My last stint with Neverwinter was back in 2021, just before Cryptic Studios announced the MMO’s great level shrink. I had booted up Neverwinter as part of our MMO Reroll series, and at the time, I found it an enjoyable romp that ultimately failed to keep my attention. We just celebrated Neverwinter’s 10th anniversary, and with the recent switch of the publisher from Perfect World to Gearbox, it felt like the right time once again to revisit the most fantastic city of the Sword Coast.
Is This Really A D&D MMO?
Translating the Dungeons And Dragons ruleset to an online MMO environment is tricky. Made for offline, in-person gaming sessions, D&D’s intricate ruleset is made for slow, turn-based combat between a group of players and their enemies, which a Dungeon Master controls. Spells are limited, levels and loot come slowly, and most importantly, the DM can adjust the battle on the fly to ensure the party has a tough, but hopefully non-fatal, experience.
Neverwinter is none of that. There’s no DM to control the battles, though the backend calculations and enemy AI are controlled server-side. And instead of a turn-based combat system, Neverwinter uses a soft-targeting action-based combat system that focuses on movement and dodging skill telegraphs while laying down damage. Functional as it may be, Neverwinter’s action combat is standard fare, and nothing makes it stand out from the combat of other action-based MMOs.
That doesn’t mean combat isn’t fun, though. Neverwinter still sticks to the holy trinity style of character creation, making group combat an actual co-op event. Tanks still need to get aggro so that the DPSers can deal damage, and healers are still required to keep everyone alive. All the while, you’ll be positioning and aiming to hit your target, making for a complex dance of life and death.
Speaking of classes, Neverwinter does an excellent job of streamlining character creation. You won’t find a vast list of skills or spells to choose from, as this isn’t a 1 to 1 recreation of D&D’s robust character generation. But what you do get is a condensed set of D&D skills that have been tweaked to work within a real-time combat environment. You’re also not going to be setting your own ability scores; all stats are predetermined, with only one or two stat bonus options that depend on your race.
For a free-to-play MMO, Neverwinter actually gives you a decent amount of race and class choices for free. Some premium purchase exotic races like Gith, Dragonborn, and Aasimar also follow that setup. And while the exotics give some additional roleplay value, their racial bonuses are still in line with the free classes, slightly better depending on your planned build.
So what you end up with after character creation is a shortcut version of the D&D creation process that ensures you have a viable character that will be a valuable member of any party. You’ll still have enough options between skill and Paragon choices to make your character feel like your own. That same recipe will be used throughout your leveling experience, with a skill or two added with each level and two Paragon paths to solidify your role in a party.
The New Player Experience
Like many older MMOs, Neverwinter has attempted to streamline the leveling process and improve the new player experience multiple times. Two years ago, the level cap was reduced from 80 to 20, aligning it with the actual D&D rules. In the process, many of the leveling zones were redesigned or ripped out entirely.
Along with the level cap reduction, how characters attain XP has received a radical overhaul. Instead of receiving experience for each kill or action, characters gain levels at specific milestones throughout the storyline. Even though it’s not exactly the same, this is similar to how a dungeon master would dole out XP at the end of a tabletop session or campaign.
I feel conflicted about not having XP as part of the leveling process. It moves the story because you aren’t worried about slaying everything in your path. At the same time, without a need to kill mobs for XP makes the world feel empty even though it isn’t. It’s like driving down a highway; you are passing cars all the time, but when you reach your destination, you remember very little about the trip. It’s not bad; it just comes off as sterile to me, and I miss the “It’s the journey, not the destination” feel of the system.
In one respect, this is a good change. It eliminates the issue of a character becoming over or under-leveled for any given zone, and it has definitely stopped the time-honored tradition of grinding mobs to overcome any power deficiency artificially imposed upon the player to extend their playtime.
On the other hand, skirmishes, co-op dungeons, and other multiplayer experiences have also been removed from the leveling track, leaving only a shell of a storyline as you race down a sparkly pathway in an overlong tutorial. In doing so, Neverwinter has removed the player's choice in how they level. Unlike Final Fantasy XIV’s new player experience redesign that shortened the leveling grind by eliminating boring quests and adding remote turn-ins to increase the pace, Neverwinter’s revamp keeps the same old tired game mechanics. The whole point of a rework is to remove the boredom and make leveling fun again, something Neverwinter totally misses the mark on. Fortunately, the trek to level 20 is relatively short (10-15 hours), but I still question how many new players quit before making it through those first few underwhelming hours of gameplay.
Even the new new new player experience update that just happened doesn't help. Sure, they've added some nice rewards to the new player campaign, but that doesn't make the experience any more enjoyable. Instead of begging us to play with treats, rework the campaign to make it a fun time.
