondary was wiped altogether. Many players lost thousands of Astral Diamonds they earned legitimately and while no-one disputed the need for a roll-back, everyone seemed united in the request that it not happen again.

How can I get involved?
Neverwinter is currently in Open Beta, which means you can simply click on the picture below, create an account and download the client absolutely free. The game is planned as a Free-To-Play release, so even after launch you won’t have to pay a penny.

Click this picture to sign up now!

Click this picture to sign up now!

It’s also worth signing up for the Perfect World Neverwinter Forums, as the community is deep into discussing, reporting and requesting issues, problems and features for the game. It’s also the best place to find and promote Foundry content.

Overall, Neverwinter is more than promising and I cannot wait for the full release to hit. Considering the amount of pure fun I’ve had with the Open Beta, as long as Cryptic don’t make any stupid moves the final release should turn out to be one of the best MMOs out there and worthy of anyone’s time.

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