I hadn’t planned on playing in any of the Neverwinter betas. It’s not that I’ve got anything against the game – I’m not part of the rabid anti-Cryptic pack, but despite having lifetime subs running for both Champions Online and Star Trek Online (and not actually regretting either of those purchases thank you very much) I’m not a raving fanboy of Cryptic’s either… except in so much as I don’t think they’re that bad a developer, which is enough I think to get branded a “fanboi” by the rabid antis. Cryptic turn out serviceable MMOs in a playable state, or at least with about the industry standard level of bugs and service interruptions at launch, and as an armchair designer I’m somewhat impressed by how they’ve used the same underlying tech to produce three MMOs now which are each very much their own creature even while you can see the common heritage. That’s the sort of engineering approach we’re going to need to see if we want the development costs of MMOs to come down… and we need those costs to come down if we want more entrants in the market and to get away from new MMOs having to try and be “WoW beaters” in order to justify their budget.
That aside though, while I had maybe half an eye on Neverwinter as a game in development it weasn’t one I was goibg to rush to play. It’s Cryptic’s stab at making yet another generic fantasy MMO (Dungeons & Dragons is, after all, the gold standard for generic fantasy that all of the other games out there have drawn on). If I want that particular itch scratched then I’m already playing GW2, I’ve got a Rift subscription still active when I get the occasional urge to go run around and look at the Storm Legion expansion, and of course I still have a lifetime LotRO subscription if I can ever get the damned game re-installed successfully. So I don’t need Neverwinter. But when Cryptic sent me an email telling me I had access for the next weekend as a STO lifer, I went ahead and downloaded the client anyway. Because I’m weak. And curious… but mostly, I suspect, weak.
Now, I didn’t actually get to play all that much. I created two characters and took them through the tutorial and a little beyond. That was enough to get a bit of feel for the gameplay and a little look around. Graphics were decent enough, and character appearance customisation was very good – that’s the Cryptic engine, as used to make a wide variety of superheroes, new alien species and Klingons with a choice of nineteen different sorts of cornish pasty slapped on their foreheads. Gear customisation was on the other hand extremely limited – Neverwinter takes the WAR path of having each class locked to a single type of armour and style of weapon, making all drops class-specific and making all characters of the same class similar in profile.
Game mechanics are fast and action oriented, and are best described as “inspired by” 4th edition D&D rather than being an attempt to faithfully port the mechanics from the tabletop game as DDO did with 3rd edition. Your character has three sorts of skills – ‘at will’ powers, mapped to the mouse buttons, can be used pretty much without restriction (some have a generous pool of rapidly recharging uses, so they can’t QUITE be spammed indefinitely); ‘encounter’ powers which are on a short cooldown (say, 10 seconds); and ‘daily’ powers which fortunately can be used a BIT more often than that – you have a power meter that you charge up in normal combat and when full allows to use one daily power as a crowning moment of awesome. Combat is fast, with trash mobs dieing in two or three hits of my at will powers, and has all the hallmarks of an action MMO, such as having to get out of the red cricvles or cones laid on the ground to indicate a decent sized enemy attack. Each class seems to have its own active defence mechanic – my rogue could dodge very much like a GW2 character, while the guardian fighter has a block ability that lets you take a certain number of hits on your shield before your block bar needs refreshing. Outside of combat, the game was less Gw2 and more WoW standard, with NPCs displaying glowing “I’ve got a quest!” markers over their heads on every street corner. Not new or innovative, but I guess it’s a form of gameplay that has been proven to work. Some of the voice acting on the NPCs was of questionable quality (as in, even compared to GW2′s uneven voice work) and I groaned when I enhcountered yet another bloody dwarf with yet another over-baked Scots accent, but on the whole what I saw of the game was fun.
At the end of the day, though, Neverwinter is another generic fantasy MMO in a market that’s glutted with them. Would I pay for the game, or pay a subscription? Probably not, although that’s not because it’s a bad game, it’s because it doesn’t satisfy any unfulfilled need I have and these days I don’t have money to throw around like confetti. Would I play for free? Probably – but, at the moment, only if the GW2 servers were down. If GW2 took a significant turn for the worse (and by that I mean, Star Wars Galaxies NGE turn for the worse), or if a bunch of friends started playing Neverwinter and invited me to join them, then yes I probably would play it, and probably would enjoy doing so. It’s not revolutionary and its not going to overturn the genre, but it’s a serviceable-looking MMO. That’s what Cryptic does.