An Astral Diamond in the Rough
Cryptic Studios released Neverwinter just over a month ago. While publisher Perfect World called it an “open beta”, the company had no issues taking players’ money for Zen used to purchase virtual items in the shop. Whenever that happens, the game is, in our mind, released. And so, today’s review culminates our month-long journey in and around the Sword Coast, most notably in Neverwinter and its immediate surroundings. Tag along with us as we synthesize our four Beta Diary articles (linked below) into our official MMORPG.com review of Neverwinter.
Aesthetics - 8
Aesthetically speaking, Neverwinter is easy on the eyes. While not as “realistic” as, for instance, Elder Scrolls Online which uses a dark color palette, Neverwinter succeeds very well. Developers have lovingly crafted a beautiful world filled with amazing detail. It seems that there is always something worth stopping to look at while questing. It’s a pretty sure bet that most players with a love of all things beautiful have a folder full of screenshots. It’s simply that good.
In addition, every item placed in the world, every mountain and flower and broken barrel, is accessible to Foundry builders. Some Foundry missions are as, or even more, beautifully arranged as those created by the developers themselves.
Neverwinter’s music is quite nice too. My only argument with it is the repetitiveness of tunes in the zones, particularly in Protector’s Enclave. After hearing it for the ‘umpteenth’ time on every journey back to Sgt. Knox, it was a relief to finally toggle music “off”.
The ambient sounds of a vibrant city are top notch and voice acting is pretty decent as well though it is a bit over the top at times. Again, some voiced NPCs repeat themselves over and over finally making players move out of the camp in order to escape “Soooo many dead” in a cheesy British accent. All in all, Neverwinter is a beautifully crafted game that is pleasing to both eyes and ears.
On the less sensual side of Neverwinter’s aesthetics is the fabulously customizable user interface. Essentially, every element can be moved, hidden, resized and more. It’s easily one of the best UIs in the genre today, something that can be tailored to any player’s personal specifications.
Gameplay - 9
From our perspective, gameplay in Neverwinter is one of the shining gems in the entire game. Character customization is terrific. Combat is fast and furious. Spell effects look great. Character classes have unique moves and abilities that truly differentiate them one from another.
Players initially get a sense of the gameplay elements and features on logging in for the first time in order to create a character. Customization options seem to be limited until after the basics are in place. From there, players can use sliders to tailor their characters to just about any look imaginable.
Where customization really falls down, however, is in the look of players once armored. Even though one can choose certain looks for armors they like, every character class looks virtually the same from level one all the way to sixty. In addition, companions running around with players all seem to have come from a cloning experiment gone wild with only slight variation based on their ability level.
Speaking of companions, why is there no ability to control them in battle beyond “stay, protect, or attack”? It would be nice to have a better element of control over their behavior and attacks, choosing spells, for example.
Companions aside, combat in the game is really fun. In many ways, Neverwinter is much more closely related to an action-RPG such as Diablo III than it is to an MMO. In fact, Neverwinter is truly somewhere in between the two. As new acronyms are always being created, Cryptic’s game could actually fall into a new category of MMOARPG. Yes, there are masses of players simultaneously connected online. Yes, there is heavy action. Yes, there are role-playing elements. In short, Neverwinter fits all of the above quite well. Ultimately, Neverwinter is neither as “action-y” as Diablo III nor as “MMO-ish” as Everquest II for instance, but it makes a decent effort.
Without auto-targeting and fast moving monsters, players have to actually utilize strategy. Guardian Fighters and Great Weapon Fighters, for instance, can gather several enemies at once and gradually take each down by hitting a different one with every swing. Devoted Clerics and Control Wizards can hammer large groups with massive AoE spells to wipe out any remaining resistance. Trickster Rogues can sneak around behind and pick off the strongest monster.
Neverwinter’s classes are well-suited to one another in PvE but there are issues with PvP that are disturbing. Trickster Rogues will surely fall under the nerf hammer soon since they have the ability to slow their prey and disable all skills while simultaneously hitting multiple times with better-than-average damage, all from the cloak of invisibility. It’s a frustrating experience.
PvP, in general, is not bad but it is woefully lacking. With only two domination maps for 5v5, there is simply not enough to do for players who enjoy PvP. As of this writing, the endgame Gauntlgrym 20v20 map has yet to be added but even so doing, there still won’t be enough variety for PvP fans. Cryptic is going to have to step up its game and add lots of new PvP content if they have any plans to keep endgame players interested.
Crafting in Neverwinter is an odd beast. While not a difficult enterprise from the standpoint of not having to wander the game world painfully searching out the right materials to make what’s needed. It’s more a function that there isn’t really any significant interaction on the part of the player in order to do it. Crafting is completed by sending ‘hired’ minions off to perform various tasks such as collecting resources or to create items. Time to do so can be as short as ten minutes to as long as eighteen hours or more and can be accomplished in game or out of game via the nicely featured Neverwinter Gateway.
At first glance, crafting seems very easy and that levels in any of the five professions (Leadership, Mailsmithing, Platesmithing, Tailoring, or Leatherworking) are quickly gained. What becomes apparent over time, however, is that rare and ultra-rare resources become necessary to create the top end items. Those are only obtained through wildly infrequent finds in the game world or through purchasing them via the Astral Diamond or Zen Markets.
This is not to say that crafting is bad, exactly, just that it’s not a visceral experience.
All told, game play in Neverwinter is a fun and interesting experience and one of the game’s strongest suits. There are things that can be improved and it’s a pretty sure bet that Cryptic will do so over time.
