Neverwinter: The continuing first impressions

Tipa at 26
Tipa at 26

I’ve played Neverwinter for a couple of weeks, now, casually — and I still don’t feel I understand the game.

It’s not that I don’t know how to play the game; there’s no big trick to that, it isn’t vastly different from the MMO norm. You see mobs, you use abilities against mobs, you collect loot and gain experience. Stripped of all its flair, it scratches the solo dungeon crawl itch, quite well. The battles — at least for my rogue — are somewhat tactical. I like that. But, the “molo” play-style — soloing with a mercenary — is nearly identical to play in both of the EverQuests. So that’s not it.

There’s no real story to Neverwinter. The EverQuests, World of Warcraft and others have strong stories that weave a zone’s quests and missions together, usually a bunch of smaller encounters telling bits and pieces of the story. Neverwinter doesn’t really rise further than groups of enemies standing around for no particular purpose.

Neverwinter even has gear score; I’d missed that entirely, despite it being right in front of me on the character screen. So, I started working on that, until I noticed that substantial upgrades were being ranked lower on the gear score than the inferior stuff I was wearing. So I stopped trying to make that number go higher.

Making numbers go higher. That’s the core of the modern RPG. There are numbers — levels, experience, power, health, gold, what have you — and through dedication and hard work, those numbers can go higher. When they are high enough, you win.

I love that game! But after awhile, the numbers stop going up fast enough, and I start looking for other things to do. I’m not sure I’m going to find those other things in Neverwinter.

There are plenty of other things to do — PvP is kinda fun (but, there are battlegrounds in most MMOs these days). There’s the quick skirmish runs, and the slightly slower silent dungeon runs. Went on one run that had three rogues and two wizards. Next one had four rogues and one wizard. We were so desperately in need of a tank and a cleric, but — no, actually, we did fine. Everyone brought a mercenary, and they were able to handle some of the tanking and some of the healing. The dungeon runs are silent because everyone turns off their microphones as soon as they enter their first dungeon and accidentally hear someone else. Silent because dungeons (as in almost every modern MMO) move far too quickly to waste time with typing.

The game would probably be more fun with a static group, especially if the level designers creating custom dungeons began tuning their adventures for full groups. The Foundry dungeons I have run so far have been pleasant enough; some even have a good story behind them.

I play the game, I like the game, but I don’t know why. Game just _confuses_ me.

Neverwinter: Gateway

Tipa, Trickster Rogue
Tipa, Trickster Rogue

With the Neverwinter Gateway, Cryptic has improved upon World of Warcraft’s Armory. Like the Armory, you can check out a player’s gear and stats, but then it takes it another step further.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but does WoW’s Armory allow you to do crafting from your web browser? Gateway does. Can Play the auction house? EverQuest II did something like this years ago, but they charged money to access the service, and as a result, almost nobody used it. SOE eventually made it free, but nobody has even thought about it for years and I wonder if it even still exists.

Click those cows!
Click those cows!

Folks in my Neverwinter guild (Combat Wombat) are just giddy over the prospect of being able to play some little slice of Neverwinter from work, on their phones, checking in when their timers are up to send their little crafters to their new tasks. The comparisons to Farmville are lost on nobody, but the secret of Farmville was engagement, and keeping people engaged and interested in playing a MMO past the first couple weeks is no small victory.

It hasn’t been a couple weeks yet. I’m projecting. How long did people click virtual cows in Farmville before they tired of it? Six months? If Cryptic gets six months from the average player, they can’t help but be ecstatic. Six times longer than the average player stays with an MMO. Some will stay for years, some will leave after a day, but the average player playing a new MMO for about a month sounds right to me. Always some new game comes along to lure people away. The Gateway could be a powerful tool to keep people in Neverwinter when Wildstar and The Elder Scrolls Online are released.

