It's interesting how many times games come back to Neverwinter. Neverwinter Nights was a great step forward in DnD computer games, and I had a great deal of fun with it. The option to play alongside others, to create your own adventures, and to play in other adventures, was a real special and rare thing for the time. With my love of the 4th Edition of DnD, I was excited when I initially heard that there was to be a computer game based upon it. That excitement didn't last a whole long time, however.
Cryptic's initial idea was to have five standard characters, each with race, gender and class locked, and to play from there. And that's about where I stopped keeping up to date with the news. It felt like going back to the Diablo 2 character choice - which, mind you, wasn't bad for D2; it just wasn't Dungeons and Dragons. DnD is about choice, about customisation, and about creating your character how you like. So, when the open beta went live, I decided to check it out again. And fortunately, things had changed.
Now, you can choose gender, choose one of seven races (more coming), and take one of five classes (also with more coming). Right there, that's a total of seventy options, a great improvement to the initial five. Plus - it's free, so I jumped in.
First of all, I'm not a big MMO player, and I've never played an MMO via a subscription (I don't have enough time, with my other hobbies, to make it worthwhile). I have played a lot of various RPG or ARPG games, the ones most similar to this being Diablo, Torchlight, Neverwinter Nights and even Fallout 3. You could even draw similarities between it and Jade Empire, or Knights of the Old Republic, if you wanted to. Like Diablo / Torchlight, it involves a lot of clicking, killing monsters, and grabbing loot. But the camera is not fixed, leading me to feel more within the game (as in Fallout, or KotOR). As I will explain later, the item / levelling system is much more similar to the ARPGs than the more role-playing games. The areas seem relatively large, and nicely populated (though, there are often congestions around critical plot points, quest givers, and doors). The setting feels "alive" more than the other games I have listed. Streets bustle with movement, even if some of that movement is another PC hopping about the place, or someone riding a giant spider.
However, what excitement of choice there was when I started playing quickly diminished when I started completing quests. I understood that, being an MMO, many of the quests would be "kill five of these", or "gather seven of those". I wondered at how they would change the action economy of 4e, especially what they would do with immediate actions, into a computing sense. I've seen them used well in a turn-based Facebook game, but how they would work in a real-time game? Well, sadly, that question won't be answered now. because they didn't.
Cryptic took familiar names, and the very general idea of at-will / encounter / daily powers, and ignored everything else. They have built up a system where a PC starts with around a thousand hit points, where AC acts as damage reduction, and where such things as "Power", "Recovery", and "Armour Penetration" are more important than our good old ability scores. The changes were evident as I levelled up - one point every level, which could either grab me a new power, or upgrade one of my current ones. Gain enough levels, and I could finally gain feats...which are not feats. Don't expect interesting perks or character changing abilities here - the feats are simple, basic, +1% or +2% bonuses to a number of different abilities.
Now - don't get me wrong - these aren't particularly bad choices, nor bad design; it's just not what I was expecting, nor what I was hoping for. I realised that a perfect electronic form of the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons was not possible, but I saw what was done with Neverwinter Nights, and I had hoped for something more than this. So as it was, I was disappointed.
When creating characters for DnD, you get a lot of choices. Even at first level, and focusing solely on class powers, you choose two at-wills, an encounter, and a daily. At the moment, for a rogue, there are 12 level 1 at-wills, 16 encounters, and 14 dailies, meaning if everything else about the character was the same, I could still have almost 15,000 different possibilities of power choices. Sure, not all of them would be great, or even viable for your character, but there was still that wealth of options and possibilities that meant that any two rogues could really be different.
Sadly, that aspect is not found in Neverwinter. The rogue gets two at-wills, and doesn't even get a third choice until level 20. In fact, by the time you are at level twenty, you have had 20 points to split between 12 powers. Each power can be increased with a second point (typically, for +10% damage), but that's it. And, considering you can only have two daily, two utility, and three encounter powers active, only nine of those twelve possible powers are worth putting points into. Not only do you not have the breadth of choice, it is most likely that every 20th level rogue is remarkably similar to each other, at least in power choice.
The lack of customisation carries throguh with 'feats', seeing as they are giving small background bonuses that are not evident in a character's performance. Who would notice a 2% difference in at-will damage in the middle of combat? Even the choice of gear is sadly not there. Rogues only use daggers / short blades, and always use two of them. There's no choice for other weapons, for bows, for an alternate weapon layout. So again, every rogue ends up looking similar, fighting similarly, and the entire breadth of customisation found in 4e is lost.
And yet, I've put a remarkable number of hours into the game so far. Because, despite all the issues above, it is a fun experience. It isn't what I hoped for - an electronic form of DnD 4e - but it is a fun Action RPG. And whilst the levelling system was not what I hoped for, it does work. Sure, I could do with more options, with a way not to waste those early points, and for bonuses to powers that wasn't simply +10% damage (how about more charges for the throwing daggers? A longer range teleport? Something to change / boost each power other than damage?), and I would feats that worked like feats, but for the system they have given us, it works. Crazy levels of hit points works, because with it, there can be smaller, more subtle variations in weapon damage. With larger numbers, there can be more items falling in between the significant milestones, and thus the eternal search for better gear - even if it is only slightly better - is maintained.
And they have the "keep going for more" aspect working well. The mini-games of levelling your professions, the come-back-every-day-and-pray aspect of increasing your divinely gifted coins, and the various other small rewards encourage you to keep coming back, keep being involved. I don't know yet how long they will work for, but they have brought me back enough to get past my initial "not 4e" disappointment. They haven't convinced me to actually pay for anything, as even the cost of expanding your bag space (~$10) is quite steep. The best mounts are about $40, and the ultimate "Hero of the North" pack is a whopping $200. But still, people are buying them, so for now, it would seem that the high-end system is working. And if that means I can continue to play for free, that is keeping me coming back!
Because it isn't 4e, but it is enjoyable.