Weeknights in… is a new weekly column in which I’ll be exploring the MMO genre – one which I have never had the pleasure of diving into before.
I don’t know whether I’ve been put off by the multiplayer aspect of them, or whether I’ve simply not found the time to fully commit myself, but I decided that I’ve been putting it off for far too long. I’m starting off with Cryptic Studios’ Neverwinter, an MMORPG set within the Dungeons & Dragons setting of the Forgotten Realms.
If you haven’t experienced Neverwinter, now is the perfect time. The game is free-to-play on both PC and Xbox One, so if you feel like taking your first steps either into a new genre entirely, or simply a new game, don’t hesitate to pick it up.
One of the first things that struck me about Neverwinter is the freedom given to the player. I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons for a few years now, and the similarities between the two games instantly made me feel at home. The character creation menu is a simple one, and puts itself together in a similar way to how creating a character in the popular tabletop game works. Along with customizing your own appearance, you choose your race, class, adapt your ability scores and even choose both your character origins and deity affiliation. I was slightly disappointed by the number of classes on offer, but mainly as my quintessential tiefling druid couldn’t become a reality in-game.
The races and classes offered to you do follow the typical ones available to you in a Dungeons & Dragons game pretty well, however. Adapting an extensive tabletop adventure into a streamlined MMO is always going to mean that there are some limitations. Official Dungeons & Dragons adventures give players the opportunity to choose from over 200 different races, and even more if your imagination serves you well. Neverwinter condenses this into ten to begin with: drow, dwarf, half-elf, halfling, half-orc, human, moon elf, sun elf, tiefling and wood elf. You also have the opportunity to play as dragonborn and Menzoberranzan renegade, both of which require the purchase of certain packs, which grant additional items to players for a price. This is a free-to-play MMO, did you really think there wouldn’t be in-game purchases?
Classes are similar in this regard. In the same way that the races have been diluted to ten, the twenty-seven core classes available (and with that, any combination there-in) have been condensed to eight: control wizard, devoted cleric, great weapon fighter, guardian fighter, hunter ranger, oathbound paladin, scourge warlock and trickster rogue. Eight may not sound like many, but it provides enough diversity for each character to be both different and interesting, and keeps the game from being repetitive.
Each race and class has its own perks and bonuses, and will affect your ability scores in some way. My character, for example, is a tiefling scourge warlock. As a tiefling, I gain two points to my charisma, along with an additional two for either my constitution or intelligence. I also gain the traits of Bloodhunt, which deals an extra 5% damage to any enemy who is below half-health, and Infernal Wrath, which means that whenever I am hit, I have a 10% chance to lower the Power of my attacker by 5% for five seconds. Each race has a different traits and different bonuses to particular scores, which can affect how successful you are as a particular class somewhat dramatically.
As a warlock, I also gain some quite substantial benefits. My role is either as a striker or leader, meaning that I can dispose threats as quickly as possible, or provide buffs for the rest of my party respectively. I’ve decided that I’m going to focus more on damage output, meaning that I will be following the route of a fury warlock, one of three feat trees which can be focused on. There are also a substantial amount of skills which are available to me, from my Shift ability of Shadow Sprint, allowing me to move faster across the battlefield and giving me 30% additional damage, to my daily power of Brood of Hadar, which overwhelms my target with shadows and slows down nearby enemies. Even as simplistic a change as this mixes up the gameplay, and allows for some fantastic variations to be made.
The amount of backstory is also entirely optional for the player. I’ve thought long and hard about my character, where it was she came from, and what her opinions and aspirations are. The first thing I realized about the MMO genre – and in a similar way to how custom RPGs, both digital and tabletop work – is that my story is entirely my own. It is up to me what I choose to do with it, how much I wish to put into it, and it’s essential to think and act exactly like the character in order to have the best possible experience.
This is the point where I entered Neverwinter, washed ashore in a shipwreck, greeted by a man who called himself Private Wilfred. He explained my situation, and helped set me up on the journey that lay before me. It should be pointed out early that each mission is fully voiced, something that I’ve been told is uncommon for MMO’s. And I don’t simply mean just the one sentence which highlights what it is that the NPC wants you to do for them. I mean that an extensive description is given for most quests, with quite a bit of context and description to really set the scene. It adds to the immersion offered to the player, and is just an extra piece of detail which makes the playing experience all the better for the player.
Neverwinter is also streamlined and easy to pick up. Not in the dumbed-down definition of the term, but in the “thank god I don’t have to read a wiki before playing” sense. Everything was explained to me in simple steps, with a simple list of character progression quests leading me through the game, up until level 20 if I wanted it.
The tutorial is likely to be appreciated by someone new to the genre, which, given that MMOs on consoles are still relatively rare, is understandable. It eases you into things gently, without being overly patronizing – though MMO veterans will no doubt find it unnecessary beyond getting a feel for what makes Neverwinter different from other games in the genre.
One thing that had been putting me off trying an MMO is the amount of shortcuts, buttons and commands there often are to remember. Neverwinter has these, but the commands are simple, easy to pick up, and manage to utilize the Xbox One controller well. It’s one of the main qualms that players have in the conversion of MMOs from PC to console: will the controller be able to find a place for all of the inputs available to players? Thankfully, the Xbox One controller can handle the inputs, and everything fits together nicely without requiring feats of contortion that would have given Harry Houdini pause.
The experiences within the first few levels of my journey were mostly pleasant ones. The gameplay is fun and engaging, although I didn’t feel particularly challenged in the first couple of areas. The Scourge Warlock has the added advantage of Soul Puppet, a mechanic which summons a wraith-like creature to fight alongside you. Although these aren’t as strong as the companions you gain later in the game, they do provide a little extra damage, and really help you out in the earlier levels at least. The ending of the open area did also bring about quite somber moment. I won’t ruin it for you, and it’s worth mentioning that it isn’t Telltale’s The Walking Dead level of poignancy, but it was enough for me to get a little teary-eyed. Then again, I am massively emotional and get a frog in my throat when the main menu for Dragon Age: Inquisition is loaded up, so maybe it’s just me.
Kudos must be given to Cryptic Studios for the opening cutscene, which is utterly glorious. I like the games I play to have a sense of style and good presentation, and the opening cutscene of Neverwinter absolutely nails both. It’s magnificent, the first cinematic in a long time that has absolutely taken my breath away. The team over at Cryptic should be proud that they’ve created this, as it’s potentially the closest thing I’ve seen to real-world graphics in all the time I have been playing games. Hopefully sometime soon, we’ll get to a point where visuals like this are possible, not just in the cinematics, but also within gameplay.
Overall, I’m optimistic about the time I’ll be spending in Neverwinter. It comes across as a game with a well-thought out lore, interesting story, and freedom offered to the player that many developers may be apprehensive to give. I just hope that the gameplay doesn’t become overly repetitive, and that the game stays as engaging for me as a Friday night adventure in the Forgotten Realms.
Next week, follow me as I take my first steps into the main story of the game, experience the quests given to me by NPCs and start getting to grips with the core mechanics of Neverwinter’s gameplay.