Tipa Ribtickler
Tipa Ribtickler

Before I tired of repeating the 1-20 content in Neverwinter’s numerous betas, I played a Devoted Cleric, a Great Weapon Fighter and a Trickster Rogue to decent (for beta) levels. I never gave Control Wizard much of a chance — and neither have very many other people, as any casual survey of grouped players shows very few in wizard’s robes; there’s only one in the entire guild at this time. (Useful nugget found through the Gateway…)

When I was allowed in on the second stage of Neverwinter’s tiered launch, I created one each of rogue, fighter and cleric. I thought about which to play for a couple of days while I enjoyed EQ2’s double xp weekend and the launch of Scars of the Awakened, then came back to Neverwinter yesterday determined to be a rogue. Cleric would be the easy choice — nearly unkillable, with the ability to hire a DPS companion at level 16 to handle any shortcomings in that department. Cleric was by far the easiest class of the ones I tried — powerful solo, and welcome in any group.

The various fighters are allowed to stand toe-to-toe with enemies, allowing the simple sort of play where you wade in to enemies and make those poor villains regret the hour they were hatched. A healer companion at level 16 addresses the one concern with THAT sort of gameplay.

Rogues, though — can’t take a hit, so they must always be moving. Their signature move, stealth, lasts only seconds, and that’s how long you have to choose your target and decide upon an attack — a few seconds of combat advantage in a group of week foes, or leap behind a powerful enemy to hit it with one deadly strike? Trickster rogues are the tactical melee. Leap in, do the AE daze jump, hit for awhile, then shift backwards and pelt the tank mob with daggers as he’s winding up his big swing, then back into the fray once more.

LIKING that.

Neverwinter’s big flaw so far is its lack of fidelity to the D&D 4e rules. 4e has a perfectly good way of selecting abilities as you level; Neverwinter has done away with that. That was pretty much as close as they came to using any D&D at all, aside from the setting. There’s compromises aplenty when taking a game from the tabletop to the computer, I get that.

I did play through a Foundry mission last night — I Am Slayer, one of their featured Foundry missions which, nonetheless, wasn’t eligible for their Foundry mission bonus. It was a decent romp with decent rewards, scaled to level, and makes me excited to get started with one of my own. I have ideas….

Neverwinter: It’s Forgotten Realms, but is it D&D?

I'll heal you, but it might hurt a little bit.
I’ll heal you, but it might hurt a little bit.

This is the first beta weekend for Cryptic’s “Neverwinter”, an action-oriented MMO set in one of the more famous of the Forgotten Realm’s cities. We’ve seen Neverwinter brought to life before in “Neverwinter Nights” and its sequel, titles that kept their relevance by offering every player the chance and opportunity to create and run their own dungeons for themselves and their friends.

It’s absolutely the reason that Cryptic chose Neverwinter as the base for their game, as players can create their own adventures through the “Foundry”. Starship captains have been using the Foundry in Star Trek Online to make adventures for well over a year now, but that was just a tech test compared to the tools on offer in Neverwinter.

Foundry wasn’t live, though, so I’ll just focus on the gameplay.

Say hello to my Lance of Faith, Ogre!
Say hello to my Lance of Faith, Ogre!

Neverwinter is loosely based on the fourth edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons. You can choose your race from halfling, dwarf, human, elf, half-elf, drow and the demonic tiefling. The drow race was not available to choose during this beta. Character appearance was as good as I’ve seen anywhere else; you’ll be able to make your character look exactly how you like. Stats were rolled in a simplified manner; there are maybe a half dozen potential rolls that focus on your class’ prime statistic and the two secondary ones. It is not explained in the game how the secondary stats affect gameplay, so I felt it was just best to roll the highest possible number for the prime stat… which is how I play the real D&D, too, so there’s that.

Importing your paper character probably won’t be possible. Especially if it used any classes or races from beyond the Players Handbook (PHB) (and it’s missing dragonborn and eladrin for PHB1 races, too).

In D&D4e, each class has a couple of preferred builds. Neverwinter makes the choice of build for you. For instance, the PHB suggests “Battle Cleric” and “Devoted Cleric” as preferred builds for the cleric. Neverwinter offers only “Devoted Cleric”. Similarly, fighters are restricted to “Guardian Fighter” or “Great Weapon Fighter”, wizards to “Control Wizard”, rogues to “Trickster Rogue”, and nothing is yet known about Ranger, though it looks from the character creation screen that that’s next. No information about the Paladin or the Warlord.

