Dungeons and Dragons Neverwinter review
I discovered my favorite quest in Neverwinter about 30 levels in, when I stood overlooking a fiery pit with my dungeon group scattered around me. And suddenly it hit me: I couldn't stand these people. I'd grown sick of the tank's inability to hold aggro and the mage's smartass commentary, and so I slew them and took their loot. Like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, I'd somehow become the bad guy – the boss even – prompting five-man groups of adventurers to rush in and try to take me down. (I've no idea what I would have dropped.) It was awesome, silly fun you just don’t find in most other MMORPGs, particularly not free-to-play ones. And here's the really surprising thing: I was playing a user-created dungeon called Tired of Being the Hero. For all of the flaws springing from Neverwinter's dogged linearity, its high-priced cash shop, and over-reliance on instances, developer Cryptic gives all of us the tools to create more memorable dungeon experiences than you'll find in its big-budget cousins. Who needs raids in a fantasy MMO when you can create scenarios like this?
Cryptic certainly gets the high-fantasy ambiance of Dungeons & Dragons right, at least, but Neverwinter isn’t an overtly pretty game outside of a few breathtaking vistas. Character models themselves look like holdovers from the PlayStation 2 era, though they’re extensively customizable and the world itself is full of little surprises. Most notably, Neverwinter has a physics system absent from most other MMOs. Slam your sword into a barrel or bump into a tapestry - and shock upon shock - they move! (Bummer, then, that you can't sit in chairs.) Where Neverwinter’s visual failings are most noticeable is in the sad fact that the models for my character’s armor and weapons scarcely changed throughout my trek to the level cap of 60. Aside from my helmet and cloak, I could have taken a screenshot of my Warrior at 55 and claimed he was level 25, and few people would have been the wiser.
Although Cryptic created an extensive storyline that complements this rich D&D world, it’s not the most trustworthy of dungeon masters. Even with questgivers delivering fully voiced orders by actors of widely varying competence, the plot never succeeds in forcing its way to the foreground of the experience. It doesn't help that quest progression in Neverwinter is as straight as one of Drizzt's arrows, bumping you from one quest to another with almost no consideration given to exploration. Even in the few moments when I thought I'd found a hidden quest hub, I later found that the natural quest progression would have led me to that spot anyway. On the bright side, quest hubs are so well spaced that Neverwinter generally avoids the tedious, pointless jogs from one quest giver to another, aside from the long gallop back to the stage's entrance once you've beaten the final bosses in one of the many instanced solo quests.
A good thing, then, that hacking and slashing your way through Neverwinter and its various environs tends to be fun, even though you're limited to five classes (and two of those are just variations on melee warriors). That's partly because the combat's rather simple, relying on clicks of your left and right mouse button for core attacks and a handful of hotkeys. Indeed, Neverwinter's action combat and its limit of a mere eight abilities owes far greater debts to Diablo III than to the rummage piles of abilities in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Rift. Playing as a Great Weapon Fighter, I was impressed by the viscerality and weight of my attacks, and by the fact each ability has its own animation. By the time I hit level 20, I found myself believing that the class captured the "Me smash'em" aspect of warrior combat better than most other MMORPGs I've played. With a wide range of area-of-effect abilities, I'd jump into piles of enemies and laugh as they fell beneath my blade.
Perhaps a little too easily, though. With its heavy emphasis on instanced solo dungeons, Neverwinter isn't an actively social game to begin with, and the inclusion of NPC companions only enhances the drive toward self-reliance. As I hit level 16 on my Fighter, I thought I'd need to pick up friends to progress further because I'd taken to chugging health potions with every pull (there's no passive health regeneration). But that's when I picked up my cleric companion. With her steady stream of heals, I could just spring into a pile of enemies and slash away for the rest of the journey, and be all but invincible as long as I remembered to keep them off of her. Oddly enough, you can even take NPC buddies into five-man dungeons with a full group of other players, allowing a little breathing room for your healers during enemy swarms since almost everyone else brings along a NPC healer, too.
Indeed, Neverwinter relies excessively on those hordes. Almost every single boss fight in the dungeons (single or five-man) relies on fighting a big baddie while staving off waves of his or her cronies. It adheres so strongly to this template that, as I write this a single day after my last login, I'm having trouble recalling the specific strategies of any particular fights. That's a shame, because the dungeons are filled with stunning vistas and secret passageways that unlock for class-specific professions like Dungeoneering, but as a result of the over reliance on similar mechanics, they tend to drag on for far too long.
And that's why the Foundry missions are so fun. The Foundry allows players to create their own D&D-inspired content, leading to missions that, in many cases, are far more enthralling than the ones Cryptic designed for us. Cryptic had already made a name for itself using the same concept in Star Trek Online and Champions Online, but the ability to create your own dungeons assumes a new vitality Neverwinter's Dungeons & Dragons' fantasy settings. Some players use it to create episodic "real-life" versions of pen-and-paper D&D scenarios they first thought up back in the ‘90s, while others use it to develop memorable storylines or set up barroom brawls.
This is where Neverwinter's best hope for longevity lies, as the ability to make your own content - and play and vote on content made by passionate fans - far outstrips waiting around for official content patches. Alas, Cryptic placed some odd limits on the Foundry creation process, such as not allowing enemies to drop specific items for use later on in the dungeon, which ruins the sense of immersion and good storytelling. Somewhat humorously, it also includes few safeguards against "leveling dungeons, " which allow you to beat up Neverwinter's deadliest NPCs and leech off their XP while they just stand there motionless.
Player-versus-player combat also suffers from some strange deficiencies, as it offers only two five-versus-five battleground maps and one giant 20-versus-20 battlefield at launch. Even with the pleasures of the action combat, the variety grows sale long before the level cap – particularly when you throw in lingering class imbalances. As for crafting, it's just not that engaging. You technically don't even take part in the actual process; much as in EVE Online (and Star Wars: The Old Republic, for that matter), you hire specialized workers who run out in get the materials and make armor or potions over the course of mere minutes or many. The design keeps you in the action, sure, but few things in Neverwinter hurt so much as reaching the high levels of the crafting skills and realizing that, unless you have the luck of Neverwinter's Tymora, you'll likely need to spend premium currency in the markets for rare components.