Hands-on With Neverwinter

Dungeons & Dragons fans have an intense love for Neverwinter Nights, an amazing RPG series that dates back to the early 90’s, but was popularized by Bioware in 2002.  It captured the vast amount of choice that D&D offered to players when creating their characters, and let virtual dungeon masters make their own adventures and share them with friends.  It even supported multiplayer adventuring in the days when broadband was a rare luxury.  Obsidian made an equally loved sequel in 2006 but the franchise never got a third game.  The new MMO, Neverwinter by Cryptic Studios is not Neverwinter Nights 3, but it does offer gamers a genuine D&D experience, complete with the ability to create and share adventures.

Neverwinter is a famed city in the D&D setting The Forgotten Realms, and a long-time setting for video games. While the previous games have always had an online component, the new one is a full out MMO.  Last weekend the publisher Perfect World Entertainment held a beta test where some of the character classes and most races were available to play.  We got a good look at the game and are pleased with what we discovered.

Despite being a MMO, the combat in Neverwinter is more like an action game than a typical RPG. Players can still choose their race, class and stats like in an older MMO, but they’ll be hacking and slashing away at a frantic pace.  Attacks are mapped to the mouse buttons so that holding each mouse button will unleash a different attack, while hotkeys like Q,E and R are used for more powerful special abilities that each require a cooldown period.

This keeps the pace of the combat fast, and characters can even use dodges and blocks to avoid enemy attacks.  Many recent MMO’s have abandoned the old interface of mapping all of the attacks to number keys, and it’s a welcomed change.

Outside of combat, many other MMO tropes are still present; there is loot and crafting, along with an auction house, and players are given many incentives to team up.  Players can form parties to roam around doing missions, but there are also special events that occur at scheduled times.  For example, players could sign up for an “Orc Attack” event where they join together to fight off waves of orcs in an arena.  The event begins at a set time, and players can pursue their own story-based missions while waiting for events to start, then join a fully-formed party when it launches.  Other missions use this concept, so players can spend more time adventuring and less time standing in front of quest givers and screaming “LFT!”

When not engaging in team play, Neverwinter makes a fairly good D&D single-player game.  Character creation lets adventurers choose from the standard array of D&D races (Including Tieflings from the 3rd and 4th Edition rules). Only three character classes were available for the beta and these include a tank-like fighter, a sneaky rogue, and a cleric who subverts the typical Healer stereotype and has access to good ranged attacks in addition to healing spells.

Rogues (As the name implies) can fend for themselves very well as solo players, with the other classes soloing at a slower pace.  AI companions are available to balance out the party too, for those inclined collect these NPC pals.

Players can choose any race and race class combo, with each race gaining special racial powers, and bonuses to their ability scores.  In a fun nod to the table-top game, each character can “Re-roll” their ability scores during creation so that players can select between different builds.

There are other races and classes not playable in the beta, and there will be premium content races and classes (Like dark elves) too.

Yes, the developer, Cryptic Studios, is cutting out the middle man and launching Neverwinter as a free-to-play game.  It is fleshed out enough to justify a stab at being a paid retail game with a subscription, but it seems that only the mighty World of Warcraft can maintain a subscription-based business model these days.

Unfortunately, the “Foundry” which lets players create their own adventures wasn’t available for players to tinker with in the beta.  However, dungeon masters will be able to give the game a try soon, because Neverwinter is launching in early 2013.  It’s a very promising product, and those curious about its current state of development can sign up for future beta tests on the game’s website.  Explosion.com will have more hands-on coverage as it approaches launch.

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