The abilities have all the familiar names from D&D, with their own twists to fit them into an MMO environment. “At Will” powers are bound to the two mouse buttons and can be held down and spammed. “Encounter” powers are on cooldown timers. “Daily” powers work of “Action Points” that are gained in battle when using the other powers. When your character gains enough powers to not fit into the available slots, you can easily change them out in Neverwinter or at a campsite within a dungeon.

There are no mana bars, even for spellcasters. Your abilities are based on timers and action points and nothing more.

Magic Phr3d, a Companion
Magic Phr3d, a Companion

You won’t adventure alone, in Neverwinter. There are queues for certain events (like the Orc Assault on Neverwinter) and dungeons (like the Cloak Tower) that automatically fill in a party and put you where you need to be.

But even when you’re grinding out quests, you don’t need to go it alone. At level 16, you gain the ability to hire “companions” to fill needs. You can choose from fighters, healers, rogues and wizards. I chose the wizard, because D&D clerics stand in the front lines (or would, if Neverwinter allowed them their scale and plate armor. Chain only, for Neverwinter clerics.) Though you can only have one active companion at a time, you can keep several “on deck”.

My companion didn’t come with the name “Magic Phr3d”. I kinda imagined him as a teenage kid from the “real” world who woke up one day in the magical realm of Farune as a wizard, and is really excited about it. He was level 1 when I hired him, and every time he levels, he has to be sent off for training, which takes increasingly more time and takes increasingly more money. At level 8 (vs my character’s level 20), he is fairly good at slowing monsters down so I have plenty of time to debuff them and wear them down before they get close enough to hurt.

Companions don’t take up group slots — they are more like pets — so dungeons crawls in a full five person party can get pretty crowded.

Finishing up Cloak Tower
Finishing up Cloak Tower

The elephant in the room here is Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). Cryptic shoots across its bow by using the same font for Neverwinter as Turbine does for Lord of the Rings Online. But the games are very different.

DDO tries, as much as possible, to pretend you and your party are experiencing a game played in some other reality by people around a table. A DM sets the scene as you enter a dungeon; levels are slow and hard to come by. Daily powers can only be used a limited number of times between rests. Traps and puzzles are as integral to a dungeon crawl as monster fighting. Combat goes in rounds, and the actual dice rolls scroll by.

Neverwinter is a more standard MMO. Levels come quickly; my DM was shocked when he found he reached level 4 in the tutorial, where in our Adventure Company campaign, he’d regretted us getting to level 4 by the end of the six months we played. I easily got to level 20 after a few hours play, and the top level looks to be 60, a level impossible in actual D&D. Where solo play is discouraged (but not impossible) in DDO, solo play is easy in Neverwinter.

Granted, the only group instance I found so far was Cloak Tower, and the balance could shift toward more group play as the levels rise. But I doubt we’ll see dungeons that take an entire play session to run, as we often did in DDO.

DDO is much better at presenting preferred builds, or allowing you to customize your class, or even multiclass. Neverwinter has the few preferred builds it offers, and never allows you to leave the reservation or multiclass (as far as I have seen).

Even with the compromises DDO had to make in order to turn a pen-and-paper game into an MMO (such as mana bars and wildly inflated health), it gives a better Dungeons & Dragons experience than Neverwinter.

Toover the Were-Rat
Toover the Were-Rat

As a MMO, Neverwinter is fairly standard. You get quests, you go out and kill things. You get frequent solo instances, but also a good mix of open-world adventuring where your character can help out (and be helped by) other characters with loot and experience for all. Because Cryptic limits the builds and classes available, classes remain fairly distinct and each has a role in a group, while having plenty of tools to make soloing a valid play choice.

What sets Neverwinter apart is its missions created with the Foundry. While not available to the beta testers this weekend, they have a wide variety of player-created missions available, and these are heavily leveraged by “job boards”, but also bards and bartenders who will gladly offer up adventures that start nearby.

