Somehow, I suspect that if you sneaked into the office where Neverwinter was developed, you'd be less likely to find a design document than a very, very big roll of free bubblewrap. Neverwinter is a free-to-play RPG that somehow nails that sense of second-by-second popping satisfaction, often despite itself. Pop, a monster goes down. Pop, a sparkling light trail to get you straight to the next one. Pop, the chime of a new level earned. Neverwinter is a game of cold proficiency, built with experience and understanding of these moments and how to create them.
Too bad it's also one of the least creative games ever to waste the chance to do something interesting with them.
Where Dungeons & Dragons Online at least attempted to offer a more in-depth dungeoneering experience, Neverwinter follows the standard genre template to the letter (except for those letters it's discarded). It's a game where I swapped armour pieces a thousand times only to look exactly the same, and one that has nearly as many currencies as it has character classes – three and five respectively. As a tiefling Control Wizard, I spent my time hurling a very limited set of elemental attacks at enemies, while trying not to mind sounding like the Captain Planet 'heart' ring owner of fantasy gaming. “I'm a Fire Wizard, I mastered fire!” I imagine one of my arcane rivals boasting with pride wherever it is that mages gather. “I'm a Control Wizard,” I awkwardly reply. “I can leave half a Pringles can un-eaten!”
Even with that name, Control Wizards do the business. They don't have many tricks, but the ones they've got are good, including turning an enemy into a walking area attack spell, freezing foes on the spot, smashing everything in sight with a 'Daily' super attack (which is actually charged by kills and can be used every few minutes), and my favourite, a rapidly recharging Force Push attack for knocking foes out of melee range. As with the rest of the bubblewrap, all these feel good – even magic missiles feel like they have some weight behind them. Neverwinter also provides a companion after a few zones, to help counter your class's weaknesses. They have exactly zero personality, but you get to choose who you want. I still went with a tank, obviously, but could have hired another mage.
Sadly, what Neverwinter mostly does with this potential is waste it. Never have the Forgotten Realms been quite so forgettable. The main questline could be largely replaced by a box that says “Watch Netflix for 30 hours, then click here for a free hat.” The characters are personality vacuums with little to note but their awful accents. Competitors like Pandaria and Guild Wars 2 have advanced MMO questing to the point that even bits of Neverwinter that actually try to offer some spark can barely gaze upon them without being instantly struck blind. At times, it seems wilfully unimaginative, most notably with the constant repetition of the same basic boss template: a tank who spawns minions to mildly inconvenience adventurers who just want their damn quest rewards.
Attempts to jazz things up usually lose steam quickly. Early on, for instance, you're exploring a tower when it looks like Neverwinter is about to pull the old combinationlock routine with three turnable statues. I'm not complaining that it doesn't do so – that yawner is by far the most pointless of all the Elder Puzzles. It's just strange that instead, the game merely has you turn them one by one until they light up, at which point the nearby secret door opens with an almost audible embarrassed cough. This is not an isolated incident, either. Granted, bubblewrap would be less relaxing if you had to pause to think between bubbles rather than going effortlessly on. But there's a reason that most of us don't spend hour after hour popping the damn stuff, and those who do don't normally get to cut up their own food.
What really stands out is how much better the community is at content creation than the designers. Like City of Heroes and Star Trek Online before it, Neverwinter offers player-created missions through the Foundry. These are scattered around the world and offer rewards just like regular quests, and while their creators don't have remotely the same access to scripting and world design as Neverwinter's actual designers, the best of these playerbuilt missions utterly humiliate the official stuff. Two in particular stand out: Bored of Being the Hero, in which you get help from a mysterious source to turn to the dark side, with your choice of mystical item and potential backup of an army of shades, and Whispers from the Void, which stretches the tools to the max to create a spooky, well-framed little Lovecraftian tale.
These examples excel despite the limitations of the editing tools used to create them. Granted, these tools are staggeringly freeform and integrated into the game by MMO standards, but there's a sense that Neverwinter doesn't quite trust its players enough to let them play with the whole toybox. Given that this is Cryptic's third attempt at enabling players, and Neverwinter's lineage as the RPG you could host your own games on, it's hard not to notice the restrictions placed on what ordinary players can create compared to the official stuff. Neverwinter Nights this is not, though it would like to be, and will hopefully get closer over time.
Despite those limitations, player designers are already achieving cool things, such as the evil artefact that turns the world monochrome in Bored of Being the Hero, and Whispers from the Void's clever framing story and very effective chaos once Cthulhu shows up.
All of this can be enjoyed for free. Neverwinter takes about 20 levels before starting to cough and hold out a bowl. Along with regular gold, there are two main currencies: Astral Diamonds and Zen. Astral Diamonds can be earned to some degree in-game by such acts as running dailies and being tipped by other players for making interesting missions in-game. They can also be traded for Zen. Astral Diamonds are the 'service' currency, used by NPCs. Zen is the cash-shop one, used to buy things like the now inevitable lockbox keys, advanced companions and fancy mounts.
Both are kept out of the way for a while, but there's a switchover time when Neverwinter starts doing things like giving out a token for five hours' mount rental and putting a cash shop vendor next to the goldbased shop that sells the expensive beasts. Or when the time it takes your Companion to go away and level up without a few thousand AD to grease the wheels first hits half an hour. This is also the time when a smart adventurer will realise how reliant they are on Neverwinter's generosity with Identify scrolls, and that the Coalescent Ward consumable that guarantees late game gear upgrades work is suspiciously expensive. Still, the only things you need can be bought with gold and/or AD, and plenty of both is available in-game if you're willing to sit around for a while now and then and earn it.
By this point, however, I'd popped enough bandit-shaped bubblewrap that the thought of tearing into yet another roll had lost all appeal – free or not. In that time, over ten hours, exactly one official quest had offered a genuinely interesting experience. The mission was to investigate a mysterious figure abusing the city's trust in order to use sufferers of something called the Spellplague to build him a path to godhood. Godhood inevitably translating as 'turning into a crap boss who spawns minions'. After that mildly intriguing interlude, normal boring service immediately resumed.
Ordinarily, this emptiness would be a killer. Mechanically, Neverwinter is solid, but its content is painfully behind the times and far too dull to stand up against the competition – especially when that includes (shudder) buy-to-play games rather than simply other free ones. Factor-in the chance for playercreated content to fill that gap, however, and for improved design features to enable that player creativity, and it seems likely things will feel much fresher in a few months' time. Being this reliant on players to compensate for its lack of creativity isn't exactly a point in Neverwinter's favour. Giving them the power to do so, however, is. And that's something other MMOs need to copy.