MMORPGs: Plunging into a world wrought with thousands of heroic warriors, each challenging god-incarnates, courageously marauding across war-ravaged country-sides, donning immaculate armor, and -- who are we kidding? They're killing a pseudo-arbitrary count of orcs; waiting until level 15 to wear the red gloves; and they're delivering letters from one lifeless NPC to another, whose pointlessness is superseded only by that of the courier of said letters. This is what the industry's definition of an MMORPG has become, and part of that is the burgeoning of the market post-EverQuest and post-WoW; comparable to reality TV shows, everyone wants their own money-making machine of questionable quality.
There are dozens of MMOs that violate core game design principles in favor of monetization—especially prevalent in the emerging Chinese MMO market—and quality gameplay is particularly hard to find when faced with the overwhelming amount of MMOs out there.
Neverwinter hopes to be one of those quality MMOs -- one of the visceral, lively, immersive, and purely fun games that breaks the mold and brings immersing adventure to countless gamers.
The question is whether or not it succeeds.
In this Neverwinter MMORPG gameplay preview and first impressions analysis, we'll talk about the game's merits in the D&D MMO universe, show some screenshots of Neverwinter, and offer a gameplay video toward the bottom.
Early in its marketing cycle, we had the chance to preview some of Neverwinter's features at PAX East last year; paramount of those was its dedication to user-generated content, but at the end of the day, it was an MMO - and we wanted to know how it played.
The game is based on the most recent iteration of the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, D&D 4E (D&D Next was hardly a thought in our minds when Neverwinter began development), and as such, it makes use of familiar terminology to D&D players. The ruleset is designed to be accessible to tabletop and video game players, so theoretically, the conversion to Neverwinter should be clean; while it retains ability names and flavor-text of the tabletop RPG, functionality changes a bit to accommodate the real-time nature of the MMO game. Realistically, though, I suspect that any MMORPG veteran will feel comfortable navigating Neverwinter's rulings and underlying die rolls.
Neverwinter (the game) starts off in Neverwinter (the city) and its immediate countryside; if the city sounds familiar to you, it may be because it's based within the Forgotten Realms universe, the very same that is home to Baldur's Gate (the games and the city), the Sword Coast, Drizzt Do'Urden, Water Deep, and more. It's been in modern fantasy as long as anyone can remember, and it's one of the most fleshed-out settings a team of MMO devs could ask for.
As the heading says, Neverwinter is still very much in early beta. The game is mostly complete, at this point, with the exception of a few bugs or quirks. We did experience a few memory faults and CrossFire configuration issues when testing the game, but I want to firmly state that I'm fairly positive most of these issues will be resolved upon launch. Graphics and gameplay are largely finalized, but several features are still forthcoming, as are resolutions to crashes and bugs.
One of the major obstacles in the tabletop-to-desktop conversion of games is that of perspective; when playing Neverwinter with two of our other editors -- Michael "Mik" Mann and Tim "Space" Martin -- we discussed our own D&D experiences, then made note of skepticism of an MMO's ability to recreate that. Quite simply: They can't. Some people play D&D for the mechanics, some play for the story, some play for the social gathering of friends on a Friday night, but none of that will ever be the same in a video game. It just won't, period.
If a group's druid tells the DM he'd like to cast Create Grease over a castle's open courtyard, drop gallons of the stuff, light it aflame with a simple fire spell, and then cast Torrential Downpour to accentuate the effects of the grease fire -- he can do that. Creativity at its finest. It's not so simple when programming restrictions and balance issues enter the fray.
And I think Cryptic and Perfect World acknowledge this. Neverwinter is not meant to replace your group's weekly D&D sessions, but just wants to draw upon the story content of the FR universe to provide a backdrop of familiarity. Gameplay is another matter, but we'll discuss that below - after the Look & Feel section.
Speaking strictly to aesthetics, Neverwinter has made great strides toward interpreting the living tabletop universe and turning it into a video game; while some textures and models aren't very detailed (hopefully due to the beta), the game's environs and surroundings feel like what you'd expect the City of Neverwinter to feel like. The city streets are loaded with patrolling NPCs, guards arguing with street urchins, merchant carts, and has an ambience about it that makes it feel much more alive than the more empty MMOs. This is key to ensuring a player never feels alone, even when that player is, in fact, alone with a bunch of AI.
There are complex citadels atop large, floating pieces of earth; big, open marketplaces with AI vendors; job boards and auction billboards, fitted with collision-enabled cloth flags (surprisingly), and all manner of other background prefabs. Everything feels fairly cohesive, and the overall aesthetic is consistent and aware of its heritage in the Forgotten Realms universe.
