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Neverwinter Diary: Tales From The Sword Coast Part 1

The Begotten Realms

I don't entirely know how to justify why I'm enjoying Neverwinter quite so much. Why I've found excuses to play it nearly the entire weekend, stay up late playing it this week, and even get annoyed that they were doing server maintenance at 8am when I tried to sneak in half an hour before starting work. There's no question that it's very good - it's a superbly made MMO, predictable ongoing server teething problems on launch aside (I'll get to those at the end). It's enormous, jam-packed with so very much to do, extremely approachable, but elaborately complicated if you want it to be. I suppose its biggest crime is to be traditional in its structure, and it turns out that was exactly what I was looking for.

As someone who far prefers to solo MMOs, Neverwinter is gamely supporting my misanthropic ways, while allowing all the more sociable people around me to engage in D&D-style groups of five. With its companions, excellent scaling, and generously capable individual classes (although I hear concerns about Great Weapon Fighter), I'm having a whale of a time bumbling my way through its quests, grouped into separate stories with beginnings, middles and ends. I've even... I've even grouped with strangers to complete 45 minute dungeons. What is becoming of me?!

The structure is as traditional as it gets. You arrive at Neverwinter according to the origin you picked, and then are very quickly meeting Captain Rhix who gives you your first couple of quests. Head on out to the places he sends you and you'll meet a clutch of other quest givers for that area, hoover up the chains they offer you, collect your XP and winnings, and then back to Rhix to be sent off in the next direction. It never feels quite that mechanical - your progress nicely organic, and the carrot dispensing machine attached to the top of your head feeds them to you just often enough to keep you satisfied but with room for more.

The quests are very obviously bulked out with "Kill 10 of those", but these are generally put in areas you'll be crossing anyway to get to a more significant dungeon quest, something to do along the way. They're still a pain in the bum when you're left scouting around for that one last Skellington Commander to ding things and head back, and the other players keep getting to them first - but that's rarely been a big obstacle for me. And while the dungeons rarely offer more than killing lots of mobs on the way to killing a big boss, they tend to be nicely involved, with hidden secrets, buckets of loot, and lore to discover.

The voice acting is rather dubious. Rhix seems to have about three different voices, leaping between them every other sentence, none particularly well delivered. And most others are. clearly. reading. from. the. script. During the beta weekends I had assumed they were placeholders, but now it's live to all I'm a touch disappointed to still hear many of them left in. It's quite a relief that the hilariously bad tutorial voiceover disappears almost instantly, as that one felt like a parody.

The writing is also fairly uninspired. None is bad, certainly, but sitting all the way through a mission's description is pretty unlikely. While a lot of that is because of the D&D setting, Avellone showed in Neverwinter Nights 2 that's not something that necessarily prevents fun or surprise. Here I've yet to encounter either. And while that may seem a strange thing to criticise an MMO for - hardly a genre famed for its compelling storytelling - when you've got the Forgotten Realms license that BioWare has defined in gaming, there are expectations in place. It's never knuckle-chewing, or really anything below average, but average it is when it comes to explaining its motivations.

Combat is much more interesting, thank goodness. Far closer to offline action RPG, as MMOs finally seem to be now achieving, despite the way it limits how many powers you can have accessible at any time, there's a good degree of variation. My Trickster Rogue can mix up the rapid stabby standard attacks with some pleasingly powerful cool-down effects, and most importantly further complicate matters by occasionally being invisible. It's been interesting to learn the most effective methods of stringing all these together, and each time I've mastered it (read: got bored of it) it's offered me a new skill to put in there.

The levelling is decent too, and that's pretty crucial for holding my interest in an MMO. I want a sense of progress, but I don't want it to feel meaningless. The very experienced Cryptic have this entirely sussed, and the pacing is pin-point. There's also far more choice about your abilities as you level up than has been the trend in some MMOs of late. It's nothing like the variation of The Secret World, but by around level 20 you've got an interesting pool to pick from, and indeed to have individually levelled with your favour. Actual stat changes are very rare - every 10 levels I believe - and very limited, as of course they should be for the license. But there's enough else going on for you to twiddle with to not let that make you feel held back.

