Neverwinter: First Impressions, Levels 1-17

This weekend I spent some time playing in the Neverwinter Closed Beta Weekend event.

Neverwinter is an upcoming game, developed by Cryptic Studios (City of Heroes / Villains, Champions Online) and being published by Perfect World.  It’s based around the Dungeons & Dragons city of the same name, in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, and takes place after a series of 3 books by author R.A. Salvatore — for those curious: Gauntlgrym, Neverwinter Wood, and Charon’s Claw are the titles, and they feature Drizzt Do’Urden and quite a few pivotal changes to the lore of the Forgotten Realms, for those who’ve read the Drizzt books or follow other FR novels.

Events of the novels have left Neverwinter in total disarray, quite a number of years have passed since it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption, overrun by orcs and undead, and the city is completely different than the Neverwinter of ten years ago in Atari’s Neverwinter Nights.  Tieflings, a race of demi-humans with demon blood in them, have moved into the city along with all the other races, and adventurers have been tasked to answer the call to help rebuild Neverwinter.  This is the premise for the game.

Character creation first starts with choosing your race.  Races available right now are human, elf, half elf, dwarf, halfling, and tiefling.  One race is hidden, and there is a special unlock for the dark elf race, so it’s assumed that at least two other races will be playable.

After choosing your race, you pick your class.  This is D&D, so although it’s tempting to say this is an unoriginal character creator, it’s actually staying entirely true to the original D&D premise that’s existed for 40 years.  For my adventurer, I rolled a Guardian Fighter.  There were three classes available to select, with a fourth hidden.  The three available were: Guardian Fighter, Trickster Rogue, and Devoted Cleric.  Through in-game item drops, I can also confirm at least two other classes: the Control Wizard, and the Great Weapon Fighter.  I would imagine that this means there will be variations on each of the four classic D&D archetypes that match typical roles.

The creator uses D20 dice rolls, familiar to anyone who has played a D&D game, pen and paper or otherwise.  The rolls are skewed towards your class prerequisites — for the purposes of providing new players with something viable, I assume.  My guardian fighter relied upon stamina primarily, with secondary dependencies on strength and dexterity.  There are also two bonus points to allocate to any of the 6 scores.

I’m one of the players who really enjoys a complex character creation system, and while Neverwinter wasn’t quite as expansive as Cryptic’s other titles in this regard, it didn’t disappoint, either.  After choosing your character’s overall physical appearance, you can then customize facial expression, body size and muscle mass.  The morph options weren’t quite as numerous or diverse as those in Champions Online, but considerably moreso than in other MMORPGs.

The name generator mixes and matches prefixes and suffixes to come up with suitable names, or you can use your own.  I found the names to be quite good, but was disappointed to see about 3 other “Coilbone” last names once in the world, so the random generator isn’t entirely original, either.  The name is allowed to have spaces, and I saw characters running around 3 word names in some cases, and numbers.  This opened the door to a lot of really out of context names, though, so I’m hopeful that at least one launch day server will be RP-enforced and restrict names or allow player reporting of inappropriate names.  It’s one thing to name your dwarf something like Gimpy the Rockbreaker, which is both humorous and in context, but it’s quite another to name it Baconator 9000, Dood, or Dooby – all names I saw over the weekend.

Finishing character creation, my adventurer was tossed into the fray.  This I did find somewhat tiresome, only for the fact that it is done in just about every single AAA title I can recall being launched in the past several years.  Once you get past the racket and adrenaline of this 10 minute semi-tutorial that takes place on a bridge, you then are plopped into the city center, called the Protector’s Enclave, and you begin your storyline quest.  I would have liked a more serene introduction, something a little more paced, with some lead-in and build up to the bridge battle, but taken by itself, the bridge battle wasn’t a bad introduction, just not my preference.  I suppose I’m spoiled by my memories of EQ2′s Isle of Refuge.

