This past weekend was the first beta event for Cryptic Studios’ upcoming free-to-play MMORPG Neverwinter, and I was fortunate enough to be able to get my hands on a game that I had been watching from a distance for quite some time. I wasn’t really sure if this game would be right for me, but my interest had been piqued based on everything I’d seen, so I was looking forward to trying it out during the Neverwinter beta.
If there was one thing that I just assumed going in would be done well, it was character creation. Cryptic always puts a fair amount of work into the character creation of their games, and there were plenty of options available in the Neverwinter beta. You could choose a preset character from any of the available races, or get down and dirty and create your perfect avatar. Many of the hairstyles appeared to be shared between races, but there was a pretty wide selection to choose from, and along with a nice hair color selection and other customization features, there weren’t too many clones running around the game. You could choose between normal and blind or damaged eyes, as well as give your character facial tattoos that also had a nice large color pallete to choose from. Your character could be anything from youthful with smooth beautiful skin, to elderly and covered in scars. There might more substantial character creation systems in other MMORPG’s, but Neverwinter’s had enough depth to keep me happy as I moved lots of sliders back and forth, going for just the right look.
Neverwinter beta gameplay began with a starter area that ran you through a tutorial of basic gameplay which explained the action-style combat and basic W,A,S,D movement. You start out with one ability tied to your left mouse button which is your spammable basic attack, and from there you pick up new abilities at a decent pace as you level up. The developers did a good job in the first few levels of keeping the action moving. You make your way across a bridge that is besieged by undead and then take out a couple of boss-mobs to end the tutorial. The information they give you comes at a good pace, and new abilities come quick enough to keep it from quickly growing dull, but they don’t overwhelm you with walls of text and tons of information before you ever swing your weapon. There are a lot of games out there that either become dull within minutes, or give you an overwhelming amount of information in the first 30 seconds you’re in the game that you’ll never remember when you need it. Neverwinter has done a good job of finding a nice balance of action and information in the first few minutes of gameplay, and that is very appreciated by this gamer.
Combat in the Neverwinter beta was pretty smooth, and had some good weight to it when you were striking your enemies, or getting struck by your enemies as is my case most of the time. The Trickster Rogue in particular felt very agile, and seemed to glide between enemies as she introduced them to their ends. Her dodge felt responsive when rolling out of harms way, and overall the trickster rogue felt like it was in a good place. The Guardian Fighter was my favorite to play during the Neverwinter beta, though he did feel a bit clunkier and not as responsive. I’m sure he’s not supposed to be as quick and agile as the rogue, but there were times where abilities just felt downright unresponsive. It wasn’t anything gamebreaking, just a lot of delay between actions and some abilities occasionally not activating. The Guardian Fighter doesn’t dodge like the rogue, instead he throws up his shield to resist damage, and it was difficult at times to get him back to attacking after a block, or to block at the right time if he was attacking. The combat mechanics of the game also stop character movement when attacking, which seems counterintuitive to an ‘action-comat’ styled game. Despite some minor complaints about mechanics, the ability set for the guardian fighter was pretty awesome. His basic attack is a cleave, the right mouse button attack is a shield bash that weakens foes, and he has a dash and a nice mix of defensive abilities, offensive steroids, and taunts that he can utilize as needed. The third and final class in the Neverwinter beta was the Devoted Cleric, but I did not spend a lot of time with the class. I don’t typically go for casters very often, but from the little bit of time I did spend on the devoted cleric I will have to say that it was quite a bit of fun hurling spears of light at my enemies.
One of my favorite trends in MMO’s right now is the minimalist approach to the overall User Interface, and to the action bar especially. Many games now provide a nice set of select abilities to use, with the option to switch between abilities, but never force an overwhelming amount of buttons on you that you only use 10% of the time. During the Neverwinter beta the action bar contained a spammable basic attack tied to the left mouse button, or slightly more specialized ability tied to the right mose button, then a handful of of Encounter abilities which are defaulted to the Q,E,R, and Tab buttons, with two slots available for Daily abilities. The Encounter abilities were typically cooldown based abilities, or abilities with a certain number of charges that had to regenerate if you used them. The Daily ability is an ‘ultimate’ type ability that has to charge up as you attack enemies. Once you’ve filled the d20 shaped action point meter you could unleash the pain on your foes. At certain levels you gain access to either a new level of your abilities, or a new ability altogether that you can substitute in for something else. You also gain feat points to spend as you leveled up that could be spent to specialize your character in different ways. I was actually speccing my Guardian Fighter into increased strength and damage because it was fun to go dashing in all sword & board and then wreck everything in sight. That’s just how I roll.
Visuals – World/Character Models
This game is never going to be mistaken for a cutting edge visual masterpiece, but it is still pretty nice graphically. The only character model issue I really had in the Neverwinter beta was a clipping issue with my dwarf’s beard and his armor that drove me absolutely crazy, but other than that the character models look fine, and will do well enough for themselves up against the majority of newer games out there. The world itself is actually quite beautiful, and probably one of the better looking environments of any non-Asian free-to-play MMORPG I’ve seen recently. The city was quite stunning, with a gorgeous sky overhead, and tall buildings in the background that rendered nicely from max distance. The dev team have done a really nice job with the shading and textures on everything, and it really does look quite nice. Think of the art style as what WoW would look like with a modern graphics overhaul. Cryptic’s done a really good job of bringing the world to life too. There were lots of players of course in the Neverwinter beta because we were all starting out in the same area, but there were plenty NPC’s going about their daily routines as well, which made it feel like a bustling city even in the corners where players didn’t congregate. I’d say visually there’s no reason anyone would be disappointed in Neverwinter.
To be honest, Neverwinter really surprised me. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be completely terrible, but from what I had seen of it I was interested, but just didn’t think it would end up being my kind of game. Action-combat can be a bit of a gimmick sometimes that games use to cover-up boring, repetitive gameplay, but that hasn’t been the case with Neverwinter so far. This is a game that I simply do not want to log out of, and that’s probably the highest compliment I can pay an MMORPG. Combat felt good, the visuals were nice, and while the questing was pretty standard MMO stuff, the setting and mechanics of the game really made it feel fresh and unique to me. The client ran well on my machine and the only time I had to turn down the settings a little was when I was frapsing footage, which of course isn’t the game’s fault. But there were no major crashes at anytime I was playing, and everything seemed to be running fine.
Cryptic’s reputation took a bit of a hit with the launch of Star Trek Online a few years back because the game was rushed to launch, and although they’ve come a long way in improving STO over the years, it was pretty obvious at the time of launch that we were being given an incomplete game. Neverwinter might just be the game that proves to Cryptic’s critics that they are a top-notch game developer. If they can pull off a smooth launch for what is shaping up to be a fantastic game, Cryptic will find themselves back in the good graces of a lot of gamers.
For more Neverwinter beta coverage be sure to check out Mr. Jason Winter’s article about the Neverwinter dungeon experience.