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.
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.
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.”
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.
Lead designer Zeke Sparks adds: “We also did stuff like making sure they can take out the counters by themselves, but not necessarily through pure damage. So they have some control elements in there, and debuffs, and self buffs. So they're fine, but they're not just like a rogue with healing powers.” Another challenge that comes with the third-person combat is the 4th edition Dungeons &Dragons ruleset upon which it is based. Consider the so-called 'Daily Powers' – the D&D equivalent of a super attack. In the tabletop game, they can do unbelievable damage, but they're only available once per day. In Neverwinter, these same powers are only available 'daily' in the sense that they have a much longer cooldown timer than other abilities.
More revisions are likely to be in store for the Daily Powers, not least because many of them feel weak and unsatisfying at the moment. Of them all, only the newly-revealed Great Weapon Fighter's Avalanche of Steel feels more impressive than the regular attacks, and that's mainly because it's good for clearing crowds with its area-of-effect damage. It's a tricky balance, but one that Cryptic will have to pull off if they want serious MMORPG fans to take Neverwinter seriously.
Whatever form the Daily Powers ultimately take, they will be useful in the sense that they fit into the broad mantra of making you feel powerful, no matter which class you take. It's an approach that fits the Dungeons & Dragons spirit well, which for a long time has been more about perfecting character builds and hack-and-slash combat than trifling issues like 'realism'. Tabletop enthusiasts refer to it as the “beer and pretzels RPG” for a reason – it's always been one of the easiest systems for newcomers to pick up and play.
“We kind of want everyone to feel broken,” Sparks says with a smile. “If everyone plays the game and is convinced their class is broken, then we've done a great job.”
Back to Helm's Hold and that green dragon. In case you were wondering, its name is Chartilifax, and it was charmed by the same demons who corrupted the keep. The final challenge of Helm's Hold is to find this monster and put it out of its misery. And, as you might have guessed, that's no easy task. Chartilifax has a massive life bar, dishes out substantial area-of-effect damage with its powerful stomp attacks, and periodically summons Pit Lords.
In the battle I was shown, it was interesting to see how all of the classes came together to bring Chartilifax and friends down. The Divine Cleric provided the healing. The Great Weapon Fighter was a mix of tank and damage-dealer, and made for a great barrier against the Pit Lords with the powerful burst damage provided by moves such as Sure Strike. The Control Wizard and Trickster Rogue reduced the damage taken by the party and dealt damage respectively.
It was a battle royale lasting more than 20 minutes, and when it was over, it came with the distinct sense that, yes, Neverwinter is definitely a Dungeons & Dragons game. If there's any reason to be worried, it's that Cryptic are a small studio who have previously had trouble pumping out enough content to keep fans satisfied. Sparks assures me that there will be fully-featured endgame content; and the presence of interesting daily quests is reassuring.
All that said, Cryptic may have a trump card, which takes us back to BioWare's Neverwinter Nights and its incredibly dedicated user-generated content community – a fanbase so strong that a custom Neverwinter Nights quest is a required part of your portfolio when applying to join BioWare. It was that version and its fanbase that was on Cryptic's mind when they set to work on their own incarnation of Neverwinter. For that reason, user-generated content has been a focus from the beginning, rather than serving as a content hook to recover straying players, as in the past. Neverwinter's quest creation system is dubbed 'The Foundry'.
“The Foundry is huge,” Sparks tells me. “Especially given the history of the Neverwinter games. We're working really hard to engage the community with the Foundry, and if we're successful, that means that the number of hours you can spend playing is boundless. It's entirely based on not just what we can do, but what the community can create. That's what's exciting to me – the idea that you can conceivably create as many [alternate characters] as you want and never repeat content.”
We've heard those promises before, in both City of Heroes and Star Trek Online. But Neverwinter will be launching with user-generated content from the outset, and Cryptic plan to weave it as tightly into the actual world as possible. With a set of community mods and a few top Neverwinter Nights modders helping them out, Cryptic hope to pick up right where BioWare left off back in 2002.