The realms of Dungeons and Dragons (most commonly known as D&D) are no stranger to being portrayed in videogames. Arguably the quintessential RPG, the tabletop D&D game has been creating and destroying friendships for almost 40 years. Most recently in the digital space, Perfect World Entertainment & developer Cryptic Studios are strapping on their armor and taking a stab at the world of the Forgotten Realms with the free-to-play MMO Neverwinter. Taking a step away from your typical “tab-targeting” MMO system, Neverwinter implements a unique active combat system that relies as heavily on player skill as it does on character development. By adhering to all the wonderful aspects of MMO and implementing some key changes to keep players more involved, including the ever-present quest for finding better equipment. As a free-to-play, microtransactions are included and the most difficult part of Neverwinter is trying to support the sheer volume of microtransactions within the game.
Character creation is simple, although you’re limited to having only two characters; anymore and you’re paying a fee per character slot. Your basic races are included, elves, humans, half-orcs, tieflings, half-elves, halfling, dwarf and, for some, drow. Class options are also directly from the core group mechanic, allowing players to play as a control wizard, great weapon fighter, devoted cleric, trickster rogue or guardian fighter. The theory is that different play types for each class will be made available in the future, giving players multiple roles to play as a wizard or rogue, etc. It’s already announced that additional races and classes will be made available at a later time, undoubtedly with microtransactions associated with them.
After choosing your race and class it’s time to work on ability scores. Using a semi-random dice roll, players can adjust stats to their liking, but rolling and re-rolling until you see 18’s across the board, instead a set of main-abilities sees the most variation, with some of the unnecessary ones (depending on class) getting very little adjustment per roll. Having legitimate rolls would have made the experience far more like the actual D&D tabletop, a step that Cryptic Studios went to lengths to implement, but would also break the game, overall. For the sake of parity, the choice is a good one.
As mentioned, the combat system is surprisingly robust, requiring players to actually pay attention during combat rather than selecting a target and running through a routine of key-presses to dispatch them. Instead, a reticule is used to target foes and, using a system that is quite similar to the current 4.0 tabletop system of D&D, particular skills are triggered that have varying effects. You “at-will” skills are mapped to your left and right mouse buttons and can be used with no cool down. The “encounter powers” are your basic skills tied to cooldowns, but are more powerful than your at-will powers. Finally, your “daily skills” require a combat meter, filled by landing at-will and encounter powers, to initiate. These are the most powerful and quite devastating, sometimes triggering additional effects to enemies or buffs to you and your party.
In typical D&D fashion, leveling up allows you to selectively improve particular characteristics of whichever class you’ve chosen. Every level you’re granted points to improve your abilities, including particular passive options that will help your survivability. Every few levels you’re granted an ability point, used to raise your strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, charisma or wisdom, each affecting your character in different ways. To make it feel more “MMO-like,” a skill-tree is also provided, allowing players to increase a number of abilities on their way to an ultimate choice of a Paragon tree, drastically increasing the skills and usefulness of the particular character.
To be successful in the MMO space, combat can’t be the only hook for players. Crafting is available, but acts as a buffer for players to earn XP to level up and to advance their crafting professions to allow increased benefits. Leatherworking for instance, allows players to craft armor that may be better than what is currently equipped. Using a variety of implements, including NPC’s and various tools, the armor can be upgraded and player’s potentially receive better gear. Each action takes a particular amount of time, depending on the rewards. For minor XP and reward the task may be only five or ten minutes. For the more advanced rewards tasks can take up to 18 hours to complete. Thankfully, Neverwinter offers a gateway on their site to allow players 24-hour access to the professions, meaning you can remain efficient from your smartphone or right from your office.
What may be the most frustrating part of Neverwinter is the microtransactions. Granted, publisher Perfect World needs to make money in order to maintain the game and no monthly fee is something to commend them on. The overall volume of microtransaction is surprising though. It’s not as if you need to “pay to win,” but a lot of the minor benefits that come with most MMO titles are locked unless users are willing to pay a fee. A slot for a third character or renaming any of your already established characters requires “Zen Points” -- a form of currency purchased on Perfect World’s website.
Players can also earn another form of currency called Astral Diamonds, useful for dozens of actions within the game. Options for speeding up many of your actions are available, but cost Astral Diamonds depending on the amount of time remaining, the more time you’re saving, the higher the cost. Additionally, as you modify your equipment with magical runes, to remove them -- if you find something better -- will cost you Astral Diamonds. This currency is also used on the auction house and can be found by doing certain actions throughout the world. Players will always have access to Astral Diamonds, which can also be used to buy Zen Points, but despite the fact that players aren’t required to buy Zen Points or rely on Astral Diamonds to succeed, those who can afford it will find it easier to advance.
Cryptic Studios has clearly played their fair share of D&D throughout the years. Implementing things like mounts, special companions to help with your adventures and notable areas from around the Sword Coast, it’s clear that special attention has been given to ensure that Neverwinter appeals to MMO players and D&D players alike. The unique combat system will keep players engaged and the instanced dungeons allow for rare weapons and armor to be discovered. Because it’s free to play, you’ll find that there’s really only one risk to trying the game: getting addicted.