Monday, April 29, 2013

Neverwinter Online: First Impressions

I managed to get a few hours in on the early pre-rlease beta for Neverwinter Online this weekend. Some first impressions for those of you wondering if you should download this game and try it out:


The graphics are nice, and stand up fine against other contemporaries. If you're coming to NWO from Turbine's DDO you may be fairly impressed (assuming you've only been playing DDO under your rock, that is). It's nicer looking than WoW, about on par with other current titles like Rift and Tera. Nothing unusual, and if you have a nice modern rig you should be able to run it just fine. I haven't fired it up on my laptop yet, but plan to do so soon to see how a mid-to-lower end machine handles it.


So far I've played a Great Weapon fighter and a guardian fighter. The game only offers five initial classes, being the two fighter builds just mentioned as well as a rogue type, cleric and wizard. There's a #6 "coming soon" slot that I really hope is going to be filled by a warlock build.

Mechanically the game is superficially built on the skeletal bones of 4th edition D&D. Any element of 4E that didn't mesh well with the style and progression of your typical MMO has been retooled, however. Thus you have 60 class levels, and you can spend talent points to rank up individual powers to greater effectiveness. At each level you gain some predetermined powers, derived from/named after the AEDUs of 4E, but usually only superficially similar to their source powers in execution. You also have a set of skills and some other nods to D&D. While during character creation you do get to roll for your stats....sort of (the numbers seem to balance out so far, varying within a defined framework of options) you don't really get any more customization beyond defining what your character looks like. In fact, you don't even get to pick an alignment (or if you do, I somehow missed it), and my wife, who's played about ten times as much as I have says alignment is somehow tied to guilds, instead. Oh-kaaaaayyyy....

If you arrive at NWO from DDO (it's impossible not to draw comparisons), you'll find about as much of a change (and accompanying shock) as one might have going from 3.5 D&D to 4th edition. Gone from NWO are the full range of character customization, the endless variations and proclivity for tinkering with builds that DDO offers. NWO doesn't even offer the range of options a 4E player is used to. You don't pick skills, powers, feats...anything. It's all gone.

On the plus side, you do get to pick a deity and home town, with accompanying origin tale (even if it is one or two sentences and, unlike say GW2, has no apparent impact on your character's adventures).

Initially I found this lack of customization to be a huge negative. After a while I warmed up to it, but only when I accepted that NWO is D&D in name only, with some superficial trappings. From the perspective that NWO is a MMORPG with an interesting player-driven content option, designed to compete with and in the same space as WoW, Tera, and Guild Wars 2, then it makes sense. But it won't hold its own against DDO or Rift when it comes to the character design department. Both of those games offer robust char gen, and NWO can't hold a candle to them. Maybe with time the appearance options of characters will stand out (it's Cryptic, after all) but that's a pale comparison to being able to make your fighter feel unique in his or her build when compared to other fighters. Hell, the great weapon fighter and guardian builds they do offer are only modestly different (at least through level 10) as it stands.


The gameplay is smooth, and except for one amusing bug on my guardian fighter (he ports into each zone mashing away at Tide of Iron with his shield) I have encountered no bugs.

Skills take import when you encounter various items in the environment you can mine for resources. If you lack the skill you need a skill kit, which substitutes. Beyond that, characters stumble on through their environments encountering mobs, traps, and occasional cut scenes. The dungeons (so far) aren't as dynamic as DDO's dungeons, being about on the same level as in your typical MMO, just with fresher designs.

Like DDO most of the action seems to take place in one large city that serves as a hub of activity (Neverwinter proper), in which you run around gathering quests and completing them, looking for various specific doors and sewer entrances to head on into. Unlike DDO character survival is much higher at low level, although the ubiquitious health potion is a dire necessity. Campfire mechanics appear as well; it seems that these are the equivalent of the short and long rests in 4E, which for the sake of MMO-paced gameplay mean any rest is a sufficient rest.

Powers are all on MMO-style timers, and certain key powers (based on dailies from 4E) are on trigger-timers based on powering up through attacks and damage. These daily-inspired powers are pretty effective when you get to them.

