Star Wars: The Old Republic, Rift, The Secret World, The Lord of the Rings Online – they all have one thing in common: they were once on subscription models and have since gone free-to-play. The reasons to go free-to-play are varied, whether new products steal their subscribers, issues with PvP, or just general lack of engagement. The results of going free-to-play are almost always the same; opening the floodgates wide to bring in a larger player base with the hopes that vanity items, passes, and mini-expansions would fill the wallets of these developers and publishers. MMO-veterans Cryptic Studios asked what would happen when an MMO was purpose-built to be free-to-play at launch. After a lengthy beta period, it was time to finally see if Neverwinter could live up to the incredible pedigree set forth by the previous titles in the same universe.
The team at Cryptic have several MMOs under their belt, and they’ve clearly paid attention to how their competition has succeeded or stumbled. Given that both Neverwinter and Dungeons & Dragons Online are both built on the D&D ruleset, one of the first questions I had about this title was how they where different. Well, I can tell you that, despite common ancestry, they are as different as night and day. Let’s dig into the mechanics of Neverwinter.
Choose your own adventure(r)
Before we get into the guts of the game, let’s take a look at the customization options. In the video below I walk you through some of the options available for customizing your character. From hair and nose widths to chosen deity and character class. There are a great many things to adjust on your character’s that will allow you to make them look as unique as possible. From there things get a little hazy as there seem to be only a few options for armor types (other than dye you can use) for you and for your companions. Beyond the characters, you do have a great deal of options in mounts, weapons, and socketable gems to adjust things to your particular look or playstyle. There is even an entire casual wear set you can use for strutting around town that are purely cosmetic and pretty darned cool. This differs from many games – you can also wear these casual looks in combat. With most games you are reverted back to your ‘real’ armor, but in Neverwinter you can take a walk on the wild side and try your luck wearing your prettiest vanity gear. As a “Founder” I have a vanity set that looks like leather armor you’d expect to see at Mardi Gras.
Mechanically, this game has more in common with games like Guild Wars 2 and Tera than it does with more traditional brethren like the aforementioned Star Wars: The Old Republic or World of Warcraft. Pushing aside the stand-in-one-place mechanics of most MMOs, the game is as much about timing and movement as it is about having the right skills for the task at hand. It’s a good thing too – the genre is crowded, and you have to bring something new to the table, even if you are free to play. To understand combat, you first have to understand the players.
Neverwinter has several traditional races to choose from – human, half-elf, elf, drow, dwarf and tiefling, with one more ‘coming soon’. With race and sex chosen, you’ll next choose your class. This choice is pivotal as it will affect your gameplay style for the next 60 levels. The current classes (again, one remains locked) are Guardian Fighter, Great Weapon Fighter, Devoted Cleric, Trickster Rogue, and Control Wizard, with War Wizard being rumored to be the next class to unlock. Guardian Fighters are the defender/tank class wearing heavy plate armor and using a shield. This class has the highest level of survivability in sustained combat as you can hold Shift to block items or use shield-bash style attacks offensively. The Great Weapon Fighter is very similar to the Guardian Fighter, eschewing plate for scale armor and dropping the shield to wield massive two-handed weapons. This class delivers brutal amounts of damage while still being able to withstand a significant amount of incoming fire. Devoted Clerics are chainmail-wearing healers, able to buff players, rally their strength, and otherwise maintain the survivability of their team. The Trickster Rogue is a dual-wielder that is part damage, part crowd control, able to slip in and out of battle at will to cut down enemies. They are restricted to leather armor to maintain their stealth and speed. Control Wizards round out the class selection unleashing incredible ranged damage, as well as tackling primary crowd control, but being restricted to cloth as a price. All of the classes are completely unique, both in their purpose and their gameplay.
Neverwinter is based on the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. Modified to drive towards a faster-paced battle system, the combat in Neverwinter is based around the action bar. The bar itself is split into several slots, each with various actions bound to it. The left and right mouse button tackle your more frequent attacks. As your level rises, you’ll get a slot for a defensive ability (i.e. a tumble for a Trickster Rogues, short teleport for Control Wizards), three slots for primary powers that have a longer cooldown, and finally two more slots for “Daily” powers. Other than the Daily powers, all attacks and skills have cooldowns. The Daily powers are recharged by spending Action Points on them. Action Points are earned by completing class-specific activities. For instance, a Trickster Rogue can earn AP by backstabbing, a Guardian Fighter can earn it by blocking and controlling aggro, and a Devoted Cleric earns it through healing. By simply playing your class properly, you’ll be able to unleash them every five or so minutes, making “Daily” a bit of a misnomer.
