Neverwinter makes its debut as an MMO with action combat and gorgeous graphics

It's been almost a year since I've played Neverwinter. Of course, back at last year's E3, it was still being designed as a small-scale co-op RPG and Cryptic was showing off their trademark Foundry tools for the game. Fast forward to 2012 and I'm looking at a totally different game. Those content-creation tools are all still there, but the game's expanded way beyond them being the most exciting part of the game.

More importantly, this first hands-on session made it apparent that Neverwinter is making the transition into full MMO very nicely. Its beautiful visuals, active combat, and a well-crafted world were enough to convince me that it's the dark horse candidate for best MMO of 2012.

Lead Producer Andy Velasquez kicks off the demo by showing me how the game works. He quickly creates a Tiefling Control Wizard, briefly noting that most of the races players expect from a D&D game will be there at launch. The release of classes will be a bit more spread out: a solid core that make up the D&D roles of Strikers (DPS), Controllers (CC), Defenders (tank), and Leaders (support) will be available at launch, and many more added regularly afterwards. Neverwinter will be free-to-play, and Velasquez mentions League of Legends as an inspiration for this style of class release, but he refuses to specify if the classes will be monetized similarly.

The Control Wizard he's using to run around the Tower District, one of the many open world zones that make up the majority of the game world, looks really fun. Based loosely on 4th-edition D&D rules , the character has two At-Will powers: Arcane Missiles and Ray of Frost. These are activated with left and right mouse clicks and fly wherever the aiming reticule in the center of the screen is pointing, similar to the combat in TERA and Guild Wars 2. Arcane Missiles is a classic DPS ability, although having the little bolts fire from the orb floating alongside you is a cool touch. The spell effects are very detailed and the ruffians scavenging the ruined buildings all around us react to being hit in pretty realistic ways.

I was impressed even before I saw the Ray of Frost, which totally stole the show. Holding down the right mouse button channels out a beam of ice, and you have to track your target's movement to keep it on them. Initially it just slows them, but then ice slowly grows up over their body as they progressively get slower until you've fully encased them and they're trapped like helpless little popsicles.

In addition to two At-Will powers, every class has a Utility power (Shift key) that lets you avoid damage with a move like the Wizard's Shift which jumps the character to the side. Q and E keys will activate your two Encounter powers, stronger abilities that have a cooldown of around 10 seconds each. D&D players are waiting to hear about the Daily power, though: that ultra ability that lets you bring out the big dice for the damage rolls. Thankfully these abilities are not limited to once per day, as the name suggests. Instead, a fairly large D20 rests in the center of the actionbar UI, slowly filling orange as combat progresses. When it's full, you can unleash your mega move. I wasn't able to see the Wizard's, but Velasquez told me that it pulls the weapons off of every enemy in the vicinity and hurls them back at their previous owners for huge damage.

Getting a little more sneaky

Enough teasing. It's time to let me jump into the driver's seat and I opt to go with the Trickster Rogue class, which is all about sneak attacks. Velasquez drops me into one of the game's solo dungeons (Neverwinter will feature plenty of large 5-person group instances as well). The setting is a fairly generic crypt with risen skeletons and guardian spirits to take out, but I'm not too concerned with how the enemies look at the moment--I'm more interested in seeing how I can stab them.

While the Control Wizard's combat reminded me more of TERA or Guild Wars 2, the Trickster Rogue reminds me more of Dragon Age 2's fast-moving, mobile Rogue design--a very good thing. My left click is a basic stabby attack, but my right click teleports me behind the enemy I point at, within a reasonable range (probably close to the equivalent of a 20-yard spell in WoW). Having this ability as an At-Will makes me incredibly nimble, able to jump between targets as fast as I can skillfully pick them out while bouncing around. One of my Encounter abilities lets me slip into stealth, but I never actually use it--teleporting in is way too fun.

The other Encounter power I have is a godsend, however, creating a clone of my character and teleporting my character 10 yards away to safety. Enemies tricked by the clone start attacking it and a "Tricked!" banner zooms over them to let me know they're exposed to attack. As a Trickster Rogue, using abilities like this or attacking an enemy from behind puts your enemy in a "tricked" state that lets you deal bonus damage to them. My dagger swipes are given an extra wind blast behind it to let me know visually that I'm currently owning face. Oh, I already know, little wind gust. I can tell by the pile of bodies I just dropped in a matter of seconds.

I work my way through the stone corridors taking out these packs of baddies until my D20 is full. I'm not sure what my Daily power will do (less reading = more stabbing), but I go ahead and activate it as soon as it's ready. My character whirls around the pack of skeletons he's fighting, stabbing every single one of them. Two immediately crumple to dust and those still standing require the tiniest poke to topple. It felt incredibly powerful and it was flashy enough to be a good reward for filling up that meter over several fights.

As I run towards the first of three large rooms that house the dungeon's main bosses, I spot a treasure chest in a small room off to the side of the path. My greed gets the better of me and I sprint at it. In classic D&D fashion it's a trap and skeletons burst through the wall all around me. Doh. I ask Velasquez if I could've avoided the trap by moving in slower or doing a skill check like I would in the tabletop game or Dungeons & Dragons Online (which is based on D&D's 3.5 ruleset and significantly more rigid than Neverwinter, which plays much more like an action game). Not right now, he tells me, but they do plan to make traps based on passive skill-checks before launch.

I take out the skeletons and take a peek inside the chest with a very detailed animation that has my character crouch down, push up the lid and peak his head inside. Velasquez laughs and reminds me that looting is a very big deal in D&D, so they wanted to make a worthwhile animation for it. It's a small touch, but it does add to the feeling of your character being in an interactive world, rather than simply kneeling down and the chest popping open two feet away like in other MMOs. I loot Infiltrator's Armor, which the helpful tooltip indicates is a recommended upgrade for my character. I toss it on and head for the first boss fight.

I enter the cavernous crypt room to fin a floating skeleton crypt-lord, holding out incense pots on rope like a creepy priest performing rites. The fight is fairly straightforward: I wear down the ghoul and kill the spirits he summons before they can become too numerous and overwhelm me. What keeps the fight interesting is my arsenal of abilities that I use to teleport to adds, decimate them and hop back on the boss. Velasquez tells me that the dev team believes that the most important part about designing an MMO is making the combat fun to play.

But they're not ignoring the rest either. The game will launch with the usual MMORPG features like auction houses, crafting, armor sets, capital cities, and bars and other social hangouts for players to congregate in. Players will all be a part of the same faction working to help restore Neverwinter to its former glory after a volcano erupted and wiped out the city 35 years before the game starts.

Neverwinter is still on track for a late 2012 release, with a closed beta starting up fairly soon. You can find more info on the game's official site .