Innovation - 7
Anyone who has played more than a few MMOs in their life will understand that Neverwinter doesn’t bring much to the proverbial table as far as innovation goes. The basic game is pretty much ‘more of the same’. That said, there is one glaring exception to that overall statement: The Foundry.
While the Foundry is in Star Trek Online, it is still something novel in the high-fantasy MMO space and is something that, in the end, will be the key to Neverwinter’s longevity. As builders become more familiar with the tools available to them, and as quality writers begin to tell their stories, the modules created by Foundry artists will only get better.
The one caveat that many players have with the Foundry, however, is the lack of oversight into the creations built by the modding community. For example, more than a few modules have been created that exploit the experience system by giving players an endless dungeon of the most difficult monsters in the game that neither move nor attack, thereby allowing for maximum XP gains with minimal effort. This simply must be stopped.
Luckily the good outweighs the bad in the Foundry and some of the best experiences in the game from a role-playing perspective can be found there. One only has to take a look at some of Rob Lashley’s Foundry Focus series to see some of the best. It’s also worth looking beyond the top five or six missions that crop up in the Daily Foundry Quests to find lesser-known but equally good Foundry quests to try out.
As long as the Foundry stays popular and as long as artists continue to create top notch modules, Neverwinter will live a long and healthy life. It is in Cryptic’s best interest to ensure that builders have the tools they need and are perhaps even willing to expand what can be done by, for instance, allowing modders to create PvP maps as well.
Value - 6
While the Foundry is Neverwinter’s crown jewel, the Zen Cash Shop is the dirty tissue stuck to the bottom of the game’s shoe. Prices for items in the Zen Shop are quite simply outrageous. Forty dollars for an epic mount? Thirty dollars for a mid-level companion? Six dollars to respec one’s character? There is absolutely no excuse for such prices to be foisted on a community that would doubtless be willing to pay for items more reasonably priced.
Hero of the North packs run $200 and have some very nice items inside including a one time bundle of two million Astral Diamonds. That sounds like a lot until it’s realized that that’s it. Once they are gone, and it’s ridiculously easy to charge right through, that’s it. Unlike, for instance, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Neverwinter Heroes do not receive a monthly allowance of Zen or Astral Diamonds to spend. Beyond the first thrill of opening the Hero pack (or the Guardian pack on a lesser scale), there is little to look forward to as the months march by.
Lastly, the Auction House/Zen Market/Astral Diamonds Exchanges have been exploited, not once, but twice in the past two weeks. While the second event was on a much smaller scale than the disastrous first, it happened nonetheless. This should be worrisome to paying customers.
Yet even saying all that, Neverwinter is truly free. While there are facepalming moments of frustration for free players with regard to seating enhancements, etc., it is possible to play the game without ever spending a dime. In and of itself, that one fact saved this category from a much worse score. In addition, if PWE and Cryptic are willing to address some of these issues, the score has the potential to be much higher.
Longevity - 7
As stated above, Neverwinter will only succeed on a long term basis if several things happen:
- More endgame content in the form of dungeons, quests, etc.
- More character classes added at a rapid, not sluggish, pace.
- More PvP content. This is critical. More types, more maps, more variety, bigger teams, etc.
- More tools and abilities for Foundry builders.
- Better Zen Market prices. Again, this is critical.
Without most of the above, Neverwinter will be an interesting, yet short, diversion for most players who will use it as a stopover on their way to other, bigger, more expansive MMOs set to hit the market this year and in coming years. Gauntlgrym should be quite interesting, with a sort of 20v20 hybrid PvP/PvE experience... but will it be enough? The Foundry and Cryptic’s own modules will be the stuff that keeps the game thriving, I’d wager.
Social - 5
Neverwinter is not a particularly social game, though it has potential. There is little reason to group with others, though progress as a solo player, even at the latter stages of the game, is much slower than it is with at least one other player. Obviously dungeons on the most difficult levels lend themselves to partying but PUGs can be put together fairly rapidly.
There is little reason to interact with one another in Neverwinter either. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but the social side of the game isn’t particularly well fleshed out. Need a dungeon? Use the finder. Want to run one of the skirmishes? Use the queue. There really isn’t any reason to speak with one another or even to group with others in a guild for the most part. Maybe there isn’t an easy answer to players socializing with one another. Still, it might be in Neverwinter’s best interest for Cryptic to explore a few more avenues and ways to get people to actually socialize. Some real worthwhile Guild tools to go along with the fantastic Calendar would be welcome.
Polish - 7
Neverwinter is really a very polished game at its core. While there are bugs (aren’t there always?), they are not game enders for the most part. Monster and NPC AI are decent as well. Rarely will one encounter a monster embedded within the rocks or the epic “unkillable zombie”, or find one’s self falling through the world or anything like that. It’s those big bugs that make all the difference though. Exploits can ruin a game’s community before it even has a chance to cement itself.
Servers have had hiccups of instability but Cryptic has been on top of those in an admirable way. That much attention only adds to the overall game polish. This is a score that could arguably rise over time.
Final Score: 7
Neverwinter is worth a visit by anyone who is a fan of both MMOs and of action-RPGs. Despite some glaring issues, including the lacklustre PvP and the Zen Market, the game is wildly fun and is a worthwhile detour on one’s journey through the MMO space today. It remains to be seen what Cryptic does with the feedback it has received from the players during the past month, but Neverwinter is one to keep an eye on as time goes by. As the title says, Neverwinter is an Astral Diamond in the Rough.
Have you played Neverwinter? Love it or hate it? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
Suzie Ford is the Associate Editor and News Manager at MMORPG.com. Follow her on Twitter @MMORPGMom.
See how we arrived at this score in our four-week Beta Diary series: