Neverwinter isn't the first time the Dungeons & Dragons sauce has been massaged into an MMO game, but where the previous title was set in Eberron, Cryptic Studios has wisely chosen to set their adventure in the fan-favourite Forgotten Realms.
For those unfamiliar, the Forgotten Realms is the setting for many of the most popular D&D adventures and heroes. Even many of the old D&D computer games were set there, including such classics as Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate.
A lot has changed since those adventures, both in the world of the Realms and the rulebooks behind the tabletop game. The nature of magic has been irrevocably altered by the Spell Plague and surrounding events and the city of Neverwinter was nearly destroyed by an erupting volcano. The game makes use of a modified version of the 4th Edition rules, which won't mean a lot if you don't play the pen and paper version. What it seems to mean is a much bigger focus on selecting a set of skills your character can use, rather than the more passive oriented feats system in previous editions.
Skills are broken down into ones you can use whenever you want, ones you can use once or twice an average encounter and ones that are presently called "Daily" but can actually be used once you've accrued enough action points. At any one time you only have two "whenever" attacks, three "encounter" skills and two "daily" skills. Each class accumulates action points via engaging in combat, with different bonuses for certain actions. The Control Wizard, for example, earns bonus action points for using their whenever and encounter powers to control enemies and inhibit their ability to fight.
Because these Daily powers require more preparation, often charging over the course of multiple fights, they're the big flashy moves that can turn a battle to the player's advantage in the blink of an eye.
This beta weekend saw the Great Weapon Fighter being playable by the general public, so I knew I had to jump in and whip up a Dwarf with which to smash things!
The first thing I noticed is that the game controls much more like a third person action game than a traditional MMO. There's still a target-locking system in place but it's a very soft lock, more to ensure if you're not aiming directly at an enemy your attacks won't miss. If your aim strays too far off course, you'll swap to another target or your abilities will no longer fire if they require a target.
Melee attackers, like the Trickster Rogue, will automatically shuffle closer to a target if you use your standard attacks from outside the reach of your weapons, making it much easier to stay in the appropriate range than in many similar games. Attacks can still whiff if your target isn't where your attack lands and this plays into the strategies of combat. If you see an enemy winding up for an attack you can move or dodge out of the way, or choose to block if you're a Guardian Fighter.
Some enemy attacks use the well-worn "red circle of death" method of telegraphing dangerous attacks but some melee attackers you'll need to watch carefully for posture changes and the like. It's a little tricky with the inevitable latency for Australians playing on US servers, but it's very satisfying seeing a shield-wearing Orc winding up for a shield bash, popping your Guardian's shield up into position and getting the satisfying crash as the great Orc's attack is foiled entirely.
My little dwarf lady with a sword as tall as she is had a great time charging into packs of zombies, cutting loose with her regular slashing attack, smashing down with a powerful attack that somehow provides her a bit of healing and then, just as she looks to be getting swarmed, busting out the daily whirlwind skill and twirling her way through the mob, decimating everything in her path.
My tiefling Control Wizard from the last weekend beta event went for another trip into the Cloak Tower, the game's first group-required dungeon, armed with the knowledge he gained last time. This new group of random strangers knew about the optional boss (and the side treasure rooms) in the otherwise fairly linear dungeon. What they seemed less aware of (or perhaps they were new this weekend) were some of the sneaky pressure pad traps that fired arrows at the party as it ran past, or the ones either side of a doorway that shoved nasty spears out of the walls and into our fleshy bodies. Had I still been playing my dwarf she would surely have been skewered right through her skull!
Neverwinter still has quite a few rough edges, yet it is proving quite difficult to stop playing in these limited opportunities the beta weekends provide. As one of the new breed of free to play titles and with a much simpler to grasp control scheme than many MMOs, Cryptic may have put things together just right for gamers. And setting it in the beloved Forgotten Realms will no doubt please the D&D nerds. It certainly has impressed this one.
No release date has been announced, other than the rapidly closing "Early 2013" window, but if this beta weekend is anything to go by, expect Neverwinter sooner rather than later.
Jimmy the Geek