In the second instalment of our Twenty Bucks series (because we're made of money), John looks at what President Jackson can buy you within the free-to-play halls of Neverwinter. Is it riches beyond your wildest dreams? Or imaginary trinkets that elude your touch. Read on, brave adventurer.
The goal behind the $20 series is to explore the free-to-play market to a deeper level - how much game can you actually get for the price of a budget game? How expensive is this game really going to be to play? How much bang for your buck? (That's a really clever joke that doesn't work.) Neverwinter is rather unhelpful in this regard.
Entering an F2P game, it's hard not to defend yourself with a veneer of cynicism, expectation of the game's attempts to screw you over at some point. Sure, they'll say you don't need to pay to play, but you're going to hit that wall, find that vendor, notice that shortcut, realise that disadvantage, and discover that just a teeny tiny payment will make all the difference. And then another. And maybe another? But not here.
Neverwinter has bemused me. I went in with those expectations, but have reached the level cap and not had a sensible reason to spend a single cent. That's not to say I haven't spent money on unsensible things. But nothing in the game suggested to me that I'd be having a better experience if only I'd fork over some cash.
So what is there to spend my $20 on? The most immediately present, and certainly the one area in which the game prods and presses you to waste your money, is the Nightmare Lockboxes. These are random drops in the game, that can only be opened by spending 120 Zen - Perfect World's in-game currency that can cost real-world money to buy. They contain a random item or items, anything from some crappy enchantment tokens to that most coveted of prizes, the Armored Nightmare mount. This is the game's best horse, a magnificent beast, and only available through this lucky dip. Such is their desire that you should want one that every time someone does scoop the big prize, it's a global announcement across the game, orange-brown text across the middle of your screen. Now I want one!
But while that's clearly designed to encourage people to want to win their own, it's not entirely malevolent. You don't need an Armored Nightmare. Mounts are fairly easily come by from level 20, and while they're a lot slower, they do the job. If you want to improve your mount, there are ways in game to do so.
So what can be sped up? Really, anything that requires Astral Diamonds - one of Neverwinter's four hundred and seventy different in-game currencies. These are used to buy things from the Auction House, and from certain vendors who sell useful things like teleportation scrolls, identification scrolls, some enchantments... not much of import. But AD are rapidly gained in-game too. Selling good loot in the Auction House is an excellent way to get a bunch, as people pay over the odds for something that just fell into your lap. Worshiping your chosen deity drops in a few thousand every day. Or indeed yes, you can spend some money on Zen and exchange it for AD in the (currently broken) in-game player-based financial market. Where the game obviously wants you to do this is, again, in improving your mount. To upgrade to a level 2 horsey is going to cost you 800,000 AD. Not an unrealistic amount to gain in the game over time, but not an easy one either. To upgrade to level 3, however, would cost just over 2,000,000. So, yeah. You're likely going to pay for that.
How much? Rather a lot, there. About €50 in a straight exchange for Zen. Way over our budget.
So with $20, we have about €15.50. That would buy, due to the stupid chunks in which you have to get them, about 1,640 Zen. At the current (well, current before it all went mad this weekend) exchange rate, of about 1Z to 365AD, that's 598,600AD. So what can be got for that?
You could open up a guild bank. That costs a whopping 400,000AD (which also looks like the setting for a really silly sci-fi story). We could buy 12 rank 3 enchantments, which would be the biggest waste of money imaginable. What about 13,302 scrolls of identification? Or 150 teleportation scrolls to return home to the Protector's Enclave? It's not enough to buy any of the epic gear, that starts at around 1.5m. It is, in fact, pretty useless.
So let's not convert it into AD. (I'll admit that I did spend €19 of my own money on diamonds just to speed up my horse. Look, I'm sorry. I just did. And hey, it's tax deductible!) Let's keep it as Zen and try to spend it. So 1,640 Zen - let's go crazy.