I played a couple of them, and the ones promoted by Cryptic were of fairly decent quality, with good writing and plot that tied in well with the lore of the game, though the actual adventures were of the standard smash-and-kill variety. I don’t know if the Foundry supports roleplay missions. Won’t know that until the Foundry opens up.

A Well-Informed Bard offers player-created quests
A Well-Informed Bard offers player-created quests

Cryptic’s Neverwinter is a good-looking, polished game offering modern MMO conveniences mixed with a healthy serving of D&D. The pace is fast, the powers iconic, the loot abundant and the grouping easy. While it’s not as faithful an implementation of D&D as Dungeons and Dragons Online supports, it is definitely D&D. The first implementation of the fourth edition rules I’ve seen so far.

If the adventure-crafting tools offered to the players are able to create the quality of adventures created by the Cryptic game designers, then Neverwinter could come out from under the content limitations which hamper other MMOs, especially at the end game and with group content.

If the player tools only really allow for “go here, kill that, grab this, return for reward”, though, it may not be as much of an advantage as it seems. The high quality of the Foundry missions for Neverwinter’s sister game, Star Trek Online, gives hope that we’ll see some truly excellent content here as well.

Neverwinter will be free to download and free to play. Special mounts, armor and other stuff will be available from the cash shops, but (at least in beta) leveling did not feel constrained by my checkbook. There were no “lockboxes” to be seen — these are treasure chests that require real money to open and may contain something very nice but usually contain trash — but I expect they’re on their way. Even a F2P game must make money, after all. As long as they don’t broadcast to the world when someone opens one and gets something good, as they do in STO. That’s really annoying.

OMG! It’s Neverwinter!

I find, these days, that I don’t make that much of a distinction between online RPGs — even Massive ones — and offline, single player RPGs. The only real difference is who I am playing with. Offline ones, I tend to chat with people about the game as I play on Twitter or somewhat slowly via this blog. Online, I chat with people about the game in game.

The experience, though, is the same. My character truculently departs the city to fight some awful mean thingies and then returns victoriously with the heads of the bloody beasts raised high. If they have heads.

I’m all about the RPG. Give me a world that needs a hero, and I will be that hero.

When Cryptic announced “Neverwinter“, their new “Online Multiplayer Game” that would NOT be an MMO, but would be more of an open, city zone where parties would gather prior to leaving for an instanced adventure, my first thought was not “why isn’t Neverwinter an MMO?” but, “how is this not Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online” followed by “so, how is DDO an MMO if Neverwinter is not?”

I’m not a big fan of MMOs. I love the concept of an immersive world of adventure, don’t get me wrong. I like classes and leveling and all that. I even like quests. But what I don’t like is the implicit assumption that I will want to devote hundreds of hours to this game, because I know that I will probably grow bored with your MMO long before the end. Very few MMOs of the dozens I’ve played have grabbed me enough to make me work for max level. EverQuest, EverQuest II, World of Warcraft, Wizard101 and Star Trek Online.

And look, there’s a Cryptic title, right there at the end. Star Trek Online.

Some call it a failure, but every time I log in, I geek out with the “OMG I’M IN STAR TREK!”. Cryptic nailed the look and feel of the universe perfectly. I may quibble about how they can’t give with one hand without taking away with the other (was there REALLY a reason to weaken my Vice Admiral-level Intrepid refit compared to my Rear Admiral-level Luna?). I may want more story missions and better Klingon support. But I can’t fault their ability to make a world.

Neverwinter sounds like the sort of game I’ll really like. Quick, session-based play. A world that I’ve played in through Neverwinter Nights and its sequel. Likely not going to use that weird camera that ruined NWN2 for me, but will use the very good camera they have for Champions Online and STO. I do hope the rooms will be less cavernous than those used in their previous two MMOs. The original EverQuest could support small rooms without any trouble, why can’t Cryptic’s MMOs?

I digress. I’m excited for Neverwinter. It’s going to have player generated content from the beginning, which means my static Sunday night group, currently in DDO as we wait for Diablo III, could possibly end up running an adventure that one of us creates.

I’m so totally THERE. So buzz off, haters. It’s a great concept and I think Cryptic has a shot at making something we’ll want to play.