Even for fans of the genre, it’s exceptionally easy to feel jaded about the current state of MMORPGs. The majority of releases stick to a pretty strict formula, arguably perfected by Blizzard with World of Warcraft. We’ve seen countless potential “WoW killers” come and go, without ever coming close to living up to their promise. But Cryptic’s upcoming online role-playing game, Neverwinter, is different. It’s different because it puts the “role-playing” back in MMORPG. And by that I mean it does not focus on many of the genre’s gameplay tropes made standard over the years, and instead reverts to something a bit closer to classic Dungeons & Dragons.
For starters, Neverwinter features a Foundry, which gives players the opportunity to design their own dungeons and build their own stories for other players to try out. This feature alone is likely to catch the attention of D&D fans. These player-designed instances are numerous and freely available for players to jump in and out of, and they scale according to your character’s level.
There is something uniquely charming about playing stories created by other gamers, even though they are often riddled with typos and odd cultural references. Naturally, many are difficult to be positive about, but others are surprisingly entertaining. The thing that makes them all interesting, however, is that you engage with each of them without expecting the same story-telling mechanisms on which many professional game developers and writers rely.
Although I’ve spent a relatively tiny amount of time exploring Neverwinter, I already have the sense that this is going to be a game bustling with content, thanks to the Foundry system. That’s not to say though that the content beyond that is not compelling. The city of Neverwinter feels alive, and the early stages of the story seem interesting enough, if a little on the linear side. Sadly, the game looks a little dated, so don’t expect an MMO that’s going to give the likes of Guild Wars 2 a run for its money in the visuals department.
The actual gameplay is noticeably simplistic, and most closely resembles the point-and-click RPG format embraced by the likes of Diablo III. According to D&D buffs, Cryptic settled on this approach in the spirit of creating an action-orientated experience that is supposedly in line with the more relaxed rule-set implemented in Dungeons & Dragons’ fourth edition. From a sheer gameplay experience point of view, it’s easy to pick up the combat mechanics, but I can see them getting tired after extended use due to a lack of complexity.
The segment of the beta I experienced also suffered from being a little on the easy side. Word on the forums is that the difficulty ramps up in the later levels, which is to be expected. One feature which you would expect to make things more challenging is that your health does not automatically replenish. However, there is no shortage of powerful health potions in the early hours of the game, so overall there is little in the way of struggle for survival. This is true of the general environment, as well as the skirmishes and dungeons I got a chance to try out.
I don’t want to be too hard on Neverwinter. After all, it’s still in beta, and it does show an encouraging degree of promise. The combat is bound to be tweaked substantially before the game’s release later this year, and if this is fixed, then we could have a solid game on our hands. I do think that the feature which is most likely to catapult Neverwinter above average success is the Foundry system. There is something about being able to jump in and out of a massive pool of player-created adventures that is quite exciting, and likely to give Neverwinter that extra something special, assuming it can get the basics right.