News, Views, and Reviews
After four closed beta weekend events, the realm of Neverwinter is now available to everyone. The open beta for Neverwinter starts today! This is a great opportunity for me to update some of the comments I made in my previews and add some more information. Right away, I want to amend my earliest comment that Neverwinter is “catered to – the hardcore. This isn’t going to be some dumb-downed, anyone can play, beginners MMO.” I couldn’t be more wrong. The game literally guides you from one objective to the next and gradually introduces game play mechanics as you level. It has to be one of the most beginner-friendly MMOs I’ve played. My sentiment that focusing on this one particular realm of the Dungeons and Dragons universe could be too limiting still stands, but there is actually quite a lot to do in Neverwinter, and so it could appeal to a wider range of gamers than I gave it credit. The crafting system, for example, wasn’t even added until the fourth beta weekend event, so I haven’t even discussed it. Perhaps the best way to discuss Neverwinter is to break it down into five “C’s” – Controls, Classes, Companions, Crafting, and Creation.
I discussed the controls in a previous blog, but I want to bring them up again, as they are somewhat unique to the MMO genre. More to the point, if I’m going to make the claim that this is “one of the most beginner-friendly MMOs I’ve played” it should be considered that the controls could pose a learning curve to inexperienced PC gamers. Most MMOs feature a “tab targeting” system that allows players to press the “tab” key and automatically lock on to specific targets. If they are approaching several monsters, they can cycle through them by tapping the “tab” key until the desired enemy is selected. Similarly, someone playing a “healer” role usually has the option to click their mouse arrow on a list of their teammates names, normally displayed on the left side of the screen, to automatically select that character and heal them. This is especially handy in chaotic battles where that healer might not even be able to SEE the characters to heal them. Neverwinter does not let players do either. Instead, the mouse movement is tied to the camera, which is fixed to an aiming reticule at the center of the screen. The character can move independently of where that reticule is facing, but engaging a target (to talk to a friendly NPC or fight an enemy) HAS to be done by focusing on that target. This puts the controls of Neverwinter more into the realm of action and even shooting games. In fact, players of shooting games, especially third-person shooters, should feel right at home with Neverwinter. So far, the development studio, Cryptic, hasn’t declared if there will or will not be controller support at some point. If you absolutely HAVE to use a controller, the community has already found some work arounds that involve downloading third-party software tools – so use at your own risk.
I should point out that the aiming system in Neverwinter is very friendly: you don’t have to stay “on target” once you’ve started attacking an enemy. As long as you keep pointed in their general direction, you’ll still attack them. Attack combos can even be stopped, mid-combo, simply by moving the camera in a different direction. This is considerably different than the “other” action-MMO, Tera, that forces players to precisely aim at their targets and locks them into their combo animations, even if the target moves out of the way. This not only makes Neverwinter easier – and less frustrating – to play, it also makes it more fluid and natural.
A more distinctive way to discuss the classes in Neverwinter is to also refer to them as roles. When you are picking which class to play, you are also picking a specific role. This is considerably different than other MMOs, like the World of Warcraft, that let you pick a class, play it, and THEN pick a role to “spec” or specialize in. Someone might choose the Warrior class, for example, and choose between being a “tank” or “DPS” role. (Tanks have the heaviest armor and the most health points, and help their party by keeping all of the monsters focused on attacking the “tank” instead of the weaker characters. “DPS” stands for “Damage Per Second” or “damage dealer” roles that help their party by doing as much damage as possible to the enemies, which keeps the fights from taking too long.) Some MMOs allow players to “dual-spec” or pick two roles that they can switch back and forth, out of combat, as the need arises. That Warrior might play a DPS role when they are playing by themselves, but switch to the tank role when they join a party. Guild Wars 2 broke this model even further, by allowing characters to switch roles, even during combat, simply by switching what weapons they were using. A Warrior in Guild Wars 2, for example, can play a melee-DPS role and quickly switch to a ranged-DPS role just by using a bow or a rifle instead of melee weapons. Equipping a weapon and shield combo lets them switch to a tank role, and so on.
Neverwinter narrows those “specs” or “roles” down to the very distinctive classes you choose at character creation. If you want to be a “tank” fighter, you have to pick the “Guardian Fighter” class; if you want to be a “DPS” fighter, you have to pick the “Great Weapon Fighter” class, and so on. Those two “fighter” classes actually have very different mechanics, so it’s not a question of equipping different gear and playing a different role. This design choice may seem like Neverwinter is limiting player choices, but it makes more sense the more I play it. Those different class mechanics end up supporting each other in parties and in Player vs Player matches. Staying with the “Fighter” role example, their “block” mechanic can even defend players standing behind them, so it’s crucial that it remains a class/role choice instead of just letting players equip shields if they feel like it. The closest example of this sort of MMO design choice I can think of would be Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR). WAR also had distinctive classes/roles you picked at character creation, and those classes were deliberately designed with balanced PvP in mind. WAR also made those distinct classes RACE specific, so at least Neverwinter is different in allowing players to pick any race to play the different classes. Currently, Neverwinter has five classes, and the community is in a speculating frenzy what classes will be added next. My guess is, like WAR, each class is being carefully considered for balance issues, and will only be added when they are ready.
