Developer: Cryptic Studios
Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment
Release Date: 07/19/16
If you’re not the sort of person who follows along with this sort of thing, I feel I should mention right off the bat that there are a lot of free-to-play MMORPGs available on the market today. There are entire companies devoted to doing nothing but making such games, and no matter what you’re interested in, someone, somewhere has made at least one MMO that appeals to your interests, if not several. The flip side of this, though, is that with so many of these games floating around in the world, many of which are based off of the tenets established by games like World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Everquest and Final Fantasy XIV, your game has to really stand out to catch a player’s eye. For the savvy publisher, though, it becomes apparent that on consoles this is much less of a concern; while MMOs haven’t caught on in the console space so much, if you can make a good game, you’re only competing with a small handful of alternate options, so you’ll absolutely see returns. I mention all of this because it applies to the topic of today’s review, Neverwinter; as a free to play MMO that began its life on the PC, Neverwinter has managed to carve out a decent niche for itself, but cementing a spot in the console marketplace would give the game access to a market that only a small handful of its contemporaries have managed to access. With a Dungeons and Dragons license attached, all it needs to do is offer a Free to Play aesthetic that’s appealing and easily managed and some unique mechanics unto itself and it’d be an easy game to love.
Unfortunately, it does not manage these tasks, and the end result is much closer to “your mileage may vary” than anything else.
On Dungeons and the Dragons which dwell within
As with most MMOs, there’s a fairly broad overarching narrative across the whole of Neverwinter, and it starts off from a fairly solid place. Your character is on a boat, traveling to… somewhere, when the boat is destroyed by a dracolich and you find yourself awakening on the beaches of Neverwinter, where you’re immediately pressed into service to hold back the forces of Valindra, a lich who is sieging the nearby bridge (and acts as a consistent antagonist for the game). This acts as your tutorial before you’re kicked out into Neverwinter proper to take on quests for the armed forces, which more or less works as you’d expect: go here, do this, collect reward. The problem is that the quest narratives are rarely terribly compelling, mostly amounting to “we need to hold this/drive off that/kill this/reclaim that” with little depth beyond the introductory and ending quest text associated with them. Even slightly more involved narratives don’t really hold up; there’s a quest early on, for example, which tasks you to defend a location, during which the crown of Neverwinter is stolen, leaving you to think this might be a driving force for the plot, but nope! You get it back seven or eight quests later and go back to randomly doing stuff for people with little reason or merit. It’s not that the game needs these things to work; plenty of MMOs have gotten by with little more than simplistic flavor text associated to their missions. Rather, it’s that the better MMOs don’t do this, and the game mostly just feels like it’s asking you to take on various fetch quests just because it has to, like a weirdly disconnected Skinner Box, and it’s not terribly enjoyable to progress through when you only feel like you’re playing to collect loot and levels.
Aesthetically, Neverwinter is also something of a mixed bag, mostly due to technical missteps that you’d expect would’ve been addressed long before the game found its way to the console market. Visually, the game looks fine enough, and while it’s clearly not pushing the processing power of the Playstation 4 by any means, it also holds up well enough when several people and enemies are on-screen at once, which is vital in a game that could feature thirty or more people in one zone at one time. However, the game has little visual issues that make it clear the game lacked the attention it needed, such as text chat that’s hard to read on a large television or mounts that display interesting special effects when summoned but just… disappear when unsummoned. Aurally the game is in much the same boat, starting from a soundtrack that’s perfectly serviceable for the game itself but utterly unmemorable outside of the game. There’s also a fair amount of voice work, and it runs the gamut between excellent and not so, as there are several characters who have at least a few lines to say when needed, so you kind of expect that based on the sheer volume. Again, though, the game shows its lack of care here, as there are a smattering of aural hiccups, such as sounds that don’t play at times and NPCs who continue talking long after you’ve dismissed their display windows and run to a completely different section of the zone, as if you’re listing to an audio log in Bioshock rather than talking to a person in front of you.
On the same song and dance
Neverwinter more or less works as you’d expect if you’ve played an MMO before: you pick a race and class, then head off into the world to take on quests as needed, often involving bashing enemies to death along the way. Mechanically the game works out well enough, as it maps various skills directly to the controller and shows you where they’re mapped on the bottom of the screen for easy reference, so you’ll have a good idea what’s mapped where until you get it down completely. You can also map skills to a second palette, mapped to L1, which also allows access to some more common out-of-combat commands, like jumping, blowing up the map to full screen, and chatting via text when needed. Movement is mapped to the left stick while camera rotation is mapped to the right, and moving around the game world is quite simple, due in equal measures to an accessible map and a glowing marker line that shows up to indicate the path to whatever your current objective might be at the time. You’ll figure it all out pretty quickly whether you’ve played an MMO or not in the past, and while some of it can be hard to adjust to at first, by and large the game explains itself enough that, through trial and error, you’ll get it down in time.
