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Cryptic's Dark Horse Rising

William Murphy Posted:
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Cryptic Studios has something to prove. While both Champions Online and Star Trek Online eventually found their niche as "freemium" MMOs, each game had a lot of hype that wasn't quite met. It's not uncommon on this website to see commenters claim they'll never buy another Cryptic Studios product.  It's a good thing their next offering will be entirely free to play and published by Perfect World Entertainment.  And it's also a good thing that Neverwinter is absolutely and positively the most exciting MMORPG we saw at PAX East 2012. Polished, fun, and inventive (not to mention a D&D fan's nerd-haven) Neverwinter won our Game of Show with good reason

Read on to learn about combat, setting, story, classes, character creation, PVP, the Foundry, and so much more.

When we sat down with Andy Velasquez and Craig Zinkievich of Cryptic, we didn’t really know what to expect. No one’s seen much of Neverwinter before PAX.  Since the acquisition, PWE’s kept a tight leash on the flow of information coming out of the former City of Heroes developer. Apparently, they’ve locked guys like Andy and Craig in their office and said, “Go make an awesome game that will shock the hell out of jaded MMO gamers.” Because that’s the general consensus after PAX East.  This one’s just jumped into the one-to-watch category folks, and it’s coming before 2012 is up.

Set along the Sword Coast, and using the 4th Edition rule-set (somewhat more than catered to an MMO game if you’re asking us), Neverwinter takes place 100-150 years after Neverwinter Nights 2, and 100 years after the great spell plague that ravaged the city and coast in general. A man going by the name of Neverember has risen to power within the city to help bring it back to its former glory, but as players delve into the secrets and lore of the game they’ll have to explore whether this benefactor is good, bad or somewhere in between. 


Unlike its original plans, Neverwinter is now a fully persistent online world of an MMO.  No more sole focus on social hub and tons of instancing.  It’s an open world MMORPG, with zoning a la Champions or many other games of late.  So while you’ll still go through a “zone” to get from one spot to the next, most of the game’s world will be shared public spaces with dozens or hundreds of other players at a time.  Similar to former Cryptic games, if a space gets to crowded it will create a layer and overflow players into that space to keep the lag to a minimum.

Each zone in and around Neverwinter is themed with its own story-arc. You’ll fight back orcs in the Tower District (a burned and ruined field of battle). You’ll enjoy the relative peace and quiet in the Protector’s Enclave, or fight unkown evils in The Temple of the Spider. You’ll even get to explore Mount Hotenow, the volcano and former home to the ancient Dwarven city of Guantlgrym.  There are tons of dungeon romps for groups of five, with a lot of content in the open areas for solo players.  You’ll be able to queue for the five-man stuff right from the UI as well.  And at the end of each big adventure zone, there are five-man dungeon delves to cap each zone’s story.  But raids? Out for now. They want the focus to be on traditional D&D dungeon exploration.


Neverwinter also focuses its combat far and away from the traditional tab-targetting. We watched (and dabbled on the show floor) as Andy steered a tiefling control wizard around a zone, using arcane spells that would make any caster-fan squee with delight. The spell effects, and sheer control of each movement, action and destructive power was a sight to behold. Using the aiming reticule that’s becoming a bit of an MMO-mainstay lately, Neverwinter looks to have absolutely nailed the combat without making it too daunting on the player.

And yes, you can move as you attack.  No locked animations.  You can jump, dodge, run, and break skills after you start casting them.

The game uses the 4th Edition rules as its base, and as such the at-will abilities are mapped to the left and right mouse buttons while other skills with longer cooldowns are on the hotbar, and the “daily” use skills reside on a 20-sided dice button that fills up as you use your other skills and abilities.  The daily is “daily” in name only, and can be used any time you fill the dice up completely.  As you can see in the embedded video of Andy’s later used Drow thief, they’re extremely powerful skills, and you will get to choose from a bevy of them for each class.

The combat system really looks good and ripe for PVP, and it is coming.  Just not until 2013, sometime shortly after the projected 2012 launch.


We asked Andy and Craig about the character creation, seeing as Cryptic’s long been known for their expansive character creation systems, and while we weren’t allowed to take a look just yet, the gentlemen assured us that the same love and care is being placed into Neverwinter’s tools.  There will be a slew of cosmetic options, as well as the aforementioned skills and builds for each class.  Only three classes have been announced so far (the Fighter, Thief, and Wizard) and each one will have different branches to build more specialized versions of that class (Shadow Thief, Control Wizard, etc).  There are also already the races of human, elf, half-elf, drow, dwarf, tiefling and even more to come still.  If you think “talent trees” you’d be on the right track, but we weren’t shown that much yet as the game is still in pre-alpha state.

And man-oh-man is it looking smooth and clean in said alpha state.