It is notable that, other than healing via Devoted Cleric, there is no passive regeneration of HP while outside of combat. Instead, health can be regained by use of campfires, health potions (a la Diablo), or via specific stats and abilities that grant regeneration. This makes preparation and ability awareness vital, especially during long-haul combat situations such as dungeon exploring.
In practice it makes for engaging gameplay. The combat is frenetic and high-pace, reminiscent of a comic-book at times. The Trickster Rogue dashes around the battlefield, vanishing and appearing, cutting their enemies down. The Guardian Fighter absorbs damage, deflecting with the shield and striking back with their weapons, the back and forth keeping pace with the sway of the battle. Better still, it is more fun than simply clicking through the number keys on your keyboard, requiring strategy and thought about what your character is designed to do. In fact, every class has a role to play in PvE, and most beautifully, they are all well-suited to solo play if that is your inclination.
Beating up your friends in PvP
If playing against your friends is more your speed, then you’ll be interested to know that I’ve engaged a half-dozen people to give me their take on PvP. (Those who have played with me know that PvP isn’t my bag) Their feedback was nearly universal – PvP is fun, but rather incomplete. There are only 2 maps for the one mode (Domination – a capture and hold gameplay mode) of PvP, so much of the engagements come down to class and gear.
Given that the game is just now coming out of Beta, there is still balancing that is likely coming in the near future. There are certain classes that dominate at PvP, and the two that were universally named were the Trickster Rogue and the Devoted Cleric. The Trickster Rogue is able to dodge around the enemy, slow them down, cripple them, and dish out damage while being invisible. Similarly, the Devoted Cleric is able to mete out severe damage at range while shrugging off or healing a great deal of damage. In fact, in most matches I’ve seen, these two classes are usually at the top of the leaderboard. There is certainly an aspect of skills in playing the classes, but those two in particular seemed to stand out.
PvP does level scaling in an attempt to ensure a fair fight. All players are pushed up to match the highest level in the battle automatically. The current Domination mode is a 5v5 player mode open to everyone above their teens in level. The first team to 1000 points wins the match. Winning earns you Glory that you can spend at the vendor for additional equipment, consumables, and even companions. The Trade of Blades vendor in Protector’s Enclave is there to provide the three types of goodies. Potions of healing are typically pretty cheap, coming in anywhere from 1 to 15 Glory, but everything beyond that starts over 3500 glory and climbs up well into the 14,000 range. At level 30 I picked up about 80 to 100 Glory per battle, and at level 60 I netted about 700 or so. All told there is a shade over 30 pieces of unique equipment that you can pick up for PvP, but with only two maps and one mode, it feels a little like a grind.
There are two rather glaring issues that need to be ironed out in PvP beyond the map limitations (a 20v20 map called Gauntlgrym will be coming shortly after launch specifically for Level 60 players) – Mounts and AFK players. Frequently you’ll square off in a 5v5 map only to find one or two players out of the 10 are not even at their keyboard. They’ll accumulate the Glory if your team wins having done nothing to earn it. On a 20v20 map it probably wouldn’t hurt so badly, but on 5v5 it’s pretty rough. Additionally, players who open their wallets and buy some of the high-speed mounts have a distinct advantage in battle as they can close distance or retreat far faster.
Overall, the PvP has the sheen of potential, but it’ll be the updates that come post-launch that determine how viable Neverwinter is for the player-aggro types.
Crafting leather, armor, and leaders
Switching away from combat we can get into the unique crafting engine in Neverwinter. There are five professions in Neverwinter, though one doesn’t actually provide a tangible good per-se. The professions are Leadership, Platesmithing, Mailsmithing, Leatherworking, and Tailoring. In the case of everything but Leadership you’ll gather some sort of material like pelts or ore, craft them into usable leather or ingots, and when you’ve got enough of the raw material, craft them into a basic item. Magical versions of the items require found items in the world, and naturally more of them as the level of the item being crafted rises. Eventually you’ll unlock secondary slots to craft more than one thing at a time, or you are free to take on a secondary profession. In fact, there are no restrictions on the number of professions, allowing you to literally be a jack of all trades if you are inclined to spend the time and currency.