The game's controls are also quite reasonable, despite what I'll say about the lack of depth in mechanics in a moment (just wait - there's a whole section on that), the actual scheme, animations, and interactions are all very fluid. Combat—again, despite the ensuing paragraphs—does flow predictably.
I sincerely wish there were more armor models, though; I went through about eight different suits of armor, and each one had an identical (or near-identical) model, making upgrades very dissatisfying and unfulfilling. This might be acceptable in a singleplayer RPG, but not in an MMO: Players in MMOs need to feel personally-attached to their characters, and most importantly, they must feel as if there's a clear progression and path of advancement. Without this, a lot of the magic is lost and the repetitious nature of the genre begins to bleed through unabashedly.
I'll quickly mention the Foundry option, though we already wrote more extensively about that last year (a bit dated information, but the concept remains). Neverwinter's Foundry is a means for players to create, play, rate & review, and discover new adventures within the game, all user-driven. The idea is to extend the life of the game by offering alternatives to the developer-crafted content -- a concept that has historically been the very foundation of Neverwinter Nights and has kept it alive to this day. It's very unique what they're doing, and I think that creative types who enjoy content creation, but maybe don't have the time/tools/audience to build their own game, will really get a lot of value out of the toolset.
That said, no amount of user-generated content will circumvent the game's inherent mechanical superficiality.
Neverwinter is a lot of things. It's a licensed D&D game, it's a content creation tool for adventure developers, it's an MMO - and it's not easy to fully cover all of this in a digest-able preview. I'm going to stick closely to facets of gameplay -- because, frankly, playability is what dictates the longevity of an MMORPG. I can tell you how much we appreciated the graphics, I can talk all day about character creation (already did that, actually), I can tell you about the story, but if the gameplay falls flat, there's simply no game to play.
Let's talk about that. Here's a video that contains gameplay footage and a quick, less structured summary of what you're about to read (seriously, the read is worth it -- but the below is worth a look for gameplay overview):
In terms of player interactions, things are fairly standard. In fact, one of the very first quests is a collection quest: "Go get me some stuff - here's a golden path to lead you to them, in case you're incompetent - which you probably are," they say. Shortly thereafter, another quest is to enter a dungeon and hit some enemies until they stop moving. You might later find yourself killing ten bandits, or picking up six stolen goods, or killing twenty-five orcs, or killing five tacticians, or picking up five more stolen goods, or ... you get the picture. These types of quests are excusable if the rest of the gameplay—the combat, the monsters, the setting, and the tactical / strategic elements—has a sturdy foundation, but without that, it becomes a job.
Things don't change much as the game progresses: bad guys get bigger and their character models change, sure, but there's nothing really differentiating them from one another. In our post-mortem session discussion, GN's team sort of acknowledged that the enemies never really "registered" in our minds when we fought them. You don't feel any more afraid of a towering ogre than you do a halfling thief, because the challenge is so insubstantial that there's never really any threat. I didn't feel that the opponent variations justified a deviation from the standard whack-a-mole strategy, by which I mean: Wait for the cooldown to expire, hit the button, do damage.
There's not really any situational demand for a change of tactics beyond "use all the abilities, standard attack during cooldown, re-use all the abilities." This isn't new to other poorly-designed MMOs, but the best-of-the-best demand a bit more thought and tweaking from the player, not to mention the overall lack of a challenge within Neverwinter means you'll be looking for more entertaining things to do, like figuring out how to kill yourself without entering combat. Combat Advantage exists (a bonus granted for certain actions, like sneaking, flanking, ganging up, etc.) and offers something to sort-of halfheartedly attempt to kill things more efficiently, but oftentimes the combat has concluded before positioning and field tactics become relevant.
The natural decision here is to attempt to fight in a higher-level zone. We moved on to regions that were 3, 4 levels above us and still felt unchallenged. Attempts to fight in zones of significantly higher level than our characters were also denied—even though we were just trying to find a challenge—because zones are blocked off by level requirements. This is where my EverQuest-upbringing kicks in and screams about handholding and dev-imposed limitations -- if a player wants to explore, even if it means they die, let them, damn it. Regardless, I'll suppress that for a more in-depth future post.
The abilities and the combat sort of share blame for each other's inadequacies: While it may sound like a reasonable allotment, the interface will only accommodate for somewhere around 8-10 active/passive abilities, depending on what you consider worth tallying. Most MMOs, as we're all aware, offer situation-specific options that can occupy hotbars upon hotbars; in Rift, you're easily on two or three hotbars by the time you hit 20th level.
