This preview originally appeared in issue 249 of PC Gamer UK. Written by Kat Bailey
This isn't the first time that Neverwinter has featured in an MMO. Back in 1991, AOL, Stormfront Studios and SSI released the original Neverwinter Nights – one of the first ever graphical MMOs. Built on the back of the SSI Gold Box games of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was mostly known for its large and very active guilds, as well as its extensive multiplayer rankings.
A decade later, BioWare released their own, much better-known variant of Neverwinter Nights, an ostensibly singleplayer RPG where Dungeon Masters could run their own custom modules online, making it a D&D game in the truest sense of the word.
"It's a true MMORPG, but one that emphasises custom content."
Cryptic's free-to-play Neverwinter will draw on both these legacies. It's a true MMORPG, but like BioWare's variant, it emphasises custom content more than the genre usually does. All three games are bound together by the Forgotten Realms setting itself, which continues to be one of the most popular variants of Dungeons & Dragons some 25 years after its inception. One of its most iconic locations is the city of Neverwinter itself, so it was no surprise that Cryptic took me on a guided tour of the place when I visited them.
The grand fantasy city appears exactly as described in the various source books, albeit in a state of disrepair. A Cryptic representative points out the Cloak Tower, for example, a distinctive spire that serves as both home of the magical Order of the Many-Starred Cloak and a point of reference for distant travellers trying to make their way to the city. There is a sense that this world is real – from the expansive horizons that look out over cold, wintry Faerun to the narrow cobblestone streets – and that it is huge. Neverwinter the city is more than just a player hub – it's a legitimately interesting location worth walking entirely for its own sake.
"There is a sense that this world is real – and that it is huge."
For the Neverwinter team, that's half the battle. The other half is the battle system, and it's here that they leave some of the lore behind and begin to strike out on their own.
It's dark days at Helm's Hold. The once peaceful monastery, about a day's travel southeast of Neverwinter, has been taken over by succubae and demons who now wander the streets at will. Somewhere below, a green dragon guards a precious artefact. This is the setting for one of Neverwinter's major arcs – one of a series of vignettes that feed into the larger story.
The image of demons having the run of a hellbound community recalls Diablo in more ways than one. Like that game, Neverwinter is an action-RPG. Unlike Diablo, Neverwinter lacks a cursor. Instead, the mouse controls the camera while your character is steered by WASD, making it more of a third-person action game than anything else.
Cryptic settled on this control system in part for its accessibility, as lead systems designer Chris Matts explains: “It was one of the things that we pushed for early because we feel that it really removes one of those barriers, and connects you to the action. There's some element of skill involved, but we still want it to be accessible enough that you don't have to be a twitch player to play it.”
"We make sure it's fast-paced so that you're not clicking and waiting on cooldowns. It's tactical."
I couldn't help but be grabbed by the immediacy of the battle system, which is a rare feeling for me when playing an MMORPG. I'm still mostly blind to Neverwinter's endgame and PvP, but at the very least, its combat planted some seeds of long-term commitment.
“What we found was that when people got down there, they could immediately start playing,” Matts continues. “It was that straightforward. Making sure it's fast-paced so that you're not clicking and waiting on cooldowns. It's tactical. Positioning is important, so you have to pay attention to what the enemy is doing, and you don't stand in one spot. The most important thing is that we wanted you to feel strong and powerful.”
That leaves Cryptic with an interesting question: how do they ensure the non-damaging classes keep up? Consider the newly-revealed Devoted Cleric, a class ostensibly dedicated to healing that can nevertheless cut a wide swathe through the monsters in Helm's Hold. It seems unbalanced until you consider that the powers have been split. The Cleric has normal damage-per-second powers and area attacks, but they also have useful healing powers that can be swapped in depending on whether you're going into a dungeon with friends or you're going solo.