There will be 60 levels to gain in Neverwinter, which equates precisely to the twenty level cap of a D&D campaign. They felt that trying to get more levels by someone making it level 1-1, 1-2, or 1-3 just didn’t work.  But they also felt that simply having 20 levels wouldn’t be enough in terms of character progression.  So instead they’ve stretched out the 20 levels worth of character growth into 60 levels to give players more satisfaction as they progress through the content.


Cryptic’s proprietary user-generated content is also going to be present in Neverwinter right from day one.  The full ability to make NPCs, stories, dungeons, and other content will be right there and built into the UI from day one.  Entire campaigns can and will be created by the players, highlighted in the UI and fully-integrated with the community to promote and help out the best content creators.  This is the system that was tailor-made for D&D and, Cryptic finally gets their chance to bring the two together.

There will also be a full crafting system for player gear and economy, and a very vaguely mentioned pet system that Andy really seems to want to talk about.  Guilds and the like are in as well, but they aren’t ready to talk about just how they fit into the game.  The UI, it’s worth mentioning, is really built around the content of the game as well.  You will see upcoming events in different areas (little things like creature hunts, contests, and the like), directions for where you should be questing, and reminders for upcoming public events as well.  Plus you’ll see all the top-rated Foundry content and trends across the community.


Perhaps the most shocking part about all of this? Cryptic’s Neverwinter is going to be entirely free to play.  No box to buy. No subscription to pay.  All of the items will adhere to Cryptic’s ideals and PWE’s expertise in the F2P realm, meaning everything will either be cosmetic or convenience boosting items.  When PVP does come, the team assured us there are no plans to offer any bonuses via RMT in the competitive side of things.

One could arguably have made the case that both Champions and Star Trek should have been F2P from the outset. In our brief time with Neverwinter, we all felt like we were looking at something we’d gladly shell out cash for to buy a box or pay a subscription.  The quality at such an early level is simply amazing, and if it transcends the few small areas we saw and into the entire game, every single person reading this article that has even the slightest interest in D&D is going to be a very happy camper. Neverwinter is most definitely the dark horse MMO of 2012.


Let me start by saying Cryptic Studios introduced me to one of my first major loves in the MMO genre – City of Heroes. Since then, however, it’s been no secret that the developer hasn’t exactly had the best track record. The announcement of the Neverwinter project came as a surprise to some, and many may view it with a healthy dose of skepticism, including myself. Well, that is until I saw it at this year’s PAX East. If you’ve been skeptical of the project, you’ll definitely want to read on.

I wasn’t impressed with what we saw because I came into the appointment with low expectations or anything. The game genuinely looked great.  Neverwinter isn’t a hub-based D&D MMO; there is an open world to explore while still featuring the instanced dungeons players will want to jump into with their friends. You’ll be able to fully explore the eponymous port town, of course, but if you’ve got an itch to go out and explore the world of Faerûn, you’ll be able to do that as well.

What stood out immediately to me was that the game looked ridiculously polished. The interface appeared smartly designed, balancing providing plenty of screen real estate with just enough UI objects and elements to give players important information. Even better, visually, it was clean and slick.

As is the trend these days, Neverwinter features action combat. Like TERA, there is a bit of a reticle based targeting system there, though from what I saw it looked like Neverwinter had some soft-targeting built into it. The combat looked fast paced, sporting some great looking animations and the spell effects were similarly awesome. Whether our demo driver was freezing and shattering his enemies or blinking from target to target in a graceful dance of death, it looked like something I would have tons of fun with. What held me with City of Heroes was the moment to moment combat, and while I didn’t get to play Neverwinter myself, I got that familiar feeling simply from watching combat play out.

Neverwinter’s aesthetics were particularly pleasing, too. The visual quality was right up there with the best in the genre, both in terms of style and technical quality.  Textures, lighting, shadowing, environment art, particularly in one of the dungeons we were shown, were all top notch. At one point our demo driver ran up to a huge gap separating one of the dungeon paths only for a ghostly green mist-like bridge to materialize before us. The effect seen here was a bit mesmerizing. It reminded me a bit of the visual effects used for the ghost army in the Lord of the Rings films. Simply put, Neverwinter is a visual treat from top to bottom.

I realize it sounds like I’m breathlessly praising the game and I haven’t even spent any hands-on time with it yet, but it really looked that good. All of us in the room were pretty much having nerdgasms watching Cryptic’s Craig Zinkievich and Andy Velasquez demo the game. This is a game you’ll definitely want to actively keep an eye on. All your favorite D&D races (Forgotten Realms) will be here, including the Tiefling, and the promise of Cryptic’s standout user generated content and slick character creation tools are a perfect match for a D&D game, especially one based in Neverwinter. I can’t wait to play in Cryptic’s latest world, but I’m honestly (sorry!) even more excited to see what players do with their own content creations.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.