But what about the begging? It's a free-to-play MMO, so there's got to be some, right? Well, really, no. While the game has the most ridiculously complicated muddle of financial systems (there are at least six different currencies in there, each used for different things, and bemusingly overlapping), but only one of them is a direct conversion of your actual real life cash. That's Zen, and it's not used for a great deal.

By far the most tempting reason to put some money in are the special dropped boxes. These Nightmare Lockboxes occasionally appear when you down an enemy, but can only be unlocked for a Zen payment. They work out to about £1.30 each, although that's all obfuscated by buying Zen in Euro, and then spending it in silly arbitrary amounts like 125 at a time. And they can contain anything, from a decent chunk of loot, to an epic rare mount. They are, essentially, a gamble. But when they're in your inventory, and you know they might have something amazing inside, the temptation is strong.

However, because of the elaborately confusing currency collection, you can't make Zen too easily in the game. It's never dropped, rewarded, or exchanged for in-game goods. If you sell items to the regular storekeepers, you'll get paid in the basic copper/silver/gold currency, used to buy basic goods, weapons, armour and mounts. But if you sell something in the auction house, you get paid in Astral Diamonds. These, also received by worshipping your chosen deity, can be spent via different shopkeepers for more specialist items, as well as the gems for augmenting equipment. But they're also used to speed things up, like companion training, or the Profession doings. (Like I said, it gets complicated if you let it.)

Why an in-game currency is used to expedite such deliberately irritating waits, and not Zen, is peculiar. But welcome! You can generate Astral Diamonds for yourself, so if you don't want to wait for your companion characters to take half an hour to train up a level, you're still not spending real-world cash to have them join you straight away.

There is a crossover, however. Merchants at the auction house (which oddly isn't a house at all, but open air) allow players to buy and sell Zen and Astral Diamonds from each other. It'll be very interesting to see how those exchange rates play out.

And that's not even mentioning the Seals, the weird bar things, and the coins given by gods. I've yet to fathom them all.

What I think really stands out as a shame about Neverwinter at this point is how many of the far-too familiar traits of MMOs have been put in here. The horribly complicated chat system, with eighty-million channels of noise and a muddle to clear it up, or choose which you're talking in. And not being able to cut and paste into it is ridiculous. There's the usual issues with windows popping up in stupid places, and not remembering where you put them, the idiocy of not being able to see your character screen when in a shop, unnecessarily slow character movement, and mounts only adding small incremental changes to this... (Oh, and last night's attempt to set up a guild hit another of its stupid walls. After first being told I needed a party of 5 to form one, once I'd gathered that it then revealed that the entire party had to be level 15+, or a Founder, or have spent Zen - thanks, game.) Its traditional ways are some of its biggest strengths, but also some of its primary irritations.

But none are enough to put me off wanting to play the entire time. I'll be level 30 soon! Something might happen at that point! And if it doesn't, something might at 35! Indeed, I'm hooked in the mouth and through the cheek - but critically, apart from a nosey peak at what those epic chests might contain, I've not felt any inclination nor expectation to spend a dime.

And I haven't even mentioned the Foundry! This is where any player, once they've reached level 15, can start generating content of their own. A single dungeon or an entire chain of quests, this allows the game to become infinitely big, with the means by which they're offered to you allowing the cream to rise to the surface. Clearly it's not so hot just yet, but as the carefully created projects start appearing, Neverwinter could become incredibly special for this alone.

Since it's free, and since it offers quite so much for that low, low price, I cannot think of any reason not to recommend it. But I am quite tempted to suggest waiting a few days before you do.

I have written this entire article while waiting in a queue to start playing this afternoon - a line that began at over 10,000 and has very slowly fallen, although occasionally leaping up to a terrifying 195,435. Clearly a bug, but still. They obviously desperately need to add some more servers to their three shards and significantly increase initial capacity, and they need to do it very quickly. This is a very transient market, and if people hit a wall with a free game, they'll bounce off and find the next one since they invested nothing in that failure. It's pretty dismal that this is happening, and it's an enormous shame that it may put people off a genuinely great MMO.

So indeed, there's still no RPS Guild. I'll post and tweet as soon as it's sorted.

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