Returning Player Experience
I’ve been away from Neverwinter for quite a while, and although I had a few characters that went through the level shrink of 2021, pulling them out of retirement wasn’t any better than starting a new character. My original character from 2013, a level 50 Priest, hasn't been touched for years and went through the level shrink of 2021. Now level 20, he still has all of the gear I had farmed out back in 2013, but it's all useless. Not useless in the sense that current top-tier equipment was far superior, but useless because my 12000 gear score wasn't even high enough to unlock even the lowest level 20 content. My enchantments, as were most of my other consumables and inventory items, were outdated.
I was happy to learn that Sgt. Knox was aware of my return to Neverwinter, aware that I was unprepared for the new trials that awaited me. At his behest, a quick jaunt to the Rewards Merchant was all it took to hook me up with some new gear. But that gear is merely a basic set of armor and weapons, still a couple of thousand gear score or more away from unlocking most of the co-op queues.
Co-op is still fun once you finally unlock it.
I understand that power creep exists and that my characters were nowhere near top-tier for 2023, but these meager rewards didn’t come close to honoring my past experiences. If Gearbox thinks I will take the time needed to upgrade my gear, companions, mounts, and everything else to start playing the low-grade content, they’ve got another thing coming. It doesn't matter whether the grind is hidden within the first 20 levels or the end-game content, I don't feel like doing it all over again for multiple characters.
The lack of motivation to gear up my existing characters is a shame; there is much to like about the level 20 content in Neverwinter. Not only do you get to explore Neverwinter and the surrounding area of the Sword Coast, but you'll also adventure in other regions across the popular D&D campaign setting of the Forgotten Realms. The continent of Faerun is full of diverse locales. From the jungles of Chult to the frozen north of Icewind Dale, your characters will take part in great adventures and kill bosses reigning over vast dungeons. And now, with the latest updates, you can continue the adventures beneath Faerun, not just in the Underdark, but by venturing to Menzoberranzan itself and beyond.
Like the other MMOs of its time, Neverwinter is steeped in vertical progression at maximum level. Each new update adds new areas to explore, each with more powerful gear to find, upgrade, and socket. The New Player Experience walks you through every aspect of progressing your character, and there are plenty of community-made videos to fully explain where to focus your time and increase your efficiency in getting your character to top form.
The character sheet has been tidied up - and done so for the better. Enchantments once slotted into each piece of armor have now been moved to a separate page in the character UI. The Powers, Companions, and Mounts pages have also been cleaned up. These updates have streamlined the management of character development.
Another strength of the Post-20 grind is Neverwinter’s seemingly healthy player base. I tried a couple of different guilds to join (one as a returning level 20, the other with a new character) while playing, and both were alive and kicking. Both guilds were part of alliances, and plenty of players were online at most hours. Everyone was friendly and willing to answer questions, and even while soloing, the guild boons were a nice benefit. Outside of the guild, the Looking For Group channel was constantly popping requests, and the queues were quick to fill.
Living In A State Of Zen
As a free-to-play MMO, Neverwinter is rife with microtransactions. Neverwinter’s cash shop, the Zen Market, is basically the MMORPG genre's equivalent to Amazon - if you could ever imagine wanting an item, the Zen Market has it. Mounts, companions, crafting materials and profession boosts, campaign completion tokens, premium character races, and just about anything else you need to maximize your character’s abilities are available.
Like virtually every free-to-play MMO, Neverwinter has added battle passes for each new update. There’s a free track with additional rewards for the paid version of the pass. Neverwinter also hangs on to a controversial 2013 staple, the loot box. With each update comes a new loot box full of desirable items. Do you need them? No. Do you want them? Yes. Will you have to convert real money into Zen to buy keys? If you want to unlock them, yes, you will.
Even in death, you can’t avoid the Zen Market.
There is no question that most gamers would consider the Zen Market pay-to-win. Even someone like myself that doesn’t get into the competitive side of MMOs any longer can see that the Zen Market is the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. As with most free-to-play MMOs, Neverwinter claims you can still get anything available in the game without using real money. This may technically be true, but like always, the amount of time required for the average player to amass the currency to do so keeps the most coveted premium items out of reach.
And even if you can make peace with the fact that you’ll never see these items without using real money, the in-your-face nature of the Zen Market - daily login messages, Zen Market and Astral Diamon Store icons in the menu bar, loot box announcements, and the option to purchase consumable items in multiple menus, to name but a few - deter from the player's immersion in the world that Cryptic Studios has worked so hard to create.
After all of the changes, all of the updates, and all of the reworks of the last ten years, Neverwinter really hasn’t changed all that much. Cryptic Studios has consistently added new content, and although they seem to struggle with the new player experience, most of their attempts to streamline character progression and game mechanics have come off decently, especially in the UI department. They continue to leverage the strength of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting to keep players coming back for more adventures. Although I don’t ever see Neverwinter rivaling the giants of the MMORPG genre, I don’t see it fading away into the sunset any time soon.