More doesn't equate better, and that's not what I'm saying, but interesting and unique abilities manifest ingenuity, propelling the player to contemplate both combat and pre-combat ability utilization. Can I get by on my mage in Rift by just using my best five spells? Probably. But that doesn't scale very well as you grow familiar with the game; there's a desire for more customization, more tweaks, and more fun as we adapt to our gameplay environments. This is what makes us gamers. That desire must be mitigated with increased customization and encounter difficulty, lest the dreadful "did I seriously just spend my entire weekend playing Neverwinter?" thought seeps into your mind.
Like I was saying, though: In Neverwinter, you're stuck with but a few slots. The slots are subdivided into Daily, Encounter, At-Will, and Class powers (using names from 4E tabletop rules, but not necessarily mechanics). Encounter powers are charge-based—closely mirroring the usage of a limited magic item—and will be exhausted after used X times until the player has dealt Y damage, at which point the "charges" are then refilled. In D&D 4E, it's a bit different - Encounter powers are used once per encounter, Daily powers are used once per day, and At-Will powers are used, well, at will.
None of these differences are problematic; Neverwinter has taken liberties required to eliminate certain logistical issues of the tabletop system, and for that, I'll commend their creativity. Where it gets muddled is the ubiquity of the skills: everything sort of feels largely the same. I could be quite happy with five core abilities in an MMO if I had an expansive list of very unique, role-differentiating options, but that's not the case here. In Neverwinter, abilities, skills -- whatever, you name it -- everything that advances your character is based solely upon effectiveness in combat, and those are simply an increase of one number over another. Want to travel down the "high HP" tank paragon (sub-class) rather than the "high damage" tank paragon? OK, instead of increasing your HP by 2%, you increase damage by 2%. Fun.
Before I get yelled at for accusing Neverwinter of something that many MMOs do, here's my elaboration: In well-built games, it's not just a damage increase of 2%. It's more like, "For 10s, deal 2% more slashing damage against humanoids; each hit has a chance to wound your opponent and cause them to bleed for 2s." This now gives the player an option to differentiate their character from the rest of the fighters (slashing - sword focus), gives them something that makes sense (clear cognitive connection between slashing and bleed), and gives them something that can prove game-changing when in the thick of things.
The strange thing is that this is what tabletop 4E excels at. If there's only one thing that D&D is known for by all its die-hards, it's that a player could easily spend hours researching, expanding, and fleshing-out their characters -- from statistical, tactical, and story perspectives. I'm not comparing Neverwinter to the tabletop game directly, so don't get me wrong there, but for something based on 4E rules, I suppose you could say that I'm plainly disappointed and I feel horribly misled. It seems like there's a lot of potential for something great, and Neverwinter just doesn't tap into that.
Then there are the class-specific skills -- but I don't even want to go there. In short, Rogues have Thievery, Fighters have Dungeoneering, presumably Rangers will have Nature, and so forth; these abilities are used to activate shiny objects scattered throughout the universe, normally resulting in a reward of a piece of leather or other equally bland crafting material. This is basic cost-benefit analysis for players: If it takes me time to find all the Thievery objects, effectively bags scattered around, and if they're semi-hidden, I should be awarded with something that encourages me to seek them out. That's not the case - you get a piece of leather. Have fun with your crafting.
What would I like to see? Well, frankly, something closer to DDO's imagining of player skill and group interaction: A fusion of the skills to achieve a common goal, a bypass to difficult terrain or combat, lore, and secret passages. And yes, we did find a secret passage with my dungeoneering skill... once, but that was it. It's simply not worth finding the objects in the game's current state.
Now, obviously we didn't hit max level or anything like that, but with approximately 10 linear hours of gameplay (30 collective hours between all of our editors) behind us, and no improvements in sight, there's just not a lot of depth to be had right now. We've previewed all the presently-available skill trees, paragon paths, and powers (many more are still forthcoming, so don't take these statements as end-all, be-all), and all the improvements are lackluster and unexciting; there's nothing making me say, "man, I can't wait to hit level 30." It's just more damage, more whack-a-mole.
With all of this said, we did enjoy ourselves at times... like trying to glitch through invisible walls, but even that just doesn't last. I could see the game being great fun to newcomers to MMOs who have an express interest in D&D, specific as that group may be, or generally audiences inexperienced with gaming. The reasoning behind this is fairly simple: The game holds your hand, insultingly so, makes it easy, and doesn't give you any real customization options to speak of. It's fairly impossible to screw up your build, so if there's any merit in that, it'd be for people afraid to dive into something as admittedly complex as my previously-made Rift example.
If Neverwinter is trying to be simple, it succeeds. I just don't find simplicity, lack of challenge, and mindless combat flattering or compelling. I think there's promise, but I fear that it's far too late to extract something revolutionary.
It's another MMO.
But don't take my word for it -- here's a link to their page, where you can sign up for beta and observe shiny animations: Neverwinter Page!
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.