Regular readers will know that The Tourist is a column of silver linings. In all of my efforts, I reach for a glass that is half full rather than half empty. With that in mind, please understand when I say that Neverwinter is a fun game but not much of an MMORPG. Taken for what it is, there is a lot to enjoy. Taken for what it tries to be, well, that's another story.
I sent out a tweet recently asking if Neverwinter's deserved to be included in this year's Game of the Year talks. The crux of the matter is simply this, with so few options, could be be ascribing more praise to the game than it perhaps deserves? Few players will deny that Neverwinter had an certain allure surrounding its launch. More than that, the game's first early experiences teeter on the edge of wonderousness.
Like many of you, I looked forward to Neverwinter's launch with a nervous sense of skepticism. I maintained a shunned yet aspiring hope that the studio might finally have gotten it right, even after having been burned by the so-called Cryptic Model in the past. Their work, which seems entirely based on outlining good ideas and filling them in after launch, was in question after the rocky introductions of both Champions and Star Trek Online.
So imagine my surprise, and imagine your own, logging into Neverwinter for the first time and finding a game that it both polished and refined, mystical and alluring, and devastatingly visceral. The visuals no longer looked steeped in the comic book styling of Champions Online. The world was detailed and overly saturated with a rich color palette. NPCs were voiced, and the combat had style and punch to compete with action trend-setter, TERA. It also had one of the best tutorial introductions of this generation.
But when you enter the city of Neverwinter proper, that's when everything hit home. There was a sense of majesty to leave even the most jaded MMO player gaping. Mystic fountains, impossibly huge architecture, magic dust sparkling in the air... And, of course, taverns, sewers, and beset guardsmen; all of the trappings of a good DnD adventure. It made you believe that Cryptic might have done it, they may have captured the magic of Dungeons and Dragons that we love so much. The atmosphere of Neverwinter is its best and most powerful attribute, instantly drawing me back in on this return playthrough.
Taking on missions is a down and dirty affair of personal adventure. A strong central storyline draws you through the experience, taking you from dungeon to dungeon alone or with a small group. These, despite being action-heavy and entirely removed from any real roleplay, feel like video game Dungeons and Dragons. They reminded me of Bioware's original Neverwinter Nights, disarming traps and looting chests. Played with a friend, these adventures are even better. They capture the essence of cooperation most MMOs demand five players for and rewarded your efforts with story and gold and treasure.
When you are done, you exit back out into the game world.
From there you can play through a number of zones to find their instances. Or, if you want something a little quicker, you can take part in events and skirmishes. Skirmishes are, in short, queueable story instances usually filled by random players. Events are much smaller. Neverwinter is a game on a clock, always ticking down to your next adventure. There is always something more to do, earn, and achieve.
Trumping all of these is The Foundry. It is, without exaggeration, Neverwinter's secret weapon. Any player, new or old, can create their own adventures and release them to the public. In a Dungeons and Dragons setting, this is invaluable. Player-made missions act as new modules for players who wants something fresh. They sometimes span many missions and are in constant development. They often tell deep stories. While some are obviously better than others, and a handful are just plain exploits, they add immeasurably to the replayability of the game and, in turn, its lifespan.
Just like Skirmishes, Events, Dungeons, and Story Beats, finishing a Foundry mission comes with a sense of exiting, of being kicked out, back into the game world.
Up to now, I have fought hard to make the case for Neverwinter as a good game, one you would be remiss for not playing. But now I would like to talk about its shortcomings as an MMORPG. Or perhaps more rightly, why we may have been hoodwinked by considering it an MMO in the first place.
As I tried to put into words my conflicted feelings toward Neverwinter, I kept recalling how all of its best parts end with your getting kicked out: the fun ends, the mission is over, get out of here kid, we don't want any, kicked back into the game world. That is the antithesis of an MMORPG. The world should never be something you regretfully come back to. It shouldn't be B-content. It should be content. And Neverwinter's just feels fragmented and on-demand.
Leveling through Neverwinter sends you to some grand places. You adventure alongside allies and enemies, but usually just players on the same mission. You kill quests, you collect quests. Sometimes you click quests and race quests. On occasion you will open hidden doors and discover chests. After each of these you will return to the city to be sent to your next destination. And while each of these is fun and interesting, they also feel removed from the game world. They are the levels of a Super Nintendo platformer, wide and varied because they must be wide and varied, rarely in service to the game as in service to the player. In truth, the only real persistence is the hub: the city. And it is a small, plithe excuse for a game world.