Leadership is an entirely different kettle of fish from the other professions. In this tree you’ll often be given Astral Diamonds, Experience, and occasionally a box of items or some coins. Leadership is also unique as it doesn’t require nearly as many resources to complete. You still need a ‘person’ resource for all levels, but later on you’ll also need specific items to do jobs such as treasure maps, specific swords, etc. The biggest difference is that it doesn’t produce anything you’ll equip on your characters. Given that you can perform all professions from the website, keeping them in motion for all of your characters (level 10 or above) at all times, you can actually level up your character without logging into the game at all. As usual, the crafted items are good for your characters, but pretty poor performing in the Auction House, except at the highest levels.
Money. So many, many types of money
Speaking of currencies and the Auction House, let’s talk about the many, many ways you’ll spend money in Neverwinter. Obviously the first and most obvious cash type is the copper, silver, gold, and platinum that is a staple of the Dungeons & Dragons world. This is most often used for repairs and consumables for professions, generally used for payment for most generic vendors. Astral Diamonds are the more precious currency, coming from quests and events in the form of Rough Astral Diamonds. Once a day you can convert 24,000 of these Rough Astral Diamonds into regular Astral Diamonds and use them to purchase items, fast forward a crafting job to completion, or purchase special items. Zen on the other hand is the most precious commodity in Neverwinter.
Zen is where this free-to-play game makes its money. Zen is purchased via real-world money from Perfect World, the publisher of Neverwinter. As I mentioned, you can also exchange Astral Diamonds for Zen, but the market is volatile and changes daily. You can also earn Zen via surveys on the publisher’s site – something that takes about 15 minutes per 100 Zen or so. Given that a new Tier 3 mount costs 3,500 Zen, you can see the convenience of dropping real-world cash instead of grinding it out. The price is $1 per 100 Zen and can be purchased in packs of 500, 1000, and so on.
Obviously with Zen, Rough/Astral Diamonds, and the coin currency in the game, that’s enough to keep you busy, right? Well, there are five more special currencies that can give you additional goodies, PvP gear, Level 60 PvP gear (they are segmented for some reason), and more. Not enough? Let’s add 12 special Seals that can be traded in for special gear.
You’ll earn a free bag at level 10 and level 30, based on your progress through your single-player main missions, giving you roughly 30 slots to use. Additionally, you’ll have 16 slots in your bank to store things. With all of these various currencies eating up your inventory space, you’ll be seriously considering dropping about 5 bucks on enough Zen to buy another large bag.
As a point of fact, unless you’ve purchased a Hero of the North pack or a Founders pack, you’ll be limited to two characters. Two additional character slots will cost you 500 Zen (aka five bucks) for another two characters, renaming your character will cost you 400 Zen, respeccing will cost you 600 Zen, etc. etc. etc. There is a great deal of content you can play without the need to spend any Zen, but you’ll find plenty of opportunities in this game to support Cryptic and Perfect World, a few bucks at a time.
I mentioned that Neverwinter is a solo-friendly game, and nowhere is that more true than when you earn companions. At level 16 you’ll get a mission to get your first companion, though you can hire them before that for currency. You can have pets, both combat and non-combat capable, a Cleric Disciple, Sellsword, Man-at-Arms, Wayward Wizard, and a dog. Those who pre-ordered will have access to a panther, and I have no doubt that many others will follow in time. As these companions level up you’ll have the chance to send them off for additional training, increasing their stats and skills. You can only have one active companion at a time, but you can purchase additional idle slots for 350 Zen to have them on tap for when the situation commands it.
The frustrating part about companions is that right about the time you get attached to them you have to ditch them. They come in white, green, blue, and purple ranks, and they have a maximum rank of 15, 20, 25, and 30, respectively.
In practice, the companion control systems are decent, if a bit limited. You’ll be given the basic command panel to have them “Stay, Protect, or Attack” as skills. It’s serviceable, but it would be nice to be able to better control them, selecting which spells they use, their general behaviors, and skills they should keep holstered by your command.
