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Hands On: Neverwinter Beta

Winter Isn't Coming

Cryptic's Neverwinter had its first beta weekend these last couple of days. I jumped in, rolled a young half-elf, and had a look around for a couple of days. With the game still without a fixed release date, there's clearly still a lot of time for change. But as it stands, here are my hands-on impressions of the game so far.

Neverwinter is a game that comes with many expectations. It's yet another fantasy MMO in a struggling field. It essentially follows on from creations of BioWare and Obsidian, the most respected RPG developers there are. It's a D&D game, with all that accompanies that legacy. It's from the creators of City Of Heroes.

What's interesting, after having taken a character to level 21, is how much it seems to have dragged me in despite failing to meet so many of those anticipations. Neverwinter should have been the fantasy MMO where storytelling was first and foremost, but in this area, at this point in the beta, that's a mess. Yet I was up until 2am playing.

Every MMO must take its own unique approach. Here the emphasis is on being an action RPG, seemingly simplifying your attacks to a Diablo-style left/right mouse button, with a few specials chosen from an ever-increasing pool. This absolutely does hugely improve combat from the number key tapping dreariness that has plagued for too long. But in the end, you are still firing off your specials in a very MMO fashion, except here with your access to them somewhat limited.

I do find myself wishing for a halfway point, the excellent instant attacks on the mouse, but the MMO-style full pool of my skills available on my keys. But importantly, it does feel different, very quick, very much more like playing an ARPG than a trad MMO, and I'm grateful for it. Beyond this, things are pretty recognisable.

Rolling a character is exactly as you'd hope it would be, letting you pick the obvious (race, class, appearance) along with the D&D elements (rolling ability scores, choosing your background, the god you worship, and letting you write a biography). So Cholorobi is a Half-Elf Trickster Rogue, from the Grey Vale, worshipping the lord of knowledge and thought, Oghma. The character designer is the most intricate I've seen, if not the most effective in results. You can change the length of your fingernails, but the final result still doesn't look particularly unique. And then on arriving in the game... well, nothing really.

Perhaps it's still to be added in, but arriving in the enormous main hub of Neverwinter, there's nothing. Your character pops up sharing the same spot as the other three people to spawn at the same time as you, you run forward to the first person with a ? above their head, and you run where they tell you to. Your brain enters MMO Mode, you run where you're told, scan the brief, un-voiced text, and follow the instructions.

I should say, never in all the time I've been playing has the game asked me to kill 10 of anything. It's turned out that killing 10 of something inadvertently has gained me some XP, but it's never flagged up, never the goal. This is far more focused on finding missing items, helping captured people, and delivering news. But why? There's no sense of a cohesive whole, a meta-narrative that links this altogether, in the fashion you might expect from a Neverwinter game. Instead I experienced a few threads of stories, each focusing on the naughty antics of an individual, ultimately culminating in biffing them to death. And all were fine, all had me wanting to trigger the next section and keep pursuing, but none has stuck in my head.

The larger story, such as it is, is set one hundred years after the Spellplague - something that appears to have been a large event in the Forgetten Realms universe. And, really, that's all I can tell you. Something happened ages ago, and, um, yeah.

Progression is swift, which always helps alleviate the sense of grind. However, the most important lesson from City Of Heroes still hasn't been learned, even by the team who made it - levelling up really doesn't feel significant. They come thick and fast, but new abilities are added on a fixed, linear skill tree, and more often than not are just upgrades of the skill you already had, with no appreciable difference when you use it next. With no ability to shape your character's class, at least not in the first twenty levels, getting to spend some completely unexplained skill points on something I never figured out means little. Much more interesting is the ARPG item and armour gathering, giving a much better sense of progress than the ticking number in the top left corner.

This is all perfect, letting you grow attached to a weapon or hat at the exact moment a new one comes along. And everything you'd want from your Torchlight/Diablo is here, with slottable armour, upgradeable enhancements, identify scrolls and agonising over the attributes of two different rings. The mouse-over comparisons are good, and rather helpfully will flag up a "recommended" when one is significantly better than the other. The issue at this point is its inability to comprehend dual-wielding or wearing more than one ring at a time - I assume that will be fixed by the time the game's finished. /Looks sternly over his glasses./

Companions are in there, and despite most being human, the game rather oddly refers to them as "it"s. As a melee-focused rogue, I picked a wet fish of a healer to accompany me, which is nice to have. There's not even a glimmer of an attempt to give them a personality however, so hopes of something properly RPG-y here should be abandoned. You can't speak to them, nor instruct them to be more useful - they really are just pets. Or indeed, "it"s.

Also rather pleasant are the Events. Attached to your minimap (and bloody-mindedly refusing to ever stay collapsed) are the next three world events taking place. You can ask to be reminded when they're happening, then happily ignore them even if you've signed up. But maybe during that time the world will be scattered with certain objects to find, or perhaps you'll be participating in some PvP. It's as quick and easy as the party finding for the early raids, which also was a painless experience and let me enjoy a bigger dungeon without the awfulness of commitment.

And here's the thing. I confidently believe that Neverwinter is going to get better once the community starts doing a better job than Cryptic of telling stories. Via something called The Foundry, which I didn't have time to have a go at this time (that'll be the next beta weekend for me), players can create their own quests and campaigns. Essentially it's the way to be a GM, the tools allowing people to create their own scenes, characters, dialogue and fights, which provide other players with loot and XP.

What's in the game at this point isn't particularly impressive. By far the most highly rated campaign is a series of four quests that have you chasing down an ancient artefact, that is told with some really impressive effort and depth. Far more depth than any of the official campaigns I've played so far. But also with plenty of typos, some really terribly rendered levels, and a demonstration of just how important careful lighting is. But the potential here, when people have enough time to craft something elaborate and amazing, is huge. It's an MMO that guarantees it'll never run out of pre-endgame content, and user voting will filter the best stuff to the surface. It's this, more than anything else, that makes me enthused to stick with Neverwinter.

But it's not that alone, I really need to stress. While so many of my expectations aren't met by the beta in its current form, what's really surprised me is that what I wasn't expecting is what's pulled me in: just doing a basic MMO really well. That hook, that thing that made us excited the first time we played WoW, is here. It's uncluttered, and it dangles that carrot in front of you pretty expertly. That I was able to get my first horsey within a weekend's playing (and a more concentrated effort could have done it in a day) was also enormously gratifying.

It's bewildering that the effort hasn't gone into a proper BioWare/Obsidian-style overall narrative (and I don't mean a Secret World/KotOR-style story-based game - just a larger sense of purpose). But as I say, there's still time for that to be gently laid over the top. At the moment, you're a part of a much smaller story, little threads that you follow along, meandering through more driven by the desire for a new pair of boots than learning whether the latest blatantly nefarious evil wizard is evil or not. I'm concerned that they're being a touch hubristic going with just beta weekends, rather than a more extensive beta for the many glitches and issues to be worked out. But the one expectation I didn't have was to be drawn in by the traditions of MMO afresh, and that's what happened.

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