The Neverwinter name carries a fair amount of prestige in the video gaming world: Bioware’s follow up to its seminal Baldur’s Gate 2 was titled Neverwinter Nights, and although it was regarded as generally falling short of the glory and heights achieved by its predecessor, it was an ambitious game that won a lot of fans, and demonstrated Bioware’s commitment to quality game making.
This new game is not made by Bioware, and it is nothing like Neverwinter Nights. It is, rather, a free to play MMORPG being developed under the banner of Cryptic Studios. Based on the lore of the incredibly popular and industry defining Dungeons and Dragons tabletop RPGs, the new game plays like a rather refreshing take on the MMO genre. Where generally the tag ‘free to play’ carries with it the connotations and stigma of’a functional and safe product that offers nothing adventurous,’ Neverwinter seems to have a lot of potential to be a major MMO alongside genre titans World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 if it loves up to its initial promise.
The game begins generically enough, and at first, there are the usual fears that this is a run of the mill, if competent, product, microcosmic of all free to play games. Certainly, the rather unremarkable character creation tools don’t allay any fears, and when you have to select your character class, ranging from elf, human, dwarf, and more, it stretches the boundaries of uninspired genericness. Of course, it is easy to forget that as far as games are concerned, these conventions that are now deemed generic were established by Dungeons and Dragons in the first place, and so Neverwinter is only, in fact, being true to its legacy. However, in a post World of Warcraft era, and particularly for a late entrant like Neverwinter, everything is judged against Blizzard’s titan game, and in that regard, one can’t help but feel disappointed at how unremarkable and run of the mill the game feels.
Happily enough, a lot of the rest of Neverwinter is nothing like this. While it still seems to suffer from the banal quest structure that seems to define all MMOs, it seems to have some rather inventive and unique takes on aspects of gameplay such as combat. The game has contextual real time combat, wherein your attack is dependent not only on just your class and stats, but also on what you are attacking, and it also lets you have access to a range of active skills, which are effectively a translation of D&D’s Daily Skills (accessible only once per ‘day’ or encounter in the tabletop game, but here characterized by long cooldown periods), mapped to the Q, W, E, R, and right mouse buttons. The combat is fast paced, and a nice, frenetic change of pace from World of Warcraft and its ilk (although it must be noted that it does lose a lot of the nuances and intricacies of D&D’s combat).
In other ways too, Neverwinter surprises. As mentioned above, the game is free to play, but it is that rare game that actually seems to get the right implementation of that model, limiting paid items only to cosmetic gear. Also surprising is how well made the game seems to be- while there were bugs aplenty in the beta that we were testing (which is pretty obvious, considering the game is still unfinished), it looks stunning, and it sounds great too. Maybe a large part of its visual appeal can be attributed to the great art style, but it just looks gorgeous, more so than other MMOs.
Neverwinter is certainly promising. In a lot of ways, it is different from other MMOs- it seems to actually ‘get’ the free to play model, for instance, and its combat is a refreshing change from the norm. However, in other ways, it is exactly what you would expect getting into the game- it’s pretty generic and conventional. Ultimately, it is when it breaks from the mold that Neverwinter seems to shine the most, and when it sticks to it that it is at its most unremarkable. It is to be hoped the final game will be more of the former, and less of the latter.