In this week's Touchy Subject, we are fast-forwarding on from the pre-millennium mire this column usually deals with, and heading into the brave present. I, like most of you, have been playing Neverwinter; a game that has piqued my interest both because of its Dungeons and Dragons subheading, and the fact it purports to do something a little different from the standard formula. And having played it, I have a few thoughts to share.
Now off the bat, I think my perception of the game has become tangled up in my own expectations. Having to deal in game criticism (as I vaguely do) means that you spend a lot of time previewing, reviewing, and generally pontificating on games. And as such, you generally end up ruining a lot of upcoming titles just by virtue of knowing absolutely everything you are about to experience.
So that's why I make a point not to read or watch anything about new games that initially excite me, and that I don't have to report on. Neverwinter happens to be one of those products. When Cryptic announced the game, I must admit I was stuck between two tracks of thought. Firstly, while I admire what the developer does, I can't say that I have found my "virtual home" within any of their products. Secondly, oh-my-freaking-gawd it shares a similar name as the graphical MUD from 1991.
Now, being a historical nerd type, the latter thought got me jumping for joy. I love the campaign setting of Neverwinter, what with its adventures that usually happen around 10pm, and I also think that the Wizards of the Coast license has been sorely underused for the past couple of years: what can I say, I like 4th Edition. So when it came to finally getting my grubby mitts on Cryptic's game, my own policy of do not read, do not spoil, was overtaken by my own RPG excitement as I built this MMO into something it could never have been.
And in reality, it isn't the game I was expecting. Neverwinter is a solid action RPG, with a great MMO foundation. The mechanics of D&D sit somewhere as a base, utilizing the dice roles and namesakes for skills, but rarely does it jump into the realm of pen and paper and allow for the type of imaginary experience that Gygax's original game does.
But then again, this isn't a fault of Neverwinter. The experience and adventure is very similar, albeit with some nice twists and turns. The familiar breadcrumb trail of quests, lest anybody accidentally wander off, and the setting is very well made, but formulaic. It is still a collect X of Y type of affair, but done very well.
So, with that in mind, what do I think of Neverwinter? It is good, but returning to my earlier point, even in open beta I don't think I could call this my "virtual home". I can see the lines of design too clearly; the game world is fantastic, but ultimately it fails to truly recreate that D&D experience I was looking for.
But at this point I haven't yet mentioned The Foundry. If any system or design tools were to amount to the same building of a campaign encounter, this system is it. The quests and adventures posted up so far are astounding in quality, and show a real verve for story and excitement. It's nice to see a developer such as Cryptic not just reacting to players, but actively allowing them to participate, and I feel that if they opened The Foundry even further, we could see an immensely satisfying MMO.
Neverwinter, at its heart, is very enjoyable. But even with the above said, I couldn't say that it fits the needs that I desperately need fulfilling. Interestingly, I caught up with RuneScape lead Mark Ogilvie, just a few days ago and he explained to me how important it was a developer to fit the role of Dungeon Master, rather than linear designer. During our conversation, he described his team at Jagex are making the tools and content so that RuneScape adapts to the player, reflecting their choices, and not the opposite way around.
I found this point to be extremely interesting, and one that I feel I share in opinion. Neverwinter is a game, but right now I think I'm looking for a simulation. The past week’s columns may have been bemoaning the lack of immersive spirit or nostalgic gameplay, but I think it's a craving for a return to imagination. The best dungeon keeper, as Mark told me, is the one that allows players to walk away from the predetermined adventure, and create an entirely new one. It's an interesting thought.
So with that in my mind, and purely in terms of Neverwinter utilizing the D&D license, I find Cryptic's game a slightly missed opportunity. The tools are in place, The Foundry works, but the designers themselves seem to have missed their own important lesson.
Will we see any truly design that pen and paper experience? With CCP's World of Darkness lurking somewhere in the distance I truly hope so, but at this moment in time, I feel like a character trapped in endless linear paths, drudging through, albeit enjoying myself, but never truly finding that adventure that I crave. And that for me is the most damning indictment I can give any game. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Adam Tingle / Adam Tingle is a columnist and general man-about-town for MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and FPSGuru.com. He enjoys toilet humour, EverQuest-themed nostalgia, and pointing out he's British: bother him at @adamtingle
Read more of Touchy Subjects: