Life and Times in Neverwinter

It’s been years since I’ve played an MMORPG. I haven’t even touched WoW and had only occasionally dabbled in others like Lineage II during their beta phases, so I’m not the best person to quiz on which MMO is the “bestest” or the finest example of the kind of mechanics players look for.

So when I started playing Cryptic’s Neverwinter, I was surprised at how much fun I was having over the past few days.

It’s currently in open beta which means anyone can download the client for free after registering and then start playing what content is there. Classes aren’t finished yet and not everything is in — it’s still undergoing a lot of testing. But the monetization is already pulling it’s share of gold coins from people’s wallets. Even though I don’t normally play MMOs, I know who Perfect World is and the kind of microtransactions that normally follow their titles.

Even so, Neverwinter feels a lot like a single-player RPG in some respects. I’ve soloed my way nearly to the level cap, combat is getting tougher, but it’s not impossible to get as far as I did simply by playing the game as a lone wolf. Having adventured through BioWare’s and Obsidian’s Neverwinter games, this newest online-only iteration of the D&D property has a lot in common with both — the dialogue system for stories, the simple quests, and a decent level of equipment and statistics crunch with a large heaping helping of MMO topping it all.

A few things really stood out for me.

Blitzkrieg of Action

Combat is balanced between fast action as it appears onscreen and a cooldown system to balance things out. When enemies are about to launch a devastating attack, a red area appears indicating the danger zone. In some ways, it can feel really action oriented in dodging attacks at the last second or timing your attacks to chain them together in order to keep an enemy off balance. It’s a lot faster than I thought it might be and really helps lend the system a kind of candy coated flash and pizzazz normally associated with single-player RPGs. I know other MMOs, like Guild Wars 2, have the same approach, but for someone who has been out of the MMO scene for awhile, it really felt like a lot o fun.

Big Areas

Dungeon zones take players from Neverwinter’s Protector’s Enclave to the depths of the Underdark, though it doesn’t stop the curious from traveling to zones that they might not be ready for. Still, nothing’s preventing you from hopping into danger in this game.

Death Isn’t a Big Deal…Yet

Dying was actually hard to do — even for my tiefling wizard — until much later. When you die, you’re sent back either to the beginning of a dungeon or the last camp that you had unlocked in a zone. You also get an injury that penalizes your character in a small way but can get aggravated if you die again if you do nothing about it. Kits to heal that up are available along with a healthy degree of potion drops everywhere. The game seems geared to keep you going before crushing your run later with tougher mobs after around level 50.

Custom Goodness

The Foundry is like Neverwinter Nights’ editor for anyone that remembers it. It’s the custom tool that players used to build their own adventures out using the same assets the developers did. Now, it’s in an MMO and there’s a vast number of these for players to get into if they want a little experience, humor, or a new adventure away from the main storyline.

And it’s all free. After getting to a certain level in the game, the Foundry unlocks allowing anyone to mess with it and submit adventures for play. I haven’t messed with it yet, but I have gone through a number of custom dungeons already. Some are really well done. Others could use a bit of polish. But it virtually guarantees an infinite range of adventures set within Neverwinter’s world.

There’s Diamonds in Them Thar Hills

Of course, because it’s an MMO, it has to have very MMO-like pieces. One of those is the equipment which, compared to single-player games, is about as bland as I remember other systems’ being until you get to the higher end stuff like the blue and purple kind (green is below blue, and plain white is common stuff).

Now, you can either grind up for stuff to randomly drop, or dive right into the economy of the game that makes it not so much “pay to win” but “pay to get things faster that I otherwise would have if I dumped as much time into this as I might regret later”.

For a D&D game, one refreshing thing was in seeing the PnP economy work. D&D typically breaks it’s common economy down into copper pieces (the lowest end), then to silver (100 coppers for one silver), and then to gold (100 silvers make up one gold). Unlike other RPGs where gold can fall out of rats, this one actually makes it hard to earn it which is how I had always expected it to be since the PnP days.

Now, for the game, we now have astral diamonds which can only be earned by doing things like special daily quests, grinding up professions for your crafting followers, or invoking your god at a local safe zone. Astral diamonds are the only things merchants selling the “really awesome” stuff like a flaming horse mount or extremely high-level purple equipment. It’s a convenient shortcut, though astral diamonds are a lot harder to earn up than gold even though you can get thousands of them at a time. It takes about a million of these to buy an infernal steed, for example.

There are also special “seals” that are earned by slaughtering party-quest end bosses or from special quests. There also coins earned at a glacial, random pace via invoking your chosen god.

Then there’s the ultimate currency — zen coins. Astral diamonds can be traded in for zen coins but you’ll need a truckload of those to get even a few of these. But with zen coins, players can essentially buy special packs and other high end goodies that they’d otherwise get by sinking in the time.

Of course, players with deep wallets can always opt to just buy the currency they want and then spend their wealth accordingly which is where all of the micro-transactions come into play. Everything in the game can be earned up the old fashioned way which is what the system is trying to promote — good ol’ elbow grinding grease will get you the stuff you want. The cash option, though, is what the game (and many other MMOs using the same model) will be supported through, and there are a lot of takers already.

Founder’s packs are currently going for $199 bucks at Neverwinter’s official page. That nets you a unique drow character, a unique steed like an armored spider, and 2mil astral diamonds to spend along with a few other things like a special title you can use.

Before you start thinking that’s way too much for anyone to buy into, you’d be surprised — Founders are all over the place in Neverwinter. There was almost never a moment when I’d see an armored spider or someone with the title “Founder” in their name roaming around in one of the zones, so it’s working.  People are buying into the game.

But, like anything else that’s monetized in Neverwinter, you can totally ignore it and still have a blast with you and a party of friends. Or, if you have the bucks and really love the game, there it is.

So it’s fun?

So far I’m liking it a lot but that’s from the perspective of someone that doesn’t normally play MMOs. So I’d guess that for someone that likes D&D and wants to try something wrapped in the same trappings and is fun, Neverwinter’s free beta could be what they’re looking for. Or even for someone that’s never played an MMO at all, it takes it easy on the player until the much higher levels from what I’ve seen.

And best of all, no wipes. None. When the game goes “live”, everyone keeps gaming.

Of course, it’s also hard not to look at Cryptic’s history and wonder just how long Neverwinter might be around or even if it will have enough content to keep players going months later. And being “beta”, stuff is still missing such as new professions and additional classes. It also has a tendency to crash on my system a lot, but that might be just due to aging hardware. Every time it has gone down, though, I’d always find myself hoping it comes back.

It’s still too early to tell, but at least for now, it’s probably the most fun Neverwinter Nights fans or anyone that wants to play something free set in the Dungeons & Dragons system could try.

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