I was pleased with was the lack of needless side-quests.  Although there were side-quests here and there, almost all of them wove together.  There was no rubber-banding — my own phrase for the type of design which makes you run far and wide when the quests don’t align to the same geographical area and are particularly tedious, only to have you return to the same NPC for more of the same.  There were quite a few quests, but they seemed to flow nicely into mutually shared territory.  I did not feel that the quests were tedious, or repetitive.

As for the storyline, I can’t say that I found the main questline to be dull, but I also don’t really remember what the overall point of it was, except to say that, in general, the goal was to help clear the streets of rebels.  Eventually this  led to a large orc encampment, and by the time I hit level 17 I was ready to enter the game’s first dungeon, the Cloak Tower.  Cloak, not clock.  My distraction may have partly due to the nature of my playing — I was trying to get through as much content as possible in a fixed timeframe in order to give this review, but if I’m being honest, there wasn’t anything about the story that sticks in my mind particularly.  17 levels is a short time to make that judgment, though, so I’m looking forward to picking it up, again.

Combat and abilities are quite a bit different from other MMORPGs.  The biggest difference is that action takes place real-time.  You don’t click on an icon and watch the skill animation play out, you actually press a key and swing your sword.  You can tell this game was designed to be played on a console as much as on a PC, and in fact it gives the option to use a console controller layout if you have one connected to your PC. With a mouse, though, movement in the game in general is done with the WASD scenario while the player uses the mouse to look around and aim at targets.  The mouse cursor itself does not appear on the screen unless you press Alt, at which point the scene will darken and you can manipulate the UI — however, all main UI elements can be controlled by intuitive hotkeys, so you needn’t press Alt every time you want to open your bag, just use the keyboard shortcut – and these are labeled on everything.  It’s very organic and doesn’t take long to get used to, although it may be off-putting to some at the very first.

Much like Diablo III, abilities, once learned, are slotted to a fixed number of hotkeys, used during battle.  You can swap abilities in and out depending on circumstances.  There are “At Will” abilities, using the left and right mouse buttons.  Then there are “Encounter” abilities, mapped to buttons Q, E, and R.  Finally, there are “Daily” abilities, mapped to the numeral 1 key.  I wasn’t quite clear on what is meant by “daily” since it seemed that I could use these quite frequently, so long as my guardian fighter’s central meter was full.  Using the daily ability exhausted the meter, but it rebuilt itself over time during combat.  Certain abilities, like my shield bash, called Tide of Iron, refilled the meter.  There are also class abilities, that can be either active or passive.  The active ability is mapped to the Tab key, and the passive appear in smaller slots next to it.  These can all be swapped.  Things like potions and consumables are mapped to the numeral 3 and 4, etc. keys.

Although this style of action combat in an MMO may be a turn off for some veterans used to the EverQuest and World of Warcraft way, it’s actually not as bad as it sounds — you’re not playing an FPS requiring twitch response and precision aim.  In fact, the system does a very good job of latching on to targets as long as you turn the mouse in their general direction.  I have to really commend the design in that regard.  It was slightly more difficult when targets were at a distance, but still very smart — I suppose part of the inherent challenge of playing a ranged class in an action game is that targeting requires at least a modicum of actual skill, and I use that term very loosely, so it isn’t actually a negative that distance targeting should take a player a second or two longer than melee sword swiping.  Overall, combat was quite fun and engaging once I got the hang of using the hotkeys rather than the mouse.  The default key mapping was so intuitive though that once I learned to stretch my index and ring fingers a little further, it was smooth sailing.