For those who’ve played a tabletop Dungeons and Dragons game before, the game will likely make a lot of sense from a mechanical perspective if nothing else, as it utilizes much of the same concepts and terminology as the tabletop games do. When you start off the game you’re asked to choose your race and class, and the game offers a fair volume of races and classes to choose from; it’s not quite as much as something like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV at this point, but for the sort of game it is, Neverwinter offers enough to make do. Character races run through the standard expectations, including humans, elves and dwarves, as well as a few novel options unique to the game, such as Tieflings (demon sorts) and Half Orcs, as well as the option to purchase Dragonborn as an option. Classes also run through a fairly standard scope, including warlocks, clerics, fighters and more, each with their own primary and secondary party roles based on gear and spec. Once you start playing with a chosen character you’ll see that developing your character works exactly how you’d expect, as you can equip gear (by buying it or finding it during quests) and earn experience to level up (through killing enemies and performing quests), which in turn dictate how well you perform. It’s all very much as you’d expect it to be, and it all works well enough for those who are familiar with the genre.
The most significant difference is in how skills are laid out, as unlike many other MMOs, the game arranges its levels and skills around the D&D aesthetic, meaning skills are laid out in line with how they work in the tabletop game (more or less anyway). As you level up, you earn points which can be committed to new skills or used to improve existing skills, depending on how you want to build your character. You’ll find that you can potentially unlock several skills that can occupy the same slot, so you can redistribute your skills based on what you have and what’s needed at the moment if you want to change roles when needed. You’ll also unlock a new stat point every few levels that allows you to upgrade one of your statistics, and while you’ll likely want to put it into your primary or secondary class stats, you can put it anywhere you wish; these don’t impact your ability to use skills or gear, but it’s entirely up to you how you want to build your character so go nuts. You also unlock Feats around your tenth level, which allow you further passive bonuses based on the path you follow during your point assignment, including health boosts, skill boosts and so on, depending (again) on what you’re looking to do in the game. You can also respec should you wish; it’s expensive to do so, but if you find you want to completely reassign how your character performs, it’s an entirely reasonable option, especially if you want to maximize your performance in a role for party play during late/post-game content.
The game offers you a lot of solo content early on that allows you to adjust to the core mechanics of the game, while also periodically offering you party-based content so you can learn the specifics of the game over time before you get to the post-game experience. Most of your time during the main campaign will be spent soloing content or working with private parties, and both are a feasible option; parties allow direct communication with players (assuming they have a headset, this is enabled instantly), while solo play allows you to summon a helper that can supplement your skills as needed in dungeons. Each zone has a few bonfires scattered around that act as checkpoints/respawn points for easy access when you die, and dungeons generally have at least one bonfire of their own for respawning purposes. You can also rest up at said bonfires, if you face down a tough battle or take an injury you’d like to wait out before moving on, so you have at least a certain amount of leeway as you progress through the game’s missions. Party play feels more in line with how you’d expect it to, on the other hand, as missions are generally more challenging and require a bit more coordination than solo affairs, though you’d really need to get to the post-game content to see the sorts of challenges that would make the game a real test of your mettle. Most of the early and mid-game content is quite simple to work with, frankly, and unless you end up falling into multiple traps in a single dungeon you’ll almost certainly end up perfectly fine throughout the game, whether playing alone or with friends.
The game also offers a bit more to do beyond simply taking on missions and killing enemies. For one thing, many open combat zones feature rotating sets of missions that you can perform for prizes and such, ranging from killing set enemies to finding set items scattered around, which is a novel diversion if nothing else. Dungeons and overworld maps also allow for locations to search for loot, be it your standard equipment and consumables or items that can be sold for treasure or modified into enhancements for your gear (assuming your gear has a slot to accommodate it). There are also side quests you can hunt down that can potentially be a bit beyond the norm, including escort missions, missions that develop side plots more than they expect you to fight and hunt, and more, and these can occasionally be a nice diversion from the core storyline as it is. For the most part, there’s just enough going on in the game to make it the sort of game you could invest quite a bit of time in, if you’re so inclined, and what’s here works well enough for fans of the genre or the franchise to appreciate.
On the costs of war
Neverwinter is the sort of game that’s structured to keep you coming back for the long haul, and for the most part it has all of the tools in place to theoretically make that an attractive proposition. You can probably blow through the core missions in around forty hours or so, but the game is built around the idea of getting through this content first to get to the “good stuff,” by way of post-game instances for big loot and rewards. You can also join up with guilds to help get there faster, or even recruit your friends to play and make your own guild if such a thing appeals to you. Being that this is a free-to-play MMO, the game also offers various purchasable items to help you in your progress, including new mounts and helper units, in-game currency that can be used at the auction house for various things, and even expanded content to give you more options in the core game. The game doesn’t require much of this, and the only thing you might need, the real money currency, can be acquired through trading a freely acquired alternate currency in the game’s back end as needed, so it’s not the worst possible way of handling such a thing. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind spending cash on a free game on occasion (moreso in the late game than the early game) or is fine playing with the free content as-is, Neverwinter isn’t a bad experience to check into all in all.