Neverwinter allows players to “hire” companions, AI controlled characters, to join them in battles. These companions can be equipped at any level, but players will be given a free companion after completing a quest at level 16. Companions can be purchased from the “cash shop” with either “Zen” (the currency used in all MMOs published by Perfect World, obtained directly from their main website, with real money) or with “Astral Diamonds” (the currency specific to Neverwinter, obtained in the game by completing quests or trading with other players). These companions earn experience and level-up, and can even equip items, albeit in a limited fashion compared to player-characters. Players are encouraged to have multiple companions, as the time the companions have to leave for “training” when they level-up increases which each level. Letting my level 9 companion go for training, for example, takes about 15 minutes. I can either wait those 15 minutes in real time, doing nothing, play without a companion, or simply summon a different companion if I can. When that training time becomes really unbearable, players can even choose to spend Astral Diamonds to hurry it up, relative to the amount of time remaining. These AI companions range in appearance from animals and critters, like wolves and hawks, to humanoid characters, like clerics and fighters. They also have their own specific roles, like player characters, such as a DPS, healer, or tank roles. Someone playing a Devoted Cleric character might want to pick a DPS companion to boost their damage and make questing go a lot faster, someone playing a Great Weapon Fighter would likely pick a healer companion to keep them in the fight longer, and so on. Companions can even go into party dungeons, effectively turning a 5-player-party into a group of possibly 10 characters, but can’t participate in PvP matches.
For some reason, it’s hard to imagine an MMO without some sort of crafting involved. Maybe it goes along with the fantasy setting, allowing players to craft their own weapons and armor. It can also drive the MMO’s virtual economy, giving players items to trade with other players. The crafting system in Neverwinter is pretty unique, fairly complex, but also very intuitive and beginner friendly. Gathering materials for crafting is handled a little differently in Neverwinter, as players don’t choose a gathering “profession”, rather, their specific class has a specific gathering ability. Scattered throughout their adventures, players will find resource “nodes” that can only be harvested by a specific gathering ability. These nodes contain a variety of crafting items, like iron ore, leather and cloth strips, and so on, and any type of node can contain any type of crafting item. Crafting items can also be dropped as loot by enemies, or found in generic “treasure chests” that any player can open. Players can also buy one-use “kits” from vendors that will also allow them to harvest nodes. A Rogue character, for example, can only harvest “thievery” nodes, but could harvest an “arcane” node if they possessed an arcane kit. These harvest kits also drop as loot or can be found in treasure chests. Intuitively, if a character approaches a node, the targeting reticule will be red if they can’t harvest it, or green if they match that skill or possess the matching kit.
With their gathered resources, players can then choose any (or all) of the crafting professions. The first thing they will have to do, when they open the crafting panel, is “hire” the appropriate underling. These underlings only exist in the crafting panel, which opens with only one “job” available at a time. As the player advances in levels, and completes so many crafting jobs, additional “job” windows will become available. This becomes more valuable later on, as some of these crafting jobs can take 6-18 hours, real time, to complete. Some of these longer jobs can be sped up by “hiring” additional underlings, or by spending Astral Diamonds. It’s possible, then, to have several jobs happening at once. If this sounds overwhelming, it’s actually pretty intuitive. The jobs available clearly list the required crafting items and the duration of completion. To start a job, it will prompt you to add the “tool”, which usually means an underling, and then you click on “start”. The longer jobs will provide those optional “tool” slots, that can be filled with more underlings.
Much to my personal satisfaction, players can log in to a Neverwinter website that allows them to manage this crafting panel – OUTSIDE the game! Actually, the website allows players to manage Guild calendars, auction transactions, mail, and crafting – but so far, I’ve only used the crafting panel. It’s pretty satisfying to start a 6 hour job, log off the game, but check on its progress simply by logging into that website. I’m sure it will become even more useful when I start juggling multiple jobs at once.
I still believe the biggest draw, the “game changer” of Neverwinter is the Foundry. The Foundry is a creation tool for the community to design their own dungeons that other players can play. Neverwinter could, in theory, never run out of content. This also provides a way to not repeat the same missions over and over, for players such as myself that play several “alts” (alternative or back-up characters to their “main” or favorite character). The Foundry quests are rated by players as they play them, so the higher rated quests will be sorted to the top. This might lead to several “top” quests getting ALL the attention, so we’ll see what solutions Cryptic comes up with to break that cycle (if they have to). Unlike the story missions and dungeons that are set to specific levels, the Foundry quests even scale to the player’s level, so they can be played at any time. The only limitation is that a player has to have at least one character reach level 16 before they can USE the Foundry to start creating content. I think that is pretty fair, as you probably wouldn’t want to play a dungeon designed by someone that has never even played Neverwinter.
The possibilities of the Foundry are limited only by the imagination of its users. Players can quest in haunted houses, pirate ships, scary dungeons with fire demons, or all of the above. These don’t have to be simple “walk through the dungeon and fight monsters” quests, either – they can have NPCs (Non Player Characters) to interact with, clues to find and hidden passageways to uncover, and even AI controlled characters to escort or add support. Essentially, if it appears in the main game, it can appear in the Foundry. Granted, the quality of user-created content may vary, but that’s where that rating system comes in. Players can leave feedback at the end of a quest, which could help the designer fix bugs or tweak its design. Players are also encouraged to “tip” the designer with Astral Diamonds. Creating Foundry content, then, could actually be a real job!
Seeing how this is my fourth blog written about the Neverwinter MMO, I’m obviously very excited about it. Aside from the one consideration, that the controls might pose a slight learning curve to inexperienced PC gamers, I can easily recommend Neverwinter to anyone. It’s a very intuitive, user-friendly experience, and is completely, absolutely, 100% FREE! There doesn’t appear to be any “pay walls” that require “cash shop” purchases to get over. Unlike some F2P (Free 2 Play) games, that cash shop contains nothing but vanity and (minor) convenience items, many of which can also be purchased with in-game currencies. Currently, the exchange rate between Zen and Astral Diamonds is ridiculously out of proportion, but hopefully that will settle as more players enter the realm of Neverwinter.
Neverwinter is available for PC only, open beta begins April 30th. The rating is considered “Rating Pending” but will probably be rated ‘T’ for Teen.