The Forgotten Realms lore is no stranger to the video game treatment. They have some of the most well regarded Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) under their belt, including Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale - both taking place within this particular Dungeons and Dragons setting.
The Realms also holds the title for hosting the first graphical MMORPG, Neverwinter Nights (the 1991 game, not the BioWare series). So with this kind of history and the market's current obsession with MMO games, it was only a matter of time before a new Realms game hit the scene.
Neverwinter (again, not related to the BioWare games) takes place some time after a volcanic eruption brought the eponymous city to the brink of destruction, and puts you in the role of one of many soldiers helping to rebuild and protect the city from those seeking to take advantage of the chaos.
If you like your MMOs with a healthy serving of lore, Neverwinter really delivers - this is the best example of a story-driven MMO I've played.
Of course, if you just want to kill things and level up, skipping through all the quest text and cutscenes is an option, as well.
A Champion is Made
Character creation is a huge part of any MMO. If all goes well, you'll be staring at your avatar's backside for a few hundred hours, so you want to put the time and effort into getting it just right. Fortunately, Neverwinter's character creation tool is excellent, giving you an impressive amount of customisation, all the way down to foot length and nostril size. Sadly, the depth of character creation stops short of class options, with only five to choose from at launch (though more are in development); Trickster Rogue, Devoted Cleric, Control Wizard, Guardian Fighter, and Great Weapon Fighter. While I'd much rather have a few well designed classes than a lot of bad ones, this definitely feels a tad toward the "too few" side. On top of that, that list only includes one healer (which is more of a damage/healer hybrid); and one tank, so if you want to do something besides hurt things, your options are even more limited. All the other character creation depth is somewhat underwhelming when the single most meaningful choice is so limited.
This would be less of an issue if there was a lot of diversity within each class, but again, your options here are restricted. As per the RPG norm, levelling up earns you skill points, which you can spend as you please; however, the skill trees are very linear and don't give much room for diversity. If you're a Trickster Rogue, you're going to be stabbing things with daggers one way or another. If you're a Devoted Cleric, you're going to be dishing up acceptable levels of damage with a side of healing and damage prevention.
Having said that, there is some scope for improvement here with the Paragon system. Every few levels, you earn a Feat point which can be put towards one of a number of different passive bonuses; once you've spent enough of these, you get to choose a Paragon Path. As of launch, there is only one path per class, so there is absolutely no 'within-class' diversity from this system currently. However, at least there are plans for future development which could open up character development a bit more.
To the Pain!
Neverwinter more or less follows genre conventions for the most part, but Perfect World have opted to challenge the status quo with what arguably counts the most - the combat. Neverwinter's claim to fame is an action-focused battle system that demands and rewards good reactions and awareness of surroundings as much as smart gear choices and optimisation of skill rotations. This is achieved largely by abandoning traditional sticky targeting in favour of an almost FPS-like, mouse-look control scheme: you move with the WASD keys, control your field of vision and aiming reticle with the mouse, and attack primarily with the mouse buttons. This manual targeting works well for the most part, adding an extra element to fights while at the same time being lenient enough to avoid disadvantaging the dexterity or latency impaired.
It's not just a click-fest though. After all, this is an MMO, so hotbars and skills to fill them with are a must. Neverwinter injects some much needed strategy into skill selection by using a limited hotbar, a la Guild Wars, and it fits in well with the game's overall combat philosophy. My only gripe is that there is no way to save loadouts, so if you use a few different setups for different scenarios, you have to manually change everything each time.
As innovative and interesting as the combat system is, it's not without its flaws - most notably, lag. A large part of the game involves avoiding big, hard hitting moves that are telegraphed with obvious startup animations; but if you're playing in New Zealand, latency means avoiding these can be quite hard. As a result, you end up forced to weather attacks balanced to be avoidable. Another big frustration comes with how tightly packed the enemies in some zones are. You'll inevitably be moving around a lot in battle to dodge stuff, but this often just ends up with you pulling an extra group of enemies (or two, or three, or four...). Even if you manage to soldier through them all, the respawn times are quick and there's a good chance the first group will have respawned before you're done.
For group content, Neverwinter very much follows the course laid out by the genre heavyweights, with a plethora of instanced five-person dungeons and a few larger raids requiring more players. Action-oriented combat spices things up somewhat, by forcing the need for spatial awareness and, particularly for healers, knowing where your mates are. The "avoid the charged attack of death" mechanic emphasises individual ability for the sake of the party's success, but it is something of a double edged sword: on the one hand, it keeps things interesting, but on the other, it means it is much much easier for bad or laggy players to mess up and wipe the group.
One of the most unique features of Cryptic's previous game, Star Trek Online, was the Foundry, which allowed players to create their own quests for others to play. The Foundry makes its return in Neverwinter, and the potentially limitless content it offers players is perhaps Neverwinter's biggest strength. Should you get bored of the regular quests available, there is a wealth of player created content to explore, and a rating system helps to ensure that you don't have to wade through a sea of garbage to get to a handful of good Foundry quests. As far as actually developing content goes, the system strikes a good balance between user friendliness and depth. After an hour or two to get comfortable with the system, your only limits will be your imagination.
A Realm in Tatters
Neverwinter features a dark, gritty aesthetic to go with its post-cataclysmic setting, but in practice, it mostly just makes the game look somewhat dull. I will admit that part of my distaste for Neverwinter's visuals is a subjective preference for my persistent worlds to be bright and vibrant. But at the same time, I'm not sure if this kind of bleak atmosphere works as well in an MMO as it does in a single player game, because it doesn't really create a world into which one wants to settle and spend a lot of time. Even if gritty is your thing, Neverwinter falls short due to an overall lack of variety between zones; once you've been to one grim forest, decrepit township, or torchlit cave, you've been to all of them. That's not to say that Neverwinter is necessarily a bad looking game, the detail on textures and shadow and particle effects actually look pretty impressive if your machine can handle high graphics settings - but these good points never really prevent the repetitiveness from setting in.
Is it worth your time?
It would be an understatement to describe the free-to-play MMORPG market as saturated right now, but Cryptic have tried to boldly move in and change the game, designing Neverwinter with the free model in mind from the outset. Sadly, a lack of content and some of the game's innovation backfiring on New Zealand connections makes it hard to recommend this over other, more established games. On the other hand, if you're a dedicated Dungeons and Dragons fan or budding content developer, you might just find what you're looking for here. Neverwinter also has a lot of potential; once it has had some time to find its feet (and maybe install a server farm in Australia, but that's wishful thinking) this could be a game worth taking another look at.