However, it does bear noting that I’ve honestly never seen a worse handling of real-money content in a free-to-play game that isn’t produced by Zynga or EA, and considering how many F2P MMOs I’ve played (hello SMT: Imagine!), that’s saying something. Let’s start with the free currency to paid currency exchange mechanic, because hoo boy is this a pain, not the least of which because the game has somewhere around eight different currencies to keep track of. Basically, how the exchange works is as such: you can potentially earn a free currency, Astral Diamonds, several times per day by completing some higher level quests and such, but the most readily apparent way of doing so is by prostrating to your god several times a day (as doing so is on a cooldown). Once you’ve done so, you’re given a raw version of this currency, which you then need to convert into a normal version of the currency… which can be done through the menu on a 1:1 basis, so I’m not entirely certain WHY the raw version even exists, but fine, go with it. This currency can then be exchanged via a sort of intermediary exchange menu for the paid currency, Zen, with the caveat being that the exchange rate changes over time so one day you might be able to exchange 50 of the free currency for 1 of the paid currency, while another day it might work out to something like 500 free to 1 paid (as that’s the range of exchange). Assuming you want something that costs, oh, 20,000 Zen, you can eventually exchange your way up to buying this, but it’ll take several days, if not longer, to do so, and you’ll almost certainly want the really cool things that cost way more than that, which makes this kind of a harsh grind to get through. Alternately, you can spend $10 for 10,000 Zen twice (though higher purchases yield greater returns) and get it immediately, which is… pretty transparent.
Still, if the core game were interesting enough to merit spending, say, $75 on a new character race (no, really; you get the race, a bunch of pieces of gear, an extra character slot, a bag and a race reroll token) it wouldn’t be a big deal, but the bigger problem is, it’s not, and a lot of the things that might make it so are at cost. The core game is basically exactly like every single free to play MMO on the market with a Dungeons and Dragons coat of paint over it, and little to nothing here is unique or special. The game utilizes other mechanics better games have used in the past (IE zone quests) without understanding why they do so, and the whole experience feels poorly organized, poorly thought out and boring by and large, and that’s before you realize mods aren’t stopping RMTs from spamming the global chat regularly. You eventually get to a point where the game is just going to be frustrating, whether it’s in trying to learn how the class roles truly work on the fly, or finding your bank and bags are full again and you can’t get an expansion, or in doing the same sort of quest for the tenth time with no respite, and the game simply has nothing up its sleeve to draw you back in. Hell, you barely even get the chance to try and experiment with character classes to see if that might help, since the game only gives you two slots before asking you to shell out for more, which was something we hated when Final Fantasy XI did it over a decade ago.
If you really love Dungeons and Dragons as a franchise, and Neverwinter as a setpiece in which to conduct adventures, Neverwinter might have something to offer you to keep you coming back for more, but honestly, the game is basically the same as every other F2P MMO on the market in thought and deed, and it’s just not enjoyable overall. Nothing about the game stands out, to be honest; the visuals and audio are fine enough but lack effort, the plotline drives things along well enough but lacks personality and player investment hooks, and the mechanics are easy enough to learn but not explained as well as they could be or as easy to grasp as competing products. The core questline feels like a chore to get through sooner or later, and the game simply asks for money too often at too high a price for too little of value, to the point where it almost feels like you’re not really supposed to enjoy the game unless you’ve paid something into it. If you’ve never played an MMO before it might be worth a look, but PS4 players will have more fun with DC Universe, to be honest, as it at least makes a token effort to be a normal MMO. Neverwinter feels like a game assembled by committee; it has little heart and passion invested into its framework, seems mostly designed to inspire players to part with cash for something, and is probably only going to appeal to the most diehard of MMO or D&D fans.
Short Attention Span Summary:
For those who might still be unsure of whether or not Neverwinter is worth their time, I’ll break it down like this:
Do you like Dungeons and Dragons a whole lot? Have you mostly managed to avoid playing an MMO up to this point? Are you very good at avoiding spending money on freemium items in F2P games? If you answered “yes” to all of those questions, give it a try and download it; it’s free to start, and five to ten hours of the game should tell you if it’s for you in the long haul.
If you answered “no” to those questions, however, Neverwinter is probably not the game for you. It relies heavily on the player’s love of D&D to carry the game along, as it’s fairly threadbare as an experience, and most everything it does has been done by many other MMOs (both free and paid), but better. It’s the framework of an idea that was fleshed out in a way that lacks the passion to make it feel like its own unique thing, and the end result is honestly just rote, tiresome and wholly devoid of personality except as a means to encourage spending of actual cash. If you’re in this group, save your time and hard drive space for something else.