Neverwinter Beta ImpressionsMarch 16, 2013
Cryptic’s new MMO Neverwinter is so almost good.
I should warn that it took me a good hour of staring at a blank page to figure out what I was going to do with it for this article. I played Neverwinter nearly nonstop in attempt to get to the Paragon Levels and get a good feel of the game, and in the end I’m still not 100% sure if I like it or not. It’s so almost good, everything is done so almost right, that I almost feel guilty for pointing out its faults- despite them being instrumental in my opinion that, no, I won’t be dedicating large portions of my time to Cryptic’s newest baby when it launches. At least, not in its current incarnation.
To make things a bit easier to digest, I’m going to split this review up into categories.
My initial reaction to Neverwinter’s graphics was stunned disappointment. The models are noticeably low poly, to such extremes in some areas that the game looks more like a Neverwinter Nights mod. This being a beta, I’m going to assume that the game’s models and mapping have still yet to be fully refined, yet the dropping of the NDA for the beta suggests the game is nearing a level of completion that the team is happy with. What I can’t understand, however, is why it looks this way. Neither Champions Online nor Star Trek Online are bastions of success, but in general they’re both beautiful games. So how is it that the graphics of their newest game are worse than in their previous ventures?
That said, and here’s the confusing part, the subpar graphics are not constant throughout the game. The character generator shoves bland character models and unattractive facial customization at your monitor, and the post-tutorial town’s otherwise beautiful textures are practically washed away by blown-out lighting. But stick around for a few levels, and you end up in a dark, gorgeously moody area filled with ruined homes and terrifying baddies. Later you face off against demons in a realm that is the epitome of morbid beauty, before being cast back into an otherwise bland environment.
It’s almost as if the world of Neverwinter is a blend of assets both post and pre ‘rebirth’, an opportunity afforded Cryptic after its acquisition by Perfect World forced it to revisit its plans for the game. It’s like two separate teams worked on portions of the world without communicating with one another, only to mash these instance-heavy maps together at the end in hopes no one noticed.
I know there are people out there, fans of the game and Cryptic in general (which believe or not, I am one of), rolling their eyes and brushing me off as a graphic elitist. But portions of Neverwinter are so glaringly weak in the graphic department that they detract from the world around them. This could be forgiven if there were something to the gameplay that set it apart, but…
…Not so much. Neverwinter takes notes from some of the better examples of PvE gameplay, such as Guild Wars 2’s combat and Dungeons & Dragons Online’s instanced, story-driven quests, not including the outer-instance quests which are largely of the ‘Kill X of Y’ variety. However, even the highlights of gameplay are not without their blemishes.
For one, Neverwinter is based on the 4.0 DnD ruleset. For those unfamiliar, this is a more ‘streamlined’ game system, one that has come under a lot of fire by long-time fans of the Dungeons and Dragons PnP games. This isn’t an issue on its own, the 4.0 rules if anything seemed to be made with video games in mind. In theory, 4.0 is the perfect system for an MMO. However, Cryptic has taken an already streamlined system and lightened it even further, so much so that the gameplay feels gutted compared to what it could have been.
Take for instance, the character I played to level 30, my Cleric. Note that I couldn’t build this cleric a variety of ways – one of the fun things about the Dungeons and Dragons franchise – here there is really only one build pre-Paragon levels. Your powers are chosen for you and gained automatically as you level, and you can only wield gear specific to your class. Even then, it’s specific to whatever Cryptic decided made sense for your class. I get to wield a staff/wand…type…thing. I don’t get to be any other kind of cleric, I am a long-ranged caster. Period. Worse yet, I’m a caster without the majority of the spells that made a Cleric fun in the first place. Where are my buffs? My plethora of healing options? My domains? My friggin’ Turn/Rebuke Undead!?
The only customization I get is feat points, which unfortunately do very little to specialize me. This disappointment is exacerbated by the stupidly tiny shortcut bar you get for your skills. You get two At-Will powers (right and left click), 3 encounter powers, two passives and a daily (2 dailies when you’re higher level, though they share a cooldown). That’s it. Every battle quickly devolves into a repetitive pattern with very little change, very little strategy. Dodge, 123, auto attack until encounters recharge, 123, etc.
It’s not all bad, though. The fights in Neverwinter are actually pretty satisfying; the animations are beautiful, the combat feels like it has weight and impact, and whomever was in charge of Skill/Spell animations deserves a pat on the back. That said, it’s only so long before even these positives are overwhelmingly crushed by the repetitive nature of the gameplay. It’s so completely devoid of the heart and soul of Dungeons and Dragons that it might as well be something else entirely.
You eventually get to specialize at bit at Level 30 with Paragon Levels. When I got there, I got 1 new At Will power and…well, that was it, until much higher level, not including access to yet more unimpressive feat trees. Not the typical DnD kind that have a huge influence on your character- the kind that were born in WoW and frankly should have died there.
And now for one of the biggest disappointments: just how heavily the current item mall influences gameplay. The best things in Neverwinter, from gear (yes, gear) to mounts are bought with Astral Diamonds. How do you get Astral Diamonds? You purchase Perfect World currency (ZEN) and convert it. Cryptic almost seems to apologize for this by giving people ways to earn Astral Diamonds in-game, but these means are paltry drops in the bucket compared to what you’ll need.
You earn Astrals the first few times you ‘Invoke the Gods’ a day, a skill learned at level 7. How much you get is random, and it only works the first few times you do it. The first day, I earned a grand total of 250 diamonds, the second day I earned quite a bit more, and by day 3 I had a total of about 3,000 diamonds. Now, what do you need Diamonds for? Let’s make a list!
- Buying high level gear (thousands per piece)
- Buying faster mounts (hundreds of thousands to millions)
- Buying clothing
- Buying Identification Scrolls (one costs 800 diamonds)
- Speeding up the excessively long times your companions go away to train
- Taking runes out of your armor
- Everything in the item mall that doesn’t directly cost ZEN
- Other crap.
Point is, getting Diamonds, short of dipping into your wallet, is a lottery that generally won’t award you enough to get what you need- even at the higher end of the winning scale. Now, let’s keep in mind that “this is a business”, so they like to keep telling us, but the here’s the funny thing! I used to have to pay $10-$15 a month to have access to the entirety of my game of choice, and now it’s becoming common to see that kind of money spent a week or even a day just to keep up with the competition, all under the false guise of “Free To Play”. I liked Cryptic’s model for Champions and STO, so to see it shot in the foot before Neverwinter even launches is disheartening. No clue what they were thinking here, but if you’re going to gouge the hell out of your customers, go back to a monthly fee model and call it a day. As a beta, they have the potential to change pretty much anything. Let’s hope this is one of those changes.
This is really just the major stuff, there’s plenty of weird, little things that add up to larger annoyances that I won’t bother getting into (*cough* NO CAMERA ZOOM WTH? *cough*), but the review is getting a bit long so I’ll end it here. Neverwinter will be launching Free 2 Play-ish, so everyone will get to form their own opinions soon enough.
You know, as I reach the end of the article, I guess my feelings for Neverwinter are more obvious than I initially thought. Perhaps the Foundry could have helped, but it was disabled for the beta. The gameplay itself needed to prove itself compelling before I would consider creating content for it. Customizing and writing quests sounds like a fun idea, but I have trouble believing it can make up for all the other things that went wrong in Neverwinter.