A pretty useful spend would be 1,000 on a Bag Of Greater Holding. An extra 24 slots in the inventory is always a nice thing. Playing the game au naturel gives you 60 slots, so you're not short. But more space is always welcome. Or another good addition would be some Scrolls Of Life. I've never had a single one in the game, but these allow you to come back to life on the spot with near-full health, rather than respawning at the nearest campsite. They're 300Z for 5, so our spend could get us 25 of them with change.
There are various other bonuses like that, which you can only get in the Zen Store. A Stone Of Health, which has 50 charges and will refill your health instantly. They're 500Z, so we could get three of those? There's rubbish like "Fashion" items, dyes for clothes, etc. Obviously not. But then, ooh, companions.
Neverwinter is a game designed to be played solo if one wishes, and part of this is having a companion. These are pets, although they can be human characters (referred to, rather crudely, as "it"s throughout). A few are available in-game for free, and they're perfectly good. But more can be bought. For our budget we could pick up a wolf or a hawk - either is damned cool, but neither is exceptional, and will be limited to level 15. It's 3,500Z before you get to what is obviously the coolest choice imaginable - the Honey Badger.
We're 1400 short of a Sword Coast Riding Horse, which at 110% movement speed is about as good as a mount gets. And indeed the same short of a rideable grizzly bear (80%), and 2,400 short of the Armored Bear, Heavy Worg, and Heavy Howler (an extraplanar beast), all of which would give the full 110%. The best we could get would be the 800Z Black Horse, at a paltry 50%.
There are other aesthetic changes to be bought, more idle companion slots (although I'm confused why anyone would ever want those), 400 Zen to rename your character, that sort of thing. But let's be honest here. That's not what we're going to spend our cash on, is it? We're going to spend it on those ridiculous Nightmare Lockboxes, because we want that stupid purple horse thing, because we're an idiot. Pluralising this makes it not about me, right?
To open them, you need an Enchanted Key. They are 120Z for one, or 10 for a bargain bucket price of 1,125. And you're going to have ten of the things in your inventory. Currently the RPS Guild Bank has 574 of them, that you're very welcome to. For 1,640 we can get 14 keys, to open 14 boxes. Let's do it!
No Armored Nightmare for me.
But what did I get? Actually, some useful stuff. Mostly it was rubbish, "Coffers" of enchantments - the blobs used to augment weapons and armour - which again are a lucky dip box to open (for free). Getting rank 3 or 4 stuff in these is pretty demoralising. But I got a rank 6, and they sell for a pretty penny in the Auction House. I also got two idols, and you can exchange those for around 30,000 Astral Diamonds. It was mostly dross otherwise, except for...
My new pet! A Phoera, a magical firebird creature that can be levelled up to 30 - far better than the rubbish chap who'd been pointlessly following me about. And since I really did this box opening ages ago (the magic of present tense), I've grown to love Stravinsky a great deal. He's not enormously powerful when it comes to attacks - and versus a big boss he can be knocked out pretty quickly. But what he does for me is distract. He's an aggro-beast, drawing the attentions of enemies away from me such that I can get on with roguely attacking them from behind. He's an ace pal.
So, well, I'm in the odd position here of tacitly advocating gambling. Which is really what Nightmare Lockboxes are all about. They're most likely to contain some rubbish, and a few bars of yet another of the game's mad collection of currencies. The chances of getting a mount are incredibly slim. As indeed are the chances of getting a brillo pet like I did. It was a fluke, and I'm stuck between knowing it's a waste of money, and also knowing I'm really happy with the pet I got out of it. But it's still a waste of money.
So Neverwinter really is a game that earns the "free" in its "free-to-play" mantel. You don't need to spend $20 on it to play all of its content and have a great time. If you do, the additions can be useful, but never necessary, and certainly don't let you charge ahead of non-paying players (unless you count going slightly faster on a horse, I suppose, where it would be literally true). In the end, it's about whether you can trust yourself to resist clicking to open one of those lockboxes for no sensible reason. And hey, even then, you can exchange your Astral Diamonds in the Zen store, albeit a whopping 43,800 of them for 120 Zen, to open the box without paying anyway.