Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
I wasn't expecting much when I plugged my Neverwinter beta key into the game's website last friday. All I knew was that Cryptic Studios (which was purchased by free-to-play MMO gaming giant Perfect World International) had been working on this game, based on Dungeons & Dragons, for a while. Cryptic has made a name for themselves by taking risks and experimenting with new features, while Perfect World made its name on... Well, let's just say that after awhile most of Perfect World's titles blurred together into one big bland grindfest.
But wouldn't you know it, there are quite a few impressive and appealing surprises in this game that changed my opinion from "might play" to "must play" in a matter of hours. For example...
It's hard to put my finger on some of the reasons why combat in this game just feels so damn good to me, but I'm going to try. One of the biggest problems that MMOs (and games in general) often face is that fighting an enemy can feel like little more than chipping away at their health gauge--so basically it doesn't feel like much at all--and while Neverwinter doesn't have the same action-oriented physics-based combat you woud find in Vindictus, it often feels closer to that than to the standard free-to-play MMO fare.
Enemies react physically to hits, their bodies jerking and contorting rather than staying firmly in place; effects like chill and freeze seem to build up visibly while the debuff itself is stacking--first their feet freeze and with each stack the effect creeps higher--until they are completely entombed; ogres let out echoing roars as they fall, their bodies straining dramatically before crumpling into a limp ragdoll heap... And oh, that ragdolling (though not exactly realistic) is fabulously fun: Kill a foe with a powerful attack and you'll send them sailing across the room, or even shatter them completely. Mix this with a decent variety of enemies (including classic Mimic chests) and classes that play in wildly distinct ways (arguably moreso than in most other MMOs) and you have combat that feels like you're actually doing something, not just throwing numbers around.
Diverse and Dynamic Environments
My friend and I played almost to level 30, and considering that much of the game is spent in instanced dungeons (true to the source material) there was shockingly little repetition. When we found ourselves in a sewer for the second time, for example, the quests that had sent us there were spaced out by roughly 10 levels. I didn't even notice we'd been somewhere similar before until my partner commented that the repetition of scenery (though the map itself was different) hadn't even bothered him because the quest itself was so interesting. It's a far cry from most dungeon-based games that send you into the same areas again and again and again... And again.
Neverwinter also allows users to create their own quest lines and dungeons (like other Cryptic games have in the past) and embed them in the world, so even if you need to grind a level or two you won't have to stand in a field killing wolves and listening to podcasts all evening. You can pick up a unique story and earn your experience without feeling like it's a tedious grindfest.
Of course the quality of user-generated content on any platform can vary wildly, but once the game is released there will no doubt be a lot more quality content available. "Well-Informed" NPCs can also recommend specific user-made quests, so it seems like there are mechanisms in place to help the cream rise to the top.
In the open areas there were only a handful of "kill X number of Y bad guys" quests, and when there were you could always finish them by carrying on with your other dungeon-based quests anyway. The icing on the cake for me, though, is that both dungeons and open areas are peppered with secrets and packed with treasure. You can step through a billowing curtain into a hidden room, approach a wall only to have it dissolve before you, and even interact with special class-specific devices to trigger hidden doors, platforms, and all sorts of bonus content. Parties keen on exploring every nook and cranny will almost always be rewarded, and (true to D&D) the more balanced your party is the more goodies you'll be able to access.
Extreme Character Customization
In a lot of free-to-play games you're still lucky if you get to pick your hair color, but Perfect World (and Cryptic) often offer piles of options. It's something they always do right, and I'm incredbly glad they're still doing it. You'll find tattoos, eyes, and sliders for everything from heel height to nail length.
This game does suffer a bit from the one particular avatar issue I've seen in Cryptic's previous games, though: Their hair is awful. It's always awful. The models look incredibly dated, the texturing is unappealing, and overall it does a disservice to the avatar as a whole. Star Trek Online and Champions Online both had this problem as well and while making passable-looking hair in video games is probably one of the hardests tasks there is, it just makes me want to send them a pile of screenshots from games that have done it right. It has been done right, it's not impossible, and Cryptic's been one of the worst offenders in my experience.
... That being said, even I won't let lumpy hairstyles stand between me and a good game.
Customization doesn't end at your avatar's body though. Your gear is dyeable in a system similar to (though a bit more restricted than) Guild Wars 2. You can also of course customize your character's stats through a classic D&D dice-roll interface during creation and then via points as you level, and you equip your preferred powers in a style similar to Diablo, so everyone's play style can be a little bit different even within the same class. You also get to pick a companion to compliment your play style and as your companion levels up you can change their appearance to reflect their status, which means that your ultra-powerful knight bro won't be stuck looking like a scrubby squire forever.
Of course there's a lot more to Neverwinter than this, but I've already been gushing for over 1000 words. If you're looking for a new MMO to scratch your fantasy gaming itch with a few friends, just check it out for yourself here.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.