Combat itself is more action-based, in a Diablo/Torchlight/Tera sort of way, except better than Tera in feel. This is where the average MMOer is going to run into some problems. A lot of MMO gamers I know have difficulty with aim-directed systems, where you're operating through a reticule rather than your free-look with a mouse approach (ala WoW). NWO has done the impressive job of near-seamlessly integrating target-look with mouse look when one or the other is needed; basically when it's time to mouse look the game generally bumps you there; you don't have to think about it. It's really (imo) one of the better designs out there for this style of play. However, my wife's friends in her migratory guild who are all adopting the game have been complaining a lot about the feel of this approach in NWO, so obviously this may not be a good sign. To me, it feels great; but I'm very used to FPS and 3rd person style shooters, and have played worse interfaces (Tera, Tabula Rasa) so NWO feels good to me. YMMV.

Combat is otherwise pretty fun, an geared toward the sort of stat attrition balance that you see in most MMORPGs these days. If you've played another conventional MMO, the hit point loss, resource management, time-down on powers, mob strength, idea of interrupts and "get out of the red circle" mechanics are all present and accounted for, just without as much need to specifically target aim, and jumping around can be useful.

Negative? Because the mouse buttons are for attacking, you can't play the game one handed with a mouse, running with both buttons held down. This, believe it or not, could be a big negative for lazy gamers, or gamers who are using their other hand for child management. Put another way: I can't play this game on the side while monitoring my son during the day. It's a "play when the kid's asleep" game. Funny, I never realized that one of the top reasons that WoW could be so popular was due to the fact that mind-numbingly simple play mechanics also meant "easier to play while managing a brood of tiny primates," but it's very true.


Well, I have only been playing a few hours and while I've read quite a bit on the Foundry I havem't yet explored it (or the many, many quests it's been churning out from player-created content). The official storylines are straight-forward and of now special import. There appears to be a lot of content, and to contrast with a game like Guild Wars 2 you will never be lacking for direction, as there's always somewhere you can run off to to find a quest giver, or a notice board with Foundry quests, or some Harper with a few choice bits for you to follow up on. If you like your MMO full of busywork, then hell yeah NWO is absolutely spilling over with it.

Beyond this, there are occasionally some key story bits which let you respond in more than one way, but most of the time your choice of responses to quest givers boils down to, "Hell yeah I wan't adventure and riches" or "No thank you, I have to log now as my child's turning the oven on." not a lot else.

In terms of lore the game is solid, set in the post-Spellplague era of 4th edition Forgotten Realms. No idea how it will dovetail with the impending retcon of the FR setting later this year in anticipation of D&D Next, but it's pretty solid on its own merits. Some of the best lore in the game appears to be buried in the player-created Foundry content, though. The Foundry allows you to set adventures in any era or world of D&D, by the way; you can simply start your adventure off with a planar gate and walla, instant travel to wherever the hell you want. I'll definitely report more on the Foundry later when I get a chance to really explore it.

The Freemium Element

Initially I was ready to dislike the game on the ground that once again it's going to be loaded to the gills with high priced premium digital purchases. I definitely didn't like that death leads to penalties which take a few minutes to shake off by a campfire, although for a pittance in zen you can remove them immediately. Zen are the in-game currency, since Perfect World Entertainment makes all their games use this form of exchange as the cash-to-virtual currency.

At this stage it's not clear to me that I'll need to spend much more on NWO than maybe buying a couple more character slots (because it appears that all the core game content is free), but simultaneously I can imagine wanting to buy more items, such as mounts, down the road. The problem of course will arise when we see what the full cost of these features are, and whether they are "per character" or account-wide. My fear is that in seeking out the money-filled "whales" which fund the play for everyone else that they will price out the average Joe Gamer like myself, who is interested in buying stuff but too money-conscious too actually spend ridiculous sums on virtual content disproportionate to what I can get elsewhere (i.e. full games) for less.


There is much more to come. I've barely scratched the surface, but what I've experienced so far has me keen for more. I shall report further as I explore in more depth. At this stage, though, I think it's utterly harmless to suggest that you should download and try out NWO for yourself. The game is pretty solid, and while anyone looking for a robuts character creator with the level of customization found in DDO will be very, very disappointed, those of you just looking for something better than your average MMO out there will not be disappointed.

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