As you level, some abilities will be upgraded, in addition to learning new ones occassionally, and you also receive Feat points.  A “feat” is a special skill that is part of a particular subset of class abilities.  Much like skill trees in other games.  Although I didn’t get to explore this in-depth, I earned 7 points.  These were invested into skill traits – for example, my guardian fighter had three primary trait lines I could invest into, one focused on defense, one on offense, and one on utility.  Once enough points were invested into those passive traits, three new skill trees would be available to focus on — I’m assuming only one can be chosen.  These would be special abilities called feats that are unique to that class.  Hopefully I will be able to more fully explore this in a future beta test.  It seemed fairly extensive, at a glance, though and looked like it would offer some unique ways to build out your character.  Surely there will be guides out there saying what the “best” builds are, sooner or later, but to the individual player, variety should be a good thing.

Artistically, the world design was suitably high fantasy in nature.  While it didn’t have the sort of traditional realism that EQ2 has, it also wasn’t quite as caricatured as World of Warcraft.  I found it to be closer to Rift in terms of appearance, leaning towards Warhammer in terms of art direction and scope.  Character art did have more of a realist feel to it — none of the facial or body aspects appeared “cartoonish.”

Graphically speaking, the game ran well and looked good, although it seemed a number of options were not enabled or were not in the game, such as Direct X 11 support and advanced texture filtering.  At times some textures did look flat, but most were well detailed.    My one beef was with the painted-on appearance of grass and greenery on the ground.

The user interface was laid out very well, except the default text was absolutely miniscule at times on my 1920×1080 monitor screen.  I also dislike games that do not allow you to entirely hide the chat interface if you so choose, and I couldn’t find a way to do that in Neverwinter, so I was forced to be distracted by the constant text updates, or to sift through dozens of filters, rather than just simply hide the window.  I may have missed the option, though.

Neverwinter also has a companion system.  I’ve seen this Star Wars and EQ2 also has a system called Mercenaries, which is similar.  In Neverwinter, I earned my first companion at level 16.  There were several more slots for companions to fill, as well.  Companions can be given their own names, and earn experience just like the player, albeit at different rates.  Every so often, they will need to be sent away and trained.  I didn’t have much chance to explore this mechanic, so I am uncertain how training actually works, but the game text implied that training time will vary from a few minutes to several hours, depending on how many levels and how much experience your companion has gained.  My companion also joined me at level 1, so I have to assume the leveling ratio is quite a bit different for companions than it is for players.  I could not control my companion in any way, she was strictly a follower running on her own script, much like EQ2′s mercenaries or Star Wars’ companions.  The companions I was able to choose from were variations on the four main class archetypes.  Being a tank, I chose a healer, and she seemed to be viable for those moments when solo play was bordering on heroic — like when I got swarmed by about 9 orcs during a respawn.

Companions don’t seem to be meant to replace actual players, and in fact I’m not sure that they can be used when grouped.  Unfortunately, I never got the chance to run the first dungeon, but when I reached the entrance, the door presented me with a queue.  It appears that dungeons will definitely be a “grouping required” affair, but thankfully it also looks like there is a system in place to build groups up for you, and quite certainly to take your own groups in if you already have them set up.  This is very nice as I often do not have the time or desire to “lead” a group, but want to do some dungeon crawling or complete a quest.  It does come with the well-known caveat that you may not always get the best experience with random players, but hey, that’s nothing new in the MMO world – PUGs have always been a risky business, and it likely won’t ever change!  I try to look at the bright side — I’ve met a lot of great people by doing pick-up grouping!  One potential issue that can arise with a queue system though is that a low population makes them ineffective.  I have yet to see or hear anything about whether or not this system will be a cross-server system, but that would certainly be a feature for Cryptic to consider building functionality for, even if it isn’t needed for a year or two (or more.)

The challenge level of the game varies, but it seemed generally well-balanced, at least playing as a fighter.  I felt neither overpowered nor underpowered.  Encounters sometimes ended quickly, but bosses had considerably more hitpoints and felt challenging, but not hard.  Respawn times were very fast, so hunting for mobs was rarely an issue, and that is a pet peeve of mine, so I was glad it didn’t happen.  There are bound to be many changes to challenge and mob hit point levels before launch, but overall things seemed very well constructed, so far.

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