This week, Cryptic’s Neverwinter entered a state of open beta, and as a result a state of immediate chaos. This is of course both a testament to the interest in the game, and an indictment of Cryptic’s preparedness for that interest, and as a whole is exactly what any experienced MMO player should have expected. There are long queues, newly revealed bugs, a shift in the tone of the community — largely not for the better — and features that worked just fine a couple of days ago, now inconsistent at best.
In truth, I’m inclined to be a little more forgiving because, in the first, this is clearly positioned as a game still in beta and, in the second, giving Cryptic money to play their game is entirely voluntary. Free-to-play can mean a lot of different things in the genre, and often the result is a factual statement that hides behind the reality of providing a subpar experience that goads and annoys you into spending something at every possible turn. Want to be able to sprint like the cool kids, have more character slots like a real human being, receive mail like you exist or are important to anyone? Well, pony up.
Neverwinter is almost remarkable in the amount of access and availability a player gets without shelling out a single dollar. That’s not to say Cryptic doesn’t nudge you toward the idea of paying money, but the model seems built more around rewarding the decision to pay rather than crippling those who make the decision not to. No question: Spending money gets you benefits. But they are more convenience benefits than simply buying in-game success, and Cryptic claims that anything available through their Zen currency is also available within the game.
But is the game itself actually worth paying any attention to? I spent a substantial chunk of last weekend, after having just paid for the convenience of early access, trying to find out.
The short answer is yes, it is. Cryptic has a substantial (if not always sparkling) record of creating MMO games, with probably their most notable success being City of Heroes. Some of their more recent games like Champions Online and Star Trek Online have not been quite as successful at building an audience, though STO still maintains a highly engaged community. This also isn’t Cryptic’s first time around the free-to-play model, and both their genre and business model experience show.
Neverwinter enters its open beta feeling like a very fully realized game, and employs some of Cryptic’s best ideas to date. It’s the sort of game that you’re almost surprised to not pay $60 for, much less a monthly subscription. It has lots of voice acting. It has PvP and matchmaking systems right at launch. It has a level of polish and detail to its world that feels like any other AAA title. The combat mechanics feel confident and tight. It doesn’t suffer from any big, obvious shortcomings to denote either its beta state or its free-to-play nature.
Even the Foundry, which allows players (yes, even those playing for free) to create and play user-made quests. With an interface not unlike Steam’s Workshop, it is easy to pull up a list of user quests rated by the community and dive in quickly and easily. Better still, the game encourages and rewards you for playing these user-built quests, many of which have a much more D&D kind of feel than even the base game, due to the way community members build stories. There is something very satisfying about playing a particularly well written and well built Foundry quest — something that feels like having a DM.
And yet, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that playing the game itself doesn’t feel like what I think of when I think Dungeons and Dragons. There is no illusion of dice being rolled, no real sense of strategic encounters, a very limited subset of actions that can be taken. In eschewing the MMO trappings of pushing numbers at monsters until loot pops out of them, there’s also a very palpable shift in the feel of what you almost expect on first glance to be a traditional D&D game.
Thing is, I like it.
Action centers around fast-paced aiming and clicking at monsters (or teammates if you are in a support role) to trigger your attacks, while popping off a few spells in between. From a pure fun angle, it just kind of works. Along with a dodge mechanic to elude enemy special attacks or gain an advantage on your enemy, fighting in Neverwinter can be described a lot of ways, but probably not as boring. Fights move around and feel both chaotic and usually manageable. Even healing has a dynamism to it, and you’ll spend a lot of your time healing your team by damaging enemies as opposed to staring at bars on the side of the screen.
It’s not that the quests or the progression of the game are particularly different from other MMOs, but it’s hard not to feel like the experience of Neverwinter is somehow just that much more tactile.
I’ve only been playing a few days now, so it’s very hard to say whether this has long-term durability. I’ve had plenty of these kinds of experiences that feel vibrant and alive at first, but ultimately prove to just be a brief tryst with no lasting value. I remember being no less equally impressed with Guild Wars 2 and for some of the same reasons, but after a month I just kind of drifted away.
How Neverwinter will translate a lot of early attention into a durable community remains to be seen. Heck, how the game eventually launches out of beta is itself an uncertainty. But the nice thing about Neverwinter is that there’s no downside to trying it. You really do get a full experience without spending a dime, and if you make the decision later on to start throwing money at it, Cryptic seems to be willing to attach some real benefit to that investment. I suppose, for an open beta, that’s the best any reasonable person could ask for.