Runes and their effect on your wallet
While there is a great deal of cool equipment in the game, it’s the Rune/Enchantment system that lets you improve things far further. These stones let you augment stats and add effects to not only your gear, but also to your pets and even that of your minions. Runestones are used on pets and companions and are subdivided into offense and defense. Armor and Weapons get Enchantments which are split into Utility, Offense, and Defense. These Runes/Enchantments are fairly common drops, ranked from 1 to 9. Without the need for a Horadric Cube you can fuse four of the same kind into one of the tier above it. You get a 95% chance of a successful fuse at the first rank of stones, but this drastically reduces until you hit rank 8 when it bottoms out at 10%. Failure means you lose one of the four stones, so this can be costly at the higher levels. To mitigate the loss of gems you can use a Preservation Ward or a Coalescent Wards, but these cost real money or a trip through the Rough->Astral->Zen->Market path to obtain them. Given how rare some of the endgame shards are, the temptation to open your wallet raises greatly.
There is a mechanic that sets Neverwinter apart from all other MMOs – hourly quests. In the corner of the HUD you’ll see a group of a few quests with timers for completion. There is literally always something going on in Neverwinter, and you can have a tangible part in all of it. There are a total of five types – Professions, Skirmishes, Arena PvP, Dungeon runs, and Foundry quests. Attending these hourly events provides, as examples, 150% Glory for PvP or an additional chest at the end of a dungeon. This system does a great job of encouraging players to delve into areas they otherwise might not try.
In the world of Dungeons & Dragons, your deity is an important anchor for your character. While the selection of a particular deity is cosmetic, you can pray to them once an hour while in town and they will grant you boons. These may be a small boost to a stat, additional consumables, or on rare occasion something you could equip.
If you’ve ever played the role of GM for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, you know exactly what you can expect out of The Foundry. This revolutionary system puts tools into the hands of players, allowing them to build dungeons, cities, castles, and much more to create your own content. Drag and drop and menu driven system allow you to build entire worlds, filled with NPCs, your own writing, and any sort of story you might want to convey. Not unlike the world-building engines we’ve gotten with Elder Scrolls games, The Foundry lets you do just about anything you could imagine. There are a few limitations however…
There are good quests, bad quests, and everything in between. I’ve seen unimaginative eye-rollingly bad quests that boil down to a speed run to the end, I’ve seen multi-chapter full campaigns with character development and truckloads of interaction. To prevent the speed run crowd from creating a single room full of unlocked chests, players are not allowed to drop boxes into their own content – it’s a single randomized chest and only drops at the end of the quest. To encourage people to make better content there is a tipping system whereby players can give Astral Diamonds as a reward for solid work.
There are some limitations to The Foundry, but the shouldn’t come as a surprise. You can’t put in voice content for your storyline, nor can you build new monsters. That said, you can take enemies and use them as a base template to build reasonable approximations of what you are looking to create.
Shut up. Please shut up. For the love of Cthulhu, SHUT UP!
If there is one thing in Neverwinter that is completely and entirely broken it is chat. General chat is entirely consumed with people trying to trade this or that for keys to Nightmare boxes. These boxes contain some pretty awesome gear, including a shot at a pretty wicked mount by the same name. They are frequent enough where I’ve seen people selling 100 of the boxes for just one key that can open them. The keys cost 125 Zen each. Obviously you could grind diamonds and exchange them up, take a few surveys, or you can buy them individually or in packs of 10, but the result is the same – the channels are flooded with everyone and their brother looking for keys. It’s worse than Barrens chat from World of Warcraft.
It’s hard to review an MMO. If we look at this same just 6 months from now I bet you a great deal of what I’ve said above will be changed. Chat could be segmented and improved. PvP could be expanded, new maps and modes added, and classes balanced. The ridiculous amounts of currencies could be consolidated, and the Astral and Zen markets will have settled by then. But what about what’s in the (virtual) box?
Neverwinter was purpose built to be free-to-play, but they have also made the pay aspects fairly non-intrusive. They’ve provided an incredible amount of content wrapped around character classes that are a great deal of fun to play. Sure there are some balancing issues in the PvP realm, but otherwise the game is pay-for-convenience, not pay-to-play. The team at Cryptic have worked very hard to take the pen and paper game and bring it to life, and without a doubt they’ve succeeded. The Foundry is a revolutionary step, and it extends this game infinitely. I’d like to take my hat off to TiLT from our Forums – he is consistently among the top of the highest-rated content creators, and I look forward to running more of his adventures. In my opinion, Neverwinter has taken the crown for F2P MMOs. You don’t have to take my word for it as you can download the